Staunton, VA, March 15, 2017 – The release of a few prisoners and “the stylistic softening of the Russian regime” has led some to suggest Vladimir Putin is promoting “a thaw” on the model of the 1950s, Sergey Shelin says, completely forgetting that such a move “does not contradict” either growing centralization of power or greater restrictions on the life of the population.
The Rosbalt commentator notes that “literally over the course of several weeks, the word ‘thaw’ succeeded not only to become fashionable but to go out of fashion as well” once people saw that the release of [political prisoners Ildar] Dadin and [Yevgeniya] Chudnovets “wasn’t going to open an era of a major softening” in the regime.
Belief in “a second edition” of a thaw has arisen at least in part, Shelin says, because many now have a mistaken idea about the original. “The Soviet thaw arose in 1953-1954 when Beriya and Malenkov ruled the country. It continued until the mid-1960s, frequently changing its priorities, among which the liberalization of the system was never at the top of the list.”
The term “thaw” itself came from Ilya Ehrenburg’s short story which was published in early 1954. But as he pointed out, the authorities never accepted it and invariably criticized the ideas that he presented. The second edition, however, is one that the Kremlin and its allies aren’t upset about at all.
Indeed, many, feeling that they have support “from above” are pushing the idea of a new thaw forward, and in Moscow now, Shelin says, there are “several large nostalgic exhibits on the theme of the Soviet thaw at the Tretyakov and the Museum of Moscow.”
It is now possible to suggest with some precision exactly what the current bosses mean when they talk about “a thaw.” First of all, they are referring to “the freeing of those convicted in the most insane and clearly false political and ideological charges,” something that opposition figures will certainly welcome as a sign of positive change.
Second, the powers-that-be want propaganda to become less flamboyant and more regular and even respectful than it had become. Third, they want to promote the role of the Duma, not as a representative of the people but as a link between the authorities at the top and the rest of the country, and they want to eliminate the production of laws outrageous on their face.
Fourth, the Kremlin powers want “to do away with the remnants of the autonomy of local self-administration,” by integrating even the lowest levels of state administration into a single power vertical that will respond only to signals above and be impervious to any efforts at influence by the population or even by elites.
And fifth, they want to push forward technocrats into positions of authority in the presidential administration, among governors and in federal bureaucracies because “technocrats are unified by a love for the order of the drill field in all spheres of life from politics to economics” and they view the people as something that must simply confirm to these rules.
According to Shelin, “all of these taken together form the 2017 variant of a thaw. In fact, this course began to be put in place last year, but its precise shape has appeared only in this one.” It is very much “a new policy especially after the stormy period of 2014-2015.”
This “thaw” may allow for more freedom in certain extremely small areas but “only there where that doesn’t interfere with the growth of centralization.” Where it does, what freedoms may exist will be “liquidated without any vacillation.” And everyone from top to bottom will be expected to live according to rules set from the top. At the same time, Shelin continues, “the power machine is seeking to return to itself a certain correctness of manners and expressions which were lost over the last several years and also give a certain ‘scientific quality’ to its decisions” about society and the state. But what is critical is that any step the regime makes can be reversed in an instant if the Kremlin wants to.
“Stylistically,” he says, this will “sometimes recall if not liberalism than at least tolerance” and intellectuals will be allowed “to assemble in specially designated places and freely talk about the fates of the world and the country, about religion and atheism, about fine arts and the historic path of Russia,” as long as they don’t cross paths with the powers.
Should this be called a real thaw? The Rosbalt commentator asks. “One can if one likes,” but it is unlikely to ever be what many appear to expect.