20 years under Putin: a timeline

For a person of liberal convictions — if he is not a competitor like Gleb Pavlovsky (Foundation for Effective Politics), or a moderate nationalist like Alexander Privalov (Expert magazine), or a historian like myself — there really is nothing with which to compete in the works of INSOR (Russia’s Institute of Contemporary Development) — whether it be “The Image of the Desired Tomorrow” or “Attaining the Future.” (Of course, the democratic opposition also has no small number of caustic words addressed to the Insorian faith in Medvedev — without the Putinite “noose around the neck” — but for now it cannot offer an even remotely real alternative to this faith. A very precise notion about this is given by Semyon Novoprudsky’s essay “Jesters of the Republic”: “As sad as this may be, for now the only strategy for Russia is seen as a relatively painless, yet fundamental demolition of the current system.” But the author himself does not communicate just how this “painless, yet fundamental demolition” might look. Nor, alas, do his colleagues from the democratic camp.)


© INSOR  Igor Yurgens (L), director of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR)


Well, with what, for example, in such a key passage as the following, is there for me to compete? “Russia has fallen into a historic trap. She needs to make one more breakthrough toward modernization, but this needs to be done under conditions in which too much is disposed toward inertia and decay — starting with the situation in the raw-materials markets and ending … with the government’s confidence in its ability to control mass consciousness … . Having raised itself up from its knees, the country has started moving backwards.” It is all true, if not to say trivial. INSOR’s leading economist Evgeny Gontmakher is right when he says: “We have written banal things. Simply gathered all these things together between one pair of covers. This essay, this is the political credo of those who want changes.”

As a liberal, Alexander Privalov, naturally, has nothing to oppose in these “banal things” either, but as a nationalist, he very much does not like them. And he attacks them from the point of view of style. For him, this is “old-school Soviet agitprop, enraptured Early-Komsomolian exaltations” and so on. But style is a matter of taste, and I personally did not find anything “Early-Komsomolian” in INSOR’s austere assertions.

It is more complex with another passage: “The future president must offer society a new social contract. Its main condition is maximal non-interference by the authorities in the affairs of the people and free interference by the people in the affairs of the authorities.” Again with the schoolchildren’s platitudes. Privalov, however, discerns in this the “central logical failing” of the entire INSOR project. Why? Because, it turns out, that the latter supposedly proclaims “the chief enemy of man is the state” and at the same time “places all hopes precisely in it.” This, of course, is clearly overdoing it: non-interference by the state in the affairs of the people is not at all equivalent in meaning to “the state is the chief enemy of man.” And nowhere did INSOR place “all hopes” in the state. Nevertheless, these trivial Privalovite objections do reflect some kind of important mood in society. If Pavlovsky’s critique is empty and looks more like a report to management — INSOR, he says, “represents the interests of those apparat circles that have long ago lost touch with the voters and whom, strictly speaking, nobody ever elected in the first place” — then the Privalovite critique sounds like a faraway echo of rolling thunder, which unleashes the nationalistic sector of their critics upon INSOR and liberals in general. (I am using the word “nationalism” here in the meaning that Georgi Petrovich Fedotov defined: “Hatred toward outsiders — not love for one’s own people — comprises the main pathos of modern-day nationalism.”)

Gontmakher very soberly assesses the extent of the social support on which INSOR is counting: “We have attempted to generalize the point of view of those 15%–20% who, like we, are experiencing dissatisfaction.” The wording, by the way, is unfortunate, inasmuch as it assumes that the remaining 80%–85% of the country’s population is satisfied with today’s state of affairs. I do not have the statistics at my fingertips, but common sense shows that this simply can not be. There have never been 80%–85% of the votes given either for Putin or for Medvedev. It is more important, however, that Gontmakher’s wording takes the entire nationalistic sector of society out of the equation. These people want changes just like the liberals do. Only they want completely different changes — directly opposite from those that Gontmakher had in mind: not the modernization of Russia, but the restoration of the USSR. They regard as their country not today’s Russian Federation — which, to use the words of the well-known nationalist Pavel Svyatenkov, “is merely a bloody rump of the USSR” — but specifically that “great and mighty” empire, demolished and desecrated by “liberasts”1 like the Insorians. Sergey Kurginyan’s television triumphs are a much better reflection than Privalov of the “statist” views of the nationalists (Kurginyan won the latest round in his ongoing duel with the liberals in August 2011 against Svanidze with a resounding score of 57,284 votes to 5,899). It doesn’t hurt to recall that in 1992–93, Kurginyan was the leading ideologist of the so-called “national revolution” (a.k.a. the “fascist upheaval”). An old horse, as they say, won’t spoil the furrow.

But even Kurginyan does not come close to representing the most radical wing of this, for lack of a better term, party of empire-nationalism (I underscore “empire” in order to distinguish it from the multitude of ethno-nationalist groups, noisy but politically hopeless “nutcases,” as Vladimir Putin branded them when he was president of the Russian Federation). Much more radical is, let us say, Mikhail Leontiev, who is constantly clarifying to like-minded people from television screens just what INSOR’s true objective is: “to sell the motherland.”

But even Leontiev’s fury pales next to the wave of hatred toward INSOR that literally engulfs the reader on the Internet. Here is but one semi-literate website selected at random, WOT Reputation Scorecard. These are the comments: “Yurgens and Gontmakher are two cold-blooded thugs who need to be shot on the spot. INSOR is a servant of America and an enemy of Russia.” “Judeo-Masons are enemies of Rus,” adds a second. “Satanists,” concludes a third. And a fourth goes so far as to demand outright the resignation of Medvedev, who, in his opinion, stands behind INSOR, on the strange — but sufficient for him — premise that “having betrayed Libya, he will sell Russia.” At INSOR, without a doubt, they know about the existence of this other sector of “dissatisfied” people, which can easily number the same 15%–20% as those who agree with Gontmakher’s way of thinking (there are no precise statistics: this “empire-ist” sector, it needs to be assumed, does not interest anybody). INSOR knows this — how can it not know, if Kurginyan, Leontiev and Shevchenko, not even to mention Prokhanov, remind it about this from every television screen? — but, strangely, it utterly ignores it. It behaves as if though no other “dissatisfied” sector exists in Russia. As if though the Russian political playing field has but two players — the government and the democratic opposition — between which INSOR is trying to lay its “middle” path.

In actuality, however, there are three players. At the very least, from the point of view of a historian. There is no argument — the empire-ists share one path with Putin (no pun intended)2 up to a certain point, but only as long as they are convinced that he, “shifting from the left foot to the right and from the right to the left,” is carrying out their, pro-empire, line. And still, in the public consciousness of the majority — of that same “morass” that always decides everything in the end — they, the empire-ists, represent a special sector of the “dissatisfied,” separate from the government. And to ignore it is dangerous. This is exactly why Kurginyan defeats the liberals so easily in television debates, because all of us, including the INSOR economists, do not attach importance to this danger; we do not distinguish it from Putinism. Now, obviously, we are not talking here about trying to change the empire-ists’ minds or anything. They are as hard as flint. I am only talking about competing with their arguments very meticulously — and they deserve this — in the consciousness of the majority. About mobilizing historians — and not only Russian ones, but Europeans as well — for this intellectual struggle. In short, about taking it just as seriously as we do the political struggle with Putinism.

For there to be no doubts as to why this is imperative, it is sufficient to take a look at the critique of INSOR by Boris Gryzlov, which could compete in satirical force with the famous aphorisms of Chernomyrdin. Here is such a critique: “The history of the country — this is data on which everybody bases himself. But recently a report was published, drawn up by experts who do not accept our history ... . They are proposing plans for some kind of made-up country.” The person is telling us in black and white that he has no other ideology besides empire-ism.

But theoretically, what we have here is the very same problem about which we spoke in the interview. Russia is not at all a “late Europe,” as pre-revolutionary historians thought, as we once again imagined her to be during the times of “perestroika” and as the INSOR economists yet again imagine her nowadays. Russia is a “broken Europe.” And the sector of empire-nationalism is the dark legacy of this “brokenness” that still exists to this day. And this “brokenness” is not going anywhere, and Gryzlov (and maybe even Putin) will continue to base himself on it, and Kurginyan will continue to beat the liberals in television debates, as long as Russia does not rid itself of it, as it rid itself of empire two decades ago.


1 The intentionally insulting term “liberast” derives from a combination of “liberal” and “pederast” — a derogatory synonym for “male homosexual” in most Russians’ minds. “Faggot liberals” would be the near equivalent in English.

2 The Russian root of the name “Putin” is “put,” which means “path” or “route.”

~ Trans.