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In Vladimir Sorokin’s dark new novel, set in the year 2028, Russia has traversed the slippery slope from Putinism back to czarism. The main character, Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, a member of the oprichnina—the czar’s elite federal enforcers—catches one of his men reading a banned book and reprimands him. “You understand, you idiot, we’re guards. We have to keep our minds cold and our hearts pure.”
Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton who is writing a book on Stalin, immediately recognized that the more you follow Putin’s Russia, the less ridiculous the book, called Day of the Oprichnik, sounds.
“So it is in Putin’s Russia, where a gang of police officials, the siloviki, lord over not just the richest private citizens but also other parts of the state,” Kotkin wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “Sorokin’s imaginative diagnosis of Putinism further grasps that the officials’ looting is driven not by profiteering alone, but by their conviction that they are defending Russian interests. Everything Sorokin’s oprichniks do is a transaction, but their love of country runs deep. They may give in to temptation and tune in to foreign radio (‘enemy voices’), but these moments of weakness vitiate neither their pride in their work nor their code of honor. They have ideals.”
This is all worth keeping in mind as Putin prepares to retake the presidency. Most analysts agree that Putin is really in control now despite Dmitry Medvedev’s position as head of state. There aren’t many practical reasons, therefore, for Putin to lift the curtain on his puppeteer act and reveal the farcical nature of his premiership during Medvedev’s presidency.
It also doesn’t make much sense to stop attempting to fool NGOs and proponents of demokratizatsiya by so boldly rebuking the accepted social norms of modern statecraft, an essential element of which, for postcommunist states, is to pretend your people are much freer than they actually are.
But it makes perfect sense if you understand the importance of national identity. Putin’s decision to return to full power is mostly a symbolic one—but that symbolism, like the photograph of Putin after he supposedly shot a charging tiger with a tranquilizer gun, saving an entire camera crew, is an essential element of the projection of power for the state, not just its leadership. Medvedev may be something of a reformer, but those reforms are not only modest but also irrelevant if they must be acquired through the depletion of national pride. Putin recognizes this, and understands that if he can provide stability and security, the rest won’t matter.
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