Putin’s Russia: Power and Postmodernity

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. Bill Browder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Karen Dawisha.New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

The Fourth Political Theory. Alexander Dugin. London: Arktos, 2012.

Eurasian Mission: An Introduction to Neo-Eurasianism. Alexander Dugin. London: Arktos: 2014.

Putin vs Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed from the Right. Alexander Dugin. London: Arktos: 2014.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: the Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Peter Pomerantsev. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.

What does one make of Russia today? Labeled recently by the next chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff as the greatest existential threat to the United States, Russia in the past year has annexed Crimea, supported separatist forces in Ukraine, and has challenged NATO airspace, particularly in the Baltic countries.[i] International condemnation, Western sanctions, and even the sharp decline of petroleum prices seem to have had little, if any, effect on Russia’s behavior and thinking. The country continues to remain, as Winston Churchill had once it, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”[ii]

A new slew of books have been published in an attempt to unwrap this mystery: Alexander Dugin, a former journalist and now political advisor to the Kremlin, calls for a restoration of the Russian Empire; Peter Pomeranstev, a London TV producer who had worked in Russia, records how the Russian media manipulates the public to support Putin’s policies; Karen Dawisha, a professor of Political Science at Miami University at Ohio, traces how Putin rose to power and created this new, authoritarian state; and Bill Browder, chief executive officer of Hermitage Capital Management, provides a personal account of the financial corruption and abuses of Putin’s regime. These books paints us a picture of Russia’s recent past, its present state, and its possible future. For anyone who is interested in this topic, consulting these books is a must.

The title of Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory refers to the emerging ideology of Eurasianism as alternative to liberalism. According to Dugin, the modern world has been molded by three ideologies – liberalism, fascism, and communism – with liberalism eventually triumphing over its rivals and ushering in an era of postmodernity, with its unbridled individualism, rampant consumerism, and western globalization.[iii] A new world order has arisen that is “ruled by laws of economics and the universal morality of ‘human rights'”[iv] For the Eurasian states to preserve their geopolitical sovereignty, a new ideology is required. Inspired by Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoit, and other reactionary thinkers, Dugin adopts the philosophical tools of phenomenology and hermeneutics to understand how the state can return to a pre-modern, mythical understanding of reality.[v] He rejects the liberal progressive construct of history and instead sees time as reversible: societies change themselves not by following a single path of development but by transforming themselves as they so desire, even if it means returning to the values of tradition, theology, and imagination.[vi]

Thus, Dugin’s Eurasianism can be categorized as postmodern fascism: an authoritarian regime that is, on the one hand, nationalist, expansionist, and autarkic, while, on the other hand, spurns any metaphysical values or objective epistemological claims.[vii] The Eurasianist embraces “a multiplicity of epistemes” – “The Euransianist episteme for Russian civilization, the Chinese for Chinese, the Islamic for Islam, the Indian for the Indian” – and rejects the West’s universalist conceptions of human nature and history that it imposes upon other civilizations, “destroying them in the process, and creating a kind of global concentration camp for their cultures.”[viii] The struggle with the West is a preservation of one’s own values and a fight for one’s own episteme and historical being against the cold calculation and rationality of the West.

In his next book, Eurasian Mission, Dugin provides a blueprint of how his Euransianist episteme could be applied to civilizational and geo-politics: how one can create a “Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space.”[ix] According to Dugin, there are four geopolitical spheres of influences: the Americas with the United States at its center; Europe and Africa; Russia and Central Asia; and the Pacific.[x] To counterbalance the United States, Russia needs to consolidate power within its traditional sphere of influence (i.e., Central Asia, post-Soviet territories, and the Caucasus) and align itself with new ones (e.g., Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkey). In other words, Russia should reconstruct its Empire as a civilizational unit that binds other states into a continental federation. This new empire would tolerate different value systems as long as they ultimately are loyal to Moscow and would permit states a large degree of domestic and economic freedom. What would bind these heterogeneous units together is the organic myths, symbols, and traditions of Russian people.[xi]

In Putin vs. Putin, Dugin makes a direct plea to the Russian President to adopt his Euransianist vision as a way forward for Russian politics. According to Dugin, Putin’s balancing act between liberalism and patriotism is no longer sustainable. With the challenges of pro-western movements in Georgia and the Ukraine, disloyal oligarchs, and American globalization, Russia requires a new strategy to ensure its survival.[xii] Euansianism is the only viable option.

The original need for a compromise between liberalism and patriotism was in response to the Red-Brown coalition (communist and nationalists) and American global dominance.[xiii] But once domestic opposition was muffled and the United States invaded Iraq, Putin broke with this compromise, announcing in 2007 that the American unipolar world was a danger to non-western civilizations.[xiv] As a result, Putin began to adopt a foreign policy that sought to establish a multipolar world at the expense of the United States where people could be united by a historical past and geopolitics rather than human rights and free markets.[xv]

Being nothing more than a theory at this point, Dugin hopes that Euranasianism will be the strategic vision that Putin will adopt. It is evident, especially in light of events in the Ukraine, that the compromise between liberalism and patriotism has run its course. A new idea is required, for power by itself cannot inform how to calculate national interest, the functioning of geopolitics, or what normative values are needed to sustain Russia.[xvi] This lack of a strategy, the articulation of an idea that encapsulates the country, is a condition that allows Putin to remain in power but also robs him, and Russia, of becoming anything more than a brooding Leviathan on the world stage, not knowing what it wants.

If at the core of Putin’s Russia is power and nothing else, then Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. This title of Pomerantsev’s book, when he recounts in his own experience from working in Russian television, reveals a nihilist postmodernism that pervades Russian society where lip service is given to everything and everyone believes in nothing. The result is that everyone is on the take: village girls prostituting themselves as oligarch’s mistresses, criminal overlords and lifestyle cults enriching themselves, and western academics validating Russian democracy with its sham elections and Kremlin-supported NGOs.[xvii] The internal claims and external endorsement that Russia respects human rights and private property is nothing more than a Potemkin village built on the pillars of intimidation, corruption, and abuse.

This surreal reality, between what is proclaimed and what actually transpires, is the postmodern condition of Russians today, especially in the media. As one Russian political TV presenter put it:

We all know there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs? Who’s the enemy of the week? Politics has got to feel . . . like a movie![xviii]

The advent of Russian Today, a state-funded television network and Russia’s answer to the BBC, has an annual budget of $300 million to create the reality that Putin wants.[xix] If it is not on television, it does not exist: there is no corruption, no abuses, and no injustice in Putin’s Russia. Even when terrorists, “black widows,” are successful in blowing themselves up and killing others, none of this is reported and consequently does not exist.[xx]

Vladislav Surkov, the main ideologist of the Kremlin from 1999 to 2011 and now personal advisor to Putin, directed this reality show called Russia. At one moment he would support human rights NGOs and then the next moment encouraged nationalist movements to accuse these very same NGOs of being secret agents of the West. He would be a patron to modern artists at one moment and then turn around and provide resources to Orthodox fundamentalists who denounce these works as pornographic. Stalinist buildings would be demolished only to be rebuilt again as replicas of themselves.[xxi] The underlying constant in these changes is that whatever Putin needed at a particular moment, the media would be mobilized to ensure he received public support for it.

However, Surkov’s propaganda is not limited to just domestic consumption. With the threat of western globalization, Surkov applied this same divide-and-conquer strategy for foreign audiences. For instance, the Kremlin’s one-time hardline stance against homosexuality was to cater and encourage American religious conservatives to oppose the Obama administration’s support of gay rights.[xxii] This constantly changing message was not a compromise between liberalism and patriotism but a postmodern nihilism that projected different realities as needed to maintain power for Putin and his friends.

But underneath this postmodern account is the consolidation of political and financial power. In Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy and Browder’s Red Notice, we are shown how power actually works and maintains its gripe, not from ideas and propaganda but through murder and bribery. Browder, who bought underpriced shares in badly run Russian companies in the 1990s and made them efficient and profitable by 2003, recounts his experiences of expropriation, intimidation, and the death of his own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, from the Russian authorities. Complementing Bower’s account is Dawisha’s, who provides a systematic account of the financial story of Putin’s rise to power. Tracking down copies of documents, reports, court cases as well as conducting interviews, Dawisha concludes:

Instead of seeing Russian politics as an inchoate democratic system being pulled down by history, accidental autocrats, popular inertia, bureaucratic incompetence, or poor Western advice, I conclude that from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded interests, plans, and capabilities, who used democracy for decoration rather than direction. In other words, Russia is both a democratic failure and a resounding success – that is, a success for Putin and his cronies and a success on their own terms.[xxiii]

What is this success and what is the system that made this possible? Beginning in the 1970s, the Soviet leadership started to enter the world economy by selling oil in exchange for technology, thereby accumulating hard currency abroad. The Communist Party made the strategic decisions and the KGB implemented them. But during the periods of perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reign of Boris Yeltsin, the KGB eventually controlled this operation entirely and consequently had access to a vast mountain of foreign money.[xxiv]

Putin, who was stationed in East Germany for the KGB during the Cold War, returned to Russia after the Berlin Wall came down and utilized his contacts to form relationships in finance, security, and politics.[xxv] While holding political office in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Putin’s relationship with his friends was one of reciprocity: he gave them access to the state resources in exchange for eliminating their competition; he legalized their criminal activities in return for their finances and support in electoral victories. When he was appointed head of the FSB (the successor to the KGB), Putin’s first action was to eliminate those agencies charged with the investigation of high-level economic crimes.[xxvi] He eventually earned the trust of Yelstin and was appointed prime minister and later succeed him as president.[xxvii]

Dawisha cites the numerous ways Putin engaged in fraud to ensure his electoral victories by use of state resources, media access, voting irregularities, and other similar techniques.[xxviii] Once president, Putin first targeted the media, oligarchs, and autonomous provinces to create a strong state that later became a majority stakeholder in the country’s major companies, like Bank Rossiya and the Vyborg shipyards.[xxix] State corruption so permeated Russian society that, in spite of a talented and educated population, the country relied primarily upon oil and other natural resources for hard currency. Public institutions and goods were neglected. For example, despite receiving $1.6 trillion from oil and gas exports from 2000 to 2011, Russia did not build a single interstate highway during this time. By contrast, China has built 4,360 miles of modern highways annually during the same period.[xxx]

Over time, the Putin system became consolidated: a close circle of friends who dominated all decisions and used whatever means necessary to constrain oligarchs, the media, and regions while, at the same time, proclaiming itself a state that respects democracy, human rights, and private property. Western academics and non-profit professionals were invited to validate Russia’s democratic standing for international consumption; and western businessmen were welcomed for their financial expertise. These people were accepted in Putin’s Russia as long as they were useful; but once they became a nuisance, they were asked to leave.

Bill Browder was such a person. In his book, he recounts his experiences of purchasing underpriced privatization vouchers only later to see their values soar. He was tolerated by the Russian authorities until he overstepped his mark by lambasting the Russian oligarchs for corruption. The FSB in response raided his office, confiscated documents, and expelled Browder in 2005.[xxxi]

Although he had secretly liquidated his holdings and moved them outside of Russia by the time of the raid, Browder’s troubles with Russia had only just started. Using stolen documents and manufacturing lawsuits, the Russian authorities claimed the profits from Browder’s companies on the grounds that they did not pay their taxes. The refund was $230 million, the largest tax reclaim in Russian history, and was paid out in a single day.[xxxii]

The mechanics of how the Russian state worked was revealed by the efforts of Browder’s tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was able to piece together what had transpired in order to seek redress. For his troubles, Magnitsky was arrested and told that he would be released only if he were to furnish evidence against his client. Magnitsky did not and in 2009 he died of untreated pancreatitis, after a year of beatings and other abuses in prison. After his death, the Russian authorities then prosecuted him posthumously for perpetrating the fraud which he had uncovered.[xxxiii]

Blaming himself for Magnitksy’s death, Browder has paid for investigate efforts to shed light on the corruption that pervades Russia – who stole money, how they did it, and how it was laundered in the West – and publicized them in the press. He has lobbied political governments to impose sanctions on Russia and to freeze its assets and he has fought the Kremlin’s attempt to extradite him back to Russia on fraud charges.[xxxiv] From his book, we see how Putin Russia works not in theory but in practice, impacting the lives of its people and those who choose to stand up against him.[xxxv]

What then does one make of Russia today and what should one do, if anything? It is clear that power is the underlying principle of Putin’s Russia: to maintain the power of the “never-ending” president and his circle of friends. Some, like Dugin, want this power to coalesce itself around a new idea like Eurasianism. However, as Pomeranstev, Dawisha, and Browder have shown, it is not ideas that drive Putin’s Russia but brute force masking itself in a postmodern legitimacy.[xxxvi]

Without a stable constellation of ideas, Putin’s Russia is slippery for the West to engage. When the Soviet Union existed, the West could engage in a battle of ideas as well as compete militarily, diplomatically, and economically; when Yeltsin was President, the West could support Russia’s transition to a liberal, democratic and free-enterprise society. But with Putin’s Russia, there is no underlying idea or overarching principle that articulates its place and purpose in the world. The fusion of power and postmodernity has made Putin’s Russia unpredictable because its leaders do not know what they want other than power itself. This is why the West, accustomed to those who want something more than power, does not know how to respond to Russia today. We are left with a mystery because the country remains an enigma to itself.

Notes

[i] Dan Lamothe, “Russia is the greatest threat to the U.S., says Joint Chiefs chairman nominee Gen. Joseph Dunford,” Washington Post July 9, 2015. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/07/09/russia-is-greatest-threat-to-the-u-s-says-joint-chiefs-chairman-nominee-gen-joseph-dunford/.

[ii] Winston Churchill. “The Russian Enigma” Broadcast. October 1, 1939. The Churchill Society. Available at http://www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/RusnEnig.html

[iii] Alexander Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory (London: Arktos, 2012), 70-82. For more about Dugin’s views about liberalism, refer to pp. 139-55. For more about Dugin’s biography, refer to Andreas Umland, “Aleksandr Dugin’s transformation from lunatic fringe figure into mainstream political publicist, 1980-1998,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 1 (2010): 144-52.

[iv] Ibid., 20

[v] Ibid., 38-42. For more about the intellectual influences in Dugin’s writings, refer to Brickey LeQuire, “Putin and the West: The Politics of Eurasianism,” The Point Magazine 2014. Available at http://thepointmag.com/2014/politics/putin-west; Andreas Umland, “Pathological Tendencies in Russian Neo-Eurasianism,” Russian Politics and Law 47:1 (2009): 76-89.

[vi] For more about Dugin’s concept of reversible time, refer to Ibid., 156-68.

[vii] For more a detailed account of this new type of authoritarianism in Russia, refer to J. Paul Goode, “Redefining Russia: Hybrid Regimes, Fieldwork, and Russian Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 8.4 (2010): 1055-75.

[viii] Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, 93, 163.

[ix] Dugin, Eurasian Mission (London: Arktos: 2014), 13.

[x] Ibid., 47; 60-62, 73-80.

[xi] Ibid., 18-36; also refer to Dugin, Putin vs Putin (London: Arktos, 2014), 61-69. According to Dugin, in this new empire there is to be a balance in the control and administration between these states and Russia in civil, social, and educational policies with the critical sectors of the economy regulated only by Moscow For more Dugin’s political prescriptions, refer to Ibid., 54, 63-64, 82-88; and economic policies, pp. 65-66.

[xii] For more the challenges that Russia confront, refer to Dugin, Putin vs Putin, 17-18, 86-117, 190-99 and why Eurasianism is the best option available to Putin compared to other ideological alternatives, refer to pp. 202-28.

[xiii] Ibid., 35, 48-49.

[xiv] Ibid., 77-78.

[xv] Ibid., 159-78.

[xvi] Ibid., 248, 252.

[xvii] Peter Pomerantsev. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), 37-42.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid., 46.

[xx] Ibid., 57.

[xxi] Ibid., 70-75. Another manifestation of Putin’s postmodernity is the rehabilitation of Stalin as a great Russian leader, although he was a Georgian and slaughtered millions.

[xxii] Ibid., 233-34

[xxiii] Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 8.

[xxiv] Ibid., 15-16. The KGB also established its own commercial banks and trading firms while preventing others from gaining a foothold in these markets.[xxiv] Ibid., 31-33.

[xxv] For about Putin’s political career in St. Petersburg, refer to Ibid., 39-99; and in Moscow, refer to pp. 163-23.

[xxvi] Ibid., 182-95.

[xxvii] Ibid., 196-203. For more about the controversy about the 1999 series of apartment bombings in Moscow, Byunaksk, and Volgodonsk that created a wave of fear across the country and Putin’s possible complicity, refer to pp. 212-23.

[xxviii] Ibid., 241-51.

[xxix] For more about Putin’s control of the media, refer to Ibid., 256-62, 273-80; oligarchs, refer to pp. 262-65, 2780-93; and the autonomous regions, refer to pp. 269-73; 295-96.

[xxx] Ibid., 314

[xxxi] Bill Browder, Red Notice (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 5-11, 163-82, 190-205.

[xxxii] Ibid., 212-15, 236.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 255-78, 285-88.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 289-362.

[xxxv] It is worth to note that Dugin also recognizes that corruption delegitimatizes the Russian state, although he calls for fighting against the “Atlantic hegemon” (i.e., western globalization) before addressing domestic corruption. Dugin, Putin vs Putin, 11.

[xxxvi] For a perspective that disagrees with mine (i.e., Putin is motivated by Eurasianist ideology), refer to Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn, “Putin’s Brain: Alexander Dugin and the Philosophy Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea,” Foreign Affairs March 31, 2014. Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-03-31/putins-brain.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan where he teaches political philosophy, constitutional law, American Politics, and is the university's pre-law adviser. He is editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and the editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present). He is author and editor of sixteen books, the latest being Political Science: Concepts, Methods, and Topics (Kendall Hunt, 2016).