In earlier essays here this author has noted that Russia can be thought of as a frozen culture that cannot escape its past and therefore is condemned endlessly to repeat it. Allegedly as well, Vladimir Putin is a keen student of Russian history. But if that is the case, rather than learn from that history he apparently is rushing ever faster to embrace its worst and most inhuman aspects. Recent news stories highlight this revenge of Russian history upon the Russian people and the continuing deep-freeze of the culture.
Last week Russia’s government revealed that it is considering using prison labor to build the infrastructure needed for the 2018 World Cup. Given the fact that FIFA, which oversees international soccer appears to be a long-standing criminal syndicate and Russia’s corruption is legendary it is probably no surprise that it made no response to this suggestion that typically is intended to drive down the costs of building that infrastructure while Putin’s henchmen and possibly FIFA executives line their pockets.
But beyond the inherent criminality of this proposal, it immediately evokes both the Stalinist Gulag and the Tsarist “exile system” of hard labor and exile (Katorga i Ssylkka) that gave Tsarism an infamous aspect at home and abroad. Inasmuch as Putin has brought back the Gulag and psychiatric prisons and is legislating NGOs and all dissidents out of any functioning political space, perhaps we should not be surprised at these concurrent signs of a return to the past.
Similarly we have just learned that the Russian businessman and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny was poisoned in London by gelsenium, a rare but lethal flower. It is also alleged that the dissident and member of the organization that publishes this journal, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was likewise poisoned in Moscow, leading to massive organ failure and an induced coma to save him. As of publishing this he is still in the intensive care unit. Such tactics not only evoke the KGB under Stalin and his successors but go back as far as Ivan Groznyi. Neither is the repeated use of poison to dispatch dissidents when guns won’t do or are not available the only such examples of a return to what members of he FSB and Putin’s entourage probably consider to be the “good old days”. Russian legislation over the last several years has banned at least 4-5 million people, many of whom work in the government and security structures form leaving the country in total defiance of he Russian Constitution, clearly a document more honored in the breach than in the observance thereof.
Obviously this harkens back to Soviet times where people were not allowed at all to leave except under immense international pressure as in the case of the Soviet Jewish emigration beginning in the 1970s — itself a harbinger of the decaying of the Soviet regime. But such prohibitions go back much further. Indeed, the prohibition of travel was a critical aspect of he system of serfdom, or Krepostnaya Prava, whereby millions of peasants were bound or attached to the land and had no right to move anywhere. Serfdom and such bans on movement are and were indispensable parts of the Tsarist and totalitarian Soviet structure and Putin and his team are bringing it back despite the fact that we hear that the right to travel is among the most popular and sought after of Russian citizens’ rights.
Finally in an ironic twist on Stalin’s refusal to accept the idea that Soviet soldiers were POWs during World War II and the incarceration of many of them in the Gulag upon their return, we now see Putin disclaiming any responsibility for or assistance to Russian POWs in Ukraine. Of course, it is essential to Putin’s increasingly totalitarian charade that nobody know that hundreds if not thousands of troops are in Ukraine, have been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. But as Marshal Zhukov observed, the government that denies responsibility for its own soldiers does not deserve to exist.
Yet these examples by no means exhaust the inventory of past practices that Putin has brought back to freeze Russian society in a state of arrested development. The cult of personality, the suffocating censorship and incitement of systematic hatred of foreigners and Ukrainians, the obsession with gargantuan showpieces like the Olympics or the World Cup, all betoken a government that not only refuses to learn from the past but actually embraces it wholeheartedly. Indeed, taken in their totality, these and other instances of the reversion, if not regression, to the past are all manifestations of the deepening and accelerating trend towards what can only be described as Fascist or totalitarian versions of the classical patrimonial Muscovite government that owns the national economy and the state. Certainly in many respects this trend reincarnates the classical formula for keeping the masses happy, i.e. bread and circuses. But meanwhile the economy continues to fail.
Unfortunately this is the model that has led Russia thrice into total national collapse and cannot but do so again, whether that collapse occur under Putin or some successor. Yet each time the succeeding rulers reconstituted this state even if they did so at the cost of enormous repression and violence. But can Russia continue to repeat this miserable cycle again and survive, let alone flourish as a great power, as it so clearly proclaims itself to be? We cannot know the answer to this question but we can be reasonably certain that based on present indicators the cost of answering this question will be ruinous in terms of lives and of resources.