The interests of the Kremlin and the Russian people are moving in opposite directions
The old Marxian maxim proposes that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In Vladimir Putin’s case history and farce are combined. The Russian leader purports to offer the grandeur of the Stalin era and the stability of Leonid Brezhnev. The truth is that he is not in either dictator’s league.
Stalin made everyone build his national socialism through blood and sacrifice, with a commanding iron fist worthy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s devil character Woland in his 1930s novel The Master and Margarita. But the dictator hated the West, and he never used its amenities or adopted its way of life. He kept the borders sealed for all the Soviet unions, himself travelling abroad only twice. Stalin instigated the deaths of tens of millions of his citizens in famine and prosecutions. But in a perverse way, the punishment was equal. Nobody could feel safe. Even the oldest Old Bolshevik, and the closest crony, could end up in disgrace, slave labour or the grave.
None of that is true of the Putin regime. It luxuriates in the fleshpots of London and the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France. It banks in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The punishments are for outsiders, not insiders, such as the middle-class parents who attend a protest in Moscow, and are faced with the confiscation of their children.
To understand the Russian leader, turn to Nikolai Gogol’s satirical play The Government Inspector (1836)—a work that has mirrored Russia’s reality for centuries. In Gogol’s city of N, bureaucrats are corrupt and living beyond their means and driven by ambitions that outpace their abilities. In Moscow—the city of M—the new Government Inspector Putin sits in the Kremlin, hosting international sporting events, masking private greed with public glory. As well as lucrative construction projects, natural riches such as oil and gas help fill the private coffers of the inner circle. Moscow’s own “renovation project” features lavish pedestrian walkways which, while making the traffic-clogged city far more liveable, are in a seemingly never-ending cycle of doubtless profitable renovation. This has sparked a running joke that the authorities insist on Muscovites having fresh cobblestones every year. Meanwhile GDP fell by nearly half in the three years after the oil-price crash in 2013. It has recovered a little recently, but living standards are stagnant or falling.
This is not Stalinism: then, even the faintest opposition activity attracted ferocious, usually fatal punishment. These days the Kremlin cows its critics with made-up financial crimes and harasses them with tax audits. The vengeful delegitimatisation of some 70-plus organisations is an act as small as the Inspector himself, impacting organisations such as Navalny’s foundation; the Levada Center, a polling institution; and Golos (Voice), an election-monitoring group.
Stalin was a terrifying figure. Despite Mr Putin’s harsh politics, it is hard to take him seriously. Eager to present a James Bond-like image to the public, his kitschy PR stunts, including flying a microlight with migrating cranes, driving racing cars, or, most recently, riding with a leather-clad brood of nationalist bikers in Crimea, make him look more like a Bond villain instead.
Putin’s second-rateness brings him closer to another Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the Soviet Union’s fatal descent into atrophy in the late 1970s. He was laughed at for his penchant for military medals and self-serving autobiographies, but today his reputation, nostalgically recalled as a “golden era of stagnation”, is better than Putin’s. A Levada Center study this year marking the 55th anniversary of Brezhnev’s coming to power cites the public’s belief that he cared more about the people than today’s Kremlin. The era featured stability and the perception of equality. For a country still recovering from the trauma of the Second World War, that offered a kind of grim reassurance. Putin’s rule, by contrast, features arbitrary power and grotesque unfairness.
Contemplating the 20 years since Putin assumed power, we should turn from Gogol to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s exposition of the corrosive solitude of power illustrates the demise of overreaching. It ends in the city of Macondo with an image of a “child . . . [as] a dry and bloated bag of skin,” eaten by ants. In our city of M—that bloated bag of skin—Putin and his ants have slain or stolen it all.
Both Stalin and Brezhnev died in their beds (or so the official version goes, despite speculation to the contrary) in their mid-seventies. In both cases, a period of liberalisation followed. Both failed. My great-grandfather Nikita Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, ending a 10-year “thaw”. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms led to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Putin, who will reach 71 by the time his official presidential term expires in 2024, worries that he might not be that lucky. The rest of us worry what will come after him.
For Russia to enter the post-Putin era healthily—in the direction of a law-governed country with civil society, public institutions and integration with the civilised world—it is imperative that Putin steps down willingly and on time. But the Kremlin’s and the country’s interests move in opposite directions. Putin has said repeatedly, in private conversations with foreigners, that he fears for his future once out of office. “Who will keep me safe—Dima?” he asked one visitor, referring contemptuously to his puppet prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev. The Russian leader must fear that the structure he has created—strengthening the security forces, intimidating opponents, muzzling the media and courts—may use his own methods against him if he goes. Or before that. Russian tycoons, feeling that the Putin system has inconvenienced them enough in their dealings abroad, could pounce.
Another threat, unknown to Stalin and Brezhnev, is public protests. Repression works only up to a point. Russia’s younger generations never lived in the Soviet system. Though they may feel nostalgic for the orderliness of the Kremlin power in the past, they are not afraid of the Kremlin of the present.
Perhaps the easiest option is another set of charades: pretend reforms that do enough to ease public anger and restore foreign investors’ confidence, without changing the top-down nature of power in Russia. We have seen that movie already—and we could see it again. In 2008, Putin installed Medvedev as a seat-warming president, while he took the prime minister’s chair. That allowed some illusion of modernisation, enough to cover the main task, to change the election law securing Putin’s return to the presidency for another 12 years. When Putin’s term is up five years from now, Medvedev (or another flunky) can sit in the Kremlin’s presidential chair once more, with the dear leader again becoming prime minister or even assuming (finally) the title of czar. Then, however, Russia would—in reality, not as a metaphor—become as hollowed out as Marquez’s Macondo.