31.12.23 Discussion

Four Myths about Russia: Why not to view Russia through Vladimir Putins's eyes

Kirill Rogov
Director of Re: Russia
While Putin's regime is actively engaging in the fascistisation of the public sphere and promoting the mythology of Russia's 'anti-Western' historical mission, the liberal and oppositional parts of society are forming their own constructs and myths in search of an explanation for what is happening. Putin's 'successes' in confronting the West and militarising Russian society intensify the social pessimism of the war’s opponents, who conventionally explain Putin's authoritarianism and military aggression against Ukraine as the inevitable result of post-Soviet history, burdened by the imperial mindset of the Russian population and the failures of the political leaders during the notorious 'wild 90s'. As a result, the historical fatalism of opposition mythology sometimes seems like a mirror image of Putinist mythology. Was the post-Soviet era a lost thirty years in the history of Russia? Is imperial expansion inherent to Russian political thinking? Could things have unfolded differently in the 1990s? And, is it true that something will only be possible 'post-Putin'? Revisiting the established liberal myths allows us to see the vulnerable side of Putin's 'successes' and may lead to a reassessment of the political and intellectual strategies of the opponents of Putin's regime and the war it is waging.

The four very widespread myths I am going to talk about are four concepts that are widely used, including by the liberal-minded part of Russian society. These concepts determine the way many of us see current events and historical prospects or dead ends. These are four frameworks that we use, sometimes without much thought, to describe what is happening and surrounding us.

The myth of determinism: 'backsliding' or conflict?

The first myth is a widespread belief in the power of determinism – the idea that events unfolded predictably in some preordained direction with a clear connection between points A and B. This perspective is ready to view the last 30 years of Russian history as evidence of the failure of the Russian democratic project, where it deviated from the right track at the very early stages and inevitably reached the point where we are now.

Both analysts and people in general tend to see the present as the point towards which history was heading, and all preceding events inevitably led us to this point. The present is, as it were, the culmination of history, the point from which explanatory schemes directed to the past are built. The most powerful of these, which dominates how we think about Russia and Russian politics today, is the notion that everything was moving logically towards authoritarianism, which was always going to culminate in right-wing revanchist radicalism and war.

War is a significant shock event. It erases from our memory all the facts about the past that do not fit into this framework. The path becomes unavoidable, leading us precisely to where we find ourselves.

I believe that this view of the last twenty or even thirty years of Russian history as a developing, growing and maturing authoritarian regime is a very inaccurate view. It deceives us. This is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If we limit ourselves even to the last ten or twelve years of Russian history, which, within this framework, seem exclusively like the history of consolidating Russian autocracy, such an understanding seems extremely narrow and inadequate.

If we look with eyes wide open, it would be more accurate to say that in the last decade in Russia, two social phenomena were simultaneously developing. They grew from the same root but stretched in opposite directions. During this time, Russia had very high incomes due to elevated oil and gas prices, and this circumstance had two important consequences.

First, high oil and gas revenues led to high consumption, which gave a strong impetus to the development of megacities, their labor markets, innovative social and civic practices, clusters, and types of social relations.It was a powerful modernisation movement that shaped modernised urban patterns, innovative economies, digitalisation and corresponding new stereotypes of behaviour and political demands. This social phenomenon and these demands manifested prominently at the beginning and end of the decade, during the protests of 2011-2012 and 2019-2021.

Second, at the same time, high incomes formed a large cluster of redistributive economy and redistributive social structure in Russia. This cluster involved massive rent redistribution and rent-oriented clientelistic networks, which gradually acquired a certain ideology. The backbone of these networks and their political culture consisted of people with a strongman mentality. This is where 'resource nationalism', with its hostility to the West and 'power paternalism' towards its neighbours, matured and took shape. 

These two Russias were two realities that developed in parallel: on one side, a nationalist-authoritarian, paternalistic culture, and on the other side, an advanced culture of megacities, a new political generation, with Alexei Navalny being one of its faces, among others.

In the early 2010s, we witnessed a powerful political mobilisation of this new political generation in megacities. Paradoxically, the regime responded to this not only with some expected intensification of repression, but also with a counter-mobilisation. Its basis and trigger was the annexation of Crimea and the events in Ukraine in 2014, and its content was the idea of national revenge for the loss of the USSR. In the mid-2010s, this Crimean consensus overshadowed the agenda of Bolotnaya Square (2014–2017). However, by 2019–2020, it had significantly deflated, and the Russia of megacities once again reared its head again and sensed new opportunities: by this point, social networks had virtually displaced television as the main source of information for younger generations, and the regime found itself without traditional instruments of influence. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine became the tool for the second, more ruthless and brutal onslaught of this nationalist mobilisation.

It is crucial to remember that the ten years that preceded the present moment were, in fact, a struggle between two currents, two socio-political impulses that existed in the country at the same time. Although this struggle ended in the defeat of the new political generation and the culture of megacities, today's country is by no means a recently and firmly consolidated authoritarian regime. On the contrary, war is a brutal way of consolidating a regime in a situation where its durability, its long-term potential, has been called into question. The conflict and indeed defeat in the conflict are historical phenomena, and this is not at all what the frame of determinism that presents this history as a process of 'sequential sliding towards authoritarianism' suggests. 

So, the negation of the first myth lies in the fact that Russia did not move systematically for twenty years to the point where we find ourselves now. On the contrary, the war is a tumultuous social transformation, an attempt to resolve the conflict that had developed over the previous decade. And its outward and inward-directed inhumanity is connected to the substrate of civil war that we discern in it.

So, Putinism's view of Russia, Russian society and Russian history is that only strong authoritarian power is possible. And the last thirty years of Russian history only confirm this. However, that is not the case, and the last thirty years of Russian history indicate otherwise.

The myth of imperialism: do Russians want territorial expansion?

The second myth is the myth of Russian imperialism. The question of whether imperialism is inherent to Russia, to Russian society, has a nuanced answer: both yes and no. Yes, because the culture of superpower, the perception of the country as something that cannot be reduced to the normal doctrine of ‘national sovereignty’, to national statehood, is undoubtedly ingrained in the political tradition and thinking of Russians. No, because the paradox of the last thirty years of Russian history has been that this national consciousness was almost entirely devoid of an appetite for territorial expansion. On the contrary, it seemed more inclined towards contraction.

Even thirty years ago, as the USSR was collapsing, one of the greatest and unexpected phenomena of this process was that Russians had absolutely no desire (neither the strength nor the inclination) to fight for their empire. 'Let us stop feeding Central Asia', 'Let us stop feeding the Caucasus' - these powerful popular slogans of territorial contraction remained very important. ‘Let us stop feeding' because we need to deal with our own problems, because we need to put things in order here at home.

This discourse has for thirty years limited any form of classical imperialism and aspirations for expansion. Until December 2021, in opinion polls, little more than 20% of the population spoke of the desirability of new territories joining Russia. And it was not a question of conquest, but of the annexation of those territories that seemed to want to join Russia voluntarily: Belarus, the so-called LNR, DNR, etc. 20-25% of those surveyed said that such territories could be incorporated into Russia, while the rest said it would be better not to annex these territories.

This should be remembered now, when the Russian opposition is contemplating how its dialogue with Russian society, with the majority, might be constructed. It should be kept in mind that this society has been quite close to the idea of territorial self-restriction over the past thirty years and that it stems from the need to rationalise internal socio-political life, from the need to deal with its domestic problems. 

This idea continues to exist even now as a popular idea, held by the median voter. Of course, now it will be and is already under significant pressure from propaganda, which will speak of the benefits of expansion. We can already see this shift, although it is difficult for us to assess its scale due to the autocratic distortion of the public sphere. An acute ideological and informational struggle lies ahead, a choice between two ideas: either we compensate for our inclination towards superpower status through expansion, or, on the contrary, we refrain from expansion in the name of solving domestic problems. This choice will continue to confront the population, and these will be the competing political ideas of the future political cycle.

So, the Putinist view of Russia, Russian society and Russian history is that Russia is an empire and must exist in the logic of expanding the zone of its paternalistic and authoritarian influence. This is seen as organic to the root political consciousness of Russia. But in reality, Russian aspirations for greatness, a kind of ‘great power syndrome’, do not necessarily imply the aggressive expansionism attributed to it by Putin.

The myth of the mistakes of the 90s: will it help or harm the opposition?

The third myth is the myth of the notorious 90s. Today's Russian liberal consciousness literally demands condemnation of the reforms of the 90s as a failure, which, in turn, led to the emergence of Putin (and Putin led to the war). In other words, the failure of the 90s paved the way for what we have now, and we traveled along this beaten path without the ability to turn anywhere else. This is a variation of the determinist myth mentioned above, but with a special emphasis on the 'fallacy' of the actions and ideas of the first governments of democratic Russia. Which within the framework of the 'determinist' view became the root and primary cause of 'all of this'. 

I find this concept intellectually untenable and extremely harmful to Russian liberal consciousness, the Russian liberal tradition, and the Russian opposition.

First, regarding its untenability (and then regarding its harmfulness). The idea that Russia failed to build either a sustainable democracy or a fair market in the 1990s is entirely fair. However, it is unclear why it had to build them during these ten years and what historical examples show that it was really possible. 

During these years Russia was in the first decade of its history as a republic. If we look at how this period unfolded in other countries, perhaps the closest analogy would be the period of European history when, after World War I, the collapse of empires, and the decline of European monarchies, a whole series of young republics emerged in Europe: German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, etc. What was happening in these countries at this time, what did their life look like? We see, as a rule, weak states, weak rule of law, unstable economies, party chaos, the rise of leftist movements, and after about fifteen years most of these republics found themselves at the mercy of a powerful right-wing nationalist backlash that came to power in response to the demand and expectation of a 'strong hand'. If we look earlier, however, we find that the first ten years of both the First and Second French Republics offer a no less presentable picture.

We can also look in the direction of how the republics of the former USSR transformed in the first decade after its dissolution. With the exception of the three small Baltic countries, which received an institutional European anchor, we see two variants: despotism born directly from the collapse of the communist project, and competitive oligarchy in several countries that were in the same state as Russia in the 90s—Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova. Here too, we observe unstable economies, weak law and order, corruption, party chaos, and so on.

What does this experience tell us about the now widespread perception that the first generation of 'reformers' went the wrong way, did something wrong because the 'right road' was nearby and they chose the wrong one? We will never be able to verify whether Russia had a different road during those years. However, historical analogies and the analytical repertoire we can apply tell us that if there was such a right path, finding it would have looked more like a beneficial anomaly rather than a rule and pattern. Moreover, what actually happened, if placed alongside other historical examples of the first ten years of new, 'republican' life in a country that had no prior experience, is generally more or less the norm norm and in some sense is not so bad.

Now, to why I believe that the popular mythology of the 'wrong 90s' is harmful in the liberal environment. Advocates of this idea talk about the sins of Yeltsin, Chubais, corruption, the communist past, how the ‘authorities’ betrayed democrats and democracy, and did everything wrong. Representatives of the new political generation, in particular, find this position very advantageous and correct. In this way, they distance themselves from the ‘failures’ of the 90s and promise that, unlike that attempt, the new one will be a direct and pleasant road to a bright future.

For a stable democracy, among other things, stable party politics is needed, which relies on two important elements. First, parties as organisations must be separated from individuals. This is what institutionalists call 'enduring' organisations: personalities come and go, but the organisation exists. Second, for stable party politics, continuity and tradition are essential. If a person votes Democrat, it probably means that he is in roughly the same social milieu as his parents, who also voted Democrat. And most of their parents' friends who came to their birthdays every year also voted Democrat. This traditional, stable behaviour of the core of the electorate is another characteristic of these 'enduring organisations', something that gives them longevity over time and independence from the personalities who lead them. These personalities come and go, but the main baggage of a party is the core of its electorate. 

What do we see in Russia? Here, there is no liberal tradition. There is no traditional liberal party. Each new generation of liberal politicians talks about the previous one, calling them fools and traitors, accusing them of deceiving us, while presenting themselves as honest and not being deceptive like them! But this is the exact opposite of the logic that underlies stable party structures — the logic of value-based solidarity.

What Russian politicians demonstrate in this regard is directly contrary to this. By distancing themselves from their predecessors, blaming them, they largely support the views and rhetoric of their opponents while simultaneously ‘personalising’ the value background. 'NN is the wrong Democrat who harms the democratic idea, and I am the right one because of this and that.' They fail to recognise that the people they are addressing are the same people who voted for Yeltsin and Gaidar thirty years ago, or the children of these people (the same party core). These are the same 15-20% of the Russian electorate oriented towards modernisation value paradigms. Both words and ideas were roughly the same back then. But now it turns out that it was not necessary to vote for those then. And now it turns out that they should not have voted for them, but they should vote for these new politicians and God only knows what will happen later on. The strategy of distancing themselves from the previous generation of reformers and the desire to create an ad hoc party structure each time is designed to expand their electoral influence, but in reality it only demobilises the electorate and undermines party politics in Russia.

The myth of the 'wild 90s' is one of the most important justifications for the legitimacy and lack of alternatives of 'Putinism'. It presents that era as an era of 'turmoil' and pointless destruction. In reality, it was an era of active creation and establishment of the institutions of republican Russia and its market economy. Many of these institutions were, as historians sometimes say, 'bastardised' or dysfunctional, which is more the norm for such founding epochs of revolutionary nation-building than an anomaly (see the previous section). Filling them with content and functionality is a matter for the next epochs and generations of politicians.

The myth of 'post-Putinism': then or now?

The fourth myth I would like to discuss is the myth that everything will start when Putin dies. This is a very popular idea today: everything is terribly bad now, but when Putin leaves, a window of opportunities will open. This may or may not be true. Perhaps Putin's departure, on the contrary, will be a very convenient way out for the regime to free itself from the burden it carries, from the weight of mistakes and temporary fatigue, preserving 'Putinism without Putin' (as political scientist Nikita Savin has put it). 

Many people like to speculate about 'Putin's doppelgangers,' referring to people who look like Putin but are not him. However, we can also talk about other 'Putin look-alikes' who may look completely different, but are essentially just like Putin. It is believed that the weakness of a personalist autocracy is the absence of mechanisms for succession and transition of power. This is partly true, but a close look at personalist regimes suggests that personalism is not about the individual but an institution, and it can be quite easily reproduced in the appropriate institutional environment. It is therefore necessary to adjust our perspective when approaching this issue.

In some sense, it is exactly the opposite: the period leading up to Putin's departure is the most optimal for the Russian opposition. During this time, they are dealing with a 'lame duck', a personalist regime in decline — a regime that has accumulated significant mistakes related to the personality of the dictator, is waging a not very popular (or rather unpopular) war, and so on. The opposition is dealing with fatigue focused on the old dictator. It is at this point that the opposition needs to formulate an alternative, a convincing replacement, without waiting for the dictator's funeral as some sort of bright day that will open a door or window leading directly to the ‘beautiful Russia of the future’, bypassing all intermediate stages.

In some sense, the ‘post-Putin’ era has already begun—in terms of the struggle for this legacy. And when Putin is gone one way or another, there will be a fierce competition for what will replace him. By that time 'anti-Putinism' must be present in the national consciousness — as one of the cards that will take part in this competitive game.

This is an outline of Kirill Rogov's report at the 'Country and the World: Russian Realities — 2023' conference organised by the 'Country and the World' media project. You can listen to all the reports from the conference here. The abstracts of all the reports will be published on the ‘Country and the World — Sakharov Journal’ website.