VLADIMIR PUTIN HOLDS BACK THE TIDE
The story is that Tsar Nicolas II was walking one day on the grounds of the great palaces at Tsarskoe Selo(an 800 acre palace compound then 15 miles south of St. Petersburg) when he came upon a lone soldier standing guard along his path. The soldier told the questioning Tsar that he didn’t know why, but that there had always been a guard posted there. The Tsar, curious, went back to the palace and consulted the records. It turned out that in the seventeen hundreds, Catherine the Great (who was almost an exact contemporary of George Washington), had had a rosebush planted there and wanting to protect it, she had posted a guard. The rosebush was long gone but a guard remained because no one had ordered the guarding stopped.
There are a number of morals one can draw from that story. One of them is that we should think carefully about the need to protect something that may no longer exist. We can see that happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some background: From Tsarist times on, Russians seem to have struggled between two impulses. One is to move toward joining the West with its more liberal democratic governments and its marketing economies. The other is to wall themselves off from the West and instead face East, to protect their uniqueness, to be more purely Russian. Those conflicting impulses can be seen in the person of Catherine the Great who kept up an active correspondence with enlightenment luminaries in Europe and over here while in Russia her long reign became increasingly absolute.
More recently, during the reign of Nicholas II (1896–1917), the more urban parts of Russian were modernizing and industrializing quite rapidly. What appeared to be a modernizing trend that would tie Russia to the West was spoiled by the tragedy of World War I, and then the murderous takeover by Lenin’s Bolsheviks (Communists). The Communists isolated Russia to avoid the contamination of their anti-capitalist economic experiment by western capitalists. That experiment finally ended in 1991 when it became clear to the Russians themselves that they were falling irretrievably behind.
Then, hope again for a more democratic system and a turn to the West: After a tremendously turbulent beginning under Mikhail Gorbachev and then the ill and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin, the Presidency was taken over by Vladimir Putin on Dec. 31st 1999. But, Putin, after a very brief flirtation with capitalism has skillfully led Russia back to one man rule. It was hardly surprising that he would do that. His only real experience outside of Russia was as a KGB colonel in disintegrating Communist East Germany (which those of us who have been there recall, was a grim place indeed). Once more led by Vladimir Putin, Russia is attempting to go it alone, and going it alone in a way which will allow as little outside interference as possible.
What Putin and his people have created in the last eighteen years is not Communism. However dismal and stultifying in reality, Communism did promise a triumphant life in the future. Vladimir Putin is a conservative who promises stability. That stability can be maintained by avoiding a competitive economic system which will inevitably create a new influential and independent class outside the government. Instead Russia will rely on the production and sale of oil and gas by immense companies either owned or controlled by the government. Over 70% of all production in Russia is produced by government owned companies. The persons running those companies owe their positions to Vladimir Putin. So that Putin can, as he prefers, control most of the economy by dealing with only a few people. Russia has become a kleptocracy in which a small number of very rich people, indebted to Putin, are being allowed to skim off the nation’s wealth.
The 1993 Russian Constitution was really designed to give power to the Russian legislature, the Duma and the Federal Council. Those are now thoroughly controlled by Putin’s political party, United Russia. The regional governors, once elected so that they had power sources of their own, are now appointed and watched over by agents of the Presidential Administration. So, with the control of everything in his hands, the sixty five year old Putin can, and does, envision the system he has created as a well oiled, self sustaining machine, free from the control of the predatory capitalists outside.
The great mass of Russians have historically been cut off from those outside Russia. The huge distances, the abject poverty, and the lack of modern communications isolated all but a few elevated officials under the Tsars. After the 1917 revolution, the Communists ran a prison state with only a tiny number of Russians allowed to leave the country. Most Russians knew nothing of the world outside. Since 1991 the Russian world has turned upside down. People no longer, as they still did in the 1970s have to travel on trains in and out of Russia guarded by soldiers with machine guns. Millions of Russians have visited western Europe and the Americas. Russian oligarchs and their minions populate the best addresses in London and New York. Younger Russians in Russia’s cities can both travel and use modern technology to interact with the West.
Vladimir Putin at 65 will be 71 when his third term ends. Long before then he will be viewed as “lame duck” and his grip on things may be challenged. It is difficult to picture a smooth transition to another leader with the same kind of personal authority. There is no obvious successor visible now and Putin does not seem to be grooming one. Putin has the rare distinction of having shaped a national government to fit his personal style.
It is easy to argue that the modernization going on under the last of the Tsars could have led to Russia toward a more normalized relationship with the West. That chance for more integration was stolen by World War I and the tragedy of those long years locked away from the rest of the world by a Communist Party dictatorship. For the next few years that separation will continue with Putin’s experiment in one man rule.
We face a kind of contest between the hugely wealthy crony system built around Vladimir Putin and a rising tide of Europeanized Russian young people. The pensioners and many others will feel the need to justify the suffering that haunts their memories. For others, and particularly for urban young people, there may no longer be any need to fend off a nonexistent threat to their way of life from the West. They will be ready to join the rest of the world. Their generation may be finally ready, after more than a hundred years, to stop guarding the rose bush!