When It Comes to Russia, We Told You So
I started my blog, La Russophobe, in the spring of 2006, just as folks had begun asking questions about Vladimir Putin's future. His second term was winding down, and one school of thought was that Putin would stay in power forever and take Russia back to the neo-Soviet future. Another was that he would reveal himself as a great statesman, a transitional figure to democracy, and would step away from power so that a more liberal successor could begin to push Russia toward Western Europe. I started my blog to speak out loud and long in favor of the former position, warning the world about the neo-Soviet revanchism I believed was coming. The facts are now absolutely beyond dispute. It's time for my side to say: We told you so.
We've begun doing that. Writing in Foreign Policy earlier this month, Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute led the charge with a piece which chronicled "Russia's quest to rebuild the Soviet state." It's a devastating read for those who loudly proclaimed that Russia could "never go back" to the dark days Soviet repression. If I were they, I'd want to crawl into an equally dark little hole someplace and, Saddam-like, never emerge. It's time the world began calling them to account for their misjudgments (at best) and their lies.
Aron highlights aggressive neo-Soviet Russian foreign policy, including the determined support for dictatorship and terrorism in the Middle East and the export of nuclear technology and weapons throughout the Third World. Russia is hell-bent on achieving the same regional hegemony that it enjoyed in Soviet times, and is spending vast sums on expanding its military capacity while ignoring critical support for its anemic population. And Russia aggressively portrays itself as a "besieged fortress" to its citizens, justifying these neo-Soviet policies through the same type of paranoia and xenophobia that Soviet propagandists relied on.
As early as 2008, two different books were published by Russia correspondents warning the world that a "new cold war" was in the offing with Russia, based on their observations on the ground in Putin's dictatorship. The world had plenty of warnings about what was coming, but it did not pay sufficient heed. It gave Putin years of precious time to consolidate his malignant rule unfettered.
Three million people visited my blog before Putin announced his formal return to power. It should have been thirty million, or three hundred. Maybe then the announcement would not have come.
Today, you don't really need an eloquent scholarly or journalistic disquisition to understand what is happening in Putin's Russia. Just look at the facts. There are so many of them, and they come so fast and furious as to make your head spin. It's actually getting pretty easy to argue that, on many fronts at least, Russian dictatorship is worse now than it was in Soviet times. Then, as now, what the Kremlin is doing to its own people is even worse that what it is doing to those outside Russia.
Russia is again ruled by an arbitrary, insular, murderous, yet often almost comical dictator for life, just like Leonid Brezhnev and his ilk. Except that at no point during the Soviet dictatorship did a proud KGB spy like Vladimir Putin ever get handed so much power for so long. Even in Soviet times, it was understood how dangerous that would be.
The evidence shows that Russia's last parliamentary election was rigged shamelessly, just as in Soviet times. But that doesn't mean that a free election would result in positive change for Russia. Had the election not been rigged, the evidence shows that the Communist Party would have won a landslide victory and now hold Russia's purse strings. So now, we can no longer believe that Russian people are as much victims of their government as we are. Now, we must confront the reality that they are collaborators.
What's more, the Kremlin is aggressively and with impunity purging from parliament any member who shows even the slightest reluctance to rubber-stamp its initiatives. One member, after being ousted from his party for criticizing the Kremlin, was recently accused of treason and threatened with arrest just for visiting the United States. And local politicians like governors and mayors are coming in for the same treatment. The most outspoken governor just had his offices raided by masked goons in clear signal that he must not challenge Putin.
Russia is shamelessly conducting a show trial of attorney Sergei Magnitsky that is in no way different from the kind they carried out in Soviet times, except that not even the USSR was bold enough to use a corpse for a defendant, as it is now doing in Magnitsky's case.
Russia is reviving the obscene Soviet system known as the "propiska," which prohibits a Russian from moving from one city to another without the Kremlin's permission and allows Russian police to stop any person at any time and demand his papers, arresting him if he lacks proper documentation. Except that now, again, the evidence shows that the people of Russia support this move.
Russia is conducting "meticulously staged" public demonstrations of support for the regime, in which those who appear to demonstrate have been paid a hefty salary by the Kremlin to do so. That regime controls every single second of national broadcast television, from which the vast majority of Russians get most of their news, and it has no trouble selling these sham demonstrations as real to a nation of lemmings. Through TV, the Kremlin routinely lies to the Russian public, giving them an entirely different worldview from that of people who are actually informed.
Russia is aggressively reviving the Soviet system of "education," which is better known as indoctrination. This includes homogenized history texts for kids that are nothing more than propaganda. The country is increasingly divided between "net citizens" who have access to the internet and "TV citizens" who don't. The latter increasingly exist in a world of their own, just like Soviet citizens always did, cut off from real information from cradle to grave.
And the Kremlin is engaged in open warfare against its netizens. Russia is in the midst of a furious crackdown on the internet. It is authorizing the KGB to eavesdrop on Skype conversations without a warrant. It is banning websites outright, including even YouTube and social networking sites. Sometimes the results are hilarious, as when the Kremlin recently banned itself. But most of the time they are terrifying; netizens like the three artists from the Pussy Riot collective have ended up behind bars for extended periods.
An anecdote sums up the state of affairs in Putin's Russia tellingly.
Pavel Astakhov is the "Children's Ombudsman" under Putin, a fire-breathing nationalist who has led the charge to ban Americans from adopting Russian babies, branding us as a nation of bloodthirsty child-killers. The consequences for American families' hearts and pocketbooks are devastating. His vicious propaganda campaign cares little for facts: on Twitter, for example, he falsely accused the adoptive parents of Max Shatto of murdering their Russian child.
But tireless Russian bloggers recently outed Astakhov. He's spent considerable time living in the USA and once called it his "second motherland." When his wife needed to give birth, he fled Russia for the French Riviera, believing Russia unsafe for such purposes. But Russians, the majority of the country, who have no internet access, know nothing about this, since Russian TV did not report it. This left Astakhov so sure of his position that he wrote an open letter to a leading opposition radio station and actually taunted its operators.
He stated that he and Putin had "discussed everything about the blog posts and Twitter hubbub over my words, my life and my interests. And we had a good laugh."
Putin is now legally entitled to remain in the Kremlin until 2024, meaning he'll have held power for almost 25 years (including the four years during which his figurehead president Dmitri Medvedev pretended to rule and Putin's year as prime minister under Yeltsin). Brezhnev maintained his grip on power for only 18 years, a feeble effort compared to Putin. As such, Putin believes he can act with absolute impunity.
And who is to say he's wrong? Russia's weak opposition movement has disappeared completely in the face of determined pressure from Putin, and world leaders like Barack Obama remain disturbingly silent in the face of Putin's revanchism. Silent, that is, or worse.
The world just learned, for example, what Obama meant when he whispered to Medvedev about his ability to be more flexible with Putin after the election. He has just announced the unilateral withdrawal of a key element of the missile defense plan for Eastern Europe, giving Russia a concession without demanding anything in return.
A good neo-Soviet laugh, indeed.