The Nature of the Enemy: Russia’s Postmodern Dictatorship

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on April 26, 2014

Vladimir Putin (right) always seems to be in the presence of the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

When looking at the Russian regime—not just the government alone but its propaganda apparatus, the economic barons who hold so much power, the criminal underworld with which it is so well acquainted, and the platoon of Western apologists, paid and no—it has to be said that it is a very protean creature.

It is a regime that can, for instance, pass a law banning homosexual “propaganda,” have a State-sponsored Orthodox Church that wants to recriminalize homosexuality, and yet find someone, in this case a man named Martyn Andrews, British-born with access to information and freedom, who chooses instead to appear on the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda station, RT, to defend the regime and genuinely believes it, speaking of the “reality of rainbow Russia” hidden by those nasty, Western-orchestrated distractions—the odd beating here, a murder there.

Last autumn, Peter Pomerantsev, a London-based television producer and writer, produced a paper (‘Russia: A Postmodern Dictatorship?’), which looked at the Putin regime’s “liquid, shape-shifting approach to power.” Pomerantsev noted that the “‘hard’ totalitarianism” of the Soviet Union had given way; now it was much more a case of independent institutions failing either to survive or to remain independent. The regime borrowed from the postmodernists—those who deny there is an objective reality—and works in “pastiches of other’s narratives, simulacra (i.e. fake) institutions, and a ‘society of spectacle’ with no substance.”

In practice this means that “[i]t works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist”. Moscow’s treatment of Alexey Navalny exemplified this. Navalny made his name by highlighting the regime’s corruption, so the State responded with an ostentatious anti-corruption campaign. When Navalny channelled nationalist themes by noting the damage Putin was doing to Russia’s standing, the regime took up the challenge and even “wheeled out” the Orthodox Patriarch to bless the regime as “a miracle of god”. This is where the anti-homosexual demagogy started; suddenly the subject was changed. In the background a prosecution was readied against Navalny. At the trial, cross-examination was barred, thirty-four of thirty-five prosecutorial witnesses actually testified in Navalny’s favour, and the one who did not contradicted himself during the small bits of it he remembered before the judge intervened, after Opalev gave the “wrong” evidence, to read the “right” evidence aloud for him, to which he replied, “it was like that.” The echo of the Moscow Trials was inescapable.

Pomerantsev dates the abortion of Russian democracy to 1996 when some heavy rigging was needed to secure Boris Yeltsin’s re-election. This involved the creation of “scarecrow” parties, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s laughably-named Liberal Democrats being the most obvious. After Putin’s accession to the presidency in 2000, he picked up these instruments and has honed them to greater and greater control. The State propaganda is no longer riddled with jargon-laden hack work. Now it adopts the outward trappings of CNN or the BBC but has as its mission to be the “incense through which we sanctify the president,” as Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Putin’s close advisors, put it. Those not-a-little homoerotic pictures of Putin riding bare-chested on a horse or in leather riding Harley-Davidsons strike us as laughable, but they are part of a process to “promote his image as superhero/tsar and to set him above the fray of real politics,” and it is working.

Rather more tangible than this image creation is the economy, where a complex “neo-patrimonial” system encompasses every sphere of activity. “This system has been nicknamed ROZ: rospil (siphoning off budgets); otkat (kick-backs); zanos (bribes),” Pomerantsev notes. The key thing about this—to return to the organised-crime point—is that it “dirties-up” everyone: “Smaller, bottom-up entrepreneurs cannot help but be sucked into this … system.” It means that even those who oppose the system are often implicated in it, and thus Putin can destroy them—in the eyes of Russians and Westerners and ultimately with a rigged-up judiciary—by reference to their former corruption.

Russia’s international posture has become increasingly aggressive as the West has become increasingly supine, and this feebleness is, as the comrades used to say, no accident. Russia’s criminal economy has penetrated the West, especially Britain: “All across Europe, it has become habitual for retired and semi-retired public officials to take positions on the boards of Russian companies. They include Gerhard Schroeder at Gazprom, Dominique Strauss-Kahn at Rosneft and Peter Mandelson at Sistema.” David Cameron will put no pressure on the City, one of the few areas of the British economy that is functioning, by insisting on little things like compliance with the law for oligarchs who now make their home in London in such large numbers.

Pomerantsev concludes by calling for the division between human rights and economics to be abolished in dealing with Russia. His outline is the Magnitsky Act, named for the lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed massive corruption for which he was murdered in jail by the Putin regime and then posthumously put on trial. That Act allows sanctions to be applied to individuals who participate in gross human rights abuses—and not just in Russia. Unlike the Soviet days, Moscow’s elite now looks to spend its stolen goods on the international market, with bank accounts in Cyprus, children educated in London, and holidays in France. Stopping that is what these crooks really fear and it should be pressed at every turn. What’s more, as with the precedent of the Helsinki Final Act and the heroic movement of Soviet dissidence in the late 1970s, the pressure against the Kremlin on human rights should be brought by insisting that it enforce the laws it has officially adopted—so there can be none of the ravings about foreigners seeking to humble Mother Russia. Pomerantsev also suggests giving GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, of which Russia is a member, some real teeth. This dovetails nicely with what he does not mention but what is the most effective institutional sanctions, namely against Gazprom and the other State monopolies.

If there is one area where I would dissent from Pomeranstev’s analysis it is in what is motivating the regime. In discussing the discourse of the regime, Pomerantsev writes: “nothing can ever said to be genuine, … not only the financial system, but language and ideas, have become corrupted.” The liberal opposition is often heard to say: “I don’t want to live in lies.” Pomerantsev notes the spectacular way the regime contradicts its own supposed principles: preaching an untrammelled version of sovereignty yet has dismembered two neighbouring States; is virulently hostile to American exceptionalism while saying Russia has a unique role in enlightening its “near abroad”; and tells its own population it is the bulwark against Western decadence while telling the West it is the only force that can drag a backwards population into the modern world. (One should notice here the echoes of the Russian-orchestrated campaign in Ukraine to tell the West that its opponents are Nazis while telling its supporters its opponents are Jews.) Pomerantsev concludes from this, however, that the use of such varied carapaces mean that only cynicism, a will to power, and avarice lie beneath.

In fact the Kremlin does have an ideology, summarised by John Schindler as “anti-WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic):

Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with ‘outmoded’ views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy …, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons—and he hates us.”

The reactionary Russian Orthodox Church is back and its role at the right hand of Putin during every stage of the recent crisis in Crimea and Ukraine cannot be overstated. This “Putinism” has allowed the regime to cut across national boundaries to a constituency in the West. The “Third Rome” ideology—that after Rome and Byzantium (Constantinople) the next centre of Christianity is Moscow—has a very powerful pull. The “conservative international” that has sprung up to defend Moscow shows how wide this appeal is.

The Orwellian tyrannies that subsist on lies and a denial of information are gone or are not long for this world—think Cuba or North Korea—but there has been a substantial “learning curve” for the dictators, too. They have learned to make the developments like the Internet that so many thought spelled the end of despotism work for them. Francisco Toro, probably the leading opponent of the authoritarian government in Venezuela, referred to that system as a “flawless autocracy“: Hugo Chavez secured both “unchecked personal power [and] electoral legitimacy”; he managed to marginalise dissent with economic weapons and legitimately won election after election by mobilising a narrow majority against the rest of the country. That is the form dictatorship will take in this next century: Putin’s Russia, Chavista Venezuela, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. By annexing the outward trappings of Western democracy, providing some economic benefits to some of their people, and by manipulating rather than banning outside information, these governments not only secure enough support internally to survive but provide “evidence” for those externally who want to be gulled that they are legitimate.

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