Russian politician and historian Yurii Afanasiev talks about the Russian System and the pressure it exerts on Ukraine
Yurii Afanasiev is a spin doctor behind the anti-communist movement in the USSR and a founder and co-leader of the Democratic Russia campaign. He is no longer in politics but continues to strongly and consistently expose the nature and the essence of Russian neo-totalitarianism.
FROM CITIZENS TO SLAVES
U.W.: In your article “Qui prodest?” on the Kasparov.ru portal, you write that conciliation between Russia and Europe is impossible. Why is that?
The reality in Russia clearly shows that there is no chance for conciliation or friendlier relations based on human values. There are no human values in what is going on here right now.
Life in Russia is currently shaped by neo-totalitarian trends. They are reflected in the economy, politics and finance. Essentially, we have reached a state, whereby a human being as an individual and a player who has proved to be totally unnecessary for Putin’s regime in the social system. Our government follows a different key principle, which is to gain access to the country’s basic resources and profitable businesses destined only for the homeboys, while the rest only get the minimum necessary for survival and compensation for loyally serving this system. As a result, virtually all people of working age are locked in a social reservation of sorts. The ruling regime tries to keep them in such a state, to somehow protect and even keep them in this state of hopelessness, occasionally tossing them handouts, such as a miserable pension increase or pitiful welfare improvement.
This is how most of the Russian population lives. Thus, the game those in power play with material interests, looks bitter and insulting in a situation where most people barely survive. It looks like well-planned anti-humanism, which the government implements to eternally stay in power. Indeed, the Yeltsin-Putin government has been doing everything possible and impossible for the past 20 years to remove the competent public from free participation in economic, political and social life. This has been and continues to be done consistently, stubbornly and single-mindedly at all levels, including legislative, executive and in the mass media, and even on the level of political and criminal actions, as well as corruption and raider attacks with the participation of top officials. Now that they have achieved their goal, they vie with each other endlessly in discussions on pension increases and focus on the social sector, simply to distract people from the lack of free competitive access to resources and politics.
U.W.: You often mention the “Russian System” in your articles? What do you mean by this?
I mean the three components; the ruling system, the model of public and social life and world outlook. Together, they make up the “Russian System”. The term was coined by Russian historians Yurii Pivovarov and Andrey Fursov. I put the Ruling System first for a reason. This is not simply about an authoritarian government, it’s also about autocracy and absolutism. This is power as a thirsting will. It’s a unique phenomenon, a kind of absolute phenomenon. It’s more than authoritarianism or dictatorship.
The lifestyle is defined by one individual, even if symbolic, incarnating a mix of clans, that totally depresses the nation. Moreover, this individual kills all social variety that’s natural for any normal developing society and eventually turns citizens into subjects. The government uses a short leash in the form of salaries and benefits to level everyone out.
World outlook embraces the entire system of myths, mystique and superstitions. They are essentially an irrational mirror of what is happening in the country, its mythology. All these components merge together to make the “Russian System”.
U.W.: Despite the firm belief that what happened in August 1991 was a democratic revolution, you do not see it as such. You claim that it heralded the start of new Russian autocracy and the revival of totalitarianism which, to use your words, “is denoted as murders that will never be investigated to the end.” How can you justify this standpoint?
I was among the organizers back then, responsible for security. We had to make sure everything would go peacefully, with no bloodshed, because hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded the streets of downtown Moscow. The drama of those protests was their largely emotional, not rational basis. We failed to politically structure our high-minded feelings and ideas. As a result, the crowd, no matter how noble, remained just a motley crowd, united only by a common emotional impulse. No steps were taken to incarnate these sentiments politically.
It was not just the streets. There was the 1st congress of MPs and the Interregional Group chaired by Messrs. Sakharov, Popov, Palm, Yeltsin and myself. There was a report on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and a discussion on developments in Tbilisi, Vilnius and Alma-Ata. We addressed the issue of the very existence of the USSR. The crisis was looming and it was clearly manifested in the economy, politics and military clashes. At the same time, the Novo-Ogarevo Process was in full swing, as republican leaders kept demanding something, while Gorbachev kept begging them to not tilt the status quo. He desperately wanted to preserve the Soviet Union as a union state, not as a union of sovereign states.
I’m not sure there was any chance of reforming the USSR sufficiently enough to turn it into a union of sovereign nations. Yet, as soon as an official decision to transform the unitary USSR into a federation took shape in Novo-Ogarevo, the Committee for State Emergencies started a coup. It was followed by the collapse of the USSR as a state, an economic and political entity. The essence of these developments was nothing but collapse and destruction. Later, they would essentially be heralded as the coming to power of the victors, led by Yeltsin. They were the ones who groundlessly labeled the events of that time as “a democratic and liberal revolution”. Verbally, they turned it all into a historical transition from totalitarianism to democracy, from a controlled to a market economy, and the USSR to a national state.
This whole transit is merely a declaration. They passed a few laws and tried to do something else, but a closer look at the processes of that period shows that there was nothing liberal or democratic about them. No matter how hard the supporters of Yeltsin, Gaidar and Chubais now try to prove that they did everything right, they don’t succeed. Their actions led to what we have in Russia today, which is a quasi-market economy and an essentially totalitarian and violent lifestyle of Russians, who turned into subjects during the Yeltsin-Putin era. We’ve hidden ourselves in paternalism, in the ability to survive in a social space beyond morals, morality and human dignity, on the level of animal existence, on the line between life and death.
This is within the country. Beyond it, Russian imperialism contrasts with the whole world and our closest neighbors, particularly former soviet countries.
U.W.: In your articles you claim that Russia has neither a market economy nor private ownership as such. What about its oligarchs and Mr. Putin?
Russia“supposedly” has private ownership. But this “supposedly” even pertains to oligarchs and top officials. An oligarch has become an obscure term here. Earlier, it described someone who had grabbed huge amounts of assets, real estate, capital goods and cash flow. Now, our top officials appear to have taken over this role. They have essentially taken over capital goods, cash flow and real estate. But they only have it as long as they are in office. For them, their position is the guarantee for their private ownership.
If they happen to lose their position for whatever reason, there is every possibility that they will lose their so-called property. And they know it! Here is where you see the soviet heritage: ownership remains intact for the duration of their functioning and being in office. This rule covers everyone, officials who can rent assets and people like Deripaska and Abramovich who don’t officially hold office, but provide access to renting assets for others. They are always interconnected, one as a principal and the other as an agent, acting under a well-known broker-dealer model. This simple formula makes ownership somewhat surreal.
As for a market economy, it is not possible without three key components, i.e. ownership, rights and the individual. Many still claim that Russia has a market economy. But they refer to its elements that existed before slavery or feudalism was known. To a certain extent, the market has existed always and everywhere, in all corners of the world.
U.W.: You’re tireless in uncovering the dogmatism of “systemic liberals” led by Yevgeniy Yasin who, in your opinion, back Putin’s regime and describe the Russian Alternative conference, also known as the “Khodorkovsky Readings”, as collaborationism. Why is this?
These “liberals”, whom I’ve always criticized and continue to do so, are those people who came to power with Yeltsin and declared themselves to be “democrats” and winners, the founders of the Russian “liberal” line. To this day, they argue and defend this in the mass media. Currently, Chubais, Nechayev, Aven, Kokh and Yasin are giving a series of public lectures at the Polytechnic Museum. They are public activists who continue to spread illusions.
Meanwhile, Russian society is on the verge of polarization, the loss of moral priorities and physical extinction at this point. Convincing people that taking the course that brought the self-declared winners to power back in 1991 was the only possible and promising one, sounds more like a mockery of the entire nation. The notion of liberalism needs some whitewashing in Russia today: during the course of the implementation of the Yeltsin-Putin policy, so much dirt has been poured onto it, that has literally become a swearword.
I’m against “systemic liberals” since they keep arguing in all their books, public speeches, lectures and radio programs that Russia has a liberal economy, market, etc. Obviously, there was a minor failure in the tripartite mechanism of the transition from a controlled to a market economy, from totalitarianism to freedom and from empire to a national state. They claim that they’ve set up the market, so there is little is left to be done. They say they had few opportunities when the USSR collapsed, since their hands were full with the economy, leaving them no time to take care of the other two components. In other words, they simply don’t realize that the state of the economy or finance is the result of what is going on in people’s minds. To no one’s surprise, they are all economists, some of them lawyers, professionally obsessed with just one sector. But since specialists from a common weal cannot exist in principle, it follows that there is nobody in Russia who can think about key issues.
The “Khodorkovsky Readings”, essentially the sequel of the “Liberal Mission”, are one of their activities. You can hear a lot of fair judgment there, as well as a deep analysis and criticism of what’s going on in the country. But they don’t focus on Putin’s regime as the source of all evil in their reports, of all the nasty things we see in Russia today. That’s the problem with the “Khodorkovsky Readings”.
U.W.: People rebelled against the government in Krasnodar, Novocherkassk, Murom, Biysk and Aleksandrov in recent Russian and even Soviet history. But now, from what you say, there is the impression that society is “dying passively.” Is it possible for this situation to change suddenly, could people start an uprising?
They might. In his latest article, Mikhail Khodorkovsky mentions this as an option. He believes that Russia has passed the point of no return and an upheaval is looming. I completely agree with his analysis and conclusions, and wouldn’t dispute the assumption of a looming upheaval, but I do have some doubts. For something like this to happen, people must have the will to do so. This should be common will rather than that of standalone individuals in regions and villages all over the country. Is it possible in Russia today? There have been some sparks, such as the efforts to protect the Khimki Forest near Moscow from being parlially cleared in order for a highway to be built through it, which triggered public protests that turned violent in 2010, or the clash in Sagra, a village in the Sverdlov Oblast, where 10 local men armed with rifles defended their village from a gang of nearly 60 well-armed men in 15 cars that arrived for a “chat” after the locals kicked a drug dealer out of the village. Several similar episodes have occurred in different parts of the country. If you imagine Russia as a stagnant marsh, they were like small marsh fires, flickering here and there. In fact, even they are one of the manifestations of the carrion, the decay I mentioned earlier.
Russiais a huge country, too diverse from any perspective. My late friend Mikhail Gefter used to call it “the world of worlds.” It’s a world of very different worlds in terms of the differences in civilizations and time. These worlds have come together on one territory, yet they stay in their different eras. Some live in the pre-feudal era, others continue to follow the tribal way. There are also extremely advanced “islands”, which have almost burst into post-industrial society. This overlapping of worlds, that have not yet found a common platform for joint action, lacks the will to make the surge and is not likely to do so anytime soon.
BACK IN THE USSR
U.W.: What do you think of the reviving imperialistic syndrome in Russia, which is clearly manifested in its relations with countries in FSU space?
It's one of the most dramatic and tragic faces of today. This tragedy was most clearly reflected in the recent conflict against Georgia. First aggression, followed by the occupation of part of Georgian territory, has led to the disintegration of the country. And the whole world was watching. I think it was done for a very specific purpose, which was to show the EU and the US the real face of the Russian imperialistic syndrome. The message seemed to be: “You can like us and our democracy or not, but we’ll unfold a fully-fledged war against a sovereign nation, we’ll do it publicly, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. Which was what actually happened. Moreover, the West, represented by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy participated in the imitation of some sort of diplomatic efforts and now is even proud of this “diplomacy.”
The Georgian war was the most obvious fact. Another one is the continuous pressure on Europe and Ukraine in terms of gas and other issues. For instance, Nord Stream is there to show everyone, especially Ukraine, what Russia can do along with its Western partners: the first stretch is ready and the second is under construction. Thus, Ukraine’s share of gas transit will shrink significantly. The gas crisis that arises every winter is essentially all about the desire of “corporate Russia” to take over Ukraine’s gas transit system. They never give up bargaining: “You want cheap gas, okay, you’ll have it but there is a price. Just gives us your gas infrastructure, that’s all.”
The Eurasian Union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia is Putin’s latest statehood song. Implicitly, though, the Kremlin’s moves have a clear goal: Ukraine. What kind of customs union, or any union at all, can be possible without Ukraine? And it is not viewed merely as an economic entity; it’s part of geopolitics that involves the Customs Union followed by the common economic zone, a regional financial structure and ultimately – a political union. This outlines Russia’s strategy for reintegration into the FSU, now entitled the “Eurasian Union”. Both Nursultan Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin have declared this. This implies that Russia wants a union of its own, since the world already has a liberal democracy called the European Union, only the Eurasian one will follow a different philosophy. Sadly, though, what they are actually designing for us is Asiope as opposed to Eurasia.
If only Belarus and Kazakhstan join Russian in the Eurasian Union, the post-soviet reality will be based on Belarusian dictatorship, Kazakh sultanate and Russian totalitarianism. This is the essence of the intended “eurasianism”. Unlike them, Ukraine seems to follow a different line however difficult it may be to overcome its own obstacles and controversies. In this sense, Ukraine is still making its civilization choice. Take Ukraine and Russia in a long-term retrospective: they always had clearly different social systems. Ukraine had praised and practiced popular assemblies during the pre-Golden Horde era, especially in the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia (1199-1349). A different social order, based on authoritarian priorities, also developed in the 12th century. It started under Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky and developed all the way from the Vladimir-Suzdal Princedom through the Golden Horde, Muscovy and Russia to take its final form in the 15th century under Ivan the Great.
I think the civilization choice is responsible for the biggest conflicts in domestic, regional and foreign policy with Russia and Europe for modern Ukraine. I’d like to see Ukraine make the choice based on human values.
U.W.: Can the determination of the Ukrainian government to design a power hierarchy similar to Putin’s turn Ukrainians from citizens into subjects, as was the case in Russia?
I’m very hopeful about Ukraine and I do my best to learn more about it and understand what’s going on here. Perhaps, some doubts about the ideals of the Orange Revolution and adherence to its priorities emerge at this point, but its most important achievement was the real opportunity to replace the government. Elections are the key institution that allows the electorate to show its choice as citizens, not subjects. It’s real. Perhaps, it’s in a different form and weaker than it could be, but Ukraine has a separation of the three branches of power and debate on crucial political issues. Also, there is a big difference in the mass media, especially television. In other words, the qualitative and essential differences between the situation in Russia and Ukraine remain.
Yurii Afanasiev is a Soviet and Russian politician, historian, Doctor of History and Professor.
He was born in the village of Mayna, Ulianov Oblast, in 1934.
1957 – graduates from the History Department at Moscow State University
1971 – completes postgraduate studies at the Academy of Sciences of the Communist Party Central Committee
1971, 1976 –internship at Sorbonne University, Paris
1972–1981 –Associate Professor at the World History Department, Deputy President for the Education Process at the Higher Party School of the Central Committee of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League
1983–1986 – editor of the history department and member of the editorial board of the “Communist” magazine; Senior Research Assistant and Head of the foreign culture history sector at the Institute of World History of the USSR Academy of Sciences
1986–1991 –President of the Moscow State History and Archive Institute
1991–2006 – founder and president of the Russian State Humanitarian University
1989 – is elected MP in the USSR
1990–1992 – one of the founders and co-chairs of the Democratic Russia campaign. Initiates and leads the Independent Public Initiative group
1993 – resigns as Russian MP
Research focus: the history of historical science; French historiography; Russian history; theoretical and methodological basis of the history of science; political studies; philosophy of education: innovative education systems and technologies
The Legion of Honor (France)
Commander of the Order of Gediminas, the Great Duke of Lithuania (Lithuania)
Commander of the Polar Star Order, category 1 (Sweden)
Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (Poland)
The January 13th Commemorative Medal (Lithuania)
Most known works
History vs. Eclectics: the French Annales School in Modern Bourgeois Historiography, 1980
The Other War: 1939–1945 (edited by Y. Afanasiev), Russian State Humanitarian University, 1996
Dangerous Russia, 2001
 Novo-Ogarevo has been the official country residence of the Russian President since 2000. The Novo-Ogarevo Process that resulted in the New Union Treaty was Gorbachev’s attempt to negotiate the transformation of the USSR into a confederation of sovereign states with republic leaders to prevent the collapse of the USSR in 1991.