Vladimir Pastukhov writes an essay for Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper, on how Putin is not the driver of creeping totalitarianism, but Russia is pushing Putin down that path.
It is worth noting that four Novaya Gazeta journalists have been assassinated in eight years. – Ed.
Standing on the edge of the Russian abyss, they don’t sense the absence of a bottom. They don’t have depth of imagination. Over there, beyond the boundaries of their imagination, today a tectonic shift of cultural layers is happening, the likes of which in power and significance have not been seen in Russia for several decades or even centuries. It is possible that very soon, the wavering of the cultural soul will reach the surface of social and political life and then Russia will shudder from the force of a blow not felt since the end of World War II.
Despite the loud warnings of the politically-active minority, the “determining majority” believes that the restorationist policy of Vladimir Putin will not go too far, and political repressions will only be local in nature and remain at a level acceptable to the elite.
Everyone expects from Putin that it will go on being “like now” – miserable, but tolerable.
In reality, everything is exactly the opposite. Russia is on the threshold of wide-scale and irreversible upheavals initiated by the government itself which will affect very wide segments of the population. Life will change quickly, and far from in the best direction.
The scale of what has happened with Russia is not recognized by the elites, the challenge thrown down by history is not appreciated and the deep meaning of what is going on is not understood. While the Russian elites are adapting to life under authoritarianism, Russia is slowly but steadily rolling to totalitarianism. Those who were prepared to live under Pinochet can be entirely disappointed, unexpectedly finding themselves living under Mussolini or Stalin. Russia is not separated from its terrible past by a Chinese wall. This past lives in it, like bacteria from the plague, ready at any minute to break out from its disturbed grave. Russia is now walking through the plague-filled cemetery of its own history with a shovel. God forbid that it start digging…
Destruction of Dissent
No, Moscow is not Rio de Janeiro, and the Putin regime is not a police state.
A police state controls the behavior of a person in the public sphere, leaving his private life to his own discretion. By contrast with a police state, a totalitarian state does not recognize the separation between public and private life and tries to control a person always and everywhere and in everything. It was Lenin who lay the foundations of Soviet totalitarianism by negating the boundary between the private and the public. Stalin only developed the Leninist principles in practice in ruling the country.
An authoritarian state fights criminal (from its perspective) actions, but a totalitarian state fights criminal thought. An authoritarian regime destroys opposition, and a totalitarian persecutes everyone who has a position, his own point of view.
The enemy of authoritarianism is the disloyal thinking person. The enemy of totalitarianism is simply the thinking person. It is the thinking person, the ordinary homo sapien as we know and love him, who is the main threat for the totalitarian society. In order for such a state to become stable, the ability of a person to think independently must be kept in a suppressed state.
Under totalitarianism, you can only think collectively. Any individually-thinking person automatically becomes a dissident here. Dissent is the main target of the totalitarian state. It expends enormous efforts on fighting it. If an authoritarian state simply restricts freedom, the totalitarian state models unfreedom. It programs the behavior of atomized subjects, stripped of their own will, carefully weeding out any bad thoughts from the mass mind. Hypnosis and fear are the two scalpels with which totalitarianism conducts operations on the brain and heart of the nation.
Fighting dissent is the essence of contemporary politics. Putin’s actions are often interpreted completely incorrectly as attempts to suppress the opposition. In fact the object of his attention is not the opposition, but society as a whole.
The purpose of the government is to change the social code of the behavior of the broadest segments in society and to switch on their sub-conscious reflexes based on fear and aggression.
[Sergei] Magnitsky was tried posthumously not in revenge, but because his name had become a symbol of dissent and resistance. Therefore, just as symbolic a gesture in response was required.
All the recent initiatives of the authorities, outwardly scattered and isolated, beginning with the laws on the protection of the feelings of believers, the ban on homosexual propaganda, on the restriction of foreign adoptions and ending with the grotesque “Experts’ Affair,” the persecution of Morshchakova and the driving away of Guriev – are all linked by a deep logic and aimed at establishing a universal mental monotony.
Putin is like the Grand Inquisitor, the latest Russian “engineer of human souls,” a lover of experiments on the Russian consciousness. These experiments are vitally necessary to him because if he does not manage to lead Russia into a state of mental coma, his regime will not stand and the cover will be blown from all his Constitution counter-reforms. For this, he is prepared to go as far as necessary as the circumstances require.
Heading Toward Terror
History has proven unambiguously that it is impossible to get conformity and suppress dissent without terror. Russia is doomed to terror – in fact, to massive terror. Today, to the majority of people this statement seems extreme. But the aims not only justify the means, they predetermine them. Putin’s aims dictate his selection of means for their achievements. If you don’t intimidate Russia, you’ll not teach it to stop thinking – that is the only lesson apparently he has taken home from all of Russian history. He will intimidate because he is not capable of persuading.
Terror is more than violence and abuse. Both the former and the latter are in abundant supply even under authoritarianism (to one degree or another even under democracy: humanind has never devised the ideal political form and is hardly likely to ever devise it). But terror is none other than a system which does not have definite political coordinates and therefore instills an instinctive, animal-like fear. It is a fear whose cause is impossible to stop. Under the conditions of terror, a person cannot prevent a threat or demonstrate loyal behavior because he doesn’t know what precisely he should be afraid of. Therefore he’s afraid of everything. Terror is a system of universal defenselessness from bottom to top. It’s when today, you are an “effective henchman,” but by tomorrow, they are clinking handcuffs on your wrists.
Only such unaccountable and all-encompassing fear can act upon psychological mechanisms which work at the “molecular” level. With their help, a person can turn on intellectual self-censorship without waiting for the censor’s directives. He doesn’t wait for an order “from above” anymore but strives to guess which behavior in a given situation is the most expected and, consequently, the safest. In fact, the most gifted persons orient themselves in this matter exclusively on their own intuition, and not at the promptings of reason (which is usually a burden in such a situation).
Under the conditions of terror, the need to force people to think like everyone else diminishes. People themselves, voluntarily, en masse, refuse to think at all.
Stability in a totalitarian state is maintained thanks to the effect of “switched-off consciousness.” The population turns into human-like robots who are capable of solving some individual tasks (and as Soviet history shows, even accomplishing achievements) but on the whole, they live without reflecting. They are real zombies as if they came off a movie screen. For people who were born in the USSR, they should be quite familiar.
A society with a “switched-off consciousness” is equal to Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Modern Russia promises to become a society of “switched-off consciousness.”
Inevitability of Intensification of “Clan Warfare”
The government has only one problem with terror, and it is part of its nature – no one can control it. The flywheel of terror can be set in motion, but it is impossible to stop. It is like a plasma jet motor – it will work until it burns out completely.
It is naïve to think that Putin, much less his entourage, is capable of controlling terror. This is as mistaken as believing that Stalin controlled the diabolical machine that he created. Terror is different from oppression in that it is random in nature, the paranoia engendered by it forces the repressive machine to come down on everyone at once. Terror begins with enemies and ends with friends.
Under the conditions of terror, Russia inevitably will become a battlefield for numerous elite clans, which will finally bleed themselves out in endless “battles without rules.” Moreover, almost all those who today are turning the fly-wheel of repressions with all their might will later fall under it themselves. Terror doesn’t have an obvious vector. Neither [Igor] Sechin, [deputy prime minister], nor [Nikolai] Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council] nor [Alexander] Bortnikov, [head of the Federal Security Service] nor the entire Ozero [Lake] Cooperative [for real estate owned by Putin and his friends], not to mention much smaller fry, cannot be 100 percent sure that these millstones will not grind them down. There were harder figures in Russia in their day, but even they were wiped out.
Today, it is already visible how the pyramid of power created by power is sagging and coming apart at the seams. At its foundation lays a system, feudal in nature, of “roofs” [protections] in the economy by the siloviki [power ministry], clans which were intertwined with crime. Under each clan, like bunches of grapes on a vine, hung numerous “protected” businesses. Dashing between the businesses and the government are the real heroes of the age – the countless “enforcers.” Two or three years ago it seemed that this system would stand firm, and the sad examples of what happens to those who don’t fit in with it were known by everyone: [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, [William] Browder, [Sergei] Magnitsky, [Platon] Lebedev, and many more.
But today, everything is already different. The streets of London are filling up with the “new type” of immigrants. Former Chekists [secret police] and their protégées, feeling they are completely safe, even two years ago would proclaim nastily, “What do we care, the worse, the better,” have now fallen under the roller of their own blacktop spreader and are crazily racing about in search of an emergency exit from the country they ruined. Others were less lucky: all of the exits were already closed off, along with themselves. Some sort of opportunists still offer their services to provincials. But serious business already knows the bitter truth: the “enforcers” no longer enforce anything in Russia. Furthermore, it looks like the enforcers themselves are now going to be “enforced” in mass numbers.
At first glance is seems that this is a spontaneous battle of all against all. But if you take a closer look, you can see a hidden historical logic. The hydra of terror gobbles up the old ruling class in order to clear the way for the new class which is even more greedy and unprincipled.
From the provinces, from the very depths, a feudal vertikal [power line] is built which draws in terrible people who are prepared to “strangle and suppress,” who receive their compensation not in some brisk business but in the relatively modest nomenklatura “rations”.
There is less fuss with them, you don’t have to “hack out their consciousness,” they come to power with brains already “turned off.” Moreover, they cost much less, and given the growing budget deficit, this is important. By comparison, the traditional “crooks and thieves” look like aristocrats.
“The young growth” of new Putinites are multiplying like locusts, and just like locusts demolish everything around them, eating up particularly the nouveau riches and sybarites of the old wave. This is the new edition of the struggle of the boyars and the nobles, the “Old Bolsheviks” and the “true Stalinists.” As is known, intramural competition is the most brutal. Russia will shudder from the crunch when these two parasitical classes clamp their ruthless jaws down on each other’s bones. The frightened and cornered population will be a hushed bit player in this clash of the predators.
It is naïve to believe that Putin is a man who can manage terror. Terror is not an instrument of policy but a state of society. It is similar to a force of nature like a tornado. Starting with a small breeze, terror gradually spreads to the dimensions of a giant funnel which draws into itself all the people and objects in the surrounding space. When it falls into terror, society loses control over its own history until the calamity ceases by itself, having exhausted its energy.
Putin is not so much the architect as the foreman of the “new totalitarianism”. On the whole, totalitarianism is a hysterical reaction of society to the profound crisis it is undergoing, an affective response to fear and exhaustion. In such a state, people are prepared to give up as much of their freedom as the government can take from them.
It is not Putin who is pushing Russia into totalitarianism but Russia which is pushing Putin.
In the larger scheme, today Putin, and hardly Khodorkovsky, is the main hostage in Russia.
In this situation, great courage and a sense of historic accountability is required of Putin so as not to succumb to the temptation of “easy solutions and simple ideas.” He should go forward not together with the crowd, but counter to it, as really great historical figures do. The mission of the elite consists of resisting the mass psychosis and not indulging it. But this is not his chance.
Totalitarianism in Russia is the lot of reformist failures, those who went hard, but then quickly ran out of breath. The country kept falling into the abyss each time after “someone pledged and didn’t hedge.” He would start formidably, with enlightenment and self-government, and would end with the Oprichnina [the tsar’s brutal secret police]. Lenin began with world revolution and ended with the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Having failed all the reforms he undertook at the beginning, his rule ended up with “Russian Orthodox Chekism” [secret police statism].
Today’s “leap into the past” is only movement along the line of least resistance. In order to avoid a return to totalitarianism, it is necessary to apply enormous moral and physical efforts. In order to wind up in it again, it’s enough just to do nothing. Putin is now led by the masses, he has melted into them instead of leading them. In the historical sense, he should be blamed not so much for what he did, but what he didn’t do.
The forthcoming and practically unavoidable lurch toward a totalitarian state completely changes the perception of what the goals and tasks are of the opposition in Russia.
Political opposition as such in the near future will be practically impossible, not so much because the avalanche of repressions will come down on it but because in a society with a “switched-off consciousness,” it will never become massive and must always remain a marginal force.
In this situation, it is not so much a political opposition that comes to the forefront but a spiritual opposition to the regime. The opinion of prominent cultural figures, leaders of the professional societies – all of those whom it is customary to call the “flower of the nation” – acquires particular significance in this regards. The future of Russia today, in the deepest civilizational sense of the word, depends on these people more than the “professional revolutionaries.” If they do not define themselves regarding the slide of Russia now into the abyss, then Russian society is doomed, because besides them, there is no one else to do this at this moment.
A distorted notion of the moving forces of history has traditionally existed in Russia. At first the narodniki [Russian populists] and after them the Marxists ascribed to the actions of the popular masses an exaggerated and even sacred significance. In reality, popular masses are the stem cells of history. They form the social and political institutions according to the templates cut by the elites. That is why the elites have the basic responsibility for the fate of the country.
The Kremlin in fact understands this very well. The idea of the All-Russian Popular Front, which is seen by many as a potential successor to United Russia, which has exhausted itself, is being read by many entirely incorrectly. It is not so much a political organization for participation in some future elections as it is a mechanism of control and neutralization of the elites on the threshold of the coming upheavals. This is a means of organizing the elite in the ant-hill of society (communally, if someone likes it more that way). The alternative to it can only be a movement of Resistance, embracing all the cultural segments of society.
The All-Russian Popular Front and the Resistance movement are two diametrically opposed philosophies of organizing the Russian elite, reflecting the principled difference between the anti-hill society and civil society.
Under the new conditions, the leitmotif of the Resistance must be not the organization of mass rallies, parades and strikes, not the preparation of revolution (it will come on its own without being asked) and not the creation of programs and manifestos, but “only” the struggle against the lie and for human decency. Today, each person who has not succumbed to the hysteria, who has refused to “switch off” his consciousness, who is prepared to remember why Magnitsky was killed, why Khodorkovsky was put in prison, why Navalny is persecuted – that person is already a fighter in the Resistance. The country is entering such an age when the battle will be waged for each thinking person because they will all be reckoned.
Russia is hurtling away. There is little chance that the breaks will be put on this catastrophe. But still, they do exist. The new totalitarianism differs from the old by two important indicators. First, the regime has no suitable new “dominating idea” without which totalitarian society is practically impossible to build. The attempt to cross Orthodox with Bolshevism is doomed to failure, since both these ideologies have long grown out of their childhoods. Second, in the information sense (the Internet) and purely physically (the open border), the new totalitarianism will have to be built under “open path” conditions. This significantly reduces the effectiveness of the repressive machine.
Russia, most likely, can expect a very dull and boring totalitarianism, according to the scale of the personality of its creators. Under these conditions, the consolidated forces of the elite may create an echelon rushing backwards along the historical track. Furthermore, the position of the “native elites” (as the conflict with the Russian Academy of Sciences illustrated) has the most substantive meaning. Today, the fate of Russia is in the hands of those who traditionally do not get involved in politics. If this emergency brake does not work, then Russia most likely will not stay at that relative boundary of “the new 1953” where it is now stuck in its backward historical movement, but will subsequently roll back first to the “Great Terror” and then to the “Great Dementia” of the aging leader and finally to the “Great Revolution” which evidently it will not survive.
Demonstrating excessive confidence in himself in public, Putin mistakenly believes that he is playing the totalizer with Russian history and it’s only a question of placing the correct bet. He does not yield on a single point, doubling and tripling his bets, sending living and dead enemies to jail, taunting America, flirting with China and not reckoning, by and large, with anyone. But in reality, he is playing “Russian roulette” with history, where he himself is only the bullet in an empty chamber. Sooner or later that bullet will blow up the whole casino to smithereens.