January 27, 2012 9:53 pm

Master of nostalgia

Vladimir Putin has played expertly to Russia’s emotions during his years at the centre of power – but at what cost?
Vladimir Putin addresses an audience at a meeting of All Russia People’s Front

Backing: Vladimir Putin addresses an audience at a meeting of All Russia People’s Front, an umbrella movement of his supporters, in Kemerovo this week

The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, by Angus Roxburgh, IB Tauris, RRP£20, 288 pages

It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway, by David Satter, Yale, RRP£25, 416 pages

Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response, by Liliya Shevtsova and Andrew Wood, Carnegie Endowment, RRP$19.95, 238 pages

Dealing with a postBric Russia, by Ben Judah, Jana Kobzova, and Nicu Popescu, European Council on Foreign Relations, 64 pages

Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister for the past four years, president for the previous eight, is bidding for the presidency once again. Victory would open up the possibility of two further terms, taking him to 2020, the age of 67 and more than two decades at the top of a vast, turbulent country.

The outcome of the March election was, until recently, considered by those expert in Russia to be as certain as any such event could be. The reasons why it has become less so – it remains probable – are the subject of these works. All are in differing degrees readable, insightful and prescient, written as they were before the demonstrations in Moscow and other cities towards the end of 2011. They lay out in some detail the reasons why a regime that has been widely popular should now find itself suddenly under some pressure.

Even among allies, the mix of policies, attitudes and enmities that has sustained the Putin regime is losing its potency. (We can speak of 12 years of uninterrupted power since, as Angus Roxburgh makes clear in The Strongman, Putin remained the boss even when he was nominally number two to President Dmitri Medvedev.) This month, the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church – a good friend to a leader who has made much of his faith – warned through the medium of an essay by the Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin that the government must respond to popular concerns or be “slowly eaten alive”. Chaplin identified the main cause of dissatisfaction as corruption and the suppression of investigations into officials.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Yet the end, if it comes, will indeed be slow: Putin still commands large reserves of support. He has, for nearly all his rule, enjoyed strong approval ratings, usually far above those of fellow leaders in the west. How do we account for this? First there is luck, a politician’s most precious attribute, usually conferred without regard to merit or wisdom. Putin’s springs from beneath his feet: the still-vast reserves of oil and gas trapped under Russian soil, whose value on the world markets has risen fivefold since he came to power.

Second, he has been a master of nostalgia, with a fine ability to render the Soviet period as one in which, granted, mistakes were made but greatness was achieved, a fascist enemy beaten and a new civilisation ripped from the rotting corpse of Tsarism. David Satter, a former FT correspondent in Moscow and a writer with a long, strong interest in the psychic effects of communism, has written a book full of vivid and well-chosen anecdotes to illustrate this. In It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway he quotes Yuri Zhigalkin, a correspondent for the US Congress-funded Radio Liberty (and thus no starry-eyed old Bolshevik) as saying of his childhood in a medium-sized town that, in the 1970s, “there was a communal spirit. It was all right to knock at the door of a stranger and ask for help.”

It is this wistfulness for a lost utopia that Putin can both share and evoke. He is at one with most Russians over the age of 40, who are able (like many of us) to colour their past rose. More than that: he has been able to plug into a nationalism that has survived the communist era. Putin has resorted to many tricks and PR stunts over the past 12 years but he is genuine in his nostalgia.

Third, he inherited from his time in the KGB a network of comrades who were highly trained, intelligent, ruthless and knowledgeable about Russia, its neighbours and the world – and held in high esteem by much of Russian society. He elevated many of them to high positions and to the great wealth that generally attends such elevation in Russia. The members of the network, who have been loyal and hard-working, held similar views to Putin – that the west, especially the US, had taken advantage of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia constitutes a separate civilisation from Europe and that the promotion of democracy, within and around Russia, is a danger to the country.

 

In Change or Decay – a book-length conversation between Lilia Shevtsova, a strongly liberal and sharply observant political analyst based at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, and Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia – Shevtsova quotes Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as saying that European culture has had its day as the dominant force in the world; Russia offered an alternative. Over the course of the 2000s, Putin and his comrades successfully encouraged that vision to take deep root in the population.

Finally, he has offered Russians what they say they want: a strong hand. Satter believes this is because Russians are made, or have been formed over the centuries, this way: he thinks that a “Russian lives without freedom but in his own mind he is not a slave. He is a participant in a grand enterprise with which he and his fellow citizens have been entrusted and which requires a sacrifice and a readiness to accept total subordination.” This is a sweeping judgment. But it is surely the case that a feeble civil society has inhibited opposition and reasoned dissent.

Taken together, Putin’s magic mixture has worked well, at least in its own terms. He won the second war in Chechnya, where current president Ramzan Kadyrov keeps order in the state and periodically confirms his allegiance to Moscow. In the short sharp passage of arms between Georgia and Russia in 2008, the Georgians lost and the Russians declared the independence of the two Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on its borders – recognised so far by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Nauru. With the victory of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine in 2010, Putin has a friendly, broadly pro-Russian president in its most important part of the “near abroad”. It is on this record he will be running in March. Why would he be under any serious pressure?

For many reasons. Most of these have long been evident to westerners and Russian liberals, who can be discounted by the regime, but are now finding some purchase more broadly. The luck of the oil and gas prices has a dark underside. In a report written for the European Council on Foreign Relations, the analysts Ben Judah, Jana Kobzova and Nicu Popescu argue that a “post-Bric Russia” is no longer to be counted with Brazil, India and China as a rapidly growing state – if ever it was – and quotes the economist Nouriel Roubini as characterising it as “more sick than Bric”.

 

The authors here differ on the main causes of Russia’s economic malaise. Judah, Kobzova and Popescu believe that it is more due to “the personalisation of power, and the fusion of policy and power that defines Russian politics”. Satter tends to locate the underlying stagnation in the refusal of either Russian leaders, or Russian society, to face up to a past that traps them in abjection before autocracy. Roxburgh, a former BBC Moscow correspondent, highlights corruption, providing one of the strongest insights into the malady that puts Russia near the bottom of the indices on clean government. He quotes a Russian businessman as telling him that corruption “is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable”.

The use of nostalgia is Satter’s field. Russia is not, he believes, able to give itself a chance: in love with their chains, its people cannot face up to the horrors of a past they wish to ignore or romanticise. Roxburgh, who, after he left the BBC, worked for some years as an adviser to Putin’s communications chief, is less censorious about this – but admits that the phenomenon is strong and deep, noting that “the mass of the Russian public is not generally the same as ‘average’ westerners. In a television contest in 2008 to find the ‘greatest Russian’, Stalin came in third place – and, it is thought, would have come first if the authorities had not rigged the result to avoid complete embarrassment.”

That these attitudes persist is not solely due to Putin and his comrades; they grew steadily during the Yeltsin period. But they have acquired legitimacy since. I witnessed, on August 22 1991, the – finally successful – efforts to tear down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of what became the KGB (now the FSB) from in front of the Lubyanka, its headquarters in central Moscow, as the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was fizzling out and the democrats were rejoicing. It was a sight to make the heart leap. But the crowd on that night was not large. Plans for a monument to those repressed by the organisation have come to naught: there remains only a rock from the Solovetsky Islands, one of the first Bolshevik camps, placed in the shadow of the Lubyanka in the flush of the democratic movement in 1990. By the early 1990s, Satter writes, there was “little press for a memorial from Russian society. Russians no longer reacted emotionally to information about Russian crimes.”

 

Putin’s men are often highly sophisticated. Sergei Ivanov, one of the former agents closest to Putin who has held such posts as head of the Security Council and defence minister, is suave and fluent in English, with a cultured taste, a leaning towards economic reform and a mind at once hard and sharp. In the series Putin, Russia and the West by the incomparable documentary maker Norma Percy – broadcast this month and next on BBC2 and from which Roxburgh, an adviser for the series, drew much of his book – Ivanov is shown as an amiable, gently ironic man, with a taste for avant-garde ballet. Yet like all siloviki (men of power), he has a zero-sum approach to the world: where the west is up, Russia is down, and vice versa.

Putin has been hugely effective in projecting strength internally and externally, but he cannot affect some deeper trends. Russia is in the grip of a demographic crisis: a population that stood at some 150m after the collapse of the Soviet Union is projected (by the United Nations) to fall to between 121m-136m by 2025. It loses a great number of its most talented people to emigration. It has not succeeded in modernising its productive capacities, and has a declining leverage over former Soviet states pulled west towards Europe and east towards China.

If he takes the Kremlin again, what will the second coming of President Putin bring? It is possible that he may decide that the iron hand act has run its course. The demonstrations of December prompted from him first the usual harsh dismissal, but that was then quickly succeeded by efforts to reach out to the intelligentsia and the civic forces, at least formally. Putin, early in his rule, said Russia’s only destination was Europe – and he might return to something of that. The middle class has grown greatly – as have their freedoms to read (especially on a now lively internet), to travel and to discuss. The revulsion at the December parliamentary election results, whose manipulation was documented by a surprisingly feisty burst of press investigation, was damaging for Putin’s party, United Russia.

Yet there are as many fears that the iron fist won’t unclench, and that Russia will become even more closed, suspicious, unfree. And still, as Satter warns, there is little appetite for a reckoning with the 20th-century past – itself a necessity for a wholehearted reformist tide, which it must have if real, civic, open, democratic greatness, worthy of a great people, is to be found.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor. He was Moscow bureau chief from 1991 to 1996

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