20 years under Putin: a timeline

As Vladimir Putin is about to be re-elected for another presidential term thus becoming one of the longest serving Russian leaders in history, IMR's Olga Khvostunova sat down with Michael Khodarkovsky, Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, to discuss Putin's legacy, the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the Russian government's attempts to whitewash the past, and the country's outlook for the future. Given the length of this interview, it will be published in two parts. Part one is available below; part two will be released next week.


Michael Khodarkovsky. Photo: luc.edu.


Olga Khvostunova: On March 18 Vladimir Putin will inevitably be elected Russia’s president for another term. He is one of the longest serving leaders in the country’s history. How would you assess Putin as a historical figure? What is his legacy?

Michael Khodarkovsky: One can only speculate about the future judgment of history, of course. In the short run, Putin will be seen as a man who created a hybrid political regime and who initially succeeded in taking advantage of the weaknesses in the democratic political systems. In the long run, Putin will be considered a conservative and unimaginative leader of Russia, a new-age dictator, who instead of modernizing Russia was responsible for the country's stagnation and decline. 

OK: What about Putinism, how will it go down in history?

MK: Putin’s policies will be summed up by two interconnected objectives—restoring the perceived greatness of Russia and undermining the Western democratic order. Putinism will be characterized as a period of monumental official corruption and unprecedented empowering of the security agencies. Putin will be seen less as a president of a country and more as its chief spy who placed the entire state at the disposal of the intelligence services.

His tenure in office will be considered a time of missed opportunities and fruitless attempts to create an anti-modern, militaristic empire out of joint with the modern times. A minority will regard him on a par with Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin as a necessary evil in making Russia great. The majority, however, will condemn him for his naked ambition to stay in power at all costs and for squandering an opportunity to normalize Russia and turn it into a prosperous and respected country. In the last phase of his rule, he will be seen, like his predecessors Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, as a man who increasingly lost grip on reality and whose increasing paranoia and frustration over his failures led to psychopathological behavior. In this sense, he will be seen no differently from dictators past and present.

OK: Let me step back here for a bit and take a broader look at Russia’s path over the last hundred years. 2017 marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution. This event was discussed extensively by many Russian observers and scholars in the West. What would you say are its implications for today’s Russia? What are the most valuable lessons that are relevant to the country’s modern life?

MK: Several answers come to mind. Number one is the very basic fact of confronting history—that is, looking at the results of the Russian Revolution of 1917 from today’s point of view and confronting history openly without ideological premises or attempts to manipulate it in such a way that it legitimizes the present government. This has been traditionally a challenge in Russian history—both in the Russian Empire and particularly in the Soviet times. And to be able to confront one’s own history, no matter how unpleasant or painful it might be, is one of the fundamental issues here. This is the only way to draw conclusions for the present and particularly for the future. 

One can draw different lessons, but what strikes me most is that the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in a century of unprecedented violence. And that violence was based on two institutions—the security apparatus (the KGB in its different permutations) and the propaganda machine. These two institutions are the culprits behind the many terrible things that happened in 20th century Russian and Soviet history. So one of the lessons for Russia is that these two institutions have to go. You cannot have a democratic society and at the same time live in fear of a political police and subjected to a daily government propaganda. The propaganda has to go, and the FSB, contained and restructured.

OK: Do you think the lessons could be different for the government or the elites and for the public? And if they are, where would you draw the distinction line? 

MK: These lessons are relevant for any member of the society. I wouldn’t necessarily separate the elites or the government from the public. In any democratic society, the elites are part of the general public, they just occupy a different position. If the government wants to set itself apart from the society, as it does in Russia today, then it will draw different lessons. For example, what can be done to prevent the mistakes that caused the collapse of certain governments, including the Soviet government? For Putin, I’m sure, the “color revolutions” and the Arab Spring in the Middle East were a wake-up call, so he would look for lessons there. But a healthy society should be able to focus on other issues. First of all, it’s the ability to discuss the past and present and to draw conclusions—that could be agreed or disagreed with—to promote a normal, healthy democratic society.

OK: It seems that the Russian government broadly ignored the centennial. The celebrations in Russia mostly eschewed the problem of violence and focused instead on the cultural legacy of the Revolution. Some experts note that the Kremlin is anxious about uttering very word “revolution” in public. Do you think this could mean the elites are afraid that the history will repeat itself?

MK: I can only judge what I see from here. And I don’t think it’s fear of a mass revolution. It seems that the Kremlin just does not know how to deal with this [historic event], how to package and present it to the public. So they decided not emphasize it and to pass over it in silence. The Kremlin spin doctors are caught in their own bind, because, on the one hand, the Kremlin tries to dissociate itself from the Soviet rule and align with the Russian empire and its imperial ambitions. On the other hand, they are the direct successors and heirs to the Soviet regime, in both their political and cultural mentality in many ways. This is a typical case of what I call a Russian social schizophrenia-an attempt to reconcile reality with your own mental world. And the two are very often irreconcilable. In the long run, this causes serious social trauma, which is what had often happened in Russian history.

OK: But do you think this decision to de-emphasize the Revolution could be due to a lack of intellectual capacity in the Kremlin where loyalty is valued above everything?

MK: My guess is that it’s not a lack of intellectual capacity, because they have been very clever in many different ways. Not in positive ways, unfortunately, but their propaganda machinery has been very sophisticated. If they wanted, they could have chosen a certain form to present the Revolution to the public. But it’s too difficult an issue to handle, because it could open some questions that they don’t want the public to ask. Just like the Lenin Mausoleum in the middle of Moscow—a very controversial issue, but it’s still there, because no one wants to deal with it and it’s better to leave it the way it is. 

OK: That’s too sensitive for them, right?

MK: Yes, too sensitive an issue that could open certain wounds, make people ask certain questions. Why risk it, is the Kremlin's attitude.

OK: As a historian, how would you recommend the Revolution centennial should be discussed, what issues should be addressed?

MK: If it were in my hands, I would say, first of all, let’s simply open this issue up for a genuine, open discussion. Discussing the event itself is the healthiest and best way to approach it. And the Communists are welcome to present their version and ideas of what happened back then. They could emphasize the great achievements of the Revolution—industrialization, literacy, and so on. Other people could emphasize other things. If I were part of this discussion, I would emphasize, again, the extraordinary, unprecedented violence that this event unleashed. Because one could argue that without it there could have been no rise of the Nazis in Germany, therefore no World War II and certainly no Cold War—all that cost tens of millions of innocent lives. And if you think about it—of course, this is arguable—the entire history of the 20th century would have been written differently. When I ask myself whether the price of achieving industrialization or literacy was worth it, for me the answer is easy—no, it wasn’t. Industrialization and other developments could have been achieved by different means, just as well, or even quicker. We didn’t need this mass mobilization accompanied by mass brutality. So the way I would celebrate the centennial is by opening up the archives, having a big and open discussion and letting the public be aware of what is out there.

“In my view, the only way to create a healthy state is precisely by exposing the problems, exposing the divisions, and then coming to some sort of consensus.”

Let me give you an example. Even right now in Russia there is a denial of history on many levels. One of them is the imperial legacy. When we look at all non-Russians in the Russian population today, the history of their conquest and rule is not discussed, it is swept under the rug. These are too sensitive issues, the government decided, both in the Soviet times and now. The usual line is that non-Russians joined the Russian Empire out of their own volition. Now, compare this with the situation with the Native Americans in the United States. For a long time, the image of American Indians mostly stemmed from Hollywood movies about the Wild West. Native Americans were either romanticized or they were the bad guys who attacked the Wild West settlers. And then in the 1970s, there came a group of historians who created a new field known as the New History of the American Frontier. They presented a much more complex picture of the conquest of the West and what a disaster it was for the Native Americans—the violence that they endured. Within two decades, this picture became part of the general public sentiment. And today you can’t find a reasonably educated person who would say, well, Native Americans were bad, they attacked us, they got what they deserved. Why? Because there was a genuine public discussion of history with no ideological deadweight attached to it. These were shameful parts of U.S. history that had to be dealt with in the open.

OK: There is a concern among some experts that an open discussion on the Russian Revolution, mass purges, and certain realities of the Great Patriotic War may expose painful divisions inside the society, which could lead to the unmaking of the Russian state. And that’s one of the reasons why the current government doesn’t want to touch this subject. How would you address this concern?

MK: Well, this is exactly the line of reasoning in the Soviet times and we know what happened to the USSR. But let me look at one particular issue, which is more or less my expertise. And that is the integration of the non-Russian, non-Christian population in the national fabric of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and 1930s, under Stalin, there was a clear party line that the Russian Empire was a “prison of the peoples,” that it was oppressing non-Russians. Then came World War II, and Stalin had to rely on Russian nationalism during the course of the war. And after the war the party line changed. Now it was said that the non-Russian peoples voluntarily joined the Russian Empire and they greatly benefited from it. It was a positive line that despite the historical facts claimed the creation of one, happy Soviet people. But what happened next? That didn’t save the Soviet Union; it didn’t prevent it from falling apart. Sweeping history under the rug does not save a country from future problems.

In my view, the only way to create a healthy state is precisely by exposing the problems, exposing the divisions, and then coming to some sort of consensus. Otherwise, you will always have the politics of grievances on the part of non-Russians as they exist in Russia today. You will have misunderstanding on the part of the majority, that is ethnic Russians themselves, who wonder what these people are complaining about. These are legitimate issues, but you have to understand their historical context. You can confront these issues, discuss them, and arrive at some sort of compromise or consensus. Not addressing them in the long run is self-destructive.


To be continued.