Staunton, July 16 – Because Vladimir Putin has chosen to turn toward the past rather than the future as shown most recently by his “having unleashed a war in Ukraine,” the Kremlin leader has become “the last soldier of the Empire, who will shoot his last bullet even as the Empire draws its last breath,” according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
“The long-term prospects of Russia today are clear perhaps as never before,” the Russian scholar writes. But “they are so unattractive that few want to consider them.” Russia must chose “one of two strategic scenarios.” The only open questions are which one and how it will be pursued.
People “do not choose the historical period in which they have to live just as they do not choose their parents,” he continues. “Russia civilization in all the well-known historical forms known to us up to now has exhausted itself,” which is no secret but one that nobody wants to talk about them aloud.
“Attempting to restore Russian civilization in any of its historical forms – the USSR, the Empire or Muscovy – is an obvious utopia.” No one can “save an old ‘Russian civilization,’” but it might be possible to “attempt to establish a new Russian civilization” very different from its predecessors and thus having a future.
Today, Russians face what is a relatively restricted choice: They can either attempt to create this new civilization or Russia will ultimately “disappear without a trace,” even if in the process it does enormous damage to others and to itself, Pastukhov argues. If it choose the latter course, “it will be swallowed up by powerful neighboring cultural platforms – the West European, the Chinese and/or the Turkic.”
In the political sphere, he continues, this choice takes the form of one between “the destruction (conversion) of the Soviet Empire and the reforming of statehood by creating a post-modern constitutional state” or trying to put off this end by restoring one or more of the past systems, the choice Putin appears to have made.
Because the objective forces pointing in these two directions are so enormous, Pastukhov insists, Putin has the opportunity to make all the difference by which path he chooses. But so far, he seems unwilling or unable to choose the more creative one – and that is a disaster for Russia and Russians.
To a large extent, the pathos of this situation lies in two paradoxes. The first is that the current generation must sacrifice its immediate interests if future generations are to have a worthy future, and the second is that Putin can choose between the two even though he personally has formulated neither or the choice itself.
In a certain sense, the Russian scholar says, “Russia has become a hostage to the evolution of the views of Putin” about this choice. Like many in the Moscow elite, he has a dual national identity: he feels himself at one and the same time Imperial and Soviet, “not noting the anti-natural nature and even historical absurdity of this combination.”
As the Kremlin leader appears to have forgotten or not understood, “Soviet civilization destroyed Imperial Russia and was by definition deeply hostile to it.” At the same time, “Soviet identity was built on the denial of Russian identity and its suppression.” But what is most curious is something else, Pastukhov says.
Imperial values were “directed toward a real Russian past, which it canonized,” and Soviet ones were directed toward “a Russian future which had never existed but which it idealized.” Putin in contrast seeks to restore a Russia which never existed and which no one lost.”
“Such a philosophy of Russia, while deeply Russophobic toward existing any existing Russian, raises to the heavens a mythical Russian in the name of which power is realized.” This approach is in fact a form of bolshevism but one “directed not toward the future but toward the past.”
Putin has thus “transformed himself into yet another Russian utopian, who lives by a mythological consciousness within his own person oikumen which is separated as if by a Chinese wall from the external and real world.” All Russian leaders, of course, have been guided by myths, but they have been constructive because they were directed toward the future.
“The Putin myth,” in contrast, Pastukhov argues, “is destructive because it is redirected toward the past and brought down to earth.” It doesn’t inspire anything creative “except bureaucratic” things. It is, in short, “an unconstructive myth of an era of collapse.”
Putin is thus “a tragic figure” because he “leads a generation which lacks any historical prospects.” Moreover, while he has “practically unlimited tactical (mobilizational) resources, he is completely lacking the opportunity for strategic maneuver. He has become a contemporary political Sisyphus, constantly pushing the rock of restoration to the top of the revolutionary hill.”
And he is responding to what happened in Russia in the 1990s. After the collapse of the USSR, Moscow sought to join Europe, but Europe, “Having lost its fear” of Russia, “did not gain respect” for it. By the end of the 1990s, Pastukhov said, Russia had simply ceased to be taken into account by Europe or the West.
Many like Putin were infuriated by that and have turned back to another traditional Russian approach to Europe: using force to instill fear and living by the dream of “the rapid and inevitable collapse of the West” from forces both within it and beyond. And at present, that approach seems to be working, but it will ultimately fail.
Indeed, Pastukhov argues, “all this would be funny if it did not entail the serious risk” that something really terrible could occur.
“The only real chance for Russians to break through the historical blockade,” he says, is “a return to historical creativity. . .to surprise” the outside world and itself. But that will be both hard and take time. For the time being, Putin is trying to turn the clock back. If he continues, both he and Russia will ultimately fail.