“We will come back again” – that was one of the most frequently repeated chants during Bolotnaya protests of 2011 and 2012. People who manned them at the time stay true to their promise.
Today, thousands of Muscovites marched again to commemorate their fallen hero, Boris Nemtsov. As many before it, today’s procession was impressive if average sized, very calm and disciplined. Some people chanted: “Who killed Nemtsov? Putin!”. Others shouted: “Putin is war”. But most walked quietly.
There were many Russian national flags and also some Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar insignia, as people showed solidarity with the neighbours’ struggle against common enemy. Among them, a lonely EU flag felt like an embodiment of 1968 slogan: “Be realist, demand the impossible”.
It was certainly not a march of revolutionaries, but rather of people who are in for a long game, who realise that they are a minority, but they have enough dignity and hope to gather once in a while and show they are still around and there are still many of them.
It is also the minority the Kremlin is most scared off. Putin’s political operatives have managed to co-opt most of the right- and left-wing electorate, but it has consistently failed to tame people who are capable of critical thinking and free from ideological blindfolds.
The ongoing self-inflicted demise of Western liberal democracies is having an interesting impact on Russian politics. A more confident and less paranoid Kremlin can allow itself a certain grade of liberalisation (a “homeopathic thaw”, as Gleb Pavlovsky put it). Russia is not really back into Medvedev-era mode, but Putin’s trademark pinpoint terror is giving way to attempts by his new chief political strategist, Sergey Kiriyenko, to build a broader pro-Kremlin coalition and ensure Putin’s win in something more closely resembling a real democratic election in 2018.
As ever, the protesters were markedly more well-off and less radical than Maidan crowd in Kiev in 2013. Like all Russians, they gained a lot in the last 15 years in terms of wealth and personal freedom associated with it. They don’t want to squander it all in a revolutionary chaos. Instead, they are prepared to wait until tectonic cultural shifts that proceed under the ghastly film of authoritarian politics will lead to a real transformation of institutions and politics in Russia.
This op-ed was originally published by the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet
The 2015 Norwegian series “Okkupert” may not have had the captivating power of the House of Cards, but it also contained a strong prophetic element. I don’t mean the idea of Russia occupying a neighbouring country, which is a bit too direct. But suggesting that Western superpowers might collude with Russia to undertake something as vile as occupying independent Norway felt both shocking and original.
Now with Trump moving into the White House, it also doesn’t sound wildly improbable. The US press and major politicians are in fact close to directly accusing Russia and team Trump of colluding to fix the US presidential election in Trump’s favour. In many ways, this scenario looks even more fantastic than the plot in the Okkupert.
Bringing in another cinematographic analogy, in this new reality a country like Norway may find itself turning into something akin to a Rebel Alliance planet, like the ones which provided refuge for rogue freedom lovers in Star Wars. Unless, of course, it is taken over by the same brand of far-right crypto-authoritarians as Russia and the US.
The Star Wars analogy is however flawed, because Trump is not an undercover Sith who communicates with the Dark Lord of the Kremlin, when night falls on New York. He is a product of cultural and political crisis that has engulfed the US and the rest of the world. Investigations striving to reveal his Putin connection may or may not yield any tangible results (the material published so far looks dubious to say the least), but ultimately Putin hysteria in Western media reflects the state of denial which replaced the shock caused by Trump’s election. It would be so nice to explain Trump as a foreign agent, but the bitter truth is that he is a homegrown product which didn’t need Russia’s help to succeed.
For hapless old-fashioned liberals, It is equally convenient to see Russia as an evil alien empire that is trying to conquer free world. In reality it is an integral part of what we tend to call the West, which historically employed some of the worst Western ideas and governance practices, like Communism and authoritarian nationalism. It is Dorian Gray’s picture of the West, an image of its real self, which the model is hiding from everyone in the attic. With the election of Trump, Brexit and the ascent of far-right populists in Europe, the model is looking increasingly like the horrible image on the painting.
Today, both the US and Russia are divided by the same barricade. The divide ethical as much as political. There are people on one side of this barricade who believe that evil – lies, bigotry, violence, torture and aggression – is not only acceptable, but in many ways attractive and even cool. All around the world, from Maharashtra and Siberia to English Midlands and Ohio they call themselves conservatives. But in reality they are radical revolutionaries who want to undo the imperfect yet totally functional and rather comfortable liberal world that emerged in parts of the planet after the fall of Communism.
There are also people, naive and weak as they are at the moment, who are trying to preserve and protect the liberties and the sense of unity achieved in Europe and North America in the last quarter a century. One might call them genuine conservatives.
The difference though is the breakdown. Whereas in Russia roughly 15% of people consistently oppose Putin’s policies, according to multiple polls, in the US Trump was elected by a relative minority of voters. That said, Putin received only 53% of the vote when he was first elected in 2000, but he managed to build a much broader support base thereafter.
The likes of Putin, Trump and both far-right politicians across the globe love to explain tensions emerging in the world in terms of clash of civilizations – East vs West, Christians vs Muslims, Europeans vs Asians. But in reality liberal-minded cosmopolitans in Europe, ex-USSR, America and Muslim world have more in common with each other these days than with their “conservative” or simply more backward compatriots. In simple terms, they watch same films, read same books, go through same fashion crazes and generally strive to live very similar lifestyles.
In the same way, while talking to Trump supporters in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania around the election date last November, I couldn’t help feeling that these were very same people as pro-Putin villagers in Russia’s Pskov region I had met just a couple of weeks earlier. Their standards of living might be different (though not as radically as one might think), but what makes them so similar is their vulnerability to fake news and hate-inciting rhetoric, their childishly short span of attention and their attitude to politics as a brand of show business, in which they are passive spectators rather than pawns moved towards the edge of the cliff by evil manipulators.
These two parties are becoming truly global as illustrated by the synergy created by Putin, Trump, British Brexiteers and other far-right politicians in Europe which benefits each of these players. In terms of internationalism, liberals are lagging far behind the far-right populists because they are still poisoned by nationalism and regionalism. The epoch Trump will usher in when he moves into White House will be dominated by a supranational confrontation between these two (or more) global parties. Let’s see if at the end of day one calls it a global cold civil war.
Kremlin’s spasmodic reaction to Ukrainian revolution was caused by the fear of Ukraine becoming an alternative Russia – a country with the same ex-Soviet and Russian-speaking population that enjoys the advantages of inclusive institutions and economy. The revolution has won, but the Kremlin has also achieved its goal – Ukraine will not become a viable alternative to the Russian mafia state model in any foreseeable future. In fact, it has largely remained a mafia state.
Now that the West is getting engulfed in internal political crisis and post-Soviet countries will be largely left to their own devices, it is vital for all healthy forces to communicate and coordinate their actions. Nationalism and xenophobia, which infect many liberals and democrats, work for the Kremlin. A successful pro-European platform will only emerge when everyone begins helping each other to move towards Europe. It is also important to prevent the return of atomised Europe and the old normal of wars and annexations.
As someone from Russia, which has been ruled by alt-right autocratic regime for the last 17 years, I have a privilege of conveying messages from the future to my friends in the US and Europe. You can find the previous message here.
Now that Donald Trump has been elected, you have every reason to be depressed, but there is a guy next to you thinking: “Now this is my golden moment!”.
It might be someone you didn’t pay much attention to because of their perceived lack of talent or charisma. In your intellectual snobbery, you may have even insulted them on more than one occasion without even noticing.
The success of a populist regime, like Putin’s, depends on its ability to provide social lifts to those who couldn’t succeed in a more meritocratic system – often due to mediocre education and a lack of confidence. Many of these people are genuinely talented, but not in the way you are – they begin to shine when the epoch requires a more vicious and misanthropic kind of talent.
Now they can overtake you in the race for better life by going over ethical barriers, which matter for you but not so much for them.
Putin has elevated a whole generation of non-entities, turning them into billionaires, ministers, spin doctors, television stars and top security agents. He has created numerous youth movements, agencies and institutions that pamper and educate young followers during their meteoric rise to power.
If Trump wants to succeed, he will need to do the same, else he’ll find himself alone against the old establishment that will simply eat him up. Like Savonarola or ayatollah Khomeini, he needs an army of loyalists obliged to him for having a life they could never have dreamt of.
I used to have many friends in the 1990s who are no longer my friends. They would depart into Putin jobs saying something like: “Good people need to be inside the system, else no one will ever stop these bastards”. Many would insist that the other – liberal – side is ethically no better than Putin’s, that they are technocrats who can help Russia no matter who is in charge. Some of them would point to the theory of small local improvements that eventually lead to tectonic cultural shifts.
All of them eventually turned into hideous monsters. I remember how in something like 2000 my wife complained to her school friend, who had just become a major political operative in the Kremlin, about the cynical way Putin tackled Kursk submarine disaster. “Now you are talking like an ordinary person”, said the man who over the next couple of years made a full evolution from living in a dingy Soviet apartment to owning oils wells and 17th century Flemish paintings.
Putin’s regime, both political and economic team, is comprised of young talented people who would fit naturally into a crowd of cynical Wall Street executives, such as those who precipitated Enron scandal, or crypto-fascist Silicon valley bosses of Peter Thiel type. Only their job is arguably more fun because on top of getting super-rich, they can manipulate millions of people, start wars, move borders and destroy the lives of their perceived enemies.
You’d say this is impossible in America because of long-established institutions, oversight, checks and balances, free media. But I also remember hearing that a candidate who blatantly ignores facts, logic and basic ethics couldn’t be elected the president of the United States. Trump has done the impossible and yes he can do much more.
To avoid what happened in Russia, it is crucial to be intolerant to any form of collaboration, to attack and ostracise anyone who turns to the other side without giving them a chance to breath and find their bearings. The psychological damage due to constant pressure should outweigh the perks of their jobs and shiny prospects. Many people say Trump and his team should be given a fair chance to govern. Well, you may give that chance to them, but they won’t give you any.
As someone hailing from Russia, which has been ruled by alt-right autocratic regime for the last 17 years, I have a privilege of conveying stories and messages from the future to my friends in the US and Europe.
The first one will be about Trump’s racism and xenophobia. The president-elect and members of his team are often being accused of spreading hatred towards Muslims, Jews and Hispanics. The outrage is justified, but if Trump is to become a successful alt-right autocrat, he will soon neutralise this criticism by coopting numerous representatives of these communities into his camp and indeed the government.
For someone like Trump or Putin xenophobia is only a means of mobilising their constituency, not an end in itself, like it was for Hitler. People like them have no qualms about embracing someone who they hated just a second ago. Trump and Putin are ecumenical nationalists.
Putin has always been able to reach out to and find support base among Muslims, Jews, Chechens and even a part of LGBT crowd. Putin’s version of nationalism is truly non-ethnic and non-racist, but it is just as vicious and radical as nationalist movements that took over much of Europe in the 1930s. In the same vein, now being in America, I can see how Trump can appeal to Afro-Americans, Jews and Hispanics. I met all of these at Trump rallies and I am now writing from Brighton Beach, a Russian-speaking Jewish district of New York which is overwhelmingly and vehemently pro-Trump.
Putin has created a version of modern nationalism which myself and many others in Russia call nashism. It comes from the word ‘nashi’, which means ‘our folks’ and was used by Putin and his alt-right predecessors in the 1990s to define the supporters and their enemies, who would naturally fall into the category of non-ours. The latter would include everyone who disagreed with the system – some minority activists indeed, but mostly straightforward Russian liberals of non-exotic origins and walks of life.
The likes of Putin and Trump don’t create ethnic movements, they create gangs, in which the only criteria that really matters is whether you are “with us” or “against us”, whether you are ready to insult or hurt the “others” no matter who they are and what you felt about them in the first place. They are mob artists, they are majoritarians or – translating the latter term into Russian language – the Bolsheviks.
Trump’s and Putin’s advantage is that they are not bound by logic or intellectual decency. Their constituencies have the span of attention of a toddler – they won’t even notice the leader and his propaganda machine switching from hating to praising and coopting a certain group. That’s what Putin has done with former Chechen independence fighters, who are now playing a key role in his machine or terror.
The anti-Trump march held by the opposition last weekend was all about minority rights, but I am not sure to which extent everyone present – the crowd included many radical left-wingers – is united on values, such as democracy, rule of law, transparency of the government and internationalism. Trump’s spin doctors will have no problem breaking this movement, pitting its diverse components against each other, the same way Putin did with Bolotnaya protests in 2012.
With their old rhetoric and linguistic taboos, left-wingers and liberals look obsolete and lagging far behind Trump or Putin who both represent a very modern, sophisticated and media-savvy political movement. To beat Trump, his opponents need to start everything anew and unite under more universal and unifying slogans.
You hear it all the time when people, both Russians and foreigners, say that Russia is turning into something akin to North Korea. This comparison is obviously only rhetorical because by the standards of authoritarian regimes that existed in the last 100 years and still exist today, Putin’s can only be described as super-mild.
It’s hard to compare it not only with North Korea, but even with Turkey, a member of NATO and a key ally of the US. Whereas in Russia the number of political prisoners is hardly reaching 50, in post-coup Turkey there are dozens of thousands. Russia is also lagging behind Turkey in terms of media censorship.
Yet, Russia is degrading, institutionally and culturally. The brightest Russian intellectuals and businessmen are leaving the country in droves, while public discourse is becoming increasingly debilitating. The nuclear deterrent ensures that the system can’t be changed from the outside. Chronic social apathy and fatalism of post-genocidal society don’t leave much hope that it can be easily changed from the inside.
All of that means that over decades Russia can indeed turn into a Godzilla-sized North Korea by very gradually squeezing out everyone who is capable of acting on their own initiative and keeping only those who will silently cope with more repression and deteriorating economy.
That creates a problem for the entire world. While these days the gangster-ish Russian leadership is artfully playing a psycho while not actually being one, a more North Korean society will be pushing real psychos to the top, making an accidental nuclear conflict a greater possibility.
That’s why there is no alternative to engaging Russia, while antagonization only serves Kremli rulers and state propaganda. Engaging Russia, but not necessarily its political regime, which should indeed be indeed disengaged from its London bank accounts and Cote d’Azur villas. It is Russian people who should be engaged, over the heads of their government.
All problems with this giant country stem from the fact that after the fall of Communism Russians found themselves in a cultural vacuum, feeling that they were unwelcome in the Euroatlantic community and despised by most of its members. They have always lacked the beacon of integration that has forced society in Eastern Europe to change, despite a natural predilection for authoritarianism, patrimonialism and tribalism, which is now showing self in Poland and Hungary.
Reaching out to various segments of Russian directly, having a clearly formulated message for each of them, choosing the right words and making sure that the message finds its audience – all of that may change the landscape for the better. The problem though is that at the moment the West has no positive message for Russians that could inspire them to change, while the level of knowledge and understanding with regard to Russia is just pathetic. With issues Trump and Brexit, there is too much domestic mess to be dealt with before anyone get any fresh thoughts on Russia.
Remember the panorama of Kiev’s Independence Square at the height of the 2014 revolution? Army tents, field kitchens, piles of burning tires, black smoke drifting through the frosty air and giant barricades manned by post-apocalyptic warriors straight out of Mad Max?
Now imagine the same Maidan scene at the National Mall in Washington – a square that stretches for three kilometres and abuts in the Capitol. If I were a Kremlin strategist – given their Tarantino-styled post-modernist obsession with re-staging iconic scenes over and over again – I’d be dreaming of orchestrating a colour revolution in the heart of America. That would be Kremlin’s most spectacular revenge for what it sees as US-backed revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and the Middle East.
This is what comes to mind when Donald Trump starts talking about rigged elections. It is one of the surest symptom of a pending colour revolution. Allegations of rigging is what sparked Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in December 2004. Seven years later, same allegations triggered Bolotnaya protests in Moscow, which the Kremlin read as an attempt to use the same political technology in Russia.
If someone has told Trump about colour revolutions, it would be Paul Manafort, who once advised Viktor Yanukovych, the man who was defeated in Orange revolution and then once again in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
Largely based on voters’ honesty and backed up by outdated technology, the US elections can indeed be rigged or disrupted by hackers, as demonstrated by the recent cyber-attacks, which the US authorities blamed on Russian government-controlled hacker. With a very weak voter identification procedure, hardly anything prevents what Russians call “carousels” – when groups of people travel between polling stations voting multiple times.
If violations and disruptions are sufficient to convince a constituency that’s already known for buying half-baked lies like president Obama’s non-US origin, then staging a massive permanent protest will be a technical issue. Occupy Wall Street did work for a while, so this one might work, too.
Can Trump rally a million people – the number which Louis Farrakhan promised but failed to bring to the National Mall in 1995? I have no idea. But if I worked for the Kremlin, I’d definitely try to convey the vision of a DC Maidan to Trump and his advisors.
Kremlin’s evident support for Trump’s candidacy has never been about making him win, but about making America divided, weak and preoccupied with an internal crisis. That worked in Ukraine, which keeps bleeding ever since the latest revolution. Making it bleed is not a means of achieving something, but an end in itself.