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 is published in two parts. Part one was released last week; part two is available below.


Michael Khodarkovsky. Photo: luc.edu.


Olga Khvostunova: How would you assess the Russian government’s recent attempts to rewrite the country’s history, especially regarding the events of World War II or Soviet history in general? Modern history textbooks are now being changed to portray Putin’s government in a positive way, while the 90s are described as a period of utter turbulence from which Putin saved the country. Some believe that history is written by the winners. Do you think the Kremlin will be successful in essentially rewriting Russian history?

Michael Khodarkovsky: What the Kremlin is doing is quite simple and very primitive. Things like resurrecting the image of Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, whitewashing World War II without addressing the crimes committed by Stalin against his own people. All of this is a very short-term effort to legitimize Putin’s regime. “Comrade Stalin was great. Despite some of his excesses that still were necessary, he made Russia, or the Soviet Union, great.” Putin is following the same line. But it will not last. To anyone who has any education, who has the capacity to think just a little bit critically, this contrivance is quite obvious. Changing textbooks is a more dangerous endeavor, because it preys on the uncritical minds of young people, even children. So this propaganda should be balanced by parents or other sources of information that provide an alternative version to the “official line.” I think in the end, the Kremlin should be held responsible for what its spin doctors are doing to the people of Russia.

OK: But for now this whitewashing campaign is successful, isn’t it? In a recent poll, Stalin was recognized as the most prominent leader in Russia’s history. 

MK: I take all polling and all statistics coming form Russia with a big grain of salt. I don’t quite trust it, so I can’t judge the results. If this is true, there is a measure of success in continuous propaganda. But should we attribute it to Stalin himself or to the fact that most Russian people are exposed to mass propaganda on all government channels and have few alternative sources of information? Also, we know that polling results can change very quickly. Today, it’s Stalin, tomorrow Yeltsin. It depends.

OK: From a historical perspective, what is your opinion of the idea of Russian exceptionalism and the constant quest for a “special way” as a country stretched between Asia and Europe? And do you think democracy is possible in Russia?  

MK: That’s a great universal question. I think democracy in Russia is not only possible, it’s actually inevitable. Right now the picture may seem rather grim, because models coming from Russia, China and some other places appear to be popular and spreading. But I think there’s no other choice in any society at a certain level of development but to accept some sort of democratic system. When people think of democracy, they usually think of the United States, but there are many different forms of democracy. Russian democracy doesn’t have to imitate the U.S. variety, and I hope it won’t. In some ways, it is an extreme form of liberal democracy. German democracy provides all kinds of social networks. Sweden is probably what comes closest to socialism, but it is still a lively, genuine democracy. I have no doubt democracy will happen in Russia sooner or later, the question is only what shape it will take and how it will happen.

OK: Do you think it may happen through another revolution?

MK: I don’t see a revolution in Russia in the sense that we used this word in the 19th and 20th centuries. The digital age invites different forms and types of changes. What’s more, the only true revolutions that happened throughout Russian history are the two revolutions of 1917—the February Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. In Russia, change always comes from the top, unlike more democratic societies where people have a better say in governance. Whether it’s the abolition of serfdom and other reforms, the government decides, under invisible pressure, to initiate them. With Putin’s Russia, I would expect something similar. The elites today have become very wealthy with clear incentives to preserve this wealth and not end up in jail. There exist mechanisms to replace Putin and to have a slightly different form of government that will allow the present elites to survive and at the same time change Russia to a more open society.

OK: But do you think it will happen immediately after Putin, or will it take another generation of Russian political elites?

MK: The change will come within the elites, within the Kremlin, but when it will happen is, of course, hard to say. My guess is that we won’t need to wait another generation, usually 20 years or so. It will be much sooner.

OK: Are you expecting it to be a peaceful transition?

MK: Well, any solid prediction in such matters would not be prudent. But given what I know from Russian history and what I see now, I don’t expect a color revolution of the types that took place in the 1980s in Eastern Europe. No [symbolic] collapse of the Berlin Wall, no people gathering at Wenceslas Square in Prague and jingling keys [like they did during the Velvet Revolution]. I don’t see another Ukrainian Revolution either. I don’t see that kind of massive uprising in Russia. Modern technologies allow today’s governments to use very sophisticated methods of control and division. Twitter and Facebook, as much as they help people to connect, can be also used for very different purposes—to disconnect people, to divide. And the Russian government applies these technologies well. Still, no tools of social control can maintain a system that doesn’t work. So the question is at which point and where the system begins to break. As I see it, it’s going to happen within the Kremlin, simply because in the long run Russia’s political and economic systems are not sustainable.

OK: Do you think foreign pressure can facilitate this change? Say, Western policies that include sanctions?

MK: Yes, I think so. I believe in sanctions, but one should not expect too much foreign pressure. The United States has its own big problems now. Trump is certainly not the person who has the right principles to push Russia on certain issues. He is a very authoritarian figure who would love to have a system that would allow him to be in total control. Luckily, the system of checks and balances in the US is still working. Not perfectly, but working. It doesn’t allow him to do whatever he wants. The EU, unfortunately, is too self-centered and consumed with economic issues, so I don’t see much pressure coming from there either. 

“Russia needs to prove that it is great and make sure that others fear it. In other words, greatness is traditionally defined in Russia not in terms of national prosperity and wealth but the extent to which it can intimidate, control, and dominate others.”

OK: Since you touched upon the United States, what do you think of its current obsession with Russia? What do you make of the sudden shift from seeing Russia a regional power to calling it the greatest threat?

MK: I would not characterize it as an obsession. There’s not much interest in Russia in general. Americans have always tended to be introspective and isolationist, even provincial in many ways. This focus on Russia is simply because Russia interfered, in a most brazen way, in American elections. There is no doubt about it. The only question is the extent of this interference—whether there was direct collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, or they communicated indirectly, or Russia did it on its own. The extent and intent of disrupting the elections by a foreign power and promoting its preferred candidate are unprecedented. It never happened in American history. Sometimes different countries tried to interfere, for example by trying to give money to candidates, which is illegal. But nothing like this happened before.

In fact, I think there is not enough focus on this issue, because, in my mind, this is nothing but an act of war. You can conquer countries in two ways—send in the military to overthrow one government by force and install another one that you prefer, or act indirectly by influencing public opinion and eventually impose the government you want. The result is the same.  

OK: Through soft power.

MK: Right. For me, what Russia did is an act of war that requires an unequivocally strong response to make sure that this never happens again. It may sound very hawkish, but I would call for a much stronger response than selective sanctions. When American politicians say that this interference could happen again in the 2018 midterm elections, I am flabbergasted. They need to respond to such attempts with something five times stronger—disrupt Russia’s ability to communicate, which America has the capacity to do. Obama was correct to call Russia a regional power, because it doesn’t have the characteristics of a superpower. It’s a huge country with a small population and economy than is reliant on natural resources and arms industry. Unfortunately, he never matched his words with deeds. Describing Russia as a regional power was a somewhat offensive remark which put Putin in his place. It was literally and factually true, but ultimately a mistake and unnecessary to make. Because a statement like that needs backing up. And when Putin went on the offensive with all his policies—in Syria and everywhere else, Obama just stood there and absorbed it without doing anything.

OK: There is a view that Russia could have become as great a power as the United States, should it have had more luck. For example, should it not have been destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution or World War II. Would you agree with that?

MK: I have never heard such a view and it strikes me as both naive and unrealistic. Besides a certain size and diversity of population, these are two very different countries—politically, economically, and particularly culturally. From my point of view as a historian, one of the problems with Russia—or the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire—is a delusion of grandeur. Russia always needs to be great—a great power, a great country, better than anyone else. This is Russia’s manifest destiny. America had, of course, its own idea of a manifest destiny in the 19th century—its exceptionalism. This delusion of grandeur meant that Russia was mostly preoccupied with geopolitical concerns, unlike, say, Britain, for whom the main concern was trade and profit. The British didn’t care much about the political status of the peoples they had to deal with. In China, they didn’t care much about making the Chinese into their subjects. They didn’t try to impose complete control over India either. All they cared about was tax collection and trade profits.

In Russian and Soviet history, you always find the opposite: the economic, rational concerns come only after the geopolitical and ideological ones. Russia needs to prove that it is great and make sure that others fear it. In other words, greatness is traditionally defined in Russia not in terms of national prosperity and wealth but the extent to which it can intimidate, control, and dominate others. This insecurity was typical of the Russian Empire and the Soviet state, and it remains so today. The Russian state has never been concerned with its own people; human lives have always been cheap and sacrificed to these great ambitions. This is still the case. But the question is how long it will last, how long until the Russian people stop [being fascinated by the great power rhetoric] and start asking questions about their incomes, pensions and general wellbeing.

Stepping away from the abstract pursuit of national greatness and replacing it with a concern for an individual or communal well-being would be a huge transformation of Russia’s historical pattern, where the government traditionally dominated most aspects of the society. Putin’s Kremlin had capitalized and only further enhanced this traditional and unhealthy pattern.