Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 5

By Leonid Radzikhovsky

The story of Putin’s vertical rise and his first actions as president are instructive for more purposes than effective political forecasting. It is also very important for a general understanding of Russian society, its roots and its future prospects.

Let us start with a few rather obvious thoughts: No one in Russia knew who Putin was. Now people know who he is, but do not understand him. Yet not only did a majority of the population vote for him (to all appearances there was no major falsification), but–far more interesting–he had almost no serious rivals (Zyuganov and Yavlinsky were locked as usual in their electoral “ghettos”–one of 30 percent, the other of 6 percent). What does this mean? It clearly demonstrates that there is only one realistic mechanism for promoting political leaders–their appointment by the Kremlin. Some think that by selecting Putin as president, Yeltsin demonstrated once again his “intuitive genius.” Others believe that Yeltsin made another of his mistakes, but there is no disputing that Yeltsin and his entourage made the choice based on their own criteria, of which society is unaware. And society accepted the choice, even though attitudes to “Putin’s father” himself were dismal: Yeltsin’s popularity rating hovered around the 1 percent mark). What is the explanation for the fact that Putin was accepted? The war in Chechnya? His charisma and aura?

I think that it is all much simpler. Society’s instinct for self-preservation was at work here. It is essential to have a president and there is only one realistic mechanism for putting forward presidents–from above. This is all understood and accepted, albeit intuitively. So, joyfully or not, Putin is also accepted.

What was Putin’s political inheritance? An era came to an end with Yeltsin’s departure. The opposition which existed in Russia was seen (and identified itself) essentially not as a political opposition but as an opposition based on personalities.

The communists simply felt a personal hatred for Yeltsin–as a “traitor,” a charlatan, the man responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and for “looting the people with his reforms.” Yavlinsky’s democrats criticized Yeltsin for creating “bureaucratic bandit capitalism for the benefit of his cronies,” and for fostering corruption. And all of Russia despised Yeltsin for his drunkenness, his inadequacy, and the persistent rumors about his corrupt entourage. But when Yeltsin the “baddy” went, and the “generally likable” Putin appeared, the ground was removed from under the opposition’s feet. The opposition had no real political differences with the ruling regime, simply because there are no party structures with their own ideology in Russia, and there is absolutely no political alternative to the policies which had been and are still being pursued. Those differences which do exist are on petty issues–staff appointments, how much money is being stolen by whom and so on.

It should be realized that talk of the danger of a “communist comeback” is just demagoguery, an easy way of scaring those people in Russia and the West who want to be scared. For all their openly boorish, uncouth behavior and their noisy anti-Western rhetoric, Russia’s communists basically differ very little from the “communist” Kwasniewski. They can dream all they like, but in power they would not have done anything more than the government of Primakov and Maslyukov, which was essentially a communist government. But the main thing is that the communists do not actually want to take real power. In contrast to their great predecessors–Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin–they have no desire for power and no idea what to do with it. This is why Zyuganov did not really run an election campaign in 1996 or 2000, and was clearly relieved when he did not win. As for Yavlinsky’s “democratic opposition,” no one in Russia (including Yavlinsky himself) thinks that these intellectuals are serious contenders for power. Incidentally, Yavlinsky and his charming colleagues have never revealed to the public their mysterious plans for “transforming Russia.”

Putin thus has no public opposition (just as he had no rivals at the elections). There is no one he has to reckon with, no one to fear. The Duma will vote for whatever Putin proposes–as clearly demonstrated by the story of START II. In exactly the same way, society places no limitations on him either. The war in Chechnya was popular. As it got bogged down, it was becoming more unpopular. Official figures indicate that there are already more than 3,000 dead and more than 5,000 wounded in Russia; unofficial figures suggest twice as many. The longer the war goes on, the more unclear its purpose. But what was the result? Was there any sort of antiwar movement? Not at all. There is no political alternative in the country to the incomprehensible, bloody and endless war.

Putin has no reason to worry about the media. In Russia journalism has become a byword for venality and servility. This is not because Russian journalists have particularly base human qualities, but is more to do with bad traditions (before perestroika journalists told lies at the behest of the CPSU) and the all-pervasive corruption which reigns in Russia today–in the government, theater, business, high schools, the army, the police, medicine, the church…. Why should journalists be an exception? The media (even the most independent of them which make up Media-Most) will go no further than the essentially good-natured mocking of Putin in the popular Kukly (“Puppets”) program. So the multitudinous journalists who defend Putin have a difficult problem to solve: To find someone (or something) to defend him from.

Finally, there is the strongest political group in Russia–the governors. They have become real little tsars in their regions: They fleece businessmen, flout the laws and privatize entire oblasts with their families (in both the biological and mafia sense of the word). But even they, these fearsome governors, have capitulated; many are saying themselves that it would be good if they were appointed from the Kremlin rather than elected as they are now! How can this malleability on the part of the governors–this fear of the “new broom”–be explained?

The fact is that the governors only felt sure of themselves under a frail and aging Yeltsin–that is, effectively in the absence of a president. But in fact there are many ways of applying pressure on each and every one of them: Information about their abuses, the financial dependence of the regions on Moscow, and much more. The governors understand this all too well, which is why they are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty to Putin. On top of this, a deep impression was made on them all by the public humiliation of Luzhkov–the most influential of the “regional barons,” who was crushed both by central television (and the notorious presenter Dorenko) and by interior ministry investigations. The example of Luzhkov was a very powerful lesson for the governors, and they got the message.

So how do things stand?

The Duma, the governors, the media and society as a whole have all submissively given in to Putin–an entirely random person who basically did nothing to contribute to his own rise! This fascinating phenomenon proves that even though in many ways Russian society has irreversibly changed, fundamentally Russia remains Russia–a country with powerful monarchist traditions. Russia’s eternal problem was encapsulated by Lenin in his famous letter to the Party Congress, known as his Testament: “Having become General Secretary, Comrade Stalin has accumulated unlimited power in is hands, and I am not sure that he will always know how to use this power with sufficient caution.” Indeed, Russia’s political genetics and political framework are such that whoever becomes tsar (or general secretary, or president) always accumulates “unlimited” (autocratic) power in his hands, which far exceeds his formal powers, however great these may be. And the story of Putin is interesting as a “pure experiment”–Putin did not aspire to this power, and did almost nothing to “accumulate” it. Power accumulated itself around him; he was the only realistic subject of the political process in Russia. Any limits to his power are not to be found within Russia; they are only found in the West. They lie in the economic, political, informational and psychological dependence on the West of Russia as a whole and the Russian elite in particular. But this is another subject which I do not propose to examine here.

Thus there are two main questions for Putin. Lenin posed one: Will Putin be “cautious” enough in using his “unlimited” power; is this lieutenant colonel in the KGB a future Stalin? The liberal intelligentsia scares itself with this terrible specter. The second question is diametrically opposed to the first. Is Putin not, on the contrary, too indecisive, too “smalltime” a person, will he be able to use his power at all? Or will he wait for “guidance” from goodness knows whom…?

As yet we do not have enough information to answer these questions. But the first “working hypotheses” on this subject will soon appear.

Leonid Radzikhovsky is a columnist with the Segodnya newspaper.