In an interview with Open Russia Vladimir Pastukhov, political scientist and honorary senior research associate at University College London, discusses the current state of Russian society, Vladimir Putin’s political perspectives, the possibilities of the government making catastrophic mistakes, and the goals of the opposition. Given its length, this interview will be published in two parts. The first part is available today, the second will appear next week.

 

Vladimir Pastukhov is also IMR's trustee.

 

“Young people responded to the malicious aesthetic the government has taken on in recent years”

Nathan Andrews: The March 26 anti-corruption protests came as a surprise to both the opposition and the Kremlin. In your opinion, how adequately does the Kremlin understand the socio-political situation in the country? Does the government have a clear picture of what’s going on in different social groups?

Vladimir Pastukhov:  For many years now Russia has been in a suppressed revolutionary state. In fact, the 2011 crisis, capped by the “Bolotnaya movement,” never really went away. But in terms of a so-called “Russian spring,” through the annexation of Crimea, through confrontation with Ukraine and increasingly through other foreign policy actions, Russia has managed to create a revolutionary export—to push the revolutionary situation outside of the country’s borders. This has manifested itself in the form of external confrontation, whereas inside the country such aims were achieved through stabilization, having created the illusion that there aren’t any problems. I would compare today’s situation with slow-burning peat, where the flames are barely visible from a distance. Everyone has become accustomed to this situation now, and so when this suppressed revolutionary situation began to become aware of itself again; neither the government nor the leaders were unprepared for it. 

NA: So is this a sign of a crisis?

VP: We need to be careful in our assessment. Due to the unexpectedness of the situation there is a risk of overestimating it and giving it a kind of symbolic meaning that it does not deserve. Many analysts and attentive observers got the impression that a new “spring” was on its way. Personally, I do not consider these events to be a breakthrough moment. What happened on March 26 is in many ways a coincidence of a number of different things. On the one hand, the Navalny team has created a very successful product. The remarkable thing is not the scandalous nature of the information exposed, but rather its excellent media-based packaging—this has been done very effectively. On the other hand, this product conveniently fell into the cross-section of the struggle currently taking place between various Kremlin groups, playing into the hands of one at the expense of others. If this struggle was not taking place and didn’t give the product such resonance, then I can promise you that the effect would have been far weaker. This media product has been so widely circulated that it has captured the interest of many different groups in society, particularly young people. 

NA: Do you anticipate a growth in the protest sentiment? 

VP: Are you referring to the so-called “hype?” I do not believe that as a result of March 26 the movement will grow exponentially, however I anticipate that Navalny's next protest on June 12 will cause quite a stir in the Kremlin. The government is still able to crush the protest movement with repression and deception. There is nothing yet that amounts to a “movement;” however it is a sign that society is not happy, and sooner or later all the government’s preventative measures will cease to function. 

NA: What do you think about the large numbers of young people who attended the March 26 protests? Does this fact say anything in particular?

VP: One of my friends who has been following closely what’s going on in Moscow came up with a very interesting observation. He said that to a significant degree it was an aesthetic rather than a political protest. It seems to me that we are underestimating the high price paid by the government to “stabilize” society in recent times. In the ideological sense that price was extremely high because the government had to enter an alliance with extremely marginal groups of people—the so-called “Orthodox patriots,” or “Orthodox chekists”— since the backbone of the Russian bureaucracy, as well as a large part of the population, has long been Europeanized and is, to a higher degree, more civilized. It wasn’t for nothing that once upon a time in Russia the Tsar was considered the main European figure in the country. On the whole, the Russian bureaucratic component is one of the most civilized parts of society, as strange as it may sound. However, in times of crisis this system has to undergo changes and align itself with marginal, often outright medieval forces that the government itself finds repulsive. 

Putin looks like a man capable of breaking with power, and therefore he is capable of making his political game much more complex than he is credited for.

This is exactly what has been happening in Russia since 2013-2014 during the rise of the so-called obscurantists—ignorant, aggressive, narrow-minded people whose emotions have the upper hand over their intellect. These people began to impose a primitive standard of thinking on society. All of this was utterly rejected by a significant part of the population, particularly young people, who have been raised on the internet and social media, where it was met with incomprehension and stupor. Young people responded less to the government itself and the problem of corruption, which at their age is a mere abstraction (the fight against corruption is the prerogative of the older generation) than to the malicious aesthetic the government has taken on in recent years. This will motivate them to move forward. The government is not offering young people a dignified ideology that they can relate to. The ideology that the Kremlin is busy constructing is attractive only to a very narrow group of people.

NA: So Navalny’s product is more attractive to these young people?

VP: Of course, to begin with Navalny’s product is vastly more modern. It is set out in the terminology of the 21st century. Navalny’s supporters see him as dynamic, offering development and openness. 

 

“Inside, Putin may feel he is ready to leave” 

NA: According to the Kremlin, the government is looking to achieve a 70 percent turnout in the 2018 presidential elections and an equally high level of support for Putin himself.  What steps is the Kremlin taking in order to bring this about?

VP: For me, the biggest mystery surrounding the Kremlin today is that Putin has still not expressed his desire to run for president in the coming elections. Maybe he’ll take the opportunity to announce it during his “Direct Line” TV appearance on June 15. Although it sounds strange to say, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a lover of power. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that he is a person who values comfort and has a skeptical frame of mind. He does not give the impression—or has not done so far—of being a person who wishes to be “wedded to power.” He is often portrayed as brutal, but there is an elusive, yet definite difference between psychological types such as Putin, Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. For the latter two, power was a passion. I think that Putin harbors a similar passion, but not for power. Putin seems like a man capable of breaking with power, and therefore he is capable of making his political game much more complex than he is credited for. His tragedy is that the system he has created may not allow him to play the game as he’d like to.  

NA: Do you think there’s a possibility Putin may not run for president?

VP: The conflict may end up looking quite different. Inside, he may feel he is ready to leave. As a person raised on Eastern philosophy and Eastern martial arts, the most optimal and preferable option for him would be the position of a Russian Deng Xiaoping; a person who is de facto running the country, yet is de jure separated from the government. It’s also not clear whether his entourage, upon whom he is entirely dependent, will allow him to do that.  

The picture is much more complex than the Kremlin administration’s simple desire to secure a 70 percent turnout—it is a populist view of the goals and tasks of the administration. If the administration had such a goal, we would not have witnessed the replacement of Vyacheslav Volodin with Sergey Kiriyenko [as deputy chief of the presidential administration]. To simply force 70 percent of people to vote and then announce victory is not very sophisticated. We shouldn’t underestimate the government: it has enough resources to do this the bureaucratic way. To give orders to regional officials, head teachers, police chiefs and senior doctors and simply write any number you like would be very Sovietesque. Any low-level protest can be suppressed, and so the main thing is to be clever; don’t invent anything new, just keep things simple, like Volodin, and act accordingly.  This is working well for them, but, I repeat, only for now. 

The government has abandoned this approach.  It has reshuffled its team a year and a half before the elections. People of entirely different stock are being brought in. Kiriyenko, for example, was raised under the political strategist Peter Shchedrovitsky. This is not [former deputy chief of the presidential administration Vladislav] Surkov, it’s a whole new and far more sophisticated generation of political strategists. These people do not break down reality, they simulate it. 

NA: So if the Kremlin fails to achieve this 70 percent turnout, what will be next?

VP: Putin is far more ambitious than many are accustomed to believe. He wants more. The administration faces a completely different task: to provide a “from-the-heart” vote for Putin, to channel the genuine love of the people towards Vladimir Putin in the presidential election. This is not an easy thing to pull off in a country chronically afflicted by corruption, archaic ideas and lunacy. I think that the administration will be working to create such a potent virtual reality that people will consciously, whole-heartedly and passionately cast their votes for Vladimir Putin. How exactly the Kremlin intends to achieve this is a very interesting question. For this, a more complex sort of politics is needed than the mere redistribution of resources. A kind of politics in which each person will be given the opportunity to believe in their own individual illusion. 

 

To be continued.

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