By Alexei Bayer.
May 9, 2021
Russia is sliding deeper into a kind of kleptocratic neo-orthodox fascism while obsessively celebrating a victory over fascism that was achieved by a different country more than seven decades ago.
As things get progressively grim, you often hear people in Russia decry the loss of freedom: We had our chance to build a Western-style democracy but we were too complacent, we believed too easily that there was no way back and we permitted Vladimir Putin to sweep Russian politics clean of opposition and establish a dictatorship.
This is another legend. It is a counterpoint to the one peddled by Putin and his propagandists about the “lawless 1990s” when Russia was supposedly on its knees, economically and politically ruined by its treasonous leaders and humiliated by the treacherous West, and when it was single-handedly saved by heroic Putin. If Putin’s legend sounds so familiar to American ears, it is because Putin’s pupil Trump spent four years telling the American people that their country had been a disaster before he was elected and that his policies created “the best economy in history.”
The question I have for pro-Western Russian dissidents is when precisely they were in control of their country’s political system. Indeed, when did their vote actually matter? Sure, by the late 1980s the entire country had grown disgusted with communism and its collapse had considerable popular support. But the Soviet Union was dissolved by three Communist Party bosses meeting behind closed doors without consulting any of the remaining republics, to say nothing of various national homelands within them. The union was broken up, but everywhere — except in the Baltics, and including in Ukraine — Soviet power structures were preserved intact. That was certainly true of Russia.
Boris Yeltsin was elected in a free and fair election to his first term, but his second election victory was questionable. The same inner circle that engineered his 1996 victory got him to hand-pick Putin as his successor. Putin has won a bunch of elections starting in 2000, but you have to be really naive to believe their results.
More to the point, Yeltsin did nothing during his eight years in power to reform Soviet society. Sometime in the late 1990s, I did some business with a group of young Moscow entrepreneurs. They were developers, buying small factories, warehouses, depots and other Soviet-era industrial operations that were scattered around the Soviet capital, and building shopping malls. They were dynamic, irreverent and seemed to be in control. But as I got a bit more involved, I realized that all decisions were made “up above” — by Soviet-era bureaucracy keeping their old stranglehold on all the levers of power.
In fact, during Russia’s decade of freedom, no alternative centers of power were developed. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia was emulating George Soros’s Open Society, and at least in theory was dedicated to promoting civil society in Russia. This, as much as Putin’s desire to steal his company, was the reason for his arrest and incarceration.
And, speaking of business: In successful Western societies, big business is an important independent political player. In the United States, “corporations are people,” to quote the 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They are allowed to invest in politics and buy politicians, but in Western Europe, too, big business is an important part of the democratic system of checks and balances.
In the US big business has traditionally supported the Republicans and its conservative low-tax, free-trade, small-government ideology. However, now that this ideology is out the window and the GOP is an assemblage of immoral right-wing radicals, corporate cash is increasingly flowing to the Democrats who are now the conservatives in the US political landscape.
In Russia, many entrepreneurs appeared in the late 1980s and 1990s and some built highly successful businesses and became wealthy. But a genuine business class never really arose. Foreign players were not allowed to participate in privatization, which became a private insider affair between a handful of get-rich-quick bankers and the bureaucratic class.
In the mid-1990s the bankers had the money. They were able to bribe the bureaucrats and acquire major Soviet-era natural resource companies, paying a fraction of what the state would have been able to realize from a genuine auction with the participation of foreign money.
The oligarchs believed that they had the bureaucracy in their pocket. The seven bankers of the era, of whom Boris Berezovsky was the most visible, thought that they owned the country. But the opposite proved to be the case and once they installed Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, the bureaucracy took its revenge.
Something similar happened in Russia early in the Bolshevik period. Lenin’s political emigres, weaned on Marxist theory, closely connected to radical European socialists and invested in world revolution, ruled the country for about a decade after taking power in 1917.
But in the meantime, a new generation of party cadres emerged from within Russia, much more interested in building “socialism in one country”, very much contrary to Marx’s dogma. They were practical and not at all theoretical since many of them could barely read and write. Joseph Stalin astutely relied on and cultivated this base. Over the next 10 years, those “Leninists” were gradually removed from power and in 1937 physically eliminated.
At the start, Stalin probably didn’t have a plan to eliminate Lenin’s comrades and become a blood-soaked dictator. But one thing led to another, and the system that he built developed its own murderous dynamic. Putin, too, was unlikely to have had an early plan to become a dictator for life, or to invade Ukraine and to send men in space suits into the streets to beat up peaceful protesters.
Judging by his behavior in the first few years of his presidency, he likely thought he would have to share power with other groups in Russia, including the oligarchs. But he quickly began to realize that the system he had inherited from Yeltsin was not that different from the Soviet system and, for that matter, very much the same as existed under Stalin.
Putin did move cautiously at first, but that had nothing to do with any resistance by “the people.” It simply took him time to put his loyal cadres in place and to get comfortable in the role of a monarch.
But after that, the system took over, since it has its own dynamic which no longer even depends on Putin’s own free will. The system on its own is now turning Russia into an increasingly oppressive autocracy at home, an isolated pariah in international relations, and, in general, a caricature of the late unlamented Evil Empire.
Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Fund have a strategy for democratizing Russia, which relies exclusively on the ballot box. If enough people vote Putin and his United Russia out, the government will change and democracy will be restored. Clearly, the system — and not just Putin and his buddies — obviously will not allow Navalny and his candidates to participate in elections, and even if they manage to run they will not be allowed to win. But a larger problem is that even if a free election ever happens in Russia, democracy will not survive for long without a radical restructuring of Russia’s entire society.
Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist, is the author of four detective novels set in Moscow in the 1960s: “Murder at the Dacha,” “Latchkey Murders,” “Murder and the Muse” and “Samovar Murders.”