20 years under Putin: a timeline

Many years ago I had an opponent: not too serious, but a very controversial one. At the time, I lived in Berkeley, California, and Mikhail Agursky – my opponent – was Israel’s leading Sovietologist.


When Agursky and I were jousting, during the time when the ideological swords of “global Russians” were clashing, the newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo served the Russian population in New York. The newspaper shut down last year, but in those days (in the 70s and the 80s), it was the NRS editor who decided the fate of local Russian writers.

And the editor happened to favor Agursky. As for me, I played the role of NRS’ whipping boy. This was no accident: Agursky was the darling of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who kept a watchful eye from his Vermont castle making sure that there were no “deviators” among the ranks of the emigrant literati. I was counted among the “deviators,” and the dispute revolved around Russian nationalism, a topic close to Solzhenitsyn’s heart. The Israeli Agursky, son of an American communist who came to the USSR and was repressed in 1937, was – imagine! – a Russian nationalist.

Agursky’s credo sounded something like this: “Conservative Russian nationalism is not a threat but a sign of hope.”  Incidentally, the Russian nationalist movement was formulated in 1989, two years after the National-Patriotic Front Pamyat was founded, whose bible was the [eds note: fraudulent anti-Semitic text] “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and in whose eyes the Soviet authorities represented these “elders” in Holy Rus'.

This didn’t disturb Agursky or Solzhenitsyn. Pamyat was written off by them as a front for the Department of National Bolshevism bought out by the Kremlin, even though both Alexander Dugan, dubbed the “Kirill and Methodius of Russian fascism” by his future fellow party member Eduard Limonov, and Alexander Barkashov, hero of the October 1993 coup who publicly declared himself a Nazi, came out of Pamyat…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I incurred the wrath of Agursky (and Solzhenitsyn) again in 1978, when my second book published in America, The New Russian Right, came out.  I wrote it to bring the attention of the Western public to their constant illness – a reluctance to plan for the future.  At the time, the public knew “the power of only one thought, only one burning passion”: to crush the Soviet empire.  But for some reason the fundamental question of “what next?” didn’t come to mind, just as it doesn’t come to mind for today’s Russian opposition, which is just as passionate about crushing Putin’s rule.

Sooner or later, Putin’s reign will end, just as the Soviet empire ended, and then what?  Are you prepared to present to your fellow countrymen with an acceptable plan for a future “without Putin”?  This is the same situation in which the world found itself in 1978.


In the late 1970s, my premise was that the communist ideology on which the Soviet empire was based would die and was already dying.  There was one “but”: the empire would collapse and Russia would remain.  It would remain with all of its ideological legacies and complexes, as well as with its superpower nuclear arsenal.  As Georgy Fedotov so correctly foresaw, “when the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary shock wears off, the new generations will be faced with all the problematic aspects of Russian thought.”  By the time the empire collapses, it will be too late to sort out these “problematic” aspects.  Now is the time to do this.  I wrote this in 1978.

Of course, I couldn’t have known at the time that in 1992, Agursky’s “hope” would begin to prepare a “nationalist revolution” and civil war, and that, as Sergey Kurginyan – the revolution’s spokesperson at the time – explained to me, “in March of next year, the national liberation movement will be in power.”  I also couldn’t have known that in that same year, the Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev would publicly admit that “Russia’s last Weimar year is running out,” or that Moskovskie Novosti would acknowledge that “Kozyrev’s conclusion – whose interview with Izvestia made a lot of noise – doesn’t seem to be so sensationalist.  To the thoughtful observer, it is absolutely self-evident that what is happening to us now is similar to what happened in Germany in 1933.”

I didn’t know any of this in 1978.  But, in Fedotov’s words, I understood the “problematic aspects of Russian thought” and I was sure that nationalists in Russia, dressed, as usual, in patriotic garb, wouldn’t give up their chance to grab control of the superpower nuclear arsenal after the fall of the empire.  They wanted to grab it for the express purpose of continuing the “all-out war on the West” from Soviet times, as they openly declared in the newspaper 'Den’.

And, I should add, on March 28, 1993, when the Congress of Peoples' Deputies was short 72 votes to impeach Yeltsin (according to [Sergey] Shakhray, only 36 votes), Russian nationalists were on the verge of coming into power. It appeared that [Sergey] Kurgiyan was going to make good on his promise to renew a “total war with the West.” But to his disappointment, they still needed several dozen more votes. The nationalists had to put “their struggle” off until the April referendum, which they were sure they'd win. And when they failed at the referendum, they tried enact it by force in October, trashing the Mayor’s office and storming the Ostankino TV tower. That was the outcome of Agursky’s (and Solzhenitsyn’s) “hope.”

It took fifteen years to realize their cruel mistake. But at that time, when “The New Russian Right” was published, I was buried under a hailstorm of critical articles in NRS exposing me as no less than an agent of Brezhnev’s regime who’d been sent to America for the purposes of disorienting the White House, to say nothing of the supposed swarm of anonymous informants ratting to the FBI. Keep in mind that all I wrote was about “tomorrow,” about things I thought would be inevitable after the breakdown of the empire.

All this dirty business is the last thing I want to think about now, but at the time it had quite an impact on my nerves. The reason I write about this today, is that recently I’ve come to realize what the real motivation was for all that fuss from Solzhenitsyn’s circle. My book was a way to demonstrate that the “hope” they cherished was based on a big fat fake, a swindle. Their beloved Russian nationalists were not at all patriots (it should have been enough to ask if real Russian patriots needed “total war with the West,” which nationalists were already living and breathing at the time). They misappropriated the word “patriotism” in the first place. They substituted the familiar intimate feeling of caring for your homeland – an experience that normal people connect to patriotism – with a militant ideology of hatred for foreign places.

Any true patriot will tell you, in the words of Pyotr Chaadayev: “I have not learned to love my homeland with my eyes closed, with my head bowed, and my mouth shut tight. Moreover, I think that the time for blind love has passed; now what we foremost owe our fatherland is the truth.” A nationalist would respond with the words of Valentin Zorin from Soviet times (or Maxim Shevchenko in post-Soviet times): “AND THEY have Negroes lynched.” That’s how the nationalists keep pretending to be patriots.

Was I the first to write about this? Didn’t the same Fedotov say that “not love for one’s own, but hatred for the foreign is the core idea of modern nationalism”? Hadn’t Vladimir Soloviev half a century before Fedotov noted the hopeless “contradiction between the patriotism which believes in making Russia as good and prosperous as possible, and the false claims of nationalists who assert that Russia is better than all the rest, just the way it is”?

Only a blind historian could miss this difference, witnessing the late nineteenth/early twentieth century process of degeneration, when “reasonable” romantic European Slavophilism gradually transformed into the vicious and quite “unreasonable” Black Hundreds movement, the movement which was “built on the model of Italian fascism,” as Nikolai Markov, the former Chief of the Union of the Russian People later boasted.

Hasn’t this fatal degeneration repeated in the twentieth century, when the peaceful half-underground Christian-Patriotic Union of Soviet times gave birth to an entity as monstrous as Pamyat, with its official credo of “monarchic fascism”? Fascism attracted degenerated nationalists ([Nikolai] Markov and [Aleksandr] Dugin) like a magnet. And so this pattern seems to be a natural property of imperial nationalism: it can’t help degenerating. And this degenerated nationalism was what Solzhenitsyn anchored his hope upon.

The legend of terminology like “decent” nationalists and “healthy,” “acceptable,” and “aristocratic” nationalism doesn’t change the fact that such language was (and still is) used by nationalism’s high priests to fool the simple folk. Even in 1978 there were no “decent” nationalists in the USSR. If anything, the only “acceptable nationalists” were the patriots. And what they were concerned with was, in the words of Vladimir Soloviev, how to make Russia as good and prosperous as possible, certainly not about “total struggle with the West.”

This situation brings up some even more interesting questions: what could Western leaders do (if they were to think carefully about “tomorrow”) to neutralize the burst of degenerated nationalism after the breakdown of Soviet Empire? It seems obvious that the West failed to attend to this problem, which has led to a resurgence of anti-Western feelings in Russia. The fact is that today’s liberal opposition faces essentially the same problem [as it did in Soviet times?]. Only today, the problem is complicated by widespread anti-Western sentiments, suicidal ethnic tension, and most importantly, by “supermortality,” the term first introduced by the American demographer Nicholas Eberstadt to emphasize that the very existence of the nation is now at stake. This supermortality devastates Russia and has no match in Europe or elsewhere except for the poorest countries on the globe. Ethnic tension exacerbates the situation by gradually turning Russia into an “Upper Volta with rockets,” to use the political slang of the time.

According to statistics, life expectancy in Russia today is lower than in Bangladesh, Eritrea, Niger and Yemen. Life expectancy figures for men in particular are even worse: they are lower than in impoverished Sudan and Rwanda. And most importantly, despite some brief breaks in the overall trend, these figures keep going down. And there’s no light at the end of the tunnel…

I now think the same thing that I thought back then: what we need is a viable alternative to the star that extinguished in 1960, the star of Soviet communism that, no matter how hypocritical and Utopian, gave some light to Russia after the Great War and death of its tyrant. In fact, after Khruschev, people lost their great historic purpose. They lost sight of the goal which, according to Marx, gives birth to great energy and gives the nation a sense of common aim. With this goal comes confidence in the future and hope for a better life for future generations.

Not coincidently, the “supermortality” began when the Khruschev reforms were brought to a close, when Brezhnev tried to replace the extinguished star with consumerism and relative prosperity. The nation’s response to this attempt was extinction. And so it goes ever since, with one interruption for Perestroika in late 1980s. There’s no way of stopping this extinction process except for giving people confidence in their future. The problem is how to do this

Back in 1978, the offer in economic terms was meager. It could basically be reduced to “Russia without communists.” Then what? This question was ignored. Some of the emigrant communities with Solzhenitsyn as their leader tried to fill this vacuum with “hope” for nationalism. As we now know, none of this could promise a revival in confidence for future and thus couldn’t stop the process of extinction.

Today the offer is not much broader. Nationalists, repeating the pre-revolutionary experiments of the Union of the Russian People, offer parades where the only outcome is all of Russia’s nationalities quarrelling. Putin offers a restoration of Brezhnev’s regime, and liberals offer “Russia without Putin.” It’s total déjà vu. It all happened before, and it did not end well.

Is there a chance to reanimate this ghostly landscape? Chances of something I once called a “European project” are quite low. But this project at least offered something completely new. At any rate, it never drove the country to disaster like all the others. It also seems important that the European project came from Russia’s best minds: Pyotr Chaadayev, Vladimir Soloviev, and Georgy Fedotov.

To implement this project, Russia doesn’t need to join NATO or even the European Union. What we need is to light a new star, to put the nation on the path towards a new historical goal: to become a society in which protection against arbitrary rule prevails. In other words, to become Europe.

Europe is the place where the very idea of such protection was born and then propagated around the world. And if such ideas became firmly established in Taiwan or South Korea without conflicting with their national traditions, how is Russia any worse? After all, it’s a matter of national pride. Not the way nationalists (recalling Soloviev) put it, asserting that “Russia is the best of all,” but the way the liberal opposition should put it: “Russia is no worse than others.”

Keeping in mind my immigrant experience, I can already imagine the ridicule and poison arrows that will be provoked by my taking this position in today’s ugly situation. [Leonid] Radzikhovsky will tell me that I’m “spitting in the wind”; [Ivan] Okhlobystin will respond that I am humiliating great Russia, which is by all means “the best”; [Zakhar] Prilepin will say that “to be an empire is Russia’s destiny” (he wouldn’t even bother explaining why Russia, after four centuries of imperialism, is no better off than before); [Alexey] Navalny will claim that to get rid of the “party of cheaters and thieves” would be enough (forgetting that Peter the Great – not to compare them – spent all his life battling corruption and died defeated by it); and father Vsevolod Chaplin will say that Orthodox Russia has no business with earthly and spiritually-impoverished Europe. What Mikhail Leontyev and Maxim Shevchenko would say to me I won’t even dare predict. Those gentlemen would probably use obscene words.

The strange thing is that the answers from Solzhenitsyn’s circle of critics in America were basically the same until the collapse of the empire in 1991. But the empire did collapse, after all. They didn’t believe it: they were certain that Gorbachev’s Perestroika was just another communist trick designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the West. However, what matters now is how we can stop the process of extinction of the nation. By now the reader knows my answer: there’s no chance for Russia to survive other than to become Europe. That’s why I’d like the motto of the future leader of the liberal opposition, for example Mikhail Khodorkovsky, if he’s destined to lead it one day, to read something like: “Become Europe to survive!”