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19 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:10pm

Vladimir Putin’s politics of victimhood

Putin paints Russia as the underdog to keep his citizens, like those of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a permanent sense of crisis.

By Peter Conradi

When George HW Bush stood to deliver his State of the Union speech in January 1992, he could be excused a swagger in his step. “In the past 12 months, the world has known changes of almost biblical proportions,” Bush told Congress. “Communism died this year… The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this. By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.”

A few weeks earlier the Soviet Union had been dissolved and its 15 constituent republics had gone their separate ways, completing the slow motion collapse of the communist world that began with the emergence of Solidarnosc in Poland in the early 1980s and reached a climax in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tumbling of the other Eastern European dominoes. As Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History and the Last Man – a 1989 essay that was published in book form a few days after Bush spoke in 1992 – the fundamental values of liberal democracy and market capitalism on which America had been built now reigned unchallenged across the world.

A quarter-century later, the world looks a very different place. It is not just Russia that has deviated from the script. Some of Moscow’s former satellites – Hungary, in particular, where the prime minister Viktor Orbán last month won a large majority largely on an appeal to traditional values – are drifting from the European mainstream. The far right are part of a coalition government in Austria and, in the form of Marine Le Pen, received more than 10 million votes in the second round of France’s presidential election last May. Predictions that China’s integration into the world economy would fuel demands from its citizens for democratic freedoms and the rule of law provoke hollow laughter as Xi Jinping sets himself up as president for life. In voting for Trump in November 2016, Americans, too, have taken their country in an unpredictable direction. And, then, of course, there is Brexit.

With societies increasingly riven into opposing camps, there have been attempts to characterise the political battles of the past few years as between the young and old, urbanites and country dwellers, the “winners and losers of globalisation”.

Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale and historian of Eastern Europe, has come up with a new divide in his book The Road to Unfreedom: on one side are the proponents of the politics of “inevitability”, who, in an echo of Fukuyama, argue “the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done”. Their world view is being challenged by what Snyder calls the politics of “eternity”, in which a country is placed “at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood” and its inhabitants kept in a permanent sense of crises over largely manufactured foreign threats, like the inhabitants of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do,” Snyder writes. “Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”

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It is Vladimir Putin who is the best exemplar of the new politics of eternity. If his first two terms in office during the 2000s – Russia’s “never had it so good” era – were characterised by rising living standards, and, initially, co-operation with the West, then the period since his return to the presidency in 2012 has been dominated by a conservative, nationalist, Christian ideology, marked by a hostility to gays and Islamic immigrants. Putin’s re-election to a fourth term in March suggests we are in for another six years of the same – coupled with a bullish foreign policy that will see him continue to assert himself in the Middle East, despite the occasional punitive Western air strike against his allies in Damascus.

Putin, sworn in last week in more of a coronation than an inauguration, sees his country’s history as one of encirclement and victimhood, which explains an obsession with the Second World War in contemporary Russia that exceeds even our own. This began in the 1970s under the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who encouraged citizens not to look forward to a bright future but rather back to the heroism they displayed during the defeat of the Nazis.

Putin has taken this obsession to new heights, deploying it to considerable effect in the continuing conflict in Ukraine, which is portrayed by the Russian state media as a rerun of the battles of 1941 to 1945, where the pro-Moscow separatists are heirs to the defenders of the Motherland and the Ukrainians are cast in the role of the fascists.

Michel Eltchaninoff, author of Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, argues that the Russian leader “has a plan for Europe and for the world” that consists of two strands, essentially aimed at two different audiences. The first is that of a Russkiy mir or Russian world, analogous to a commonwealth of English-speaking people or la Francophonie.

In his first speech as president in 2000, Putin underlined the importance of protecting Russian citizens “both inside and outside the country”, generally taken to mean the 25 million or so of his compatriots left outside the borders of the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union broke up. The concept has since been extended to include further-flung diasporas – from members of the anti-communist White movement who settled in Paris after the 1917 revolution to the more recent arrivals in London.

Orthodox Christianity is an important plank of this strategy. The Orthodox church, after decades of collaboration with the KGB, is working with the current leadership in the Kremlin to promote unity of the church outside Russia. This translates into an aggressive campaign to bring back into the fold churches in France and elsewhere in Europe that broke with the Moscow Patriarchate decades ago over its submission to the Bolsheviks. Thus in Paris, after having failed to take control of the Orthodox cathedral on rue Daru, the Russian authorities decided to build their “own” cathedral close to the Eiffel Tower.

The other strand, Eltchaninoff argues, is a conservative message addressed not just at Russian speakers, but at European citizens more broadly. Europe, according to the Kremlin, is in a state of economic decline and moral decadence and faces a threat to its Christian roots and traditional values. This threat comes in part from Islamic immigration and in part from the drive for gay rights and same-sex marriage, which is portrayed as an assault on the “traditional family” and, at its most far-fetched, a threat to Europe’s future via “suppression of reproduction”.

This attempt to portray Russia as a pillar of conservatism ignores the fact that a substantial number of Putin’s citizens – especially young city-dwellers, thousands of whom took to the streets to protest against the inauguration – are attracted to the moral decadence the Kremlin claims to find so repugnant. Yet such ideas go down well with the target audience in Europe: supporters of right-wing parties – from Ukip to Orbán’s Fidesz – who are motivated in large part by a desire to turn the clock back to an idealised past. By simultaneously stressing opposition to America and its attempts to create a “unipolar world”, the Kremlin also manages to bring on board those on the far left who have failed to notice that Moscow is no longer the centre of world revolution.

Putin also has other tricks up his sleeve, including what Snyder calls “implausible deniability” – in which the Kremlin insists it did not do something while knowing full well that no one believes it. This “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” approach has characterised its reaction to events such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 and its interference in the American election two years later – and, to some extent, the poisoning in March this year of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.

This is coupled with “reverse asymmetry”, a policy of trying to portray the strong as the weak and vice versa, displayed to dramatic effect in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which invading Russian soldiers pretended to be partisans defending their communities against the bullies in Kiev. The Ukrainians called the invaders “little green men” – a joking suggestion that the soldiers in their unmarked uniforms must have come from outer space.

Snyder and Eltchaninoff, editor-in-chief of France’s Philosophie magazine, risk exaggerating the extent to which such policies are the product of a deeper ideology. Could Putin’s motivation not be a simple – and in many ways understandable – desire to reverse the indignities he feels have been heaped on his country by America and its allies since the break-up of the Soviet Union? Or, indeed, simply the wish for personal wealth and power?

With that disclaimer out of the way, it is nevertheless intriguing to explore the ideological underpinning of his ideas; in particular the role played in the Putinosphere by various 19th and 20th century Russian thinkers – chief among them Ivan Ilyin, a near contemporary of Stalin, who was forced into exile after the Bolshevik revolution and, while dividing his time between Germany, Switzerland and Italy, came up with an ideology best described as Russian Christian fascism. Putin namechecks Ilyin in speeches and reportedly had a collection of his works sent to all members of Russia’s ruling party and its civil servants. He also went so far as to organise the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains from Switzerland and reburial in Moscow in 2005.

Ilyin’s philosophy is repugnant – not surprising given his open admiration for both Hitler and Mussolini. According to Snyder, it has three core features: “it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with a mystical connection to his people; and it characterised globalisation as a conspiracy rather than as a set of problems.” Revived in a modern context, Ilyin’s ideology serves as “a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes”.

Such an ideology, Snyder argues, provides a convenient justification for many attributes of Putin’s rule: from the cult of the strong man and a disregard of truth to his portrayal of Russia as a “virginal organism troubled only by the threat of foreign penetration”. Putin also shares Ilyin’s dismissive attitude to Ukrainians, a people the philosopher referred to “in quotation marks, because he denied their separate existence”.


Snyder’s main concern, however, is not Putin’s ideas but rather the extent to which they are taking root in the West – culminating in the installation in the White House of a president who, from the moment he entered the campaign, not only appeared inexplicably fond of the Kremlin leader, but also demonstrated a similar casual attitude to the truth. “Trump’s proposal to ‘make America great again’ resonated with people, who believed along with him, that the American dream was dead,” argues Snyder. “Americans were vulnerable to the politics of eternity because their own experiences had already weakened inevitability.”

But to what extent was Trump also Putin’s man? One can only hope we will get an answer to this when Robert Mueller, the special counsel, concludes his investigation into the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign – provided the president does not fire him before he can finish his work.

In the meantime, Luke Harding, a former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, has attempted an answer. His book, Collusion, has at its heart the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, on Trump’s relations with Russia, notorious for alleging the existence of what the American media have taken to calling the “pee-pee tape”. The claim, denied by the president, is that during a visit to Moscow in 2013 he paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed in the Ritz-Carlton once slept in by the Obamas, which was then, naturally enough, recorded by the Russian secret services. Harding’s challenge is to demonstrate not just that the Kremlin propaganda machine did all it could to ensure Trump’s election – which few would dispute – but also that Trump himself was party to an active conspiracy, perhaps because he was being blackmailed by the Russian leader, whether over his murky financial affairs or the tape.

Harding fails to produce a smoking gun; perhaps there isn’t one. However, both he and Snyder provide a catalogue of links between the two sides, centred on Trump’s real estate deals, many of which look like a mechanism not just for laundering dirty Russian money but also for furthering the property mogul’s political career. Trump’s son, Donald Jr, admitted as long ago as 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets”. It is telling that during the six months in 2016 between his father’s nomination as the Republican candidate and his presidential election victory, 70 per cent of the units sold in Trump Jr’s buildings were purchased not by individuals but by limited liability companies – the resulting anonymity raising the suspicion that this may also have been a Russian operation to prop up Trump.

But to portray Trump as a “Siberian candidate”, who was groomed over a period of years by the Kremlin and then installed in the White House, risks taking us into the world of fantasy. His victory has also proved something of a pyrrhic one as far as Russia is concerned. While Putin has no doubt relished the damage Trump has done to the Western alliance and to America’s standing in the world, sanctions against Russia have been tightened – not loosened – since he came to power. By launching air strikes on Syria, Trump has enforced Barack Obama’s red lines on chemical weapons in a way the former president failed to do.

Nor should we forget that, regardless of how much help Trump received from Moscow, his populist message undoubtedly struck a chord with the 63 million Americans who voted for him. By the same token, the Kremlin cannot claim sole credit for the rise of the far right in Europe. Much of the responsibility must be laid at the door of establishment politicians who pushed EU integration faster than many of their citizens wanted, failed to appreciate the impact of immigration and presided over an unfair distribution of income and wealth in the years since the crash of 2008.

The robust nature of Western institutions should give us hope. While Putin has remade the Russian political system in his own image, American democracy will survive Trump, who may yet implode under the accumulated weight of the various scandals and investigations. Europe’s populists are good at attracting protest votes but not always so good at governing – a lesson that, with time, will be learned by those who elect them. To borrow Snyder’s labels, there is nothing inevitable about the shift to the politics of eternity. l

Peter Conradi is foreign editor of the Sunday Times and author of “Who Lost Russia: How the World Entered a New Cold War” (Oneworld)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe and America
Timothy Snyder
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin
Michel Eltchaninoff
Hurst & Co, 208pp, £12.99

Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House
Luke Harding
Guardian Faber, 352pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war