The Politics of Cynicism

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It is a commonplace, at least in the West, that the current regime in Russia is authoritarian, if not totalitarian. A line can be drawn—with caveats about scale and severity—from Putin straight back to Stalin, while others can be drawn sideways from Putin to the dictators he has befriended and supported: Assad, Qaddafi, Chavez, and Saddam Hussein. (If nothing else, Putin seems to have an oddly consistent and unlucky way of choosing his friends.) The recent protests against him only confirm the neatness of this symmetry.

We think we know what authoritarianism is and why it survives, but our notions about it have not changed much since the 18th century, when Montesquieu contrasted the capricious rule of a despot, who holds power through fear, with the bounded governance of a monarch, held in check by law. In our political language, monarchy has evolved into democracy, but despotism remains despotism (or authoritarianism). In comparison to monarchies and democracies, each in their own time, despotism has always seemed archaic. The gleaming military uniforms, Tolkienesque titles, and Orientalized imperial paraphernalia of modern dictators like Idi Amin, Pinochet, and Qaddafi evoke the 19th century; leaders who are truly modern are supposed to wear self-effacing suits.

If authoritarianism is a relic of a pre-democratic age, Putinism, like the late regime of Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi, is not authoritarian. Regimes that see themselves as successors to democracy are not rare—fascists and communists were equally convinced that liberal democracy belonged in the dustbin of history. The difference is that Putinism is partly right in seeing itself as post-democratic, which is why the problems it poses are so vexing. It represents one answer to a set of contradictions that exist not just in Russian democracy but also in contemporary democracy in general.

These contradictions are well known in the United States and Western Europe, on the right as well as on the left. One of them is that while democratic discourse constantly represents the electoral process as a canvassing of the will of the people, in reality political and media institutions police the field of acceptable alternatives so strictly that the choices that can be made are rudimentary at best. Moreover, the participation of multinational elites and large-scale capital flows in the political process means that individual electorates are always pitted against forces much larger than they are, as the Eurozone crisis most recently has shown. The old American conservative fear of international institutions like the United Nations reflects a similar worry. The premise of 19th-century liberal democracy, which envisioned national communities as largely self-enclosed and politics as localized debates on the common good, becomes less tenable with each passing year.

Democracy arrived in Russia with many of these contradictions already exposed. It had long been a staple of Soviet propaganda that American democracy was a mockery controlled by finance-capital puppet masters and served by a craven media, whose business it was to play down racial, economic, and gender inequalities. Soviet ideologists, like Soviet citizens more generally, knew little about real life in the West, but they closely followed the struggles of Western leftists who were making similar arguments. Ordinary Soviet people were not usually skeptical of such claims: to believe in the decrepitude of the Soviet system or the wonders of the free market, as many did, did not demand allegiance to American-style politics. Up until the last months of the Soviet Union’s existence, most reformers (and supporters of reform) thought they were building a social democracy that abolished the unfree aspects of the Soviet system, not buckling to global capital.

The catastrophic 1990s—which Putin, for whom they are an ideological keystone, famously labeled “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”—put paid to this dream. For a long time the Soviet state had nurtured close-knit networks of local elites in its many different regional units, from Union republics to autonomous ethnic enclaves. After the collapse, these became powerful engines of decentralization: not only did they form the governments of the post-Soviet states, they also retained control in Russia of their own regions and even their own industries. Unchecked by any functional central authority (the government itself effectively being a Moscow-based clique), state and “private” interests coalesced into corrupt and unaccountable oligarchies that fought pitched battles in Moscow’s streets. Runaway inflation and fraud destroyed the savings of ordinary citizens, while a series of poor harvests, beginning in the late 1980s, created chronic food shortages. Assassinations of political and business leaders became routine, so that a political class governed by anything other than fear and greed never even had a chance to form.

It would be unfair to blame the abandonment of social-democratic dreams on the forces of global capital itself, but it is hard to deny that they took full advantage of the ensuing crisis. Neoliberal economists nurtured by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund arrived in Moscow in droves, promoting an agenda that the ruling clique adopted wholesale, quickly foreclosing any possible alternatives for the post-Soviet future. Given the weakness of the state and the impotence of public institutions, it was hard to imagine other outcomes after 1991; the “shock therapy” treatment supposedly ushered in by Yeltsin’s economic team was largely a contentless label for a state of chaos the central authorities were unable to do anything about anyway. Still, the involvement of the IMF and other Western financiers was significant for two reasons. First, they provided massive loans that were used to support a colossal and unsustainable system of government bonds that enriched the new oligarchy and then were made to disappear by the 1998 default, leading to an economic collapse that fell hardest on ordinary Russians. This was a wholly undeserved injection of funds that only expanded the gulf between the new rulers and the people they so obviously failed to govern. Second, these loans were contingent on lip service being paid to the Western economists and advisors who appeared like toadstools after the rain. Their influence was a constant, humiliating reminder that the Russians were not masters of their domain, creating resentment Putin capitalized on in the early years of the 21st century.

Although the Western advisors presented themselves as apostles of liberal democracy and civil society, their guiding role in economic policy helped ensure that Russian democracy would be hollow from the very beginning. In order to push through even nominal liberalization reforms, Yeltsin and his clique needed to thoroughly rig the political process.

Two simultaneous crises made this feat of engineering both possible and necessary. The first was the need to keep at least a shred of control over the division of state-owned assets and somehow hold back the complete collapse of the economy. The second was that the first Russian parliament had no interest in the politics that were expected of it. Its unwillingness to cede power to President Yeltsin in 1992 and ’93 led to a constitutional crisis that culminated in the Duma being shelled into submission by army tanks. The parliamentary constitution of the early post-Soviet years was replaced by a presidential one. Even at its height, Yeltsin’s support in the Duma fell far short of a majority; the dominant players either had no coherent political vision at all (like the Liberal Democratic Party, a mouthpiece for inchoate nationalist populism that continues to control a large number of seats) or were structurally marginal (like the Communists). By the mid-’90s, the Russian political system had taken the shape that made Putinism possible. Yeltsin, with a hand-picked cadre of oligarchs and foreign economic advisors, made the real decisions, while a squabbling and impotent gaggle of parliamentarians filled the airwaves with noise that resembled the discourse of a real democracy.

The appearance of democracy was held up by an explosively growing media, largely controlled by the same oligarchs who were running the country. Western commentators frequently cite this period of ferment as a triumph for liberalism and rights in Russia, but they neglect to mention that the media’s ability to catalyze bottom-up change was as circumscribed then as it is now. In short, Russian democracy became a caricature of the caricature once drawn by Soviet propagandists: it was a pseudo-politics serving only to conceal the controlling hand of moneyed interests. Unlike in Western democracies, however, in Russia everyone was aware of the deception. Yeltsin’s erratic behavior, incompetence, and alcoholism could not have been concealed by the shrewdest public relations team, yet it was clear that no other politician or bloc could exert any sort of countervailing force.

One of the most influential and representative texts of the period, which last year was made into a star-studded blockbuster movie, was Viktor Pelevin’s novel Generation ‘P’ (1999), set in Moscow during the Yeltsin era. At its climax, the protagonist Tatarsky, an advertising copywriter, is invited into the basement of the mysterious Apiculture Institute. There he discovers a room full of SGI workstations busily engaged in the business of Russian democracy. The politicians, he learns, are digital models that exist only on television, and the news programs on which they appear are edited according to the whims of corporate sponsors. The entire political system, including Yeltsin himself, is the creation of a figure whom Pelevin clearly intends to represent the media-capitalist unconscious. Political participation, needless to say, is revealed to be senseless.

Pelevin’s satire of post-Soviet Russia spoke most directly to intellectuals, who felt increasingly adrift in a world that appeared incomprehensible and even absurd. (The Tatarsky character is a university graduate with a degree in “translation from the national languages of the USSR.”) But Pelevin’s sentiments were also shared more broadly, by a population that had become even more cynical than it was under the Soviet system in the 1980s. Then, there still appeared to be a consensus around Soviet values (social justice, equality, and peace) even though the Soviet order was no longer functional. By the late 1990s, as data from opinion polls shows, the very idea of liberal democracy had been delegitimized. (In one of Generation ‘P’’s most striking moments, a character decodes the Russian equivalent of moolah, le-ve, as an abbreviation for “liberal values.”) Public speech that made any value claim at all was automatically assumed to be hypocrisy in the service of self-interest, as in fact it usually was. Russia on the eve of Putin was a democracy in which any discussion of the public good was automatically foreclosed, and without the mystification provided by democratic history and tradition, the new system’s lifespan seemed likely to be brief.

Putin’s rise to power, like Hitler’s, is often framed in terms of an exhausted population opting for stability over freedom, but Putin’s ideological appeal was distinct. Unlike most dictatorial regimes, which typically rely on the rhetoric of nation and tradition, Putinism appealed directly to cynicism. It promised Russians a quasi-democracy that combined a totally neutered political sphere (expertly stage-managed by chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov) with a theoretically rigid central “vertical of power.” The substance of the appeal was not the preservation of democratic institutions but their increasing irrelevance. Everyone knew the score, and it was by virtue of knowing the score that one became a supporter of the regime. The liberals who were singled out for harassment by one or another branch of the apparatus never had any significant degree of influence within Russia because their earnestness was viewed as a mark of either stupidity or treason. By 2003, four-fifths of Russians agreed with the statement, “Democratic procedures are pure show business.” In an American context, these words would sound like an angry call for reform. In Putin’s Russia, they were a pledge of allegiance.

Putin was most appealing, of course, to his principal clients: the new state-private-criminal oligarchies that took power all over Russia in the 1990s. Publicly, the systemic reconfiguration that took place in the early 2000s was represented as “suppressing the oligarchs,” a narrative the Western media echoed as it breathlessly reported on the expropriation of magnates such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In reality, the political veneer of “sovereign democracy” provided the oligarchies with a shred of legitimacy while making it understood that the rules of the game had not changed at all. The most glaring example of this new contract was the case of Chechnya. In the 1990s, the Islamist-dominated Caucasian republic defeated its former imperial master in a war of independence. When Putin fought to reclaim it, he essentially offered one of the more prominent rebel leaders a deal: practically unrestricted power within Chechnya as long as the republic formally remained part of Russia. The gamble paid off: in last year’s elections, the Chechen political machine delivered 99 percent of its votes to Russia’s ruling party.

This politics of cynicism was most apparent in foreign policy. The omnipresent reality of Russian foreign relations after 1991 was the ongoing, failing struggle against the United States. The expansion of NATO, the war in Kosovo, and eventually the Orange Revolution: Moscow perceived all of them as transparent attempts by Washington to extend itself into the former Soviet sphere of influence. This, in itself, was not offensive. Most Russians understood, however unwillingly, that they no longer had the authority to dictate terms in the region. What baffled and angered them was the United States’ unyielding insistence that it was no longer playing the old game of spheres of influence at all, that human rights and democracy were causes it was willing to defend at the risk of its own interests. Putin, freed from the obligation to grovel for IMF credits, gave voice to this frustration: his government, like his constituents, came to treat protestations of humanitarian or liberal-democratic innocence simply as a subversive evolution of cold war great power politics. In contemporary Russian parlance, this is the meaning of the term “soft power,” and its symbol is Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

It is easy to see, then, why allusions to State Department meddling were on the lips of every Putinist apparatchik both during and after the recent Moscow protests. A movement that used the language of democracy and liberal values unironically, without the demystifying caveat that it could be no more than a disguise for self-interested claims, was as much of a challenge to the Putinist regime as a mass movement founded on demystification would be to any contemporary Western democracy. During a protest in December, government-funded provocateurs posted a series of gotcha clips on YouTube. These consisted of interviews with ditzy-looking protesters, who were each posed the question, “How has Putin’s rise to power personally harmed you?” Their confused responses were presumably meant to demonstrate the unseriousness of the protest movement, but what these interviews really showed was the blinkered vision of the reigning ideology. It actually cannot imagine a protest movement grounded in something other than self-interest.

How did such a movement emerge in the first place? A number of more or less compelling explanations can be adduced. One revolves around the internet. As the Russian print and broadcast media was evacuated of any challenging content, political discussion gradually moved online. Ten years ago, only a tiny percentage of Russians could go online, and they were unlikely to cause any trouble. As internet access radically expanded, however, and the Russian LiveJournal–based blogosphere came into contact with the Russian diaspora, online dissent became more unified and much more difficult to control. (The government is currently implementing an online censorship bill that at long last seems to be a serious attempt to clamp down on internet activism, though its stated justification is protecting children from immorality.) Another explanation is purely Maslovian: a new middle class has emerged, and a large segment of the population can finally pay attention to more abstract needs than security and shelter. Corruption is of particular interest to this new social force, since it is a direct threat to its economic prospects.

At least as significant, however, is the fact that the government’s behavior diverged from its antipolitical line. While the four-year rigmarole with President Medvedev may have been intended as a play to a knowing crowd—and certainly Medvedev was not taken seriously at the beginning of his term—by 2009 significant numbers of Russians had been persuaded to buy into the new president’s program of reform and modernization. Many Russians began to become aware of the possibilities of idealistic collective action.  They organized local groups to fight developers, corrupt officials, and deficiencies in public services. At first, the aspirations of these activists were limited, but it could not have been long before they awoke to the fact that corruption was not simply an incidental part of the Putinist system.

This faction possibly even included Medvedev himself. It seemed as though the authorities not only had discovered Russia’s urgent problems but also had become willing to solve them through the political process. They began to speak the suspect language of “civil society” and “rule of law,” although always in adequately controlled contexts. (A Russian newspaper recently released a file of leaked government notes on the Public Chamber, one of the foremost civil society groups that emerged in the High Medvedev period. These notes make it clear that almost every single member was a paid and protected stooge of the government; the new civil society, in other words, was neither organic nor spontaneous.) This turn was so at odds with the self-interested tunnel vision long encouraged by official ideology that it looked like a credible threat. By the time Putin put a humiliating end to the charade on the eve of the presidential campaign, the number of people who were willing to take up the government on its offer of political participation was no longer negligible. The democratic movement, in short, was as much or more the product of internal government intrigues than of any putative CIA front organization.

Moreover, it was crucial that the government did not move immediately to suppress marches and protests, neither the early ones, in 2009 and 2010, nor the much larger demonstrations that took place between the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012. Throughout the Putin era, gay-rights marchers and members of Garry Kasparov’s rump opposition movement could never count on the right to assembly; the police broke up their demonstrations even when the participants numbered in the single digits. The new democratic movement associated with Aleksei Navalny, who is not a radical but a centrist nationalist, encountered just enough difficulties that organizing a march felt like a moral victory; it never dealt with the level of resistance that would have blocked it completely. Police violence and legal reprisals were rare enough that each new march emboldened new waves of supporters. While the state media relentlessly downplayed the scale of these events, there was never a serious effort to suppress them.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the government’s goal was to demonstrate how unthreatened it was by the popular opposition (and to show itself in a favorable light on the eve of Russia’s admission to the WTO, which is now in its final stages). Putin’s resounding election victory and subsequent gloating amid a pro-government crowd sent a clear message. The years of High Putinism, with its superficial adherence to democratic institutions and ideals and controlled space for public engagement, were over. Putin, evidently more frightened than he cared to admit, had become a classic authoritarian president-for-life, more Assad than Berlusconi.

Protests at Putin’s inauguration in May, and at every subsequent march, were met by ruthless beatings and indiscriminate arrests. These early confrontations with the Moscow police were accompanied by observations, on both sides, that protest suppression in the West is considerably harsher. There is more truth to this than most of us would like to admit. The Moscow police, for all their brutality, have generally preferred familiar weapons, nightsticks and mobile detention vans (avtozaki), to kettling, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons.

In response, the opposition changed its tactics. After the inauguration protests were suppressed, an occupation formed in a Moscow park around a statue of the Kazakh national poet Abai Kunanbaev. Its name, ОккупайАбай, unapologetically rhymed Abai’s name with a direct transliteration of Occupy. At the encampment, activists who had participated in the American Occupy movement taught the Russian protesters how to organize general assemblies and express their opinions on resolutions. Taking its cues from Western authorities, the Moscow police dispersed OkkupaiAbai within a few days. United Russia has since pushed through a law imposing massive penalties for participation in “unsanctioned demonstrations.”

There is much common ground between Western Occupy activists and the Russian protesters. The oligarchical elites that benefit most from Putinism have little faith in the future of a country they themselves are responsible for pillaging, so they usually end up moving their money, families, and property to Europe, and often Britain. There they form part of the network of international elites that is responsible for the corporatization of politics that Occupy opposes. The Russian oligarchs, even less accountable and bound by convention than the indigenous ruling class, have had a uniquely radicalizing effect on the culture of the elite.

Meanwhile, the growing tactical and ideological solidarity between the Russian protesters and Occupy seems to be paralleled by a shared sense of hopelessness. Where does the protest movement go from here? Where is the chink in the armor of the regime? Occupy has struggled to answer these questions ever since its encampments began to be dismantled; with the once-unifying call for fair elections no longer a going concern, Russian activists are beginning to do the same.

Sympathetic discussions of Occupy have often suggested that escalating state violence in suppressing protests is effectively an admission that the state cannot defend itself in other ways. In response, protesters have begun to focus on defending their rights of assembly and expression, and showcased police violations. In the West, this strategy has had mixed success; in Russia it threatens to be fatal. Putinism (and its predecessors) severely damaged any political strategy based on abstract claims of rights. Even without electoral manipulation, Putin’s cynical politics would have won a majority of the vote. In the eyes of this half of the population, nothing will succeed like success, and nothing bespeaks failure like Western liberal arguments based on checking the tyranny of the majority.

What remains is what Navalny and his crew are already doing with renewed strength, exposing the commonplace rot that is so integral to the Putin regime: misappropriation of government contracts, extortion, theft. Realistically, revealing the machine’s worst excesses is unlikely to collapse it, even if the legal system works well enough to punish well-connected offenders. In fact, Navalny’s meliorism may even strengthen the regime in the long run by resolving the most urgent symptoms of its failure to govern.

The best that can be expected is that, like Occupy, the Russian protest movement will become an enduring and inspiring symbol of the possibilities of collective action. The large-scale volunteer effort to mitigate the effects of catastrophic flooding in the southern town of Krymsk have already shown how the movement’s spirit might permeate Russian society. By highlighting the authorities’ inability to deal with the summer catastrophes that have become annual events in Russia, the volunteers are not just poking the regime in the eye but are also drawing on the profound moral authority accorded to volunteerism in Russian culture. It would be hard to choose a better strategy for building popular consensus.

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