The site of Boris Nemtsov's murder (Image: novayagazeta.ru)
“The only ‘color revolution,’ which is likely in Russia at the present moment,” Vladimir Pastukhov says, would be “brown,” a color Russians use to refer to fascist or even Nazi-like politics, something that would be a tragedy not only for that country but for the entire world.
In a “Novaya gazeta” commentary, the St. Antony’s College historian bases that disturbing conclusion on a close analysis of the ways in which Russian society and politics have changed and have not changed over the last two decades since the end of Soviet times.
He begins by asserting the most unpleasant thing: “the counter-revolution about which Russians liberals have talked so much, has been achieved. The war in Ukraine and the political murder under the Kremlin walls completes the counter-revolutionary cycle of the post-communist history of Russia.”
In the space of only two generations, Russia has gone from “a rejection of communist totalitarianism to the acceptance [of] a non-communist version” of the same thing, a remarkable evolution and one explicable only if one recognizes that Putin “is after all only the final point of that social movement, the embodiment of which at the start was Mikhail Gorbachev.”
“The anti-communist revolution,” Pastukhov says, “was carried out not by dissidents” but rather by “a disappointed nomenklatura” and some members of the intelligentsia who joined them. As a result, Russia’s “’de-communization’” was never thorough-going: “The past continued (and continues) to hold Russia tightly in its embrace.”
But it wasn’t so much that the rejection of communism was “incomplete” that was responsible for what has happened, the Russian historian says. Instead, it was the fact that there were “no deep liberal convictions” among any of those involved, including those who positioned themselves as the great advocates of perestroika.
As a result, Pastukhov argues, “the very first crisis of post-communist democracy turned out to be its last as well: democracy in Russia ended in fatal 1993 without having really begun. All that we have observed since then was simply a decorative playing out of the forces that pushed that still-born system aside.
And because that is so, the St. Antony’s scholar says, “no distinction at the level of principle exists between what took place in Russia during Yeltsin’s ‘second term’ and what is happening there in Putin’s ‘third term.’”
Pastukhov reaches that conclusion by tracing the ways in which the unjust privatization in both its first and second waves created a class of people that the regime had to deal with in one way or another, a group that most Russians and analysts refer to as “the family” or “the extended family” of oligarch-barons.
As a result of this process, he says, “Russia was thrown back to the early Middle Ages,to the era preceding the formation of a centralized state.” Some people for romantic or fantastic reasons called this “democracy, but in reality it was oligarchic anarchy.” And that had some ironic consequences.
On the one hand, Putin came to power “under the slogan of ‘the struggle with the oligarchy,’” but carried out policies which initially reinforced the consequences of privatization. And on the other, the historian says, Mikhail Khodorkovsky who proposed giving up some of its “negative consequences,” was sent to prison for ten years.
Some kind of order had to be imposed on the oligarchs if the government was to function, and the oligarchs had to agree either to a kind of “oligarchic ‘table of ranks’” or “ingloriously pass from the scene.” Not surprisingly, most of them chose “the first path,” and their ranks were expanded to include “’orphans’ from the force structures.”
The creation of an oligarchic hierarchy went hand in hand with the creation of a political hierarchy, Putin’s so-called “’power vertical.’” And at a certain moment, “both these lines converged into one point: Putin personally began to control all the main financial and political flows in the country.”
But according to Pastukhov, the Kremlin leader had a problem, an unwelcome “birth mark” of his system. It was the fact that “by inertia, this dictatorship continued to ideologically justify its existence by the need to defend democracy from the return of totalitarianism,” the source of “cognitive dissonance” in the regime.
Putin’s regime came up with the “quite clever conception of ‘sovereign democracy,’” a formulation “which did not allow Russia to remain a ‘normal’ authoritarian state but led to the rise of neo-totalitarianism,” a system incomparably freer in some ways that the communist version but one with many drawbacks.
Political tensions and obscurantism “have today achieved heights comparable to the 1930s” and the time of the Great Terror, he argues. This paradoxical situation is “the direct result” of the fact that the oligarchic power initially was “forced to mask itself under democracy” even as it was blocked from showing “any opposition activity.”
The Kremlin resolved that tension not by broad-scale repression but by the creation of a media environment that effectively “plugged the ears of its audience” by denying them any alternative news and promoting its line on television, the medium most Russians still rely on for information.
To keep that system working, the regime had to keep people at a fever pitch. That required various measures which constituted a new kind of “’shock therapy,’” Pastukhov says, and ultimately led to “the unleashing in Russian society of a civil war, the visible part of which has been the war in Ukraine.”
Responding to this, the St. Antony’s scholar says, is going to require that the opposition carefully analyze what has happened and draw three lessons, all of which he says are likely to be unwelcome, if it is going to have any chance against the current neo-totalitarian regime Putin has created.
First, he says, escaping from the “new totalitarian dead end will be impossible without a full and uncompromising de-communization of Russian society,” something that has not happened yet. Second, this process will be lengthy and difficult. Any effort to short circuit it will fail and lead to other horrors such as a “brown” regime.
And third, Pastukhov concludes, if Russia is to move forward, it must destroy the oligarchic structure of Russian society. If it doesn’t, he suggests, it will fall into the same difficulties Georgia and Ukraine have “where popular uprisings without end do not lead to significant positive changes because the oligarchic structure remains untouched.”