Understanding Russia

10 07 2022

Understanding how things got to this point — with a full-scale war waged on a country of 45 million and threats of nuclear escalation toward a possible third world war — requires understanding how Russia got to this point. This post aims to introduce a short set of recent readings that help us understand Russian attitudes today and their deeper history.

State propaganda

Perhaps the best place to start is with a flavor of the state propaganda machine. Julia Davis’s “Putin’s Stooges: He May Nuke Us All, But We Are Ready to Die” (Daily Beast, April 28) captures many of the dominant voices in Russian state media articulating the message the Kremlin intended for its audience of 145 million part-way through the current invasion. A few quotes should be sufficient to give the flavor here (in case the article is paywalled for you):

“World War III, no longer just a special operation, with 40 countries against us. They declared a war.” (Olga Skabeeva, host, 60 Minutes)

“The representatives of those 40 different countries are today’s collective Hitler.” (Mikhail Markelov, 60 Minutes)

“Personally, I think that the most realistic way is the way of World War III, based on knowing us and our leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, knowing how everything works around here, it’s impossible—there is no chance—that we will give up” [. . .] “That everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.” (RT director Margarita Simonyan, on The Evening with Vladimir Solovyov)

“But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” (Solovyov responding to Simonyan)

“If we decide to strike the U.K., we should rather decide to strike the United States… Final decisions are being made not in London, but in Washington. If we want to hit the real center of the West, then we need to strike Washington.” (Andrey Sidorov, deputy dean of world politics at Moscow State University, same TV program) 

And it goes on. For instance, with Solovyov asking Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova “How far is the West ready to go?” and Zakharova answering, “They’ll go as far as they’re allowed to. If they aren’t stopped, they will go all the way.”

The crescendos and decrescendos of Russian state media have largely followed the Kremlin’s wartime requirements, but the main tropes here — that it’s “the West” that attacked “us” (Russians), that Ukrainians are mere pawns whose leaders are also “attacking us” (mostly because they hate us), and so on — are recurrent.

It’s important to keep in mind that independent media voices have existed all along, but that they have been squelched and largely eliminated since the full-scale invasion began (with Dozhd‘, Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta, and Meduza all blocked or shut down, and real journalism in complete crisis).

And also that Russians are not unanimously trusting of their state media. Svetlana Erpyleva, in “Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine?” (Open Democracy, April 16, 2022) provides a helpful and detailed empirical analysis of Russian views on the war (from back in April). And while it’s interesting in that it shows multiple perspectives on the Russian propaganda machine — some more autonomous than others — it also reveals little capacity to think completely independently of that machine. The fact that some Russians continue getting news from the internet (even with Facebook’s and Twitter’s formal banning by the state) has not, however, resulted in those users being better informed. As the authors put it,

For some supporters of the war – or those who are dissatisfied with what is happening, but declare their support for the “special operation” – it’s an overabundance of information that becomes a problem rather than a lack of it. (emphasis added)

The other thing worth keeping in mind, as a follow-up to Davis’s piece, is that it’s not true that Vladimir Putin “never backs down” and that therefore nuclear confrontation is somehow inevitable if the West persists in supporting Ukraine. As Maria Snegovaya and Brian Whitmore show in a piece of that title, “Vladimir Putin Often Backs Down” (Foreign Policy, July 8, 2022). “Sometimes,” they conclude, “a cornered rat is just a cornered rat. And when faced with a superior and committed adversary, it will simply scurry away.”

And there is of course the minority of Russians, mostly urban “liberal intellectuals,” who do not support Putin’s regime (whose number is sometimes estimated at 15% or so, though these days that is likely an overcount). Many of them, as articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere have shown, have left the country, but many have remained. Artem Magun’s “Guilt and Humanism” (The Philosophical Salon, March 21, 2022) aims to provide a bit of an accounting of the moral acrobatics involved in understanding anti-Putin intellectuals, but it’s little comfort to those of us on the outside. (More on the guilt and shame of Russian intellectuals within the “besieged fortress” of Putinist Russia here.)

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Longer-term trajectories

So what are the longer-term trajectories that have led up to the shrill neo-imperialist nationalism so prominent in Russia today?

Joy Neumeyer’s “The Discontent of Russia” (Aeon, July 5) provides a longer, in-depth read on the persistence of Russian nationalism through the Soviet period, and especially since the 1970s. The article is rich with insightful observations about popular and literary culture — for instance, on the “village prose” literary movement, whose authors “framed village-dwellers as authentic bearers of tradition, in an elegiac key equivalent to foreign contemporaries such as Wendell Berry in the United States or the Irish writer John McGahern”; on anti-Western and anti-Semitic Soviet apparatchiks like October editor Vsevolod Kochetov and publishing houses like Young Guard (Molodaya Gvardiia); and on nationalists and Slavophiles of sundry stripes.

The dominant tenor of nationalism discussed in the piece, however, is the sense of Russian victimization. Neumeyer takes writer, actor, and filmmaker Vasily Shukshin as exemplary of this trend:

Shukshin’s allegory of emasculation and deracination [in his final film, Kalina Krasnaya/The Red Snowball Tree, 1974] reflected his darkening outlook: in private remarks, he lamented the poor and depopulated state of Russia’s countryside, noting that most of his male relatives were alcoholics or in jail. ‘There’s trouble in Rus’, great trouble,’ he wrote in his notebook. ‘I feel it in my heart.’

By the end of his life (he died of a heart attack soon after that film), Shukshin had apparently read the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and come to believe there was a “genocide” being waged against the Russian people.

The article continues by tracing the Russian nationalist and victimization narrative through the Yeltsin years, when “visions of national disempowerment and revenge gained more traction in Russian popular culture.” In Aleksei Barabanov’s popular action-hero blockbuster Brother 2 (Brat, 2000), sequel to a 1997 film about a young, provincial veteran from Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya, the hero, Danila,

travels to the US to rescue the victims of an evil empire run by American businessmen in cahoots with Chicago’s Ukrainian mafia and ‘new Russians’ in Moscow. Stereotyped Others embody the threats facing the Russian people; in Chicago, he meets a sex worker named Dasha who is controlled by an abusive Black pimp. In the climactic scene, Danila takes revenge by committing a mass shooting at a nightclub in the city’s Ukrainian district. Moral righteousness is clearly on his side: Danila declares his love for the motherland and repeats Second World War-era slogans such as ‘Russians in war don’t abandon their own.’ At the end, he and Dasha drink vodka on a flight back home as the song ‘Goodbye, America’ (sung by a children’s choir) plays in the background. Brother 2 was released in 2000, the year that Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency.

There are clear parallels here with the Rambo movies and the role their imagery has played in American nationalism from Reagan to Trump. The parallels don’t stop with the patriotic tropes and the hero figures (substitute the war in Chechnya for the Vietnam War, et al.); they’re also there in the subversive-countercultural bravado these tropes arguably masquerade as. As David Gillespie notes,

Both Brother films (1997 and 2000) show how the Chechen killing fields forge the perfect hitman in the shape of Danila Bagrov, who metes out justice dispassionately and efficiently in St Petersburg, Moscow and the United States. At heart, though, Danila remains a decent Russian boy who loves his mother and brother, and diligently protects the weak.

These fantasies of wounded national pride, as Yana Hashamova calls them in a 2007 article on Balabanov’s Russian heroes, can play a profound role in rearranging people’s affective preparedness for certain events — like war.

What Neumeyer’s piece doesn’t really show are the depths to which Russian nationalism has now permeated Russian society. In this respect, Anatoly Karlin’s “Russia’s Nationalist Turn: How Putin Created the Russian National State” makes for sobering reading, no less because Karlin is a “white Russian nationalist” and Alt-Right supporter who is clearly celebrating much of what he is describing (which makes assessing the piece a little tricky; read him with several grains of salt).

The article recounts the many ways in which Russian nationalism has been “normalized” and encoded into every level of Russian society, institutional as well as popular. It’s a long piece, but the litany of paragraphs beginning with the phrase “Russia today is a country where…” provide plenty of empirical details to make his case that “the Putin administration in the first half of its third term has adopted the core Russian nationalist program nearly wholesale and embarked on its practical implementation”:

just as the First Age of Putinism in the 2000s was marked by unideological technocracy, and its Second Age during the 2010s was defined by conservative retrenchment, so I believe that the Third Age, the 2020s, will be defined by the political ascent of ethno-aware (as distinct from ethno-nationalist) Russian nationalism.

There are other good recent analyses of the kind of imperialist-nationalism we see in Russia today, some of them dating from before the full-scale invasion. Taras Kuzio’s “The Nationalism in Putin’s Russia that Scholars Could Not Find But Which Invaded Ukraine” (Ideology Theory Practice, April 4) is excellent and puts Putin’s anti-Ukrainianism in clear visibility. I’ve covered some of the ethno-political dimensions of the conflict before on this blog, as well as the “intellectual sources” of Putin’s thinking. Marlene Laruelle’s “The Intellectual Origins of Putin’s Invasion” (UnHerd, March 16), Timothy Snyder’s “Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s Philosopher of Russian Fascism” (New York Review of Books, March 16, 2018), and William Zollinger Fujii’s “The Ideas Behind Putin’s War in Ukraine” (E-International Relations, June 5) are all informative readings on this (but see Paul Robinson’s rejoinder to some of their arguments here).

In the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s “Russia’s War on Ukraine” series, Alexander Panchenko perceptively links the late Soviet period’s “religious revival” with the growth of anti-modernist, post-Soviet conspiracy theories like the Dulles Plan, which might be taken as a contemporary, slightly less anti-Semitic updating of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Panchenko writes at greater length about these trends here.) He describes the Dulles Plan as

“a conspiratorial forgery widely publicized in Russian since 1992 [which] told, for example, about the secret postwar politics of the United States toward the Soviet Union, allegedly aimed at disseminating “false values,” “vulgarization of national morality,” promotion of “the basest feelings,” drunkenness and drug addiction, nationalism, and ethnic hatred.”

But these kinds of analyses arguably look more at symptoms than at causes, at least to the more political-economically minded among us. So, reading a few political analyses of the 1990s is also helpful.

Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis, recently interviewed in Tribune, locates the source of Putin’s authoritarian nationalism in the moment in the early 1990s when radical market reforms were combined with Yeltsin’s “superpresidential” and, in his reading, authoritarian constitution of 1993. This enabled Putin’s eventual “amalgamation of neo-liberal practices and pro-market ideas with the spirit of the so-called patriotic opposition to this market transformation.”

From a rather different perspective, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s “Russia’s Road to Autocracy” (Journal of Democracy, August, 2021) provides much more detail on the ins and outs of political decision-making in the 1990s, and locates the roots of the problem in a series of unfortunate decisions made by Yeltsin (among others). Not least of them was the choice of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, and McFaul’s piece is good at highlighting the growth of authoritarianism as seeming solution to all of Putinist Russia’s ills.

To the question “Why—and why now?”, a question directed at increasing repression (the piece was published last August) rather than the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, McFaul suggests that Putin’s and United Russia’s falling approval ratings, especially among youth, and a kind of general exhaustion among Russians are contributing to the situation that calls for the quick and easy solution — identification of an external enemy. The invasion of Ukraine is a result of that, an effort to “rally” Russians “around the flag,” as it were (as Sarah Wilson Sokhey also recently argued), which may or may not have its intended effects.

Adam Tooze has also been good at analyzing the economic dynamics around Putinism’s petro-state status, and Kamil Galeev is worth following for his analyses of internal dynamics within Russia (such as this one).

There are, of course, various books that help us understand the development of Putinism into what it has become. If you have the time, you could start with these five, and these. Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible should be high on the list as it, deservedly, appears on both. David Lewis’s open-access 2020 book Russia’s New Authoritarinism: Putin and the Politics of Order and Marcel van Herpen’s 2013 Putinism: The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia are also worth reading. And there’s the Journal of Democracy‘s “What is Putinism?” issue of October, 2017.

Sinking Russian ship off the Ukrainian Black Sea coast

Conclusion: where to?

I haven’t talked about the future, which undoubtedly figures in the minds of decision-makers, or at least of the one whose views matter most here, V. V. Putin. As leader of a petro-state with imperial ambitions, he is no doubt aware that his future rests disproportionately on continued profits from resources like oil and gas, whose heyday is long past its expiry date. As Sophie Pinkham writes in her NYRB review of Thane Gustafson’s Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change (Harvard University Press, 2021):

Hydrocarbons are the source of [Russia’s] power, in every sense; decarbonization would require a reinvention of the whole political system. Russia has the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, outstripping even Saudi Arabia. In 2019, before the economic upheaval caused by Covid, oil accounted for 44 percent of all Russian export income. Oil and gas revenues together made up 56 percent of Russia’s income from exports, contributing 39 percent of the federal budget.

Pinkham captures some of the dilemma sitting at the Russian czar’s feet:

Russia is warming 2.5 times as fast as the world on average, and the Arctic is warming even faster. The cliché, avidly promoted by Moscow, is that the country will be a relative winner in climate change, benefiting from a melting and accessible Arctic shipping route, longer growing seasons, and the expansion of farmland into newly thawed areas. [Thane] Gustafson counters, with a dry but persuasive marshaling of facts, that in the redistribution of wealth and power that will result from climate change, Russia is doomed. After reading Klimat, Russia’s attack on Ukraine begins to look like the convulsion of a dying state.

The image of a convulsing “dying state” may satisfy those of us who want to see that death sooner rather than later. But death can be prolonged, and convulsions can be agonizing to watch, and more so to be affected by directly.

And while I haven’t read the book, based on reviews that have already appeared it seems safe to say that Russia’s future economic security is very far from assured by climate change (which Putin doesn’t exactly deny, but mostly ignores). Transitioning to renewables, or, for that matter, to other economic options like the tech industries, is difficult when your urban professionals, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs have packed their bags or are afraid to speak out (though money talks, and Russia’s IT strengths remain strong).

Pinkham writes,

If one views the Russo-Ukrainian war as a matter of energy politics, there are clear material as well as historical, political, and cultural reasons for Ukraine’s victimization. In March Gustafson told n+1 that Putin has long been “obsessed by Ukrainian gas,” making numerous unsuccessful attempts to gain control of the gas pipeline system that runs from Russia to Europe through Ukraine. In a chapter on the two countries in The Bridge, Gustafson called the Ukrainian-Russian gas relationship a “prolonged and difficult divorce.” In this sense, Gustafson said, Putin’s self-defeating behavior becomes “clinically understandable.”

The article recounts the historical “cycle of ‘conflict and collusion'” between Russia and Ukraine around natural gas, but it also delves into conflicts over food, with Ukraine’s natural gas reserves and its famed “black earth” playing a prominent role in the two cases (respectively). The war in Ukraine, then, is not just a war over historical fantasies; it is also a war over imagined futures. In both these respects, Russia displays the impulse we can expect to see in other places faced by economic uncertainty, and indeed by potential economic calamity: retrench, identify enemies, and fuel fantasies to consolidate your support base.

In comparing the Brother films with Rambo as two instances of nationalist resurgence (analogues of which can be found in other countries), I wish to suggest that Putinist Russia is not an isolated case of a country that has deviated from some international norm. The tropes of victimization and of a vigorous, militarized, hyper-masculine response to that victimization, can be found in many places. In this, Putinism finds its echoes around the world: in Trumpism, Orbanism, Bolsonarism, and shades of Modiism, Xiism, Brexitism, and so many others. All can be diagnosed as one type of response — an authoritarian, populist, illiberal response — to threats of economic insecurity that will be facing every country sooner or later, in an increasingly climate-traumatized world.

Putinism is in this sense not reducible to Russia. But with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has placed itself at the cutting edge of a form of twenty-first century fascist impulse — one that locates itself within a sense of national victimhood, and that responds to it through a desire to righteously, violently (if need be), and even messianically, overcome that victimhood.

In this sense, the case could be made that this is already a “world war” — one between democracy and fascist-leaning authoritarianism, or something like those two. (The terms need definition and qualification, to be sure.) It’s a war one finds within every nation-state — and therefore, for the most part, a cultural war, a war over “hearts and minds” aiming for hegemony. In Ukraine today, or really between Ukraine and Russia, it has erupted into a full-scale military war, which makes Ukraine somewhat unique, for the moment. (And it’s necessary to always remember that Ukraine is in no way immune from the same authoritarian-fascist impulses that drive Putinism, Trumpism, and the like.)

In a world in which struggles over resources and land — as these are taken away or altered by climate change — will intensify (as I argued here), these kinds of cultural struggles will also intensify. Understanding Russia today, then, is an important part of understanding the world today and tomorrow.



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