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