Now that Vladimir Putin has been reelected, it’s possible to discuss Russian politics. Before the election, lacking a mythical reputation for objectivity, there would have been several accusations:
- Meddling in Russian politics, made by the dozen or so people in Russia who regularly read the blog.
- Participating in the snuffing out of what tiny shreds of democratic sentiment remain alive in Russia.
- A hidden agenda, which is up to the reader to pick. I could be a Putin apologist.
The election was not what the West considers an election. It was a ceremony of ratification, a ritual pledge. But it was still better for commentary to wait. And the danger of being lumped with (Telegraph) Jeremy Corbyn as a Putin apologist has been mitigated by the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, where I may have been the first to mention Novichok as the possible agent.
So it’s opportune to continue with Putin’s Apology, so far a series of four articles, with a common theme. If Putin were to defend his record, what would he say? The common disclaimer is:
As a reminder, an apology is a defense, such as a good trial lawyer might offer. In comparison with the unknowable facts, it could be true, false, or a mix. The only requirement of this apology is that it be favorable to Putin, and not definitively refutable.
A quick study of Russian politics reveals a blizzard of ideologies, aspirations, proposals,claims, and accusations, all suppressed in months. This article can add nothing to the details presented by specialists, the chronicles of personalities, clashes, feuds, smears, assassinations, poisonings, and mere intimidations. It just goes on and on. But we can discuss the dynamics.
The former Soviet republics are criticized in the West for the “Potemkin-ness” of their so-called democracies. When process gets in the way of an action desired by an autocrat, the process is obliterated, if not forever, for a very long time. It happens elsewhere. In Turkey, the citizens of recently voted away their democracy for no apparent reason, other than as an expression of resurgent ethnocracy.
The U.S. experience with democracy has been of perhaps surprising stability. Some states and most big cities have for periods of time been under the control of corrupt political machines. The U.S. political system possesses a character superior to the people who comprise it. It is a consequence of the apparent fact that social memory persists beyond the lifespan of the individual. Among the magical elements:
- Ritualized warfare, the election, when words replace violence for the most part.
- Replacement of election rhetoric by search for a sustainable support base.
- Traditions of delegation, compromise, and voluntary relinquishment of power.
- A free press, vital to Walter Lippmann’s controversial theory of democracy.
- The search for popular approval, which as an inevitable consequence of Lippmann’s theory, is modulated by the free press.
- Adversarial monitoring of the system by activists and muckrakers.
Perhaps the fact that the above works can only be truly appreciated by growing up with it. The bullet list is a display of intangibles that exist outside of any organizational chart. Yet it may be more important than the “three branches of government” to which civics classes attribute U.S. stability.
Vladimir Putin did not grow up with this. For some reason, the paper structure Soviet System, as with so many other totalitarian systems, was chosen to mimic the institutions of democratic governments without even the pretense of democracy that Russia still maintains. In such a system, the character of the rulers is the only determinant of the quality of government.
In the U.S., we’ve had movements from the grassroots that changed the country forever: Women’s Suffrage, Prohibition, Civil Rights, Environmental, Gender Equality, Gay Rights, and others that have not been noticed yet. But the periods of post 1917 Russia are demarked by rulers, not movements. This was naturally so, as every “movement” was merely the child of the ruler.
Russia today is a socially extinct volcano. The absence of movements is also a time of negative population growth, short life expectancy, substance abuse, and general lack of productivity. Perhaps there is a connection. Perhaps it is what happens when you put your people in a cage, or a “rubber room”, to prevent them from hurting themselves, while you, the ruler, attempt to do the best for them. It’s the dilemma of the zoo animal, safe from predators or the onerous task of obtaining food, which nonetheless exhibits signs of mental illness in captivity.
These problems are obvious. Vladimir Putin is a highly intelligent person, and is mentally healthy. He cannot be unaware of them. In many ways, Putin resembles a paragon of virtue that has been bent by strains. The strains likely come from two beliefs:
- From experience with the Soviet system, belief that the quality of government is solely the consequence of the quality of the rulers. The implication for Putin is that true democracy cannot work in Russia.
- Russia is indefensible from external aggression, except, possibly, by extreme means.
Let’s stick with the first item. In the U.S., we are accustomed to the idea that a politician can enter office unqualified for the job, and learn on the job. Ironically, this was also true in the Soviet Union, when membership in the Communist Party, popularity among party cadres, and acceptable performance were the requirements to climb the ladder. The Party was the formal validation mechanism.
The U.S. has two large parties, which acting as independent social forces, accomplish the process of validation of a person for public office, by both in-person interaction and compliance with the party platform. For many years, both the Democratic and Republican parties straddled the center. In today’s more divisive climate, the search for the cohesion to a center is more elusive. But we still have the search, in spite of divisive personalities. In Russia, there is no historical precedent at all for cohesion except to a personality.
Next: Comparison of the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union. More on poison.