Sixty five years normally would not be considered a significant anniversary, but Victory Day is special for all Russians, so every official fanfare was blown last weekend and military parades were held from Sakhalin to Sevastopol. The holiday has always had a sad undertone because many millions of lives were lost in the Great Patriotic War, but for the authorities it is the unifying impulse that matters most, and the public relations campaign trumpeted the victory theme as the major triumph of the Russian state (www.gazeta.ru, May 7). Five years ago the then President, Vladimir Putin, turned the celebration into a demonstration of his international profile bringing to Moscow some 50 heads of state, including US President, George W. Bush; this time President, Dmitry Medvedev, invited only his key peer-friends and the main guest of honor was China’s President, Hu Jintao (www.lenta.ru, May 5).
What makes this date of particular importance for Medvedev is that it marked two years since his inauguration as Russia’s third president, and by any account, his track record is far less impressive than Putin’s was in the middle of his first term. Instead of rapid and steady economic growth, Russia has plunged into a deep recession, which has revealed the vulnerability and non-sustainability of its “primitive economy based on raw materials and endemic corruption,” in Medvedev’s view (www.gazeta.ru, September 10, 2009). Persistent attempts to talk the recession out of existence have had little impact on the investment climate, and the stock exchange has been sinking since mid-April registering a sharp 5.5 percent drop last Friday (www.newsru.com, May 7). Medvedev has tried to introduce a new discourse on “modernization,” but it clashes with the reality of a stagnant bureaucratic state, and every attempt to create “innovations,” such as a high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, becomes a source of irritation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 30).
Seeking to add a new edge to his argument, Medvedev, on the eve of the grand celebration took a firm stance on the issue that remains hugely controversial in Russia and asserted that “Stalin committed mass crimes against the people,” which cannot be forgiven “despite the fact that he worked hard” (Izvestiya, May 7). Just six months ago, Putin defined this issue as “an ambush” and refused to give a “blanket assessment” reflecting that “if I say ‘positive’ some people will get angry, and if I say ‘negative’ other people will be angry.” He added that “nobody can today throw stones at those who organized and led us to victory,” but Medvedev did exactly that: “the Great Patriotic War was won by our people, neither Stalin nor even the generals did anything as important as they did.” It is probable that Medvedev’s approval ratings would register a significant decline but he certainly can claim credit for eliminating a deep-rooted ambivalence in the official interpretation of Soviet history (Ekho Moskvy, May 7).
Expressing his own opinion, Medvedev also insisted that anti-Stalinism was a “current state ideology” but this claim rings hollow since the bureaucratic pyramid, which he hardly controls and merely presides over, cannot have any ideology other than self-enrichment and self-reproduction (www.gazeta.ru, April 30). His bold slogans, such as “Freedom is better than no-freedom,” bear an unmistakable stamp of Stalin’s double-speak, and nobody knows it better than Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, who has spent nearly 2,400 days behind bars (Novaya Gazeta, May 5). He is now in his second trial, which is a judicial nonsense, but is able to deliver in his articles and interviews a far sharper analysis of the challenges for Russia’s urgently needed modernization than Medvedev’s speech-writers dare to draft. Khodorkovsky has no illusion about the system of organized repression and predation, which is entirely Stalinist in nature, but argues that it is working towards self-destruction (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 3).
Medvedev has launched a reform of the interior ministry and fired a few law-enforcers responsible for the most blatant abuse of office, yet his anti-corruption campaign falls short of any meaningful attempt to reduce the bureaucratic pressure on business, media and society. He is helpless to change the system, which Khodorkovsky has examined so insightfully, and is merely trying to moderate its behavior by appealing to the self-preservation instinct of the elite. In the two years of his presidency, Medvedev has not replaced a single high-level official and still has nothing resembling his own team, consequently no one expects a sudden turn towards enforcing an agenda of real modernization, starting with a sober assessment of the malfunctioning of the over-grown state machine (Kommersant, May 7).
Signs of this systemic breakdown are emerging daily, and even the pompous celebrations in Moscow were accompanied by explosions in the North Caucasus and a deadly accident in a coal mine in the Kemerovskaya oblast. These are the habitual “other” news events in Russia, but the propaganda theme of “greatness,” which takes the victory of 1945 as the point of departure, is growing exhausted (www.grani.ru, May 5). The self-assertiveness of Putin’s “era” is giving way to self-doubt, and Medvedev’s speech in Red Square had no aggressive overtones and emphasized the value of international cooperation. In the last few weeks, Russian foreign policy has indeed turned towards building cooperative ties with the West –from the Prague Treaty with the US, to reconciliation with Poland and resolving the maritime dispute with Norway.
Despite Medvedev’s sincere commitment, the sustainability of this trend remains problematic. Economic recession dictates a moderate and pragmatic course in international affairs but the crisis of the petro-authoritarian system of power determines further spasms and zigzags in political behavior. Putin is far more organic to this system than Medvedev, but he also remains a personification of its inadequacy to the task of steering Russia across the sea of global troubles. Powerful bureaucratic forces, as well as personal preferences, are at work aimed at returning Putin to his “natural” place in the Kremlin, but that would inevitably signify a major setback in Russia’s unfinished transition from Stalinism.