Vlad the Great

Putin has dismantled the fragile democracy of the 1990s, but has never been more popular. The New St

Russia is creeping towards dictatorship. The imminent parliamentary elections will be another step towards the re-establishment of a one-party system in Russia. No one doubts that the Kremlin-backed United Russia will dominate the next Duma - its propaganda dominates the media. To make sure, however, the Electoral Commission has raised the threshold for winning seats from 5 to 7 per cent of the vote and barred many of the weak and divided opposition parties from participating in the poll, using complicated registration laws. Opposition meetings are regularly broken up by the police.

Vladimir Putin may use United Russia's victory to break the constitution by standing for a third term in the presidential elections in March 2008. He has spoken ominously of his "moral right" to remain in power. Rallies "For Putin and For Russia" have been organised in a number of towns to encourage him to stand. A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that Putin will simply move from the post of president to that of prime minister, and that a corresponding shift of power will take place; or that he will get one of his cronies elected president (the newly appointed prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, is the obvious candidate) and replace him when he steps down for reasons of "ill-health". Either way, it doesn't really matter what the outcome of this intrigue is: Putinism is here to stay.

What is Putinism? First, it is a reassertion of the state, a counter-revolution against democracy, which in the eyes of the president's supporters brought Russia to the verge of ruin during the 1990s. The men behind this counter-revolution are the siloviki (from the Russian word for power) - men like Putin from the old KGB (reformed as the FSB), or the armed forces and the "power ministries", which together formed an inner cabinet in Boris Yeltsin's government and brought in Putin as his replacement in 2000.

The siloviki have taken over government. Their clients rule the regions, cities and towns and control the police and courts. They have steadily increased the staff and powers of the FSB, which today has 40 per cent more officers per citizen than the Soviet-era KGB. They have carried out a systematic assault on freedom of speech and information, intimidating independent newspapers and turning a blind eye to the contract killing of dozens of journalists, not to mention many more suspicious "accidents" over the past seven years.

The emerging political system is not yet a dictatorship, but nor is it democracy in anything but formal terms. Opposition parties can exist - but only within certain bounds. Elections are held - but their results are a foregone conclusion and the power-holders chosen in Kremlin corridors long before the polls open. There is no real political debate in the public media, and no broader culture of democracy to foster diversity of opinion. In many ways the problem is not the growing power of the Putin state (it could be argued that it is not as strong as it appears), but the chronic weakness of civil society. Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, there are still no real social organisations, no mass-based political parties (except perhaps the Communists), no trade unions, no consumer or environmental groups, no professional bodies, and only a very small number of human rights associations, such as Memorial, to counteract the power of the state.

No need to pay

The second element of Putinism is the intimate connection between politics and business. Senior state officials control and own the public media, sit on the boards of state-owned corporations and enrich themselves from it, have lucrative connections with the oligarchs, and own large shares of the country's banks as well as its oil, gas and mining companies. At a lower level, in many Russian towns, politics and business are closely intertwined with the police and organised crime. Much of this goes well beyond corruption in the conventional meaning of the term (businessmen offering bribes to officials). In Putin's Russia the politician is usually a businessman, too, and perhaps an FSB official as well, so he doesn't need to pay a bribe. Political connections are the fastest way to become rich. The most successful oligarchs are shadowy figures in the presidential entourage. And all the country's senior politicians are multimillionaires, their money safely stashed abroad for them by Kremlin-favoured businessmen.

Thanks to the high price of oil and gas, Putin has overseen a strong upturn in the economy, which accounts for much of his popularity. The core of his constituency is the fast-growing middle class - the eight million Russians in 2000 and some 40 million today who are doing well enough to own homes and cars and go abroad on holiday. But Putin is also popular among a broader section of the population that has been lifted out of poverty by the recovery of recent years. The hyperinflation and economic instability of the 1990s are a fading memory. The rouble is strong; reserves are huge; public sector salaries are paid on time and, like pensions, have increased under Putin; and the government is at last starting to invest in the country's creaking infrastructure, hospitals and schools.

Yet there are serious economic vulnerabilities, not least Russia's heavy dependence on the export of its natural resources and the weakness of its manufacturing, services and hi-tech industries. The most serious concern is an imminent demographic crisis, largely brought about by high death rates (in particular among men, the main vodka drinkers) and westward emigration from Russia by large sections of the young and talented. Since 1991, the population has fallen by ten million to 140 million. A UN report estimates that it could fall below 100 million by 2050. Already there are shortages of students at universities and of staff in the workplace in many areas.

Meanwhile the Muslim population, with its historically high birth rates, continues to grow, in part as immigrants from central Asia fill the gaps in the labour market. There are 25 million Muslims in Russia today (demographers predict that they will be the majority within 50 years). Like the Jews in previous times, Russia's Muslims have become the focus of a rising wave of xenophobic Russian nationalism that is only partly satisfied by Putin's increasingly nationalist rhetoric. If it weren't for him, millions of Russians would vote for an ultra-nationalist - for instance, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party is expected to come second, or perhaps third behind the Communists, with roughly 10 per cent of the vote.


Nationalism is the third main element of Putinism, and perhaps the key to its success. Putin's nationalism is more complex than the reassertion of Russia's influence in the "near abroad" of former Soviet satellites (notably against the pro-western governments of Georgia and Ukraine, see Thomas de Waal, page 38) or the flexing of Russia's oil-pumped muscles on the international scene. At its heart is a long historical tradition of imperial rule and resentment of the west that has shaped the national consciousness.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was felt as a humiliation by most Russians. In a matter of a few months they lost everything - an empire, an ideology, an economic system, superpower status, national pride. They lost a national identity connected to the official myths of Soviet history: the liberating power of October 1917, victory in the Great Patriotic War, Soviet achievements in culture, science and technology. Within months of the Soviet collapse, the Russians had fallen into poverty and hunger and become dependent on relief from the west, which lectured them about democracy and human rights. Everything that happened in the 1990s - the hyperinflation, the loss of people's savings and security, the rampant corruption and criminality, the robber-oligarchs and the drunken president - was a source of national shame.

From the start, Putin understood the importance of historical rhetoric for his nationalist politics, particularly if it played to popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Polls in the year he came to power showed that three-quarters of the Russian population regretted the break-up of the USSR and wanted Russia to expand in size, incorporating "Russian" territories such as the Crimea and the Don Basin, which had been lost to Ukraine. Putin quickly built up his own historical mythology, combining Soviet myths (stripped of their Communist phraseology) with statist elements from the Russian empire before 1917. In this way his regime was connected to and sanctioned by a long historical continuum, a Russian tradition of strong state power, going back to the founder of the empire, Peter the Great, and Putin's native city, St Petersburg.

Integral to this is the idea, fostered by Putin, that Russia's traditions of authoritarian rule are morally the equal of democratic western traditions. Indeed, his supporters often say that Russians value a strong state, economic growth and security more than the liberal concepts of human rights or democracy, which have no roots in Russian history.

The rehabilitation of Stalin is the most disturbing element of Putin's historical rhetoric - and the most powerful, for it taps into a deep Russian yearning for a "strong leader". According to a survey in 2005, 42 per cent of the Russian people, and 60 per cent of those over 60 years of age, wanted the return of a "leader like Stalin". At a conference last June, Putin called on schoolteachers to portray the Stalin period in a more positive light. It was Stalin who made Russia great and his "mistakes" were no worse than the crimes of western states, he said. Textbooks dwelling on the Great Terror and the Gulag have been censored, historians attacked as anti-patriotic for highlighting Stalin's crimes.

All this comes as a huge relief to most Russians. Brought up on the Soviet myths, they felt ashamed, uncomfortable and resentful when, for a short time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were suddenly confronted by these awkward truths about their past. Now they needn't feel ashamed. With Putin's rewriting of Soviet history, they can feel good about their nation and themselves (as if, by way of a comparison, the postwar Germans had been told that the Holocaust had never taken place). Thanks to Putin, the Russians can move on and live their lives without asking awkward questions of themselves. It is how they lived in the Soviet Union.

Interviewing hundreds of survivors of Stalin's Terror for my book The Whisperers, I encountered many legacies of the Stalin period that affect the way Russians think and act today. One of the most striking is a strong political conformity, a silent acceptance and lack of questioning of authority, which was born of fear in the Stalin period but then passed down the generations to become part of what one might call the post-Soviet personality. No doubt this conformism will play a part in the elections, and in the resolution of the power question in the months to come. If Putin chose to sweep away the constitution and declare himself a dictator, I doubt many Russians would protest.

Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia is published by Allen Lane (£25).

Russia’s election by numbers

number of seats in the Duma: 450
number of parties eligible to stand: 11
number of parties likely to win seats: 4
number of registered voters: 108m
total who voted in the last elections in 2003 (56 per cent of those registered): 60.7m
proportion of voters who feel they have little or no influence over what happens: 94%

Research by Craig Burnett

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood