Letter from Moscow
December 12, 2011 4:45 AM   Subscribe

You know, comrades," says Stalin, "that I think in regard to this: I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how."

Vospominaniia Byvshego Sekretaria Stalina

Of course, Stalin controlled *all* the media.
posted by jaduncan at 5:30 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't understand why these guys just can't let go. If he had hung around for 8 years and retired gracefully, he probably would have been remembered as a national hero and could live a comfortable and wealthy life as an internationally respected statesman.

Now, he's going to go out the hard way, and be remembered as a villain, and will end up leaving with nothing.
posted by empath at 6:25 AM on December 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Of course, Stalin controlled *all* the media.

A lot of wasted effort, it seems:

The authoritarian features of the Putin era, however, are not like those of either tsarist or Soviet times. “Today’s power is very rational,” Arseny Roginsky, of Memorial, said. “Power today doesn’t shut everyone up. There is freedom of expression and speech. There are shelves of anti-Putin books in the stores. This is no longer the eighteenth century. A book with a printing of a thousand copies will not topple this state.” A strong hand on state television suffices, at least for now. The current system of stability, with its elimination of authentic politics—its cultivation of phony elections and a judicial system that largely takes its orders from the executive—–is an elaborately flexible, supremely cynical system of vertical power. Putin, a former agent of the security services, is its personification.

"Power" today doesn't shut people up, because it can't shut people up. This is less of a rational choice than a practical reality. Dissenters gonna dissent. The trick is just to drown them out with "a strong hand on state television" or a large investment in private television as the case may be.
posted by three blind mice at 6:37 AM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

And in other news, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has said he will challenge Putin in next March's presidential election. How long until (a) criminal business dealings surface that send Prokhorov to jail or (b) Prokhorov dies in accidental but not in the slightest bit suspicious circumstances?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:39 AM on December 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

empath, strongmen sometimes hang around for a long time. In the long run the moral arc of the universe may tend towards justice, but in the short run there's still a good chance to build a nice little nest for yourself and live like a king for a while, perhaps as long as you live. Quaddifi had built himself up quite a fortress in Libya, enough that he had become a fixture in the region, enough so that world leaders were dealing with him like he were somehow normal. Putin could very well remain something like that, and preserve the throne for whoever he picks to succeed him.

But is Putin really only in it for the wealth and power, or does he think he's really helping Russia, or is this all narcissism, a weird facet of that muscular persona he's trying desperately to keep shrouded around himself?
posted by JHarris at 6:40 AM on December 12, 2011

I don't know. How low?
posted by stormpooper at 7:01 AM on December 12, 2011

If he had hung around for 8 years and retired gracefully, he probably would have been remembered as a national hero and could live a comfortable and wealthy life

It's not really the money, it's the power. We are social creatures, afterall.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:05 AM on December 12, 2011

We were lucky that we had George Washington as our first president, I guess, and not Alexander Hamilton.
posted by empath at 7:12 AM on December 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

He needs to retire. Listen to what the people are saying.
posted by diazchris1 at 7:13 AM on December 12, 2011

Putin has shown no compunction about murdering people who threaten his hold on power. He has murdered journalists and lawyers who oppose him. He very likely orchestrated the Moscow apartment bombings to start a second war in Chechnya and cement his hold on power - and he succeeded. Russia isn't a democracy - it's a Checkist state, just like it has been since 1917. Anyone who thinks that's likely to change will find themselves sorely disappointed.
posted by Dasein at 7:24 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

But is Putin really only in it for the wealth and power, or does he think he's really helping Russia, or is this all narcissism, a weird facet of that muscular persona he's trying desperately to keep shrouded around himself?

I have spoken to one of the British ambassadors to Russia about this (name withheld, obviously, and I won't hint), and he was of the opinion that Putin had removed the democratic election of governors to promote autocracy and that Putin is a classic dictator.

I slightly disagree; I think that a non-authoritarian Russia would promptly have all of their elections bought off at the moment. Absent the removal of the oligarch set it is impossible to have an effective democracy, and it's worth bearing in mind that the Kremlin wasn't even the most powerful force in the country when Putin arrived. He's built a state with something approaching the rule of law (very patchily, but people aren't getting killed for small contract disputes due to the lack of court time/ability to enforce judgments any more) and one that did have some form of economic success.

I think Russia would be a little odd without Putin though; the opposition are fairly incompetent and/or Communist. The one thing that seems to unite Russian parties at the moment is a fairly violent jingoism, and it's hard to see that going so well. Mass protests are clearly the end of the honeymoon era though, no matter if he goes or not. It's also noticeable that the political side of things is starting to get incompetent, and the announcement that Medvedev had been intending to stand aside for years made it an obvious stich-up.
posted by jaduncan at 7:29 AM on December 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

The protests against Putin are like a tiny match lit up on a very dark, clouded night. Pretty soon a gust of wind is going to come and blow that match out.
posted by Nelson at 7:46 AM on December 12, 2011

I think that Putin believes that he has the only plan for keeping Russia and Russia's future stable and that his leadership is an integral part of it. I think he actually does believe in his modernization program (moving Russia away from oil as the only capital generator) and it is just starting to slowly bear fruit (some big names starting large capital programs in Skolkovo or nearby) and he believes that his leadership/presence is the only force keeping the old guard communists and other factions that might be hostile to his program at bay. I think it's a classic 'Russia is not like other democracies - the Russian people only respect forceful authority' attitude and I don't think he will let go by choice, regardless of how many people protest. I think it's because he sees the feelings of the people as barely incidental to the actual forces that are at play and he probably sees himself as the hero battling those forces that 'the people' could not possibly understand.
posted by spicynuts at 7:48 AM on December 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Yes, exactly spicynuts.
posted by jaduncan at 7:49 AM on December 12, 2011

In other words, I think jaduncan has it - Putin is keeping order and the display of democracy was nice for him while it worked, but he will keep order at any cost.
posted by spicynuts at 7:51 AM on December 12, 2011

The moral conundrum for me is that I agree with him.
posted by spicynuts at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2011

There is almost a polar opposite between what I read about Putin in the Economist or the New York Times and what the people who I know who are actually from Russia say. They are unanimous that Putin is a great man. I don't get it. (All of these people are well-educated, middle-class, well-traveled which makes the sample badly biased.)
posted by bukvich at 8:09 AM on December 12, 2011

They are unanimous that Putin is a great man. I don't get it.

He doesn't steal too much, doesn't set himself up with no concern for Russia, rebuilds Russian standing in the world (and concurrently Russian pride), stopped Russia being a pure Mafia state run by the oligarchy, and actually has some principles.

Take Yukos. Very unfair, how could they demand taxes off Yukos when a) the amounts were inflated and b) nobody paid taxes during the 90s, yadda yadda yadda. Yukos got crushed because they were bribing members of the Duma to pass legislation. The unwritten Putin rule is that no matter what happened under Yeltsin, he won't inspect them if they don't mess around with the political process too much. Now, you can say that's a bad thing. I'd even agree that in a Western democracy it would (mostly) be terrible. It's just that Russia would otherwise be run by a criminal consipiracy who ran the country into the ground in the 90s. Imagine Goldman Sachs lobbying and special deals cubed (and if GS could openly order hits on people). Putin slapped that down in the 90s, and the more refined 2000s version as soon as it started.

Putin is, at the least, a competent strongman, and that probably is needed right now. If you doubt it, rerun the Putin era with either no strong leadership or Evil Putin who is all about the bribes and personal wealth. 90s Russia was insane. 2011 Russia has rules. That's worth a lot to people, and he is largely the man who made it happen.

The classical Western error is thinking that the choice is between Putin and democracy. It is not even a little bit that choice. I suspect he is aware that until the economy is diversified and not run by robber barons, he is *by very far* the best of a bad set of options, and that absent someone with the personal political capital to do Yukos style takedowns to keep people in order, Russia would quickly become far more corrupt and disordered than it currently is.

He saved Russia from anarchy. He kept the lights on. How is that record, coming from the almost complete breakdown of law and order, not worthy of a reasonable amount of respect?
posted by jaduncan at 8:30 AM on December 12, 2011 [11 favorites]

The stuff with the missile shield bothers me.

I think spicynuts & jaduncan have some astute reasoning.

One of the things that has kept Russia stable in the past was having an enemy. And perhaps the thinking is to use the U.S. again in that role (and I'd cede perhaps vice versa). They're sending a naval carrier to Syria for example.

Whether that leads to more tension or puts folks back in line politically I would say is less important than the desire of Russian politicians generally to feel, and more importantly to be seen as, relevant and integral on the world stage.
Putin is "the man" in that regard (for good or ill), and his position is precarious. He's riding the tiger that way (and if he falls, yeah, there could be some chaos that would be worse than having a dictator in place, until he can gently be dislodged through systemic change).

What's aggravating is Hilary Clinton pointing it out openly.

I mean, we're some guys hashing out some stuff, giving opinions on the web. She's the Sec of State.
If it really didn't matter what Putin said about our missile defense (the relative merits or lack of regarding that system aside) she could have just put it that way. I mean "hey, we're not afraid of nuclear attack by our good friends the Russians, this is just in case some crazies, nuts, goofballs, psychotics or Kim Jong il, gets ahold of long range ballistic missiles. Hell, we'll even plug you into it so we can help with nuclear disarmament -" etc. etc.

Nope. She goes right for his legitimacy. The one thing he's nervous about and will actually piss him off more and make more of an issue of it.

All the work to dismantle intermediate-range missiles, work on the INF forces treaty, cutting missile bases in Slovakia, Obama and the Prague speech talking about ending Cold War thinking, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, reviewing requirements for them in potential plans - all the work with Russia, cutting costs on bloated nuclear support programs based on archaic models.

It would be nice if she had said "Join us. Your financial and security position would be enhanced by reducing costs on nuclear production and strategic targeting and focus on modernizing, we'll help if you like."

But no "you have little balls and your penis is weak and flaccid, so we're going to stick our missile shield program up your ass."

Thanks Hil. Putin's not a confrontational guy or anything. That should play out great for us.
It's not like they just served papers on Golos or anything. Crackdowns like that don't normally signal anything.

It seems like every American politician has to have the "Bring it on!" attitude. We could probably take Russia things being what they are, and we've got a lot of muscle in the area. Why should we have to?
Didn't this stuff used to be an art? The whole "negotiation" thing. Catching nuance in someone's personality, playing them like, y'know, a politician.
Doing the glad-hand, pressing the flesh, politickin' , making the little guy feel big, making the big guy feel generous, greasing the wheels.

Nope. Fuck you Putin. Don't like it? Try something tough guy.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

2011 Russia has rules.

Except on the highway.
posted by spicynuts at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2011

Russia is the democracy that most American politicians would love to have.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:51 AM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nope. Fuck you Putin. Don't like it? Try something tough guy.

Oddly enough, Saakashvili took the same approach when going on Georgian and Russian TV at the start of the 2008 war. The ceasefire broke, Micha appeared on TV saying "we have utterly defeated the Russians", and at that point it was obvious that Georgia had to lose because once that played on Russian evening news it became another national face issue.

That was on political advice from McCain's people (his policy guy Randy Scheuneman's company lobbied and consulted for Georgia). It makes me wonder quite how widespread the (I would say) misconception that the USSR collapsed because Reagan was aggressive against them is in the US foreign policy establishment actually is. Every post-USSR attempt at it has been clearly counterproductive.

a) Kosovo: Russian troops at Pristina International Airport were told that if they didn't leave NATO would start a hot shooting engagement with them.* Russian troops then withdrew in somewhat of a national humiliation. Yeltsin stopped being internationalist and the siloviki (national security) side of the Yeltsin administration won out.

End result: Chechnya war mk.2, rise of Putin.

b) Georgia: lots of statements that Georgia was an important military ally, some chest beating. Georgia takes that as implicit military backing, launches a military offensive, no backup is forthcoming, Georgia is defeated.

End result: All the other ex-USSR states note that it is still the best policy to be pro-Russian, US/Georgian influence decreases hugely in the Caucasus states in particular.

c) Missile shield stuff: as you say, ongoing.

* Excellently odd historical footnote: a direct order to shoot on the Russian troops was ignored by, of all people, James Blunt. Yes, James Blunt of the terrible pop songs. That man prevented the first open and fully hot NATO/Russia engagement of the cold war.
posted by jaduncan at 8:59 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

misconception that the USSR collapsed because Reagan was aggressive against them is in the US foreign policy establishment actually is.

My guess would be: 'utterly established as gospel and sacrosanct'. Unfortunately.
posted by spicynuts at 9:14 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Re Smedleyman's comment ensuing Cold War oppositional politics in both places: It also occured to me, of course, that Randy Scheuneman's advice to Micha may have been motivated by the desire to screw over his secondary client (and Micha was told by Randy that he'd probably get military backing - again non-public sources for that) to create of a situation that provided McCain with the ability to be seen a lot on TV beating the nationalist drums.
posted by jaduncan at 9:20 AM on December 12, 2011

jaduncan - yeah, Iraq came up far more than Kosovo when Wes Clark was on the campaign trail. I suppose I can cut Blunt some slack for his music career. And Gen. Jackson had some bearing on the situation. :-)

But yeah, it would have been nice to have them (the Russian) in the fold. I think that's what Mike Jackson was going for. I have no idea what Clark had in mind.
Although that's a problem with working under NATO commanders, politics get involved and then where's your chain of command? It's tough to wear the baby blue.

Georgia takes that as implicit military backing, launches a military offensive, no backup is forthcoming, Georgia is defeated.

Yeah, don't get me started...

misconception that the USSR collapsed because Reagan was aggressive against them
It's part of the U.S. political mythos. Like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not telling a lie about it. It doesn't bend me out of shape because most people in State don't take it seriously (whether they espouse it or not) but it is irritating to see the sacrifices so many people made (how many missions did SAC fly? How many people spent how long in negotiating SALTs, et.al.? How many people on both sides worked how damn hard to avoid killing each other) reduced to Reagan's ten minutes on t.v.

They're sending a naval carrier to Syria for example.

I'll add - it's all show (the Kuznetsov battle group is, in fact, weak and flaccid). But that's the point. If there is any confrontation Putin gets to look not only tough before the election, but sympathetic because the carrier gets pushed back by combined forces in the Med while trying to stick up for an ally, albeit one nobody likes, I mean even the Arab League is going to fully supoprt the no fly zone if Russia kicks in the s-300 missiles to Syria, but it does show loyalty.

What we don't need is another Cold War with Russia and Iran facing off NATO in the middle east.
The political science technical terminology for that kind of Gordian Knot situation is "sucks balls" I believe.

Although I think Miller is on to something regarding work in Syria (from huff-po so y'all lefties believe me). But we can take it easy with the rhetoric and sabre rattling and maybe get Russia on board to help with the humanitarian crisis. The Turks are right there. Maybe everybody wins if we play this right.
We shut down the arms smugglers, have a no-fly zone and maybe have shelter and safe zones for refugees (which would give at least some security to rebels since most of the fighting is house to house), let the politics take care of itself (leaders don't make movements, movements make leaders).

Putin needs to go, but antagonizing him isn't the way to do that. Make him a hero and it narrows his options if he wins the election in that role.
Which would play to our advantage.

I'm sort of riffing on Burhan Ghalioun's ideas there.

But, pry Russia away from China we can fix the situation in Syria and the whole ball of wax gets unraveled. And to do that we can play Putin, who is eminently playable.

Perhaps Blunt can sing "You're Beautiful" to him?
posted by Smedleyman at 9:23 AM on December 12, 2011

Just fyi, there were many highly informative comments in the Kremlin Tweets thread.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:57 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Focus: Russian Election Protests
posted by vidur at 11:22 AM on December 12, 2011


Funny how the link turned out.
posted by hat_eater at 11:50 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great article. The mood on the ground here is pretty muted as usual, but there are lots of small signs of people talking about it. Before the election I was at a meeting where the basic theme was "Vote. Just vote. Please. Or your vote could be stolen" and people are aware that the exit polls vary widely from the reported counts. People who were "supposed" to vote for Edinaya Rossiya who didn't.

Corruption poisons the well for political participation and civil society - if nobody believes in it, the democracy fairy dies. In the summer I was watching a short film about the Egypt situation, and "Down with Mubarak" onscreen was answered with an only-half-ironic "Down with Edinaya Rossiya". But the cynicism corrodes civil society, leaves it as islands.

I think the big problem is that nobody in Russia even remembers a functioning democratic country, just periods of stability and instability. I don't know much about the Great Game side of things, but it's almost impossible to see a way for the people (some of whom I care about, all of whom deserve better than this) of this great country to take part in governing it.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Russian Orthodox Church has called for calm, but also for a just election process (NY Times):
“It is evident that the secretive nature of certain elements of the electoral system concerns people, and there must be more public control over this system,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the most prominent spokesman for the church, in remarks to a widely followed Orthodox news Web site. “We must decide together how to do this through civilized public dialogue.”

The pronouncement by Father Chaplin, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s synodal department of church and society relations, was especially significant because he is often criticized as an apologist for the Kremlin.
posted by Jahaza at 1:17 PM on December 12, 2011

Which is significant, because the Church has been a locus of power for the Putin regime.
posted by Jahaza at 1:20 PM on December 12, 2011

To a certain extent, Putin reminds me of Yamagata Aritomo. They aren't identical of course, Yamagata far preferred to be a puppet master pulling strings behind the scenes to actually taking power publicly.

But there are, I think, important similarities. Both became the leaders of a nation trying to achieve equality with the West, a nation struggling with democracy and just emerging from rule by a tight quasi military oligarchy.

And both, unlike so many other post-revolutionary leaders, really do seem to have the best interests of the nation at heart. Yamagata appears to have stolen nothing, and Putin is not known for stealing much at all (if anything).

And, like Yamagata, Putin seems to be essentially indifferent if not actively hostile to the concept of democracy. The both of them seem set on the idea that they, personally, have the proper vision for the future of their nation, and therefore anyone who gets in their way or disagrees is pretty clearly an enemy of the state.

That didn't work out so well for Japan in the long run. Yes, Yamagata and his clique did manage to advance Japan pretty rapidly. But they also fostered a political environment where power was severed from the population, where the elites acted without any real checks on their own power, and ultimately that produced the fascist era [1].

I'll admit I haven't got a clue what Russia needs, or what Putin should do. But I do know that "strongman" is just a word that means "dictator we've decided to like", and I'm not at all convinced that, in the long run, having even a nice dictator is a good idea. And Putin is not even a particularly nice dictator.

[1] Or pseudo-fascist, there's still argument about whether late Taisho and early Showa Japan was genuinely fascist or rather something close to fascism but distinct.
posted by sotonohito at 2:37 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like every American politician has to have the "Bring it on!" attitude.

if a political and economic system is starting to fall apart, it's a well-known fact that someone will try to unite and distract the people by finding an enemy to fight instead - or at least a foreign power to be scared of

that, and the baby boomers have a twisted, compulsive need to show that they are just as heroic and just as put upon by circumstances as the ww2/great depression generation - even if they have to create those circumstances themselves
posted by pyramid termite at 5:13 PM on December 12, 2011

« Older They do indeed know it   |   print "And now for something completely %s" %... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments