In my early youth, a friend of the family who had consecutively passed through the hell of German and Stalin’s concentration camps gave me A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [by Alexander Solzhenitsyn] to read. Ever since, for many years, I have hungrily read everything I could about Stalin, about the hard years of terror and the “cult of personality”; about Raskolnikov’s letter, Shalamanov’s diaries and the memoirs of Ehrenburg. I read a lot and indiscriminately, gathering up crumbs to make up a conception of this tragic era. But when the country lacerated itself bloody in an itch to expose everything, I lost interest in Stalin. Not because I didn’t love him or didn’t forgive him but because he had ceased to be a mystery to me. My opinion of the “father of the peoples” had been formed, and I didn’t think it was necessary to exhaust myself with the re-reading of heart-rending details of the terror. Although my parents continue to read everything to this day. Something similar has happened with my perception of Putin. He has ceased to be a mystery. Now it’s only a mystery of what will come after him.
Crucified by History
After the famous “September Castling” [Putin re-assumption of the presidency from Medvedev] many were sincerely convinced that in a short while, in just a little bit, Putin would be completely different than he was in the past. There are people who to this day are expecting this, convincing them and those around themselves, that no later than a half year, or at the very least, in a year, all the most interesting things will finally begin. I’m afraid that the most interesting has already passed.
I don’t think there’s going to be any new Putin. There will only be the old or very old. God simply doesn’t have another Putin for Russia. Putin is not so much irreplaceable as much as he is unchangeable. That is his tragedy, and that makes him a figure provoking rather sympathy than hate.
The image of the “galley slave” in fact is very accurate. Putin is not simply chained to the gallery; he is crucified on the mast of Russian history, and on the board is written: “Mission not accomplished”.
Today, if Russia needs a tsar, it’s a tsar-builder, a tsar-creator, who will erect a new Cathedral over the foundation pit. Putin is not a creator; he is a protector, or rather a guard. He came not in order to build something new, but in order to restore the old. His guiding idea is “The Russia which we lost”. But that Russia never even existed. Putin’s ideal is a mirage.
Putin was unlucky with timing, he wound up not in his proper historical place, and nothing can be done about this. Even if you appoint the best person as general director of the rocket design bureau, even the general director of a private security firm, that will not help space flights in any way.
Man Sitting Astride a Turbine
Putin is the main hostage of Russia. He is driven into a corner more by his own excessively exaggerated fears than by the difficult external circumstances. At a moment critical for Russian history, he fell victim to demons shredding his soul.
He continues to link to Germany with the help of a tunnel under the Berlin wall, and doesn’t notice that the wall has long ago been taken down.
When a political leader is swimming in the flow of history, his personal qualities, oddly enough, do not have such a significant meaning because the flow itself carries him along. When he gets into a historic funnel, his character and mentality mean a lot – if history stands in place, every leader looks for a way to reach shore himself. Putin is going against the tide, like the famous photo of him doing the breast-stroke, leaving just splashes from history. Churned up, history naturally returns the favor.
For some, Putin is an object of cult worship, for others, an object of poorly-concealed hatred and contempt. In reality, there are no reasons for either Putin’s canonization or his demonization; he looks well in the pantheon of Soviet leaders.
He is no less educated than Stalin or Andropov, and no less artistic than Khrushchev. He is characterized by a tenacious mind and unquestionable charisma; he is able to get his way. Even more, there is the sense that he is less than any contemporary foreign leaders – in fact, just the opposite. Is that not the case?
In Putin’s world view, there is an inherent fundamental significance for the fate of Russia’s flaws. In place of a legal consciousness he has a “blind spot.” Justice sticks out of his pocket the way a rabbit’s ears stick out of a magician’s hat. He manipulates the law as an instrument for achieving his goals. Recently, he declared his interest in legal studies as a hobby. This sounded like blasphemy; with the same success, a butcher could announce his interest in studying anatomy.
In the legal sense, Putin has thrown Russia back several decades, and perhaps, even a century.
An inherent legal nihilist, Putin creates chaos in everything he touches. In fact, he does not so much manage political processes so much as find himself under the control of elemental forces which he is not capable of controlling. He is like the “man sitting astride the turbine” in the [1960s] song by [journalist and bard Yury] Vizbor. Putin is flying along a forced trajectory in order to land where the laws of political mechanics have prescribed. And all of Russia flies along with him.
Hard Landing without a Golden Parachute
Even before his second coming, the national leader confounded the country with a hard question: “Where are the landing pads?” Many years later it can be said with confidence: there’s a minimum of one landing pad, and it is such that it will not seem too few. The trajectories of the flight astride the turbine with the people buckled in behind on the whole is understandable. It will slide over the surface of the catastrophe until Putin’s weakening hands keep it from falling but then fall into a tailspin (if of course, it is not taken out by the anti-missile of the world crisis or if inside it some secret mechanism of historical self-liquidation doesn’t kick in).
The overwhelming majority of Russians therefore are entirely sincere in wishing Putin a long life, instinctively understanding that things will be well for them only as long as Putin is in the Kremlin.
Putin is really making titanic efforts in order to preserve Russia the way he loves and knows it (Soviet-style). He is putting down pipelines, conquering the continental shelf, increasing the birth rate, lowering the death rate, saving tigers and in the end, doing a lot of other really great and necessary things. He really is “grinding hard,” which can’t always be said about his opponents. The problem is that this is Sisyphean labor.
The legal chaos organized by Putin has the same influence on Russian society as baking powder on dough. All civic and state institutions are turning into a porous, crumbling “sponge cake” under the effect of the unrestrained abuse of power. Russia today is ill with a softening of the state fabric.
Putin cannot overcome corruption for the simple reason that he himself is its source. He wants to be a Russia Lee Kuan Yew, but he doesn’t want to do what Lee Kuan Yew did. In order to wrest the country from the jaws of corruption, the Singaporean dictator, according to his memoirs, put 26 of his closest friends in jail. Meanwhile, Putin has made up a list of “26 friends” to lead the battle against corruption and has made them untouchable.
The untouchable “Putin Guard” is corrupting the country more than all the pedophiles taking together, more than all the uncensored obscenity in the media. People are being trained to lie about big and small things, for a reason or no reason, for self-interest or without any practical goal.
A state built on lies is like a castle on the sand. He seems grand until the first rain.
We must be prepared for the fact that after Putin, scorched earth will remain. The economy and social sphere will lie in ruins.
All branches of the economy, except the export of natural resources and primitive trade are going into decline. The criminal element and corruption devalue the enormous investments in medicine, education and sports, making them equal not to European standards but African. The universal annoyance and dissatisfaction with life will be just as universal as it was during the waning Brezhnev years, and the crime wave will be as bad as in the years of the civil war. “Kushovka” [the massacre of 12 people by an organized criminal gang in 2010 at the Kushov train station in Krasnodar Territory] conceals the metastasis throughout the country, which is penetrating literally to every village, every street, and every home. Only this will all happen later.
After Stalin, Russia remained with a viable, although lopsided, economy, with institutions that worked at least by inertia, but with a terrified and demoralized elite. Toward the end of the Brezhnev era, Russia had a semi-destroyed economy, half-decrepit institutions, but with an energized elite focused on reform. Putin will leave the country with a destroyed economy, without institutions and with a morally degraded elite. The crisis that Russia is to face is like comparable only to what it endured in the early 17th century and early 20th century.
Three Putin Cards
The chances are not great of any “Maduro” who will take the reins of rule from Putin’s hands, control the situation and keep the country from ruin. The fact that Putin cannot be changed is only half the trouble; the trouble is that he cannot be replaced. Putin has shut Russia in on itself, has given it its form, and therefore no one else can be put in his place without changing the whole configuration of the government. The stability of the Putin regime rests on many personal unions, three of which, from my perspective, are the main ones.
Putin and Sechin. Putin is like a two-faced Janus, he is both the head of state and the leader of an informal but very organized community which essentially is very similar to a “Lenin-type party,” where unquestioning discipline is maintained through the help of the famous “democratic centralism”. His relationship to this community, whose secretary of state could be considered Igor Sechin, in some imperceptible way is reminiscent of the relationship of Ivan the Terrible with the [elite secret-police enforcers known as the] Oprichina, who were unified in a special monastic order, whose head was the tsar himself. That is why Putin is irreplaceable, because he controls the ruling elite from inside, as the leader of a pack, and not as President. Putin is the main “peace-keeper” of Russia, he will not allow the clans to devour each other. Without him, the pack would immediately fall apart into many squabbling groups fighting each other, and would lose the opportunity to control the country.
Putin and Kadyrov. Putin consolidated the elite, above all by the fact that he stopped the colonial war and accordingly, the fall of the Empire. But he achieved this only thanks to a very complicated and tangled compromise under which the Empire was obliged de facto to pay contributions to the colonies in exchange for a formal recognition of the sovereignty of the Empire. This compromise rests on the special trusted relations between Putin and the elites of the rebellious Caucasus, pacified for a time, whose interests are repressed by Kadyrov. Putin is the personal guarantor of complex and absolutely hidden agreements, and not a single other person can replace him in this capacity. The departure of Putin will require achieving new agreements, which hardly will be achieved peacefully.
Putin and Obama. Putin is considered a figure acceptable to the West, which provides something like control over the enormous territory of a large intimidating nuclear power. Despite his aggressive rhetoric, he is a typical comprador leader, successfully defending the interests of major trans-Atlantic companies. Certain excesses, like the need to regulate the “Magnitsky Case” are an annoying exception to the general rule which don’t fit into the West’s plans any more than Putin’s plans. On the whole, the West no longer looks at Russia as a threat to its interests, its current half-suffocated existence quite suits it, and it does not intend to resolve the Russians’ internal political problems for them. Therefore the “collective Obama” is prepared to go on closing their eyes to what happens in Russia, wasting adrenaline with the help of reports on human rights (on the whole it is strange that Putin reacts to them so acutely). But such a situation is possible only while Putin really does guarantee stability. As soon as the status quo is upset, the West will intervene in the situation and find , in the end, some “incorrect” money in its banks.
Out of these three marked cards, Putin has constructed his comfortable house of cards. But only he himself can live in it. Without its master, the house turns into a simple deck without a single ace. This deck is what Putin’s successors will have to play after the crisis.
Falling, in Order to Spring Back
Russia will not hit bottom under Putin but after Putin.
This is an objective reality, even if we do not sense it yet, but it is no less inevitable for all that. On the one hand, this is an ominous warning that in fact few will heed: in Russia, until the thunder comes, the peasant doesn’t cross himself. On the other hand, in this warning there is a certain hidden hope. Russia is on the whole a “near-bottom civilization” in which real life will only begin “at the bottom.” What we have to fear is not the bottom, but that there won’t be enough strength to spring back up. Therefore, we should not squander our efforts to save them. And train a lot so that when we fall, we can spring back up.