Russia, Again and Again
Bluster and Bust
“Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”
-- Winston S. Churchill
Every nation has upheavals of historic magnitude: China, Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States.
Russia is distinctive because it so rarely has lasting periods of peace, prosperity, and purpose befitting a great state of vast natural and human resources expanding across eleven time zones.
There are almost as many explanations as there are historians and pundits eager to provide answers.
One reason, which makes sense to me, is the confusion of identities and cultural affinities. In tsarist times – read War and Peace – elites adhered to all things French and fought war with Napoleon for territorial dominance. Marxism was devised by Karl Marx, a German Jew now buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery. We called it “Russia,” but it was made up of Nordics in the Baltics, Muslims in Central Asia, and roughriders in the Caucasus. Joseph Stalin was a Georgian. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were born in today’s Ukraine.
This was all fashioned into ideologies and practice that favored autocracy whatever else it was called in its heyday.
An exhausted and visibly relieved Boris Yeltsin told me in 2000 (at his dacha outside Moscow) that he chose Vladimir Putin as his successor in office because among all the contenders, he was the one who would be best able to stabilize Russia and he was, in Yeltsin’s view, tough. And for more than two decades, that was essentially the case.
An array of disparate cultures with national borders that had shifted over the centuries endured as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until 1991 with military power and propaganda bluster until it all went bust, still bolstered by a nuclear arsenal and the global wariness of traditional Russian bullying.
The Eastern European satellites in the abandoned Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet republics have now had more than thirty years to redefine themselves from Estonia and Poland, now in NATO and the European Union, to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan once and forever Central Asian in style and tradition.
Vladimir Putin believed that because Ukraine had a companion language, religious orthodoxy, and shared history with Russia that it was his to capture, as a means of restoring Kremlin glory. So far, not only has that not happened, it has made Ukrainian nationalism a wonder to behold.
Russia’s own foray into democratic capitalism in the 1990s was a chaotic mess of corruption, commercialism, and enough staggering excess to create an oligarchical class with billions to spend and a notable lack of commitment to a long-term and broader society of values. Oligarchs have turned up dead, in exile, in the gulag and in one case as a member of Britain’s House of Lords.
So, what now for Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Leadership has come down to Putin without any meaningful political infrastructure, relying on cronies and thugs like Yevgeny Prigozhin, who emptied prisons for cannon fodder and deployed rhetoric of bloody invective. For now, Putin and Prigozhin appear to be bulldogs back under Churchll’s rug, the future unclear.
Russian speakers here have noted that the dialogue between Belarus’s boss Lukashenko and Putin features discussion of whether to — using the Russian verb for “whack” — Prighozin and his warriors.
The instinct to compare Xi Jinping’s China to modern Russia is absurd. Aside from the nuclear threat and its supply of oil and gas to willing customers, there is little of interest for the world left in Russia. China by any measure has the economic reach and ambition to render Russia an international outlier on anything that matters aside from annihilation of the human race. Chanel, Rolls-Royce, and others elite brands have pulled out, as has McDonald’s.
The historical record of the past century suggests more flailing in Russia to come, in search of an identity. If and when Putin finally goes – the brilliant satirical movie The Death of Stalin is a plausible scenario -- what will replace him? Can even the most astute Russia expert posit a political transition that would be worth the trouble of predicting in any detail?
There has never been a succession in Russia’s modern age that was not precipitated by ouster, death, or charade (as when Putin turned over the presidency to a stooge, Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012), except for Putin’s own ascendency, which was arranged in the Kremlin.
Russia’s magnificent literary heritage – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gorky, Chekhov, et al. – would seems to be a possible guide for the outcome, but it emerged in a country that reckoned with its soul in writing, a quality lost in the years when Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Brodsky were considered enough of a threat to be punished.
Whatever the future for Russia it is of major consequence. The Bolsheviks were a model; remember the journalist Lincoln Steffens’s infamous assessment, “I have seen the future, and it works” in 1919. There were moments of terror, the nuclear missile crisis of 1962 in particular. And now a land war in Russia’s historic sphere of influence, for which no end is yet foreseen.
Again and again, Russia suffers from its battle within.
I have been reading Paul Goldberg’s new novelThe Dissident which The Washington Post called “imaginative” (paywall). Born in Russia, educated at Duke, and now living in Washington, D.C., Goldberg has also written two books about the dissident movement in the 1970s and 1980s, a topic of particular interest to me as well. (My book Would You Believe…the Helsinki Accords Changed the World? is about the role the dissidents played in the origins of the global human rights movement.) What I liked about the novel is Goldberg’s knowledgeable description of the cockeyed blend of menace and exaltation felt by Russians in the 1970s willing to challenge, one way or another, the mighty Soviet colossus.
Platform Books LLC our website has been updated (platformbooksllc.net) adding links and new material. There is also a way to buy and read our books through IndiePubs and here; https://indiepubs.com/search/?q=Platform%20Books%2C%20LLC.