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Vladimir Putin’s politics of eternity
The long read
Vladimir Putin’s politics of eternity
Since consolidating his power in rigged elections at the start of the decade, the Russian leader has pioneered a politics of fictional threats and invented enemies. By Timothy Snyder
Fri 16 Mar 2018 06.00 GMT
Americans and Europeans have been guided through our new century by what I will call the politics of inevitability – a sense that 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. In the American, capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia. When this turned out not to be true, the European and American politicians of inevitability were triumphant. Europeans busied themselves completing the creation of the European Union in 1992. Americans reasoned that the failure of the communist story confirmed the truth of the capitalist one. Americans and Europeans kept telling themselves their tales of inevitability for a quarter-century after the end of communism, and so raised a millennial generation without history.
The American politics of inevitability, like all such stories, resisted facts. The fates of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus after 1991 showed well enough that the fall of one system did not create a blank slate on which nature generated markets and markets generated rights.
Iraq might have confirmed this lesson, had the initiators of America’s illegal war reflected upon its disastrous consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 and the deregulation of campaign contributions in the US in 2010 magnified the influence of the wealthy and reduced that of voters. As economic inequality grew, time horizons shrank, and fewer Americans believed that the future held a better version of the present. Lacking a functional state that assured basic social goods taken for granted elsewhere – education, pensions, healthcare, transport, parental leave, vacations – Americans could be overwhelmed by each day, and lose a sense of the future.
The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.
In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, they instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.
Inevitability and eternity translate facts into narratives. Those swayed by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history. Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realise in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama.
Inevitability and eternity have specific propaganda styles. Inevitability politicians spin facts into a web of wellbeing. Eternity politicians suppress facts in order to dismiss the reality that people are freer and richer in other countries, and the idea that reforms could be formulated on the basis of knowledge. The 2010s have seen the deliberate creation of political fiction – outsized stories that commanded attention and colonised the space needed for contemplation.
Now, what has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and Europe: the stabilisation of massive inequality, the displacement of policy by propaganda, the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. Russian leaders could invite Europeans and Americans to eternity because Russia got there first. They understood American and European weaknesses, which they had first seen and exploited at home.
For many Europeans and Americans, events in the 2010s – Brexit, Trump’s election, the Russian turn against Europe and the invasion of Ukraine – came as a surprise. Americans tend to react to surprise in two ways: either by imagining that the unexpected event is not really happening, or by claiming that it is totally new and hence not amenable to historical understanding. Either all will somehow be well, or all is so ill that nothing can be done.
The first response is a defence mechanism of the politics of inevitability. The second is the creaking sound that inevitability makes just before it breaks and gives way to eternity. The politics of inevitability first erodes civic responsibility, and then collapses into the politics of eternity when it meets a serious challenge. Americans reacted in these ways when Russia’s candidate became president of the US.
In the 1990s and in the 2000s, influence flowed from west to east, in the transplant of economic and political models, the spread of the English language, and the enlargement of the EU and Nato. Meanwhile, unregulated spaces of American and European capitalism summoned wealthy Russians into a realm without an east-west geography, that of offshore bank accounts, shell companies, and anonymous deals, where wealth stolen from the Russian people was laundered clean. Partly for this reason, in the 2010s influence flowed from east to west, as the offshore exception became the rule – and Russian political fiction penetrated beyond Russia.
The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas. Those in its thrall deny that ideas matter, proving only that they are in the grip of a powerful one.The cliche of the politics of inevitability is that “there are no alternatives.” To accept this is to deny individual responsibility for seeing history and making change. Life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased plot.
Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse. The capitalist version of the politics of inevitability – the market as a substitute for policy – generates economic inequality that undermines belief in progress. As social mobility halts, inevitability gives way to eternity, and democracy gives way to oligarchy. An oligarch spinning a tale of an innocent past, perhaps with the help of fascist ideas, offers fake protection to people with real pain. Faith that technology serves freedom opens the way to his spectacle. The oligarch crosses into real politics from a world of fiction, and governs by invoking myth and manufacturing crisis.
In the 2010s, one such person, Vladimir Putin, escorted another, Donald Trump, from fiction to power. After mastering the politics of eternity at home, Russian leaders protected themselves and their wealth by exporting it.
It was not so much elections as fictions that allowed a transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, a decade after the end of the Soviet Union. Democracy never took hold in Russia, in the sense that power never changed hands after freely contested elections. Yeltsin was president of the Russian Federation because of an election that took place when Russia was still a Soviet republic, in June 1991. Those taking part in that election were not choosing a president of an independent Russia, since no such thing yet existed. Yeltsin simply remained president after independence. To be sure, such an institutionally ambiguous claim to power was typical as the 1990s began. As the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself came apart, various backroom compromises, roundtable negotiations, and partly free elections generated hybrid systems of government. In other post-communist states, free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections quickly followed. The Russian Federation managed no election that might have legitimated Yeltsin or prepared the way for a successor.
The wealthy few around Yeltsin, christened the “oligarchs”, wished to manage democracy in his favour and theirs. The end of Soviet economic planning created a violent rush for profitable industries and resources and inspired arbitrage schemes, quickly creating a new class of wealthy men. Wild privatisation was not at all the same thing as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood. Markets require the rule of law, which was the most demanding aspect of the post-Soviet transformations. Americans, taking the rule of law for granted, could fantasise that markets would create the necessary institutions. This was an error. It mattered whether newly independent states established the rule of law and, above all, whether they managed a legal transition of power through free elections.
In 1993, Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament and sent armed men against its deputies. He told his western partners that this was streamlining needed to accelerate market reforms, a version of events accepted in the US press. So long as markets were invoked, politicians of inevitability could see an attack on a parliament as a step towards democracy. Yeltsin then used the conflict with parliament as a justification for strengthening the office of the president. In 1996, Yeltsin’s team (by its own account) faked elections that won him another term as president.
By 1999, Yeltsin was visibly ill and often intoxicated, and the problem of succession became acute. Elections were needed to replace him; from the perspective of the oligarchs, these needed to be managed and the outcome controlled. A successor was needed who would allow Yeltsin’s family (in both the normal sense of his relatives and in the Russian sense of friendly oligarchs) to stay alive and maintain their wealth. “Operation Successor”, as the challenge was known in the Kremlin, had two stages: finding a new man who was not a known associate of Yeltsin, and then inventing a fake problem that he could then appear to solve.
To find his successor, Yeltsin’s entourage organised a public opinion poll about favourite heroes in popular entertainment. The winner was Max Stierlitz, the hero of a series of Soviet novels that were adapted into a number of films, most famously the television serial Seventeen Moments of Spring in 1973. The fictional Stierlitz was a Soviet plant in German military intelligence during the second world war, a communist spy in Nazi uniform.
Vladimir Putin, who had held a meaningless post in the East German provinces during his career in the KGB, was seen as the closest match to the fictional Stierlitz. After enriching himself as the assistant to the mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin was known to the Kremlin and thought to be a team player. He had worked for Yeltsin in Moscow since 1998, chiefly as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB, the former KGB). When appointed Yeltsin’s prime minister in August 1999, Putin was unknown to the larger public, and not a plausible candidate for national elected office. His approval rating stood at 2%. And so it was time to generate a crisis that he could appear to solve.
In September 1999, a series of bombs exploded in Russian cities, killing hundreds of Russian citizens. It seemed possible that the perpetrators were FSB officers. In the city of Ryazan, for example, FSB officers were apprehended by their local colleagues as suspects in the bombings. Though the possibility of self-terrorism was noticed at the time, the factual questions were overwhelmed by righteous patriotism as Putin ordered a new war against the part of Russia deemed to be responsible for the bombings: the Chechen republic of south-western Russia, in the Caucasus region, which had declared independence in 1993 and then fought the Russian army to a standstill. There was no evidence that Chechens had anything to do with the bombings.
Thanks to the second Chechen war, Putin’s approval rating reached 45% in November. In December, Yeltsin announced his resignation and endorsed Putin as his successor. Thanks to unequal television coverage, manipulation of the vote tally, and the atmospherics of terrorism and war, Putin was accorded the absolute majority needed to win the presidential election of March 2000.
The ink of political fiction is blood.
On 4 December 2011, Russians were asked to grant Putin’s party, United Russia, a majority in the lower house of the Russian parliament. This was a special moment, since Dmitry Medvedev, then president, and Putin, then prime minister, had already announced that they intended to switch jobs. Once their party won the parliamentary elections and once Putin won the presidential elections of the coming March, Medvedev would serve Putin as prime minister.
Many Russians found the prospect of eternal Putin unappealing. After the global financial collapse of 2008, Russian growth had slowed. Neither Putin nor Medvedev offered a programme that would alter Russia’s dependence on commodity exports or offer the prospect of social mobility. Thus many Russians saw these elections as the last chance to prevent stagnation, and voted accordingly. By the reckonings of independent Russian electoral observers, United Russia won about 26% of the vote. The party was nevertheless accorded enough votes to control a majority in parliament. Russian and international observers criticised unbalanced media coverage, and physical and digital manipulation of the vote. (Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party and a Holocaust denier, was present as a regime-friendly “observer.” He declared the Russian elections “much fairer than Britain’s.”) On 5 December, the protests began. On 10 December, some 50,000 people gathered in Moscow; on 24 December, the figure grew to 80,000. Russians gathered in 99 cities over the course of the month, in the largest protests in the history of the Russian Federation. The main slogan was “For Free Elections!”
The fakery was repeated during the March 2012 presidential elections. Putin was accorded the majority that he needed to be named president after one round of balloting. This time, most of the electoral manipulation was digital rather than manual. Tens of millions of cybervotes were added, diluting the votes cast by human beings, and giving Putin a fictional majority. In some districts, Putin was accorded votes in round numbers, suggesting that targets set by central authorities had been understood literally by local officials. In Chechnya, Putin was accorded 99.8% of the ballots: the figure likely reflected the total control exercised by his Chechen ally Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin received similar tallies in mental hospitals and in other places subject to state control. In Novosibirsk, protesters complained that vote counts totalled 146% of the population. Once again, independent Russian and international observers noted the irregularities. And once again, regime-friendly foreigners from the far right endorsed the results.
On 5 March 2012 in Moscow, some 25,000 Russian citizens protested the falsified presidential elections. For Putin himself, these months, between December 2011 and March 2012, were a time of choice. He might have listened to criticisms of the parliamentary vote. He might have accepted the outcome of the presidential ballot and won in the second round of voting rather than in the first. To win on the first ballot was a point of pride, nothing more. He might have understood that many of the protesters were concerned about the rule of law and the principle of succession in their country. Instead, he seemed to take personal offence.
Putin chose to regard the transient illusion of winning on the first ballot as more important than law, and his own hurt feelings as more important than the convictions of his fellow citizens. Putin casually accepted that there had been fraud; Medvedev helpfully added that all Russian elections had been fraudulent. By dismissing the “one person, one vote” principle while insisting that elections would continue, Putin was disregarding the choices of citizens while expecting them to take part in future rituals of support. A claim to power was staked: he who fakes wins.
If Putin came to the office of president in 2000 as a mysterious hero from the realm of fiction, he returned in 2012 as the vengeful destroyer of the rule of law. Putin’s decision to steal the election under his own spotlight placed Russian statehood in limbo. His accession to the office of president in 2012 was, therefore, the beginning of a succession crisis. Since the man in power was also the man who had eliminated the future, the present had to be eternal. In 1999 and 2000, the Kremlin had used Chechens as the necessary enemy. Chechnya had now been defeated, and the Chechen warlord Kadyrov became an important member of Putin’s regime.
After the fakery of 2011 and 2012, the domestic political emergency was permanent, and so the enemy had to be as well. Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protesters, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protesters’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created, and associated instead with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. For Russia in 2012, the fictional problem became the designs of the European Union and the US to destroy Russia.
Leonid Brezhnev’s permanent enemy, the decadent West, had returned: but this time the decadence would be of a more explicitly sexual variety. Putin’s favourite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, had described opposition to his views as “sexual perversion,” by which he meant homosexuality. A century later, this was also the Kremlin’s first reaction to democratic opposition. Those who wished to have votes counted in the elections of 2011 and 2012 were not Russian citizens who wanted to see the law followed, their wishes respected, or their state to endure. They were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.
On 6 December 2011, the day after the first protest in Moscow, the president of the Russian Federation, then still Dmitry Medvedev, retweeted a message to the effect that a leading protester was a “stupid, cocksucking sheep”. Putin, still prime minister but about to become president again, said on Russian TV that the white ribbons worn by protesters made him think of condoms. Then he compared protesters to monkeys and did a monkey imitation. Visiting Germany, Putin told a surprised Angela Merkel that the Russian opposition was “sexually deformed”. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov began to claim that the Russian government had to take a stand against homosexuality to defend the innocence of Russian society.
A confidant of Putin, Vladimir Yakunin, developed the sheep image into a theory of geopolitics. In Yakunin’s opinion, published in a long article in November 2012, Russia was eternally confronted with a conspiracy of enemies, which has controlled the course of history since time began. This global group had released homosexual propaganda around the world in order to reduce birth rates in Russia and thereby preserve the power of the west. The spread of gay rights was a deliberate policy intended to turn Russians into a “herd” easily manipulable by the global masters of capitalism.
In September 2013, a Russian diplomat repeated this argument at a conference on human rights in China. Gay rights were nothing more than the chosen weapon of a global neoliberal conspiracy, meant to prepare virtuous, traditional societies such as Russia and China for exploitation. President Putin took the next step at his personal global summit at Valdai a few days later, comparing same-sex partnerships to Satanism. He associated gay rights with a western model that “opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.” The Russian parliament had by then passed a law “for the purpose of protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values”.
Human sexuality is an inexhaustible raw material for the manufacture of anxiety. The attempt to place heterosexuality within Russia and homosexuality beyond was factually ludicrous, but the facts were beside the point. The purpose of the anti-gay campaign was to transform demands for democracy into a nebulous threat to Russian innocence: voting = west = sodomy. Russia had to be innocent, and all problems had to be the responsibility of others.
The campaign did not depend on a factual demonstration of the heterosexuality of the Russian elite. In the previous four years, when Putin had been prime minister, his propaganda master Vladislav Surkov had placed him in a series of fur-and-feathers photo shoots. Putin and Medvedev’s attempt to present themselves as manly friends by posing in matching whites after badminton matches was similarly unconvincing. Putin divorced his wife just as his anti-gay campaign began, leaving the champion of family values without a traditional family. In 2017, it became a criminal offence to portray Putin as a gay clown. An attentive female scholar summarised his position: “Putin’s kisses are reserved for children and animals.”
Copenhagen gay pride parade 2013, dedicated to Russia’s LGBT community. Putin has made the production of this caricature a crime in Russia
Putin was offering masculinity as an argument against democracy. As the German sociologist Max Weber argued, charisma can initiate a political system, but can’t guarantee its continuity. It is normal, Weber observed, to form a political and commercial clan around a charismatic leader. But if that man wishes to go beyond redistributing the plunder and planning the next raid, he must find a way to transfer his authority to someone else, ideally by a means that will allow it to be transferred again. Solving this problem of succession is the precondition of establishing a modern state.
Weber defined two mechanisms that would allow a burst of charisma to become durable institutions: through custom, as in a monarchy where the eldest son succeeded the father; or through law, as in a democracy, where regular voting allows parliaments and rulers to be replaced. Putin did not seem to be planning a monarchical succession. He has kept his daughters at a distance from public politics (although the family did benefit from crony capitalism). The logical possibility that remains is thus law, which in the modern world usually means democracy. Putin himself dismissed this alternative. And so the display of masculinity provided a semblance of power at the expense of Russia’s integrity as a state.
If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protesters worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: the US. On 8 December 2011, three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: “She gave the signal.” On 15 December, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided, but that was not the point. The point was to choose the enemy that best suited a leader’s needs, not one that actually threatened the country.
Indeed, it was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses and suggest the fallibility of aspiring dictators. The west was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia. Unlike China, the EU had no army and no long border with Russia. The US did have an army, but had withdrawn the vast majority of its troops from the European continent: from about 300,000 in 1991 to about 60,000 in 2012. Nato still existed, and had admitted former communist countries of eastern Europe. But Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defence system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American planes to fly through Russian airspace to supply US forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a Nato invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed they were pursuing a “reset” of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public or media was paying attention to Moscow. Russia did not even figure in American public opinion polls about global threats and challenges.
The EU and the US were presented as threats because Russian elections were faked. In winter 2011 and spring 2012, Russian television channels and newspapers generated the narrative that all who protested electoral fraud were paid by western institutions. Under the headline “Putin proposes tougher punishment for Western stooges”, the newspaper Noviie Izvestiia reported Putin’s professed belief that “the Russian opposition forces began mass protests after the ‘go-ahead’ given by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton”. The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment.
Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that “it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,” he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia.
After 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the US and EU had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.
In 2012, Putin made it clear that he understood democracy as ritualised support for his person. It meant, as he informed the Russian parliament in his annual address for that year, “compliance with and respect for laws, rules, and regulations”. Individual Russians had no right to protest against the anti-democratic actions of their government, on Putin’s logic, since democracy required them to align their souls with laws that banned such protests.
Libel was made a criminal offence. A law that banned insults to religious sensitivities made the police the enforcer of an Orthodox public sphere. It became a crime to publish cartoons of Jesus or to play Pokémon Go in a church. The authority and budget of the FSB were increased, and its officers granted broad authority to shoot without warning. A new FSB unit was named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB and FSB). The definition of treason was expanded to include the provision of information to nongovernmental organisations beyond Russia, which made telling the truth over email a high crime. Undefined “extremism” was outlawed. NGOs deemed to work “against Russia’s interests” were banned. Those that had received funding from abroad – a very general notion that included any form of international cooperation, such as holding a conference – were required to register as “foreign agents”.
On the morning the “foreign agent” law went into effect, graffiti appeared on the headquarters of NGOs across Moscow, reading “Foreign Agent USA”. One target was Memorial, a storehouse of materials on the history of Russia in the 20th century. Russia’s own past became a foreign threat. Memorial had documented the suffering of Soviet citizens, including Russians, during the Stalinist period. Of course, if all of Russia’s problems came from the outside, there was little sense in dwelling on such matters. The politics of eternity destroys history.
No doubt the Russian state can still be maintained, for a time, by elective emergency and selective war. The very anxiety created by the lack of a succession principle can be projected abroad, creating real hostility and thus starting the whole process anew. In 2013, Russia began to seduce or bully its European neighbours into abandoning their own institutions and histories. If Russia could not become the west, let the west become Russia. If the flaws of American democracy could be exploited to elect a Russian client, then Putin could prove that the world outside is no better than Russia. Were the EU or the US to disintegrate during Putin’s lifetime, he could cultivate an illusion of eternity.
This is an adapted extract from The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder, which will be published by Bodley Head on 5 April. Buy it at guardianbookshop.com