What’s Russia like?

Most commentators struggle to define Putin’s Russia in either positive or negative terms, as what it is or what it isn’t.

The options are numerous: Russia is/isn’t like Nazi Germany, is/isn’t like Stalin’s USSR, is/isn’t like Al Capone’s Chicago. True enough, while Putin’s Russia has elements of all of those, it’s not exactly like any of them.

For example, Max Hastings defined Russia, positively, as simply a gangster state and, negatively, as neither Hitler’s Germany nor Stalin’s Soviet Union. That’s as accurate or inaccurate a definition as many others, including the modifier ‘kleptofascist’ I usually prefer.

The problem is that Putin’s Russia is a unique state, without close parallels in history. There have been gangster states before, and there have been states run by the secret police. But I can’t think of a single other major country where organised crime and secret police were organically fused to form the governing elite.

Since Putin’s Russia is a one-off, it defies any efforts at comparative taxonomy – unique things always do.

For example, if someone who has never tried avocado asked you to describe its taste, how would you go about it? You’d probably say “It’s like…” – and then you’d stop. It isn’t like anything. It’s a one-off.

The French say “comparaison n’est pas raison” – even though their favourite philosopher Descartes insisted that all knowledge is comparative. Both points of view are valid: comparisons are seldom sufficient, but often helpful.

So let’s look at some helpful comparisons that apply to Putin’s Russia.

It obviously isn’t exactly like Nazi Germany c. 1935 in every respect, but there are similarities. The ideology holding Russia together isn’t internationalist, as it was, for example, under Lenin, but, similarly to Nazi Germany, national-patriotic, based on the uniqueness of the Russian volk.

Obviously, all countries are unique to some extent. Yet the way Putin’s propaganda uses the word, it means not just ‘different from…’ but ‘better than…’, well, anybody, and certainly all the Anglo-Saxon vermin.

Russia is touted as being more spiritual, more moral, less corrupted by material concerns – all without corroborating evidence, and usually in direct contradiction to it. That unique status, according to the propaganda, entitles Russia to a special dispensation in the world, including a carte blanche to kill anyone Putin doesn’t like.

Another similarity is revanchism: seeking restitution for a historical injustice as a way of uniting the nation.

For Putin, this is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he describes as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”. For Hitler, it was the Versailles Treaty, which, unlike the disintegration of the giant concentration camp that was the USSR, really was unjust.

Then there’s the much-vaunted concentration of the national spirit within the person of the leader, whose will replaces the law. The concentration was greater in Hitler’s Germany c. 1935 than in Putin’s Russia, but, being residually Western, the lawlessness was less pronounced. Until later in Hitler’s reign, the courts still retained some independence, which they don’t in Putin’s Russia.

Law enforcement in Hitler’s Germany did try to enforce the law until the run-up to the war. The police would pursue inquiries into the affairs of Hitler’s cronies, for example, and resist the attempts by the SS to muscle in.

That’s not the case in Putin’s Russia: the police are completely criminalised and protect their own patch by doing exactly what they are told. And the courts rubberstamp the predetermined verdicts, which didn’t happen in Germany c. 1935, at least not in criminal cases.

And let’s not forget the methods. Unlike Lenin and Stalin, Hitler (c. 1935) didn’t indulge in mass murder. The violence of his regime was expressed on a smaller scale, usually through the paramilitary SA, who harassed and sometimes murdered Hitler’s opponents and independent journalists.

This is exactly the model followed in Putin’s Russia. Some opponents are sent to prison on trumped-up charges, but most are harassed off the books by paramilitary gangs that resemble Hitler’s stormtroopers. Thus there’s no need to ban all dissident publications – it’s enough to have some editors and key journalists (about 200 of them on Putin’s watch) maimed or murdered for those publications to toe the line.

All fascist regimes rely on whipping up mass hysteria by unlimited propaganda, but Putin’s propaganda resembles Hitler’s most closely, being more technically accomplished and subtle than, say, Stalin’s.

Such fascist methods amply justify the second part of the ‘kleptofascist’ tag I attach to Putin’s regime. But, in search of historical analogues for the first part, we should turn away from Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s USSR, and towards Lenin’s Russia and the ‘stagnation’ period of the moribund Soviet Union, say its last 15 years.

When the Bolsheviks grabbed power, they didn’t think for a second they’d be able to retain it. Their aim was to rob Russia of her wealth and then use the money to foment revolutions in Europe.

Following Marx, Lenin believed that a single country could only be used as the springboard for a global (what Trotsky called ‘permanent’) revolution. Lenin summed up this internationalism in conversation with his comrade Bonch-Bruevich: “Remember, old boy: I spit on Russia. I’m a Bolshevik!”

Should the glittering prize be won, Marx’s prophesies would come true. If not, the plundered loot would enable Lenin and his immediate coterie to live in luxury somewhere exotic (Bukharin quite fancied Argentina, for example).

What followed was a wholesale robbery of a major country by its own government, the first such heist in history. The news of the plunder was leaked, and in April, 1921, The New York Times exploded the information bomb:

In 1920 alone, 75 million Swiss francs were sent to Lenin’s account in just one Swiss bank. Trotsky had 11 million dollars in just one US bank, plus 90 million francs in his Swiss accounts. Zinoviev kept 80 million Swiss francs in Switzerland, Dzerzhinsky had 80 million francs, while Hanetsky-Fuerstenberg had 60 million francs and 10 million dollars – the list went on and on.

Russians were then starving to death, and any one of those accounts could have sufficed to feed them. Hoover’s American Relief Administration saved millions of human skeletons from death by spending just $20 million in 1921-1922 – at the time when Bolshevik leaders were pumping millions into their US and Swiss accounts.

(For details, see Sean McMeekin’s book History’s Greatest Heist.)

When Stalin took over, de facto in 1923 but totally in 1929, any hopes of a world revolution had disappeared. Instead Stalin set out to turn Russia into a mighty empire capable of conquering Europe on its own.

The change in direction changed the slogans: communist ones were gradually supplemented, and during the war practically replaced, with national-patriotic ones.

The vector in the flow of money changed too: rather than flowing out of Russia, it now had to flow in. Lenin’s greedy comrades were physically obliterated, but not before revealing their foreign account numbers and passwords (Stalin’s interrogators could be rather persuasive).

After the war, Stalin practically stamped out any private looting. The nomenklatura were given all sorts of privileges, including country houses, limousines, western goods and so forth, but they were discouraged from complementing those with private initiative.

That changed towards the end of the Soviet Union, when the party nomenklatura again began to thieve on a Leninist scale. The vector of money flow was again reversed, with the party relying on the KGB’s conduits and those of organised crime to convert their looted riches into western currencies, mostly dollars.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, foolishly accepted in the West as a triumph of liberal democracy, was in fact the replacement of the old nomenklatura with a new one, formed by the vastly empowered and utterly corrupt KGB now fused with the structures of organised crime.

While for the first 10 years or so the state was still nominally led by the party bosses, albeit those with strong KGB links, Putin’s advent put paid to subterfuge. The KGB, now called FSB/SVR, took over de jure – and the looting of Russia picked up its already frantic pace.

The fascist methods mentioned above are now used to maintain the elite’s hold on absolute power. But the power itself is used mainly to pump billions, actually trillions, out of Russia, to provide a safe haven for the elite should things go sour, as they certainly will.

Some members of the elite have been allowed to settle in the West, as leaseholders of the plundered wealth. But the freehold belongs to Putin and his immediate entourage, with the oligarchs’ wallets hospitably flung open whenever Putin needs some extra cash.

That’s why the latest sanctions, those aimed at Putin’s cronies (meaning Putin himself), are particularly rankling. Under attack is the junta’s raison d’être, using the West as a safe depository of their loot.

The Russian people now have a conflict. On the one hand, they have been house-trained to accept the thundering fascisoid rhetoric of Putin’s propaganda, backed up by a fascisoid foreign policy complete with aggression and assassinations. On the other hand, they hate the ‘oligarchs’, whom they correctly identify as looters of the nation’s wealth.

How that conflict will be resolved is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that Putin will try to ratchet up the -fascist aspect of his regime, to preserve the klepto- part. Yet it’s also possible that he’ll offer some token concessions – provided they don’t damage his muscular image inside Russia.

Interesting times ahead, I dare say. I just hope they don’t become too interesting.

4 thoughts on “What’s Russia like?”

  1. Anna Politkovskaya wasn’t warmly embraced by Putin for her “Putin’s Russia” book; less than a year later in 2006 she was shot in the elevator in her Moscow apartment. (So too Litvinenko was killed in London for investigating her death). Nevertheless, Time magazine still named Putin as “Person of the year” in December 2007!
    The circulating political joke from that era was more accurate than Time; Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, “Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.” Why blue?” Putin asks. “Ha!” says Stalin, “I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part”.

  2. Are you sure the Versaille treaty was unfair?
    Dan Snow argues that it was fair for the time

    However on the main thrust of your article, very interesting. It is hard to see Putin’s Russia can thrive, no one wants to invest in it and oil prices are not as high as he hoped they would be (still higher than the 90s).

  3. Informative, thank you. I wonder, with a collapsing currency, the new sanctions against his oligarchs, and a stumbling economy, how do you see Putin surviving the next few years? More repressive internal measures, or maybe more foreign military projects, to deflect attention from their problems? It looks like ‘interesting times’ ahead…

  4. ” Stalin set out to turn Russia into a mighty empire capable of conquering Europe on its own.”

    Almost did so. Without the presence of atomic weapons and the U.S. it might have become an established fact all of Europe would be commie by now and a long time ago.

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