Staunton, April 16 – Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Yevgeny Gontmakher says, are accelerating the disappearance of Russia not so much in the sense of pointing to a change in its borders but rather with regard to the existence of a distinctive Russian society capable of surviving into the future.
In an interview published by Polit.ru yesterday, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of World Economics and International Relations and frequent commentator on economics and politics, lays out his reasons for this “pessimistic” assessment of the situation.
What has made Russia a distinct civilization is now under threat, he says, and therefore it is entirely possible to make “the diagnosis” that “Russia is disappearing.” Gontmakher begins by noting that people have been talking about Russia as some kind of “separate civilization” since tsarist times.
Uvarov’s trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” was inadequate to describe it, he says, but “the phenomenon of ‘Russianness’ … existed,” although it was difficult to describe, and allowed people to distinguish Russianness from Germanness or Chineseness. But “now the end is coming to this special quality.”
This is not a question of borders, Gontmakher continues. He says that he is “practically certain that Russian perhaps even another century will exist in its current borders. But this is not the most important thing.” What is important and what is disappearing is what many have called “the phenomenon of a special ‘Russian civilization.’”
That was undermined in the first instance by the events of the 20th century. He points to three “strata” or levels on which this is clearly shown. The first and “most external” is the institution of the state. What is striking is that in 1917 and 1991 the state dissolved overnight, even though “many consider ‘Russian civilization’ and ‘the Russian state’ as synonyms.”
Unfortunately, he says, Russia has not been able to establish an effective state over the last two decades. While there are “dozens of ministries, hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats at all levels, and enormous budgets,” “corruption, ineffectiveness, unprofessionalism, and personal rule” have deprived it of any real self-definition.
The disappearance of Russianness is also in evidence at a second level, in what is called “civil society.” The Soviet system represented “the apotheosis of atomization of society,” and the post-Soviet system has not changed that fundamentally. As with the state, he continues, there are lots of pseudo-NGOs, but “a significant part” of them are in fact GONGOs – government organized non-governmental organizations” – rather than the real thing.
That is a critical reality, Gontmakher says, “because if a society cannot organize itself, then it is condemned to lose its deepest sense of identity,” and that is what is happening in Russia today. Moreover, the regime is making it worse, refusing to support self-government because people at the local level “do not know and understand” what to do.
But as the Moscow economist points out, “you can only learn to swim when you jump into the water” – and that is something the Kremlin isn’t prepared to allow.
Yet it is at the third level that the situation is the most serious and fundamental, Gontmakher continues. The health and well-being of a nation “in the broadest sense of the word” depends on the state of inter-personal relations. If those are “relatively healthy,” a nation can come back from almost anything. But in Russia, they are anything but that.
Putin’s Ukrainian policy has both revealed how ill these relations are and made them worse. It has divided people even within families on the basis of the suddenly introduced principle that “he who is not with us is against us,” a dangerous idea from the 1930s and one that has grown with “the mass xenophobia” of the current period.
This illness has also been exacerbated by a decline in the material well-being of Russians and by Putin’s decision to rely on oil and gas exports rather than broader economic development, Gontmakher continues. But all of those problems have been exacerbated by the events in Ukraine and Moscow’s approach to them.
In any society, there is always “the problem of ‘the majority’ and ‘the minority,’” he points out. But what has Putin done? “He has destroyed [that] schema,” one in which the minority proposes and the majority disposes,” and demonized anyone who questions what he as the “minority” has decided.
To achieve that goal, Gontmakher adds, Putin has unleashed “an gigantic quantity of anger and interpersonal division.” The Kremlin leader may think he has “everything under control,” but he has set in motion forces which are larger than he thinks, that are destroying the social fabric of Russia, and that will take decades if not generations to rein in.
Given that, many are going to leave Russia because they have no future in the Putin economy or social system. And many who don’t leave are going to once again constitute “an internal emigration,” another phenomenon that will only lead to further “personal degradation and collapse.”
The Russia that will lead to a decade or so from now, Gontmakher says, will be a country “without a civil society” except an “imitation” one, with “imitation” parties,” and a country in which anyone who opposes the regime will be told to leave or face repression.
Before the Ukrainian events, Russia was already “a regional power,” but it had the chance to form allied relations with Europe and the US. Now, this variant is “unreal because we have been stricken from the list of potential allies of both the West, and let us not engage in illusions, China as well.”
Russia has “fallen out of this world order,” he continues, and “even on the post-Soviet space [it] cannot be confident that our partners in some future Eurasian Union – Belarus and Kazakhstan – will not one fine day say ‘good bye’ to Russia.”