The alarming spread of fascism in Putin’s Russia

Soviet-style propaganda and a personality cult for Putin are only two of the signs that Russia is ed

One key concern arising from the recent spat with Russia is this awakening superpower is drifting into the foothills of fascism domestically. The simple defence Russians have offered in recent weeks is that Russians are by nature fiercely patriotic. I knew a Russian who, when the train stopped on the Russian border, picked up handfuls of Russian soil and started to sob.

The loss of their empire – the USSR - is keenly felt. Vladimir Putin, for example, described the end of the USSR as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. It would have been more appropriate if he had given this title to the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1929-33 where the Russian occupier diverted all food from the collectivized peasants to the rest of the USSR. This terror-famine resulted in more deaths than all countries in the First World War. Russians refuse to apologise for the famine and still talk of Ukrainians in the same derogatory terms that some English used to use about the Welsh and Irish.

Putin is keen to maintain influence in the former Soviet satellite states and this is increasingly causing conflict. The key turning point was the Orange revolution in 2004 which discarded the Kremlin’s favoured candidate in Ukraine to bring in a pro-Western President with dreams of EU and NATO membership. The idea of losing “Little Russia”, the dearest of the CIS satellite states, to NATO shocked many Russians including Putin and ushered in more authoritarian tactics. The most worrying of these tactics was the politicised use of energy supplies. Ukraine had its gas cut-off shortly after its drift westward in 2004, and more recently Estonia has had oil supplies to its port disrupted by Russia during the statue crisis.

Putin is concerned that the loss of influence in the satellite states will threaten Russia's power along its borders by its old adversary NATO. He blamed the Orange Revolution in part on the unchecked rise of a democratic youth movement in Ukraine called PORA, who opposed the authoritarian government.

To prevent a similar group being established in Russia, Putin created his own youth movement “Nashi”. The official line was that this group were supposed to counter the rise of fascism, in the National Boshevik party. However, it soon became apparent that Nashi’s true function was as a personality cult for Putin whose job was intimidate, bully and harass his opponents.

In the recent Estonia crisis, thugs from Nashi terrorized the Estonian Embassy forcing the ambassador into hiding. In the protests one person was killed and 99 injured. Similarly, the UK ambassador in Moscow was intimidated by Nashi thugs merely for attending an opposition conference. The 120,000 Nashi members must show total devotion to the president. Their young leaders meet Putin himself in training camps and have an audience with his potential successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergie Ivanov. Nashi actions are well-organised, they wear distinct red uniforms, have their own buses, power supply and well-financed phone-in campaigns. The comparison with Hitler Youth is beginning to be made more and more often.

The most sinister aspect of Nashi is the revival of Soviet-style propaganda. In the official manifesto, Nashi recruits are subjected to Soviet-style prejudices of xenophobia and anti-Americanism that existed in the Cold War. The domain name for the Nashi website is www.nashi.su, opting for the “.su” of the non-existant Soviet Union, rather than “.ru” for Russia. The manifesto calls on Nashi members to stamp out any colour revolution as this would represent “a loss of sovereignty to external influences”. A flashing banner on the Estonia crisis declares: “It’s our history, it’s our war, it’s our soldier!” A poster at a recent rally criticised the number of adoptions of Russian children to the US. The members of Nashi, aged 17-25, who could essentially hold progressive views, are being indoctrinated with anti-European and anti-American sentiment.

The opposition groups in Russia are denied the right to hold protest and not allowed access to any of the state-controlled media. Nashi, however, are allowed to hold marches, which are covered favourably on state television. Financing for Nashi comes from Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant. Similar to Hitler Youth, the group undergoes paramilitary training and have been implicated in the attacks on opposition groups like the banned National Bolshevik Party, led by Limonov and the Estonian ambassador. Their actions mirror more widespread of violent intimidation towards opposition groups, human rights activists and the free press.

Since Putin came to power, 15 journalists have been murdered by contract killers. Marina Litvinovich, the chief political adviser to opposition leader Garry Kasparov, was beaten up so badly she lost two front teeth. Lidia Yuspova, a human rights campaigner based in Chechnya, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, only to receive and anonymous call warning her she would not live to receive it. Groups of black-shirted skinheads have been responsible for assaults and murders directed at immigrants from the Caucasus.

Putin’s popularity ratings run at 80 per cent, showing that his grip on the state-media has effectively kept Russians in an information vacuum. He has exploited the fierce national pride of his people and reinforced prejudices by accusing the US of hegemony and speaking of the NATO presence along the borders.

Social instability and health problems run rampant throughout the country. A 20-year-old Russian has less than a 50 per cent chance of reaching the age 65 (compared to 80 per cent for an American). Russia has three million drug users, with as many as two million may be HIV-infected. Its prisons are rife with tuberculosis and hold 1.3m people many of them young homeless boys. By effectively integrating an immigrant population Russia could help to swell its workforce but current immigration stands at zero. Russia is more than just the Nashi movement, state-controlled media and murdered journalists, but Putin's legacy will be determined by how legitimately he can justify his people's patriotism by improving the quality of living.

Gavin Knight has written for the Guardian, Times, Newsweek, Prospect and Evening Standard. He also has appeared on CNN, Sky, BBC and ITN. He spent two years with frontline police units and dozens of gang members researching his non-fiction book on inner city crime, Hood Rat, published by Picador.
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain