Retro-Authoritarianism in Russia

I’m reposting this here due to the interest in Russian and Soviet affairs among my CB co-bloggers:

TIME magazine, as most are no doubt aware, named Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2007 “Man of the Year. The editors explained their choice in a way that also attempted to articulate Putin’s stabilitarian “siloviki ideology”:

“But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin’s hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain-of freedom for security-appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes’ promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin’s popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. “He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

Putin’s global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia’s former Soviet neighbors. What he’s given up is Yeltsin’s calculation that Russia’s future requires broad acceptance on the West’s terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, “sometimes Russia will be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler.”

Putin’s rule can (and typically has been) analyzed from the perspective of Sovietology and Russian history. Articles feature the usual, superficial, observations that Russians like a strong vozhd (supreme leader) in the tradition of Stalin, Alexander III, Nicholas I, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible; that Putin’s regime is a Cheka-KGB front (actually, KGB veterans are among the most competent and least ideological technocrats of the Soviet era officials – who would YOU hire? The guys who ran Soviet agriculture?); that Russians yearn for a return to the Cold War and so on. While there is some truth to these statements regarding the Russian national character and unhappy history, to use them as a fundamental explanation of Russia’s current political system is mostly rubbish. The truth is that Russia’s liberal and democratic parties self-destructed and discredited themselves among Russian voters in the waning years of Yeltsin’s tenure and that Putin enacted a moderately nationalist and anti-oligarchical agenda that catered to the tastes of the vast majority of his countrymen. When Putin centralized power in his hands as a quasi-dictator, he did so in a political vacuum.

This pattern is hardly uniquely Russian. We have seen populist, plebiscitary yet police-state regimes long before Vladimir Putin’s New Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte was the modern innovator, abolishing the decrepit Directorate and constructing a regime that offered a little something for everybody who wanted a glorious France; his cabinet included Jacobin Terrorists, Monarchists, Girondins, aristocracy, bourgeoisie and the chameleon-like Talleyrand. Napleon made use of “new men” and flattered the old nobility even as he created a broad class of “notables” and answered the desire of the French for both greatness and order. Propaganda was used liberally but so too were the police-spies of Fouche to cadge Napoleon’s impressive plebescitary majorities out of the electorate. How different, functionally speaking, is Vladimir Putin? Or for that matter, Hugo Chavez?

We could go back still further to the Caesars – Julius and his canny heir Augustus. Both men understood well that truly revolutionary changes in a political system were most placidly accepted when cloaked in the guise of adhering to old forms and restoring order and normality (it must be said though, that Octavian understood this better than his martial Uncle). After periods of disorder, want or uncertainty there have always been many people who are all too willing to trade liberty for economic security.

Whenever authoritarianism has the added attraction of marshaling competence and cultural values behind its standard, democrats should beware.


Thomas P.M. Barnett – “Putin Positions himself as Russia’s Lee Kwan Yew

The Guardian – “Putin, the Kremlin power struggle and the $40 bn fortune

The Russia Blog – “Why Russia Loves Putin

Michael Barone – “Putin: Odd Choice for Person of the Year

Cross-posted at Zenpundit

The Culture of Death in a Chicago Elevator

I work in a building with an in-elevator video system. This morning, a tale of russian cultists, 29 in all threatening to blow themselves up in their sealed cave if anyone interrupts them as they wait for the end of the world this spring. “Who cares” erupts loudly from the only other person in the elevator, a guy in a business suit. I was “It’s always good to talk them off the ledge” I replied and off I went to work.

You had to be there to catch the contempt, the utter disregard for the sanctity of life in his simple words. He was wondering why his life was being inconvenienced by these russian religious fanatics when he could be getting his stock news on his elevator ride. That was how little their lives meant to him. It was the culture of death in a nutshell. These 29 people (I later learned 4 were children, the youngest under 2 years old) were just meat to this guy and not only that, he had to share the sentiment so we could all join him in being unhappy at the inconvenience. We could have found out about the Dow 15 seconds earlier. And what about Britney? Don’t these Captivate Network guys have any sense of proportion?

The Culture of Death, where the rubber meets the road, will have a suit on more often than not, will be ‘respectable’ more often than not, and, more often than not, will insist on you joining in. That’s creepy, and not as theoretical as it was yesterday.

Possibly the Best Quote in All of Russian Literature

Or at least the most realistic. The following is from Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, and takes place on a Lufthansa flight.

Улыбнувшись в полном соответствии со служебной инструкцией, она спросила меня, что я буду пить. Разумеется, я сказал: водку. Она опять улыбнулась, протянула мне пластмассовый стаканчик и игрушечную (50 граммов) бутылочку водки «Смирнофф». Она собралась уже двигать свою тележку дальше, когда я нежно тронул ее за локоток и спросил, детям примерно какого возраста дают такие вот порции. Она понимала юмор и тут же, все с той же улыбкой, достала вторую бутылочку. Я тоже улыбнулся и довел до ее сведения, что, когда я брал билет и платил за него солидную сумму наличными, мне было обещано неограниченное количество напитков. Она удивилась и высказала мысль, что неограниченных количеств чего бы то ни было вообще в природе не водится. Поэтому она хотела бы все‑таки знать, каким количеством этих пузырьков я был бы готов удовлетвориться.

— Хорошо, — сказал я, — давайте десять.


Read more

A New Cornucopia of Old Color Photos from Russia

A collection of fabulous color photos of Czarist Russia was publicized a couple of years ago.

Now there’s a new exhibition of the same photographer’s images, including thousands of photos that were not previously shown.

These photos are well worth looking at. The photographer was sponsored by the Czarist government and recorded many scenes of great interest. He produced his images using a photographic process that, while cumbersome, yields excellent color.

(IIRC I blogged about these photos a year or two ago, but I can’t locate the post.)


Newly restored images.

Earlier exhibit.

Technical details.

UPDATE: From John Robinson comes this tutorial on how to assemble the color images from the B&W originals, and some interesting thoughts:

Perhaps one of the reasons for Prokudin-Gorskii’s rediscovery in the present time period is the fact that it is now possible, with computers, to make these into marvelous color depictions that were impossible with the technology of Prokudin-Gorskii’s day (printing the images, for example, was out of the question). This might, additionally, be an indication of the man’s being born well ahead of his time.

Minor Aggregation – 2

A&L links to two discussions of communism and the influence of its Russian version. The first is to a review of two new books, Seven Years That Changed the World and Comrades! in “The Ash Heap of History” from The Economist. The author sees Brown’s book (Seven Years That Changed the World) as a useful discussion of Gorbachev’s reign but is especially impressed by Comrades!, in which he describes Robert Service’s strength:

With this volume he has produced one of the best-ever studies of his subject, even if he is much stronger on Russia than on other countries. Eschewing the usual convoluted language of Marxist debates, he provides a gripping account of communism’s intellectual origins, pedigree and impact.

Read more