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What America can learn from Russia Spiralling addiction, inequality and an oligarch class can pave the way for authoritarianism

Credit: Pool Benainous/Travers/Gamma-Rapho via Getty


February 2, 2021   6 mins

An elite openly contemptuous of the poor. Millions of people living in towns where traditional industries (and the measure of security they provided) have vanished. Spiralling addiction. A class of super wealthy oligarchs, much too close to the government, exercising way more power than they ought to. All major communications channels controlled by a tiny coterie of billionaires.

Sound familiar? Welcome to Russia in 1996, just after the re-election of President Boris Yeltsin, the onetime Soviet apparatchik turned champion of democracy, who then presided over the rapid immiseration of his nation on an epic scale.

It‚Äôs a little-understood period, not least because so many Western experts and institutions (many of them still going strong today) were complicit in the human tragedy that came about as a result of Yeltsin‚Äôs economic ‚Äúshock therapy‚ÄĚ.¬†An expert class incurious about its own failures is a familiar enough phenomenon, of course, but there are other instructive parallels between Russia in 1996 and the US in 2021. And these parallels could, perhaps, give us a glance into what will become of the apparent corporate-media-political monolith that has ascended to power behind Biden.

There are important differences of course. When somebody in Russia starts panicking about dictatorship, they know a lot more about what it means than your typical American pundit angling for a book deal. And in 1996, many Russian liberals were worried that dictatorship was on the horizon. Yeltsin‚Äôs first term had been a failure, with millions thrown into poverty and a precipitous decline in life expectancy. As a result his opponent ‚ÄĒ one Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party ‚ÄĒ looked likely to win the election, which would have been bad news for business, as well as the values and ideals of Russia‚Äôs pro-Western liberals.

And so practically the entirety of Russia’s business, media and liberal elite rallied around Yeltsin to support his re-election. Remarkably, this was despite the fact that Yeltsin himself had, only a few years earlier, ordered an attack on Russia’s parliament when it kept blocking his executive orders. Unlike Trump’s fiasco, this incident ended not with a mob in fancy dress storming the building but rather 147 people losing their lives after an assault by tanks and helicopters.

So Yeltsin was pretty unconvincing as a champion of democracy (even if Clinton‚Äôs secretary of state¬†praised him for his ‚Äúsuperb handling‚ÄĚ of the parliament). But the prospect of Zyuganov was regarded as still worse, providing Russia‚Äôs ‚Äúliberal‚ÄĚ forces with a ‚Äúmoral clarity‚ÄĚ: a conviction that they had to bend and break all rules and norms to prevent him from being elected. Like America‚Äôs establishment in 2021, Russia‚Äôs elites in 1996 had no time for journalistic objectivity or ‚Äúboth sidesism‚ÄĚ.¬†The future of the nation itself was at stake.

There was no social media back then, but television had enormous influence, and the three main channels railed against Zyuganov and his communists. Of those three, one was owned 100% by the state, while the other two were controlled by oligarchs. Boris Berezovsky ‚ÄĒ later to enjoy some notoriety as a foe of Putin living in exile in England ‚ÄĒ ran ORT, while a stage director-turned-banker by the name of Vladimir Gusinsky ran NTV. Certainly Zyuganov posed a direct threat to their business interests ‚ÄĒ but they may also have entertained the notion that they were fighting for liberal democracy, and that this was far bigger than their rivalry.

As a result, Zyuganov had it considerably worse than Trump. Bar the likes of Pravda, he had very few allies in the media. ORT and NTV filled the airwaves with hagiographies of Yeltsin and documentaries on the horrors of communism. The editor of the news magazine Itogi declared, ‚ÄúThis is not a game with equal stakes,‚ÄĚ adding that he was ‚Äúwilling to be unfair‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúwilling to stir up a wild anti-Communist psychosis among the people‚ÄĚ. The general director of NTV openly took a job on Yeltsin‚Äôs campaign team.

Perhaps no American journalist was quite so honest as to take a job directly on Biden‚Äôs campaign team, but¬†The Washington Post¬†did retroactively edit an article that cast Kamala Harris in an unflattering light, and the LA Times has launched an ongoing series of fawning coverage of the Vice President.¬†So it might be slightly less irritating if significant parts of the American media did openly declare what they’re up to, instead of trying to disguise it as ‚Äújournalism‚ÄĚ.

But perhaps the most interesting parallel is that Zyuganov was not only denied any kind of favourable media coverage; he was denied access even to the communications infrastructure. When the communists tried to buy advertising on state TV, their money was turned down. At least Twitter and Facebook waited until Trump was on the way out before they switched him off. But they did still eject the actual President of the US from access to social media, whereas the bosses of Russian TV were merely excluding an opposition candidate from the airwaves. The reasoning was similar: both men were too dangerous to be granted access to a channel by which they could communicate directly with their supporters.

Yeltsin, of course, won, and the oligarchs and media barons who had supported him wound up closer to the government, wealthier and more powerful than before, while preserving ‚ÄĒ for the time being ‚ÄĒ their own status quo. And if life were a movie, that would have been a great time to roll credits, with the commies defeated and all the rich people getting to keep their money and influence.

But life carried on, and it‚Äôs the next act that‚Äôs perhaps the most instructive for us. The underlying problems that had made Zyuganov popular in the first place did not go away. Russia‚Äôs economic woes deepened. The overt collusion between the media, the oligarchs and Yeltsin ‚ÄĒ¬†combined with disappointment in an aging President who was increasingly decrepit and erratic ‚ÄĒ led to further degradation of trust in the media and Russia‚Äôs governing institutions; democracy itself was rechristened dermokratiya ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúshitocracy‚ÄĚ.

And then, four years later, an ex-KGB officer by the name of Vladimir Putin came to power. A more effective authoritarian than Zyuganov, he swiftly chased Berezovsky out of the country and stripped Gusinsky of his TV station. Having been part of the Yeltsin regime himself, he understood what many members of America‚Äôs current ruling class appear not to ‚ÄĒ that any weapon you deploy against a foe can also be turned against you.

And so we turn from Russia to the US in 2021. Again, if life were a movie, then the recent inauguration would have been a great moment to roll credits ‚ÄĒ perhaps as Lady Gaga was singing the national anthem, while a tear trickled down Stephen Colbert‚Äôs cheek. But life has already moved on.

A recent poll reveals that trust in traditional media has dropped below 50% for the first time ever, while trust in social media sits at a mighty 27%. Many Americans, like the Russians before them, are adjusting to the default assumption that at best they are not receiving the full picture. At least Russian journalists lacked the comical levels of self-regard of their US counterparts.

Nor are other institutions doing that well on the trust front, even ‚ÄĒ or perhaps especially ‚ÄĒ as they all espouse the same package of received ideas. And once the relief that Trump has gone has passed, what will become of Biden? Unlike Yeltsin, he may not disappear for days on alcoholic benders, but it is fair to say that he has not, for much of his very long career, inspired a lot of confidence. As Obama himself is reported to have said: ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt underestimate Joe‚Äôs ability to fuck things up.‚ÄĚ

Now I don‚Äôt think that Biden will flame out to the extent that Yeltsin did, with the result that a sinister Putin-type rough beast shall slouch forward, to be born in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But I do think that this apparent corporate-media-institutional monolith is unlikely to endure ‚ÄĒ despite the persistent belief among some American political fantasists that each victory is their chance to exercise eternal hegemony over their enemies.

For instance, when the billionaires behind Twitter and Facebook ejected Trump from Twitter ‚ÄĒ and, under pressure from the Democrats, began censoring all kinds of opinions of which they disapproved ‚ÄĒ they crossed a Rubicon. Once the Republicans have stopped rolling around in their own mess, they will realise that large monopolies controlled by people who are closely allied with your opposition and who wield the power to switch you off at will are not a thing to be tolerated. Alexei Navlany agrees, as do Angela Merkel and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador¬†of Mexico, and we can assume that many other leaders around the world sat up and took notice, too. Some kind of rebalancing will happen, and that is not a bad thing.

While we should never underestimate the resilience of Zombie Reaganism, it, too, must eventually lose its grip on the brains of the Republicans, whose leadership is likewise very old, if not quite so old as that of the Democrats. They will realise that the market does not always correct itself, and that something will have to be done. The American context will provide its own tools for change. A new interpretation of the First Amendment, perhaps. Or a redefinition of the public square.¬†Or the application of antitrust law to certain platforms. Or a re-examination of CDA 230¬†‚ÄĒ the legislation that allows tech oligarchs to have their cake and eat it by granting them immunity from liability for what users post on their platforms, while also reserving for them the right to censor or withdraw services from users if they dislike what they post on their platforms.

If that sounds like wishful thinking, then remember that far more radical political evolutions have happened. After all, today’s Democrats may be closely allied with woke tech oligarchs, but they used to be rather friendly with the KKK, an organisation with a history of violence far worse than any of those currently being purged from social media platforms.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Perhaps no American journalist was quite so honest as to take a job directly on Biden’s campaign team,
That’s quite the rhetorical sleight of hand. No journo “directly” took a job, but plenty are busy carrying the administration’s water and asking tough questions about the color pattern on Air Force One. The same journos who used Andrew Cuomo as a proxy for attacking Trump over covid are now silent after New York’s AG pointed out a gross under-counting of people dying in nursing homes. Besides, multiple alumni of Big Tech joined Camp Biden, which is not afar from having the media openly on your team.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Famously, the Democrats and the Republicans were once described, some might say unduly cynically, as but two wings of the same bird of prey.

We all know that 74m American voters turned out to deliver the ‘Republicans’ their biggest ever vote in November and they still lost, but we don’t really know what proportion of that 74m were essentially voting for the ‘Republican’ party and which ones were voting for ‘the man’, Trump and what he might have represented to them.

Biden’s predictable, simplistic post-election rhetoric of re-unifying a divided post-Trump America as if ‘the big, bad orange man’ were somehow solely responsible for ripping it asunder in the first place and ‘reaching across the House’ might currently play well with big media domestically and internationally, but it potentially sidesteps the inconvenient fact that many millions of Americans still see Trump personally as the far more likely antedote to their ills not the cause of them, unlike the two ‘wings’ that they only ever get to ‘choose’ between.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Conversely, we’re fairly clear that the vast majority of the however many voting for Biden were not actually voting for Biden. Or Harris, for that matter, given how her own party rejected her during the primaries. They voted against Orange McBadman and now they’re struggling to justify a series of executive orders, not one of which appears to benefit America.

Mike Ferro
Mike Ferro
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

‘Two wings of the same bird of prey’. I like that, a good way, also, of describing Fascism and Communism

Graeme Mochrie
Graeme Mochrie
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Ferro

Or any situation which is reduced to dualistic thinking. Democracy as it is practiced is a mere smoke screen that allows the real powers to carry on their games. Of course identifying the puppet masters is not so easy these days.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

America is a turkey with two right wings. They’ll let you vote for Team Pepsi or Team Coke, but either way it’s neoliberal cola in the bottle.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, the US is going full-on Russia/China, but we knew that would happen if Biden won. It was pre-announced. And now he’s talking in terms of Iran being ‘only a few weeks’ from having nuclear weapons. Hang on to your hats!

Michael Saxon
Michael Saxon
3 years ago

To escape the rising re-feudalisation we need to return to the West’s five founding values. There are twelve reforms that must be made based on those values to bring down the ‘two giants -fascist liberalism and feudal corporatism. Go to http://www.lastpost.net

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

A comparison with Russia pre-Gorbachev seems more appropriate. US politics is dominated by old men and women, (of which Biden is the youngest!) The floodgates will open as they did with Gorbachev, Yeltsin and then Putin, before Russia found some stability and order if not peace and law. Kamala Harris will probably become President before losing the 2024 election. Who to, I haven’t a clue.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

The idea of the article is clever but it doesn’t quite work for me because I see the USA as a country that was supreme and is in steep decline, a decline which can only be halted by weapons, be it automatic rifles in Kentucky or drones with nukes. Russia is in decline but perhaps no more so that the UK. Russia is also so big and empty that it is difficult for me to understand what is going on.
Add the fact that the USA is in steep decline to irresponsible politicians and you do have disaster – no other outcome is possible.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

All empires end. They don’t always fall from within but that’s how the collapse here shapes up. Unsustainable debt, unfunded mandates at the federal and state levels, the open silencing of opponents, and the armed camp that is DC are not signs of a healthy republic. Maybe freedom is just too difficult for today’s society, which seems to be perpetually angry despite having less to be angry about than any in human history. The West is among the top 1% of all people who have ever lived, yet we’re told this is a modern-day dystopia that must be ended.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yes, I moved to the US six years ago and was surprised by how many intelligent people have been raised to hate their country. I’ve noticed that most Americans lead very segregated lives (not just racially), so often don’t encounter many counterpoints to their views, unless they’re presented overly-negatively by whatever media they consume.

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Good article.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Great post by Daniel if one ignores the reflexive Trump-bashing.
One way in which the current situation of the United States in 2021 is much like that of Russia in 1996 is in the unprecedented power held by oligarchs. In 1996, Canada’s current minister of everything, Chrystia Freeland, wrote an influential 1996 Financial Times post called “Moscow’s Group of Seven”¬Ě. The FT post identified seven Russian oligarchs and quoted Boris Berezovksy, without contradicting him, as saying that together they controlled 50% of the Russian economy. Six of the seven oligarchs, including Berezovksy, were Jewish, so Freeland’s post became highly influential in spreading the Fake News that the Russian economy was controlled by a group of mostly Jewish oligarchs. In fact, the only Gentile in the seven was by far the richest of them, and together they likely only controlled 6% of the economy; even a highball estimate would take it no higher than 10% or 15%. Nevertheless, her post, and the later works that emerged from it, created a false narrative that the oligarchs were more powerful than they actually were, and predominantly Jewish, which certainly wasn’t the case. UnHerd contributor Ian Berrill, for example, wrote in his Guardian review of Freeland’s book “Plutocrats”¬Ě: “Most Russian oligarchs, for example, were Jews clever and driven enough to get degrees from top universities under the old Soviet system”¬¶”¬Ě In fact, Jews only made up around 14% of the first cohort of oligarchs that arose in the Russian Federation.
The oligarchs never came to control Russia as Freeland feared they would when she published her 2000 book, “The Sale of the Century”¬Ě. Precisely because they threatened his own power, Putin set about ruthlessly cutting them down to size. We will see what happens in the United States where domestic oligarchs now seem to bestride America like a colossus after turfing Trump from office and starting the work of putting all references to him down the memory hole. These oligarchs may be more difficult to dislodge than their Russian counterparts were. However, they are certainly much less Jewish than Freeland pretends they are in her book “Plutocrats”¬Ě. That woman seems to be fixated on Jews for some reason. (See Richard Sanders, “The Chomiak-Freeland Connection”¬Ě for details.)

larry tate
larry tate
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

Please tell me if I am wrong, but isn√ā¬īt the New York Times, Facebook, Twitter all run by Jews?

Paul Hunt
Paul Hunt
3 years ago

The parallels between the social problems in the two countries is interesting- the US’s having taken years of neglect rather than Russia’s decade of vodka-sloshed blow-out indulgence, but there is nothing to compare between Biden’s not-trump back-to-business path and Yeltsin’s massive revolution to oligarchy, nor between Trumps short-term populist vacuous policies and the Russian Communist party. I am British and have no opinions supporting or criticising any of the four 1996 or 2021 ‘movements’ but the second half of the article seems to just be labouring a tenuous comparison in order to slag off the mainstream press.