20 years under Putin: a timeline

The idea of my previous essay was to convince readers that today’s Russia and its future is challenged on an existential level as seriously as it was during the times of Peter the Great. History — then and now — has presented us with a dilemma: do we change or do we degrade? The degradation in question being irreversible. Therefore, the motto I suggested for the future leader of the opposition is substantially the same one as Peter the Great's: "Become Europe to survive!"


Propaganda posters working on convincing an average Russian that nationalism is a progressive and fashionable point of view.


But if you read Russian newspapers and blogs (currently concentrated mostly on guessing how many votes will be rigged for the "party of cheaters and thieves" by the bearded Vladimir Churov), it is obvious that between this life-changing motto and the Putin-era reality lies an abyss. That is why the immediate questions today's opposition faces are evident: is there a chance to build a bridge over the abyss? And if so, what would this bridge look like?

I certainly have no absolute answers to these questions. I can only offer some thoughts, possibly helpful to those who undertake such a bridge. My reasons are based on centuries of Russian oppositional history.

The first conclusion (indisputable to my mind) is that only a new political oppositional party could build such a bridge in the current situation (it could be named the "European Party of Russia," for example). It is obvious that the new party should unite those who won't hesitate to identify themselves as "Russian Europeans" (just as Petr Chaadaev and Alexandr Herzen did in the 19th Century). Are there enough people in today's Russia to constitute the core of this new opposition? We would need at least as many as there were Bolsheviks in 1914, i.e. tens of thousands. I think there are. The deeper the degradation goes, the bigger the oppositional numbers grow, and eventually they are bound to soar the way they did in the case of the Bolsheviks.

The second conclusion is more controversial. Before this new party starts erecting a bridge, it needs to give up on some of the ideas popular within the oppositional community, doctrines that have acquired the status of political dogma. I refer to the false notion that the collapsed Empire will immediately be replaced by a law-governed nation-state. This idea is insisted upon not only by practicing politicians like Garry Kasparov and Alexey Navalny, but also by political theory heavyweights like Igor Yakovenko, Emil Paine and lately, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This dogma should be abandoned because while it is conceived as a counterbalance to ethnic nationalism, it in fact fuels and encourages it.

The second idea that should be given up is that today’s opposition can erect this bridge by themselves, provided that Western governments lend a hand by tightening sanctions against Putin's regime. A half millenium of struggle against arbitrary rule in Russia disproves this dogma. There is no doubt that much has been accomplished by the Russian opposition throughout the centuries: seven full-scale constitutional drafts and three Great reforms (in the 16th, 19th, and 20th Centuries) demonstrate these efforts. But decisive victory has never been won, and in 2011, there are not many more safeguards against arbitrary rule in Russia than there were in 1511. Like a chameleon, the grip of authoritarianism changes its color but always remains authoritarian.

What makes today's opposition leaders believe that they will succeed and win the battle, one in which twenty (!) generations before have suffered defeat?

I understand that my emphasis on theoretical issues being the top-priority for the so-called "European Party of Russia" is bound to provoke the indignation of radical opposition leaders hoping for a fight against Putin's regime. For them I'll have to exemplify my point with the help of one of the greatest tacticians of the opposition: Vladimir Lenin. Did he not concentrate on purely theoretical empirio-critical treatises after the defeat in 1905, when the bottom was falling out for him and his country, not unlike today, and was plunging into an atmosphere of amorality, cynicism, and political inactivity? He did, as we all know well. It was more important for him to consolidate the core of his party than to continue the riot of revolutionary dogmatists. Essentially, this is what I suggest (naturally, with certain reservations). And for the same reason.

All that’s left to prove is why it is so important for the European Party of Russia to consolidate and dissociate from other opposition groups, thereby giving up on those theoretical dogmas. I see this as no less important than Lenin in his day saw the abandonment of empirio-criticism.

The problem is not only that, as Vitaly Ikhlov recently demonstrated, a large majority of our population associates the term "nation-state" with an ethnic state. It would take generations to eradicate this common misconception, and it would take even longer to substitute it with the concept of the state as a political (legal, civil) nation.

In theory it is important that with the exception of China, all the states comparable to Russia (such as India, Canada, the U.S., Brazil, and even Germany) are in fact multi-ethnic and multi-faith but not at all nation-states. All of the aforementioned are also federations. So there's no need to change the political culture in Russia in order to oppose ethnic nationalism – just following the Russian constitution would be enough (although it is not so easy to do so in Russia since ethnic enclaves are much different from the territorial autonomies in the aforementioned federations). But as the experiences of Canada and Francophone Quebec, Spain and the Basque Provinces, and Germany with Catholic Bavaria show, in the context of a healthy federation, different ethnic and faith enclaves co-exist peacefully. But those federations are the healthy ones, where states (or enclaves) enjoy genuine autonomy, where the majority doesn’t claim to be the state-forming nation, where there’s no established Church and no Russian nationalist marches. These are federations where any nationalist sentiments of the ethnic majority are marginalized.

Naturally, nationalists have never been and will never be content with federal organization of a state. They, as strange as this coincidence may seem, crusade precisely for the nation-state. Few people seem to remember how in the early 1990s, the nationalists in the Soviet Union headed by Sergey Baburin were fighting tooth and nail against the title of "Russian Federation." They even half-succeeded: if I remember correctly, at first there was a compromise to have the double title of "Russia. Russian Federation." If those guys had won the putsch in October 1993, they would have cut the end off for sure, and there would have been no such thing as the Russian Federation today.

Another thing is that Putin has succeeded in completely diluting federalism in Russia, turning the country essentially into a unitary state. Today's Russia is virtually a nation-state. They still have to change some formalities in the Constitution, which is something nationalists demand during their marches. What is there for liberals in such company?

The fact that the regime's TV monopoly gives it a tremendous advantage over the opposition isn't a secret. There will be no political competition in Russia whatsoever until this television blockade is broken. Competition is the key to everything the opposition strives for, and without it there will be no fair elections, no working Duma, no independent judiciary, no federalism, nothing. So a real safeguard against arbitrary rule is out of question. Does the opposition have enough resources on its own, to overturn this blockade? The questions is rhetorical: no, it does not. End of story.

But is the West able to end the monopoly (provided that all its advanced technological and PR resources are mobilized towards this aim)? Here I must recall the darkness of Soviet times, when in similar conditions, the country was influenced greatly by radio. The Soviet blockade was even tighter because there was no Internet, and all foreign broadcasting was totally jammed. But the West managed to break through this blockade. Just remember Freedom, BBC, Voice of America, and Deutche Welle. All parts of the population, including Party leadership, listened to the voices of the larger world through the static of jammed broadcasts. Would perestroika be possible without the breakage of that radio blockade? Who knows…

Will it be possible to break through the television blockade now, a quarter of a century later? If we keep in mind the miracles of modern Western technology, there's nothing it can't do, as far as non-experts can tell. There shouldn't be any obstacles when obtaining "human capital" to fulfill the task. If the staff for the breakthrough of the radio blockade was recruited mainly from the Soviet diaspora, today (although the diaspora has grown tremendously, even the figures from the Russian Auditing Chamber show that almost 1.5 million people have left Russia in last ten years) we might only need to attract qualified personnel from the homeland itself. Alternative television may be able to rely upon support from literally tens of thousands of volunteer reporters throughout the country. Eventually it may reach the levels of the first Russian censorship-free newspaper Kolokol published by Herzen in the 19th Century.

The political feasibility of such a task is a different story. During Soviet times the breakthrough of the broadcasting blockade was carried out as an essential part of Western state policy. The threat was real and obvious: In the 1970s, Soviet tanks were ready to cut across Oder river and, in the manner of the Nazi blitzkrieg, force through to the English channel with a little help from battlefield nuclear weapons. And what do we have today? The opening of the "Northern flow" gas pipeline? Backdoor gas deals with Putin's cronies? And endless attempts to convince wolves that it is healthy to be a vegetarian. And the same fatal illness of the Western establishment: a reluctance to think about the future. Sure there are some distinct voices that remind us about this nuclear problem. Professor Ebestadt, mentioned in the previous essay, forewarns that the way the Kremlin leaders behave will become even less predictable and more threatening when they realize at last their inability to successfully fight "super mortality" and the degradation of the nation. According to Ebestadt, Moscow officially claims that nuclear weapons are their one and only trump card (a point recently emphasized by the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Nikolay Makarov).

Although Professor Eberstadt didn't specify exactly what trump card he was talking about, common sense suggests that he didn't mean nuclear warheads on intercontinental range missiles (even if driven into a corner, Kremlin leaders would hardly lose the instinct for self-preservation). The most probable guess would be that he meant the same battlefield of nuclear weapons from Soviet times which were never used for a blitzkrieg, those weapons not controlled by any treaty or convention, weapons that are carefully kept like a coin in the pantry of weakening power.

It has been indirectly proven by the words of General Makarov who, when speaking of military conflicts with Baltic countries and Georgia, mentioned that they might lead to nuclear war. It could hardly be those intercontinental range missiles, right? Professor Eberstadt let it out, too, when mentioning that Moscow seems to fighting in this century with weapons of the past. So my guess is that in the case that the degradation of Russia proves to be irreversible, it's not going to be the U.S. who will face fatal threats, it will be Europe.

When trying to save the country from degradation the Russian opposition should not only care for the nation's destiny, but for Europe's fate, as well. Let us put it this way: if another twelve years of Putin's rule constitute, as the opposition claims, a real threat of Russian degradation, and if the same opposition is unable to break Putin's television blockade by themselves, what options do we have?

The cynicism of Putin gaining back power definitively compromised his image in the eyes of the European intelligentsia, making an unbelievably favorable situation for a future party. This influential tier of European intellectuals is capable of impacting public opinion in their respective countries, thus forcing European governments to help their allies in Russia. And not with admonitions and sanctions, but with technology (although smart sanctions wouldn't do any harm). The idea in essence is to make the West reattempt the experiment from Soviet times and dismantle the current regime's information monopoly, thereby delivering Europe from the menace of degrading Russia instead of from Soviet tanks.

Will the new Russian political party (if it's ever established) manage to convince European intellectuals, whose opinion is critical when it comes to fundamental change in Western attitudes, of this dire need? There are more than enough experts within the opposition to do so, and those are probably the most qualified ones, including the ex-Prime Minister and former advisor to the President and at least a dozen ex-Ministers (not counting the experts from the Institute of Contemporary Development or the Russian Higher School of Economics). The only thing they need to do is to testify before the European elite that Putin’s television monopoly is driving the country towards irreversible degradation.

The dual task of the new political party can be derived from the theoretical arguments above. First, it must turn the dispute between the opposition and the regime into a dispute between the regime and Europe. Secondly, it must convince Europe to summon up all of its technological resources to repeat the achievement from Soviet times.

My considerations constitute only one set of options for Russia in order to meet the existential challenge mentioned above. And if opposition intellectuals could wrap their minds around it (instead of blathering over the differences between Putin and Brezhnev's stagnation), they could probably find a way to build a bridge over the abyss. It would be interesting and useful to get different answers to this momentous and life-changing question and to let Russian citizens decide for themselves which of the suggested scenarios is most feasible.