Putin and the Slimmer, Sleeker, Slimier Soviet State

The head thug-in-charge prepares to retake the presidency.

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.

Here is Michael Stuermer, writing in Putin and the Rise of Russia: “the government has successfully suggested to the people that it is not the world market, globalization and the demand from the industrial world outside that drives Russian growth but the wisdom of the people running the Kremlin, Gazprom and internal intelligence. Muscovites, except in the poorer neighborhoods beyond the inner city, look better fed and better clad than ever in living memory.” Moreover, he writes, “It is not only those in power but also the man and woman in the street who show a modest prosperity, while young, long-legged blonde beauties display the marvels they have bought at Chanel or Dior boutiques round the corner from the Kremlin. The new Russia is immodest, impatient, and eager to live life to its fullest. The past is an ever-present reminder that things can be much worse than they are now.”

This concept, that things were once much worse and Russians therefore should be grateful for their current lives, is a dangerous one to accept. And it’s one that Yelena Bonner, the wife of famed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, never did. Sakharov died in 1989, just as the Soviet Union was approaching its final collapse. But Bonner carried on her husband’s mission (it was her own mission, too) right up until she died June 18 in Boston. The end of the Soviet Union was not the end of human rights violations, and Putin became the brave Bonner’s most high-profile target for her pro-democracy activism.

And that’s just one of many reasons Bonner’s death will put a dent in efforts to ward Russia off from its current course. Bonner understood that the struggle didn’t end when the Soviet Union did, and that Putin’s rise marked a poisonous reversal of fortune for freedom in Russia. She grasped that the world Sorokin conjures in his book is a warning, not generic fantasy. And she appreciated the extent to which the state control of media and energy corporations has brought a resurgence in Soviet-style propaganda, and how socially regressive this can be to the Russian people.

“At the same time we continually hear official lies in Russian daily life, reminiscent of the lies in the Soviet Union during Stalinism and in the post-Stalin period,” Bonner said in 2001. “The truth can hardly stand up to the total impact of so many lies. A young man once said to me of the Prague Spring: ‘That was when the Czechs attacked us.’

“Brought up on lies, a society cannot mature or take on responsibility. It is an adolescent society, with all the characteristics of adolescence—needing a leader and his imitators, being aggressive and quick to take offence, simultaneously lying and trusting.”

Proponents of dramatic social change are usually advised to practice incrementalism until the public appears ready to take the full plunge. Putin is doing the opposite: incrementally eroding the rights and the freedom of the Russian people until they have gone too far to fight back. And then there will be one authority: Putin, with a cold mind and—he will promise—a pure heart.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.