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4 May

My mistake: Why we still fail to understand properly the nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime

My deep sympathy for Ukraine and commitment for the Maidan revolution originated in the awareness of the persistence of the soviet system in Eastern Europe despite the collapse of USSR and of the communist empire. This persistence has been dramatically enhanced by the choice of continuity by Russia, the absence of any trial of communist crimes, the hold on power of the same ruling class through apparent changes, and of the same political mores: a blend of secret police and high scale corruption

But continuity between USSR and Russia goes deeper, it is entrenched in every corner of society. I suggest calling it “Sovietism”. It is not only a type of power or political culture but a civilization. I realized then Ukraine was committed not to a benign “transition” to democracy but to a long and painful liberation from the pervasive impregnation of Sovietism, not only in political institutions and habits, but in each soul, if I may say so. This ongoing liberation is a crucial process not only for Ukraine but for the whole world, it bears a universal significance like the flight from Egypt. The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift integration of former “popular democracies” into the EU spread the illusion that more or less the same thing would happen in Russia and post-soviet countries, that Russia was a “flawed western state” as Anne Applebaum puts it.

The terminal stage of Sovietism

All this became crystal clear for me when I discovered this country, five years ago, and I have nothing to withdraw to my writings since then, notably in this magazine. Except for one point: fully aware of the Russian danger, I underestimated its strength and sustainability. First, I believed wrongly that since the soviet system relied on the insulation of the Russian world from the rest of the world, globalization, circulation of people, of information, of investments would make sooner or later Sovietism unsustainable. Boarders are open, people travel, so how could the Russian regime maintain a parallel world without an Iron Curtain? I thought, for instance, that the Great Patriotic War narrative could not resist the western narrative of WWII which is backed by ongoing quest for better knowledge and which is a cornerstone of memory and values in all democratic countries.

 Second, Putinism, the ultimate stage of Sovietism, seemed too inconsistent to gain support in the long run. It is a common place that Putin wanders between various and incompatible visions and sources of legitimacy: is he the knight of “Christian Europe” or the czar of Eurasia, a pagan fascist or a pillar of the orthodox Church, the heir of Tcheka and Stalin or the guy who pretends to save Russia from the Bolshevik disaster, a pragmatic dictator or a mad warrior? Admittedly, his information warfare seduced segments of Western opinion who reject what Timothy Snyder called the “politics of inevitability” of liberal democracies: populists, people angry against the EU and/or American leadership, conservatives worried by the moral decay, and, last but not least, snobbish people who find it funny to flirt with authoritarianism and abjection to escape the boredom of liberal societies and the burden of understanding what’s happening to them. But his alternate project, unlike China’s, fails everywhere: Ukraine did not collapse, Russia became the hostage of Iran and Syria in Middle East, China laughs at Putin’s proposition of alliance, Crimea is a burden rather than an asset, the fast growth of military budget is not sustainable.

Third, the wide support of Russians to their revenge warrior sounds hollow. Genuine totalitarianisms created hysterical mobilization and dedication, people were really ready to die — and not only to kill their neighbor — for the cause. Putin’s popularity is more akin to Caligula’s or Maradona’s than Stalin’s. Mesmerized by official TV and the unending harassment by propaganda, the Russians are ready to buy any lie, but not to commit themselves to anything. All this could not last long. But it does.

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A key to understanding

How and where did my prediction go wrong? The most obvious answers are 1) the unrealistic but huge craving for revenge of a defeated empire, and 2) the idea that Russia’s only strength is our own weakness: liberal democracies are exhausted by the untamed collateral damages of globalization, both impotent at the national level and unable to regain political initiative at regional or global levels. This is true alas — Germany’s agreement to Nord Stream 2 is a pathetic example —, but not the end of story.

We still lack adequate concepts to understand the nature of Sovietism. This challenge is akin to Tocqueville’s when, at the end of his Democracy in America (1840), he tries to articulate the insight that the future of democracy carries a special despotic potential: “I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words “despotism” and “tyranny” are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.” At least Tocqueville was struggling with a remote possibility nobody had yet experienced. We are now equally baffled by something right under our noose.

I am trying to lift the veil on the mystery and found great help in works which confronted the same problems, notably by Tania Rakhmanova, Serhii Plokhii and, in France, Françoise Thom: her recent Comprendre le poutinisme deserves translation. But I am specially indebted to two writers to whom I would like to pay tribute: David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. At first sight, their views seem unrelated if not incompatible, but one begins to understand Putinism once one realizes that Satter and Pomerantsev disclose two sides of the same coin. In The Less You Know the Better You Sleep (2016), Satter shows that Putin’s rise to power is based on a series of murderous episodes: first, in October 1993, Boris Yeltsin, the hero who overthrew communism two years ago, staged a coup against the Duma which ended in a two days blood bath, and later buried the investigation on his responsibility in the slaughter by giving amnesty to the leaders of parliament, so that the Russian Tien An Men was quickly dodged, and a quasi-civil disguised in “constitutional crisis”. Satter recalls that 1993 was also a high tide year for the criminalization of economy which had begun with perestroika: 35 bankers were murdered that year. Second, in 1999, just after Putin’s appointment as president of Yeltsin’s government, four apartment bombings happened in various cities and served as a pretext to launch the second war in Chechnya. It has been proven since that one at least, in Riazan, had been staged by FSB. Third, in October 2002, the hostage siege at the Theater on Dubrovka in Moscow ended with the death of all the terrorists and of 130 hostages (out of 800), killed by a mysterious gas used by the FSB in the assault. The identity of the planners and perpetrators remains mysterious and a lot of evidences point at close connections between terrorists and FSB (see Satter, p. 102-106). Here is how Satter sums up this sequence: “Of all the dangers that hang over Russia, none is more menacing than the failure to demand answers to the mystery of how Putin came to power. (…) The criminality of the Yelstin period engendered a hunger for order, which, in the absence of moral content, led to banditry in the guise of state” (39, 79).

In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2014), Peter Pomerantsev observes Russia from a very different perspective. He describes Russians as a society of pretenders. Russia and the Kremlin are a vast reality show. Authoritarian rule and selective terror walk hand in hand with the principle that everything is not what it is but another thing, created by spin doctors, like Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s personal advisor, mastermind of Kadyrov’s tyranny and of the invasion of Crimea, but also writer of gangsta rock lyrics and novels, and “political technologist of all of Rus”. Instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 21st century strains, [the new type of authoritarianism masterminded by Surkov] climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd, Pomerantsev writes. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime. The main deception in this deceptive world is that private property does not exist since any business can be “raided” by mafia, oligarchs, or corrupted tax officials, and legitimate owners are not protected by law. Bolsheviks dreamt of the “withering of law” but quickly retreated to “socialist law”. In its post-modern way, Russia today has achieved the withering of law.

Putin’s Machiavellian creation

  The most expensive documentary ever produced in Russia, Plesen, tells that an undetectable lethal rot spore contaminates mankind since Moses. After the show, crowds rushed into stores to buy “cleaning rot machines”. These machines were sold by a company who sponsored the documentary. Russian public sphere is pervaded by lie, but unlike the old-style soviet lie, it is not based on political propaganda but on credulity and bullshit (the concept of “bullshit”, coined by US philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is more accurate here than “nonsense” or “rubbish”). People are conditioned to believe anything, but what they believe does not matter. At the turning point of Maidan revolution, when Yanukovych fled, a Russian “journalist” based in Kyiv told one night to a French colleague that American airborne forces had landed in Ukraine: “I can see from my window the US vehicles and paratroopers patrolling in Kyiv streets!” This could not be genuine fake news: too easy to check. It was just bullshit. Quickly unmasked, she did not try to explain or apologize, she just said that everyone has their own truth. Russian fake news on the MH17 case is a good example: to cover up its responsibility, Russia invented not one but nine fake versions. They did not aim to impose a version of the facts, but to disorient public opinion, to drown the difference between truth and falseness in the flow of bullshit. The merger of propaganda warfare and bullshit is the distinctive mark of Putinism. One year after the Dubrovka disaster, Putin declared in an interview that the gas used by FSB was “harmless” and denied that it caused the hostage’s death. Now, facts were widely known at that time in Russia. Putin’s denial was not a lie, it was bullshit. Same thing with the denial of political assassinations: Politkovskaia, Litvinenko, Magnitsky, Nemtsov. Coverage does not have to be bullet-proof, just chatty.

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People may have the impression that governing by selective terror, predatory economics and bullshit is a Machiavellian creation by Putin and his associates. Not at all. Satter and Pomerantsev insist that it spreads directly from the USSR of Brezhnev and Gorbachev. The USSR was already an authoritarian kleptocracy, and communist ideology had mutated into pretense and cynicism. People had to simulate and lie all the time. To survive in soviet times, elites as well as ordinary people learned to simulate. “We spoke several languages at the same time all the time. As if we were several persons at the same time”. They just kept the habit or rather exacerbated it in a delirious show (Pomerantsev often uses the word “delirium”, which is also the title of an earlier book by Satter). So, the choice to cover up soviet crimes and failure, and to conceive Russia as the continuation of soviet empire is not a choice at all. One cannot discuss with Russians, they lie all the time, Angela Merkel reportedly once said desperately during the negotiations leading to Minsk accords. But the liars are trapped in the collective delirium. And by the same token, Russia’s ruling class is trapped in its own system: the withering of law has turned organized crime and corruption into the central regulator of business and daily life, its infrastructure, to parody Marx. That’s why the President and his circle do not know how they could leave the Kremlin someday. The minute they leave, they might lose everything, Pomerantsev concludes.

This framework may seem too general, infrastructural, confronted to the stakes of war, strategy, economic gambling, but it has practical bearings.

First, it is crucial to convince Western leaders of its relevance, to rule out from diplomatic thinking the mantra of “Mr. Putin as a pragmatic leader” (so popular among French diplomats). Second, we must realize that we are not that different from the Russians. By “we” I mean both Ukrainians and other Europeans. Russia is at the terminal stage of lawlessness and of bullshit delirium, but we suffer from less virulent forms of the same pathologies: 1) systemic corruption in Ukraine is more akin to corruption in normal states, like Greece or Italy than to the Russian kind, but it stems from the same soviet source, and the country is not immune to falling back in it. 2) In all democratic countries, conspiracy theories on all kind of subjects are flourishing. Credulity goes along with distrust towards all elites, politicians but also doctors, professors, etc. Populist parties may win in Ukraine and the European elections next year. We must take bullshit seriously.

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