Sunday, August 30, 2015

‘No Barrier between Destroying Food and Destroying Enemies of the People,’ Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – If Russia continues on its current course and if the regime restores a totalitarian system, “if the interests of the state stand above all,” Lev Gudkov says, “then there is no logical, moral or legal barrier between the destruction of food [which is happening now] and the destruction of groups of the population declared to be enemies of the people.”

            When “the authorities decide what is moral, what is art, what is worthy and what is not, what is history, how people should engage in sex and how to bring up their children,” the head of the Levada Center says, “then these are signs of the establishment of totalitarian control” (

            “Of course,” he adds in a new “Novaya gazeta” interview, “we still are dealing only with attempts to impose it.” But both those attempts by the regime and the support that they are receiving from the Russian population mean that it is important to focus on them and consider how they might be blocked before a new tragedy occurs.

            Russia has been moving from “a typically authoritarian program” in which the authorities say do what you like as long as you don’t touch politics to something more ominous, Gudkov’s interviewer Andrey Lipsky says, arguing that since 2012 “we have become witnesses and unwilling participants in a dangerous drift of the Russian political system toward totalitarianism.”

            Many are inclined to blame this on propaganda and thus to conclude that if the propaganda changed, this would be enough to change the course of the country. But that is a mistake, Gudkov suggests, because “Putin is only a personification of mass ideas, their arithmetic mean.”

            That is, the Kremlin leader “is the embodiment of suppressed desires,” of actions people would like to take on their own but can’t. “But he is not the initiator of this,” Gudkov says; “he if you like is the catalyst or activator of it.” And that in turn means that “the situation is much more serious than it appears at first glance.”

            Such popular attitudes had been reemerging in Russia well before Putin, the sociologist continues.  And they were able to come roaring back with him because “the main part of the institutional system, that is, the most important institutions, was practically unchanged from Soviet times.”

            The “secret political police” never went away and “chekists, former KGB officers with their mentality and their understanding of reality, their phobias and their ideas about the interests of the state came to power … This ideology penetrated into the functioning of new Russian state structures and has been preserved up to now.”

            Moreover, Gudkov adds, “these Soviet institutional structures were not simply restored but combined again into a system. That which fell apart in 1991 and which with mixed success some attempted to destroy in the first half of the 1990s today has been restored completely.”

            Not only is there a secret police, but there are other aspects of “the so-called totalitarian syndrome” as well: a one-party system which gives some a chance to rise and freezes others out, state control over the media which transforms them into propaganda outlets, and a fusion of the state and the economy thus allowing massive corruption.

            But most worrisome is the way in which all these things have the effect of convincing people that there is nothing they can do and therefore they should not try, Gudkov says.

            Another totalitarian feature in Russia today is “the leader as the symbolic personification of the whole.” Before the media revolution, he had to be a charismatic figure, but television has changed that, the sociologist argues.

            “Our president,” he says, “is a media personage and not a statesmen proposing new political goals, new horizons and decisions. This is not a Churchill or a Roosevelt; this is a function of the media.”

            And another feature is ideology. It had not appeared to exist until recently. “As was said, it was only business. But with the Ukrainian crisis,” that has changed and a new ideology, one based on the idea of “a divided nation” which must be restored has become the ideological foundation of the regime.

            Not only does that provide a focus, but it provides a justification for any suffering and an explanation of why nothing can be done until that situation has been overcome. But it has a darker meaning: it restores to Russia something characteristic of all totalitarian regimes; and that is the notion that there are “enemies” around who are blocking Russia’s realization of its goals.

            “This was the Jewish conspiracy” of the Nazis, “the class enemies” of Soviet times “or as now, the Americans and the West,” whose “’rotting’ liberal democracy” threatens Russia and which must be opposed by “the rebirth of the nation and state and the return to traditional morality.”

            The only thing the current Russian regime can’t promise that other totalitarian regimes have is social mobility, Gudkov says. At best, it can promise the restoration of the past; but it is not being challenged on that because “the opposition is still also not in a position to propose” an alternative and the population lacks the self-confidence to demand one.

            What people should be focusing on now, Gudkov says, is less the nature of totalitarianism than on the ways in which totalitarianism can be overcome. “The Nazi and fascist regimes were destroyed in the course of a military defeat. The Soviet regime however fell apart from the inside and only partially.”

            “Its basic institutions, above all the organization of power and the political police were preserved.”  But the trigger for the new drive toward totalitarianism was the sense the regime had that the mass protests of 2011-2012 were a direct threat to its rule if it didn’t do something, given anger about growing inequality and the moral condemnation of the authorities by some.

            In order to deploy “’the silent majority’” against “the protesting minority,” Gudkov continues, the Kremlin played on popular aspirations for the recovery of Russia’s status as a great power, feelings that in many cases served as compensation for increasing poverty and increasingly harsh uses of force.

            What the population was showing, Lipsky suggests and Gudkov agrees, was its willingness “to a limitation of freedoms” and its acceptance of “a certain degree of repression. Not that when millions would be shot but in a more classical and less bloody understanding of this term.”

            Gudkov calls this “capillary repressiveness which penetrated the entire body and fabric of social relations” even if it is relatively small compared with what happened in the 1930s.  Support for it reflects, he says, “the fear of the new, the fear that all reforms will bring only a worsening of life.”

            “The ideology of perestroika,” he recalls, “was this: we will destroy the monopoly of the CPSU and immediately will arise a liberated individual who will be kind, intelligent, free, capable of solidarity and all the rest.  But another person appeared instead,” one without these qualities but who accepts the use of force as the ultima ratio.

            According to Gudkov, there is still some hope: approximately ten percent of the Russian population is interested in and animated by the values of democracy, “the more educated and the more entrepreneurial.” But at present, this group is divided and disoriented and mired in depression.

            What is needed now, he concludes, is an active search for new forces which can provide optimism and the basis for a new rise in social consciousness.

Tatarstan has Never Disavowed 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty, Akhmetov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – Twenty-five years ago today, the Supreme Soviet of the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic – it had already dispensed with the hated word “autonomous” – voted unanimously with only one abstention for a Declaration of State Sovereignty of Tatarstan, a declaration that it has never disavowed, Rashit Akhmetov says.

            And thus despite all the moves against the republic taken by Boris Yeltsin and even more by Vladimir Putin, that declaration, the editor of Zvezda Povolzhya argues, continues to provide the basis of hope for the future (“25 let,” Zvezda Povolzhya, no. 31 (759), August 27-September 2, 2015, p. 1).

            What is perhaps more intriguing, even some who oppose the Tatarstan project are saying on this anniversary that what Tatarstan did a generation ago and what is leaders and people continue to do may become the basis for the transformation not just of that Middle Volga republic but of the Russian Federation as a whole.

            In his lead article, Akhmetov says that the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty was “a turning point in the history of the republic” because it asserted both Tatarstan’s ownership of its natural resources and the supremacy of Tatarstan laws over Moscow’s.

            He acknowledges that Tatarstan was able to do this because it successfully exploited the tensions between Boris Yeltsin who wanted to take the RSFSR out from under Soviet control and Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to weaken Yeltsin by promoting the so-called “parade of sovereignties” within the Russian republic.
            Twenty-five years later, many even in Tatarstan treat this event as of only historical interest. After all, they say, Russia’s Constitutional Court has declared it null and void, and Moscow especially under Putin has gutted most of its key provisions.  But that is a mistake, Akhmetov says, because the Declaration laid the groundwork for Tatarstan’s special status.

            Not only did the Russian Constitutional Court not exist when Tatarstan adopted the declaration, something that makes its ruling problematic, the Kazan editor says;  but “Tatarstan did not sign the Federative Treaty with Russia,” as did all other republics except Chechnya, but only an agreement on the delimitation of powers and responsibilities.

            Moreover, in 1992, the people of Tatarstan in a referendum “confirmed the status of the declaration,” and most important, “the Parliament of Tatarstan up do now has no disavowed the Declaration of Sovereignty,” even though it has removed the word from the republic’s constitution under pressure from Moscow.

            As long as Yeltsin was Russian president, the leaders of Tatarstan as a result of their pragmatic approach were able to maintain most of the provisions of the 1990 Declaration. But then Putin came to power and “Tatarstan sovereignty ended,” with the republic reduced from what had been virtually “confederal” relations with Moscow to those of “an autonomy.”

            The Kremlin leader continues to chip away at what the Tatars have done, most recently by launching a campaign suggesting that the Tatarstan leadership is fundamentally corrupt, a charge Moscow can make only by distorting the facts, claiming for instance that the number of slot machines in Tatarstan is greater than the total number in the Russian Federation.

            According to Akhmetov, Tatars can see through this and recognize that what is going on is the setting of the stage for a raider attack on Tatneft by Putin’s Rosneft like the one Moscow carried out in Bashkortostan.  And they can give “an effective rebuff” to this by voting overwhelmingly for the current president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov.

            That the Tatar editor should consider the 1990 Declaration important is no surprise, but what is striking is that some who can hardly be called friends of that Middle Volga republic see Tatarstan’s continuing ability to take a position at odds with the center as a possible trigger of a new round of  “perestroika’ in the Russian Federation.

            In a commentary on, left-wing commentator Sergey Gupalo suggests it would be a mistake to ignore what stands behind Tatar celebrations of this anniversary because despite everything Putin has done, Tatarstan alone retains the office of president, something even Chechnya hasn’t been able to do (

            Tatarstan’s ability to maintain itself in this way reflects Kazan’s development of economic and political ties to foreign countries; and those ties, the communist commentator says, help to explain why one feels “more than anywhere else the breathe of an approaching new perestroika,” one that may be liberal or otherwise depending on events.

            Among the intelligentsia in Tatarstan, he says, one feels the same spirit that one felt at the end of Soviet times, the view that “’one can’t continue to live this way anymore.’”  Gupalo writes that he experienced that in the years before 1991 in Ukraine; now, he feels the same thing in Tatarstan.

            And he says that on the basis of those experiences, he “sees direct parallels between the crisis of the late USSR and the crisis of present-day Russian Federation,” even though no specific actions have yet been taken in Tatarstan. But the shift in attitudes there like the shift in attitudes in Ukraine 25 years ago suggests that they will be forthcoming.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Even Putin Can’t Count on Being Quoted Accurately in Russian Federation Media

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – In Soviet times, the joke ran, the press carried three kinds of news: obituaries which were certainly true; the weather forecast which was possibly true; and everything else which was patently false. Typically, however, it was recognized that at least the words of the supreme leader would be quoted accurately, however false their content.

Now, however, the situation may have deteriorated because it appears that even Vladimir Putin cannot be certain that all news outlets in his country will quote him correctly. A case in Tatarstan 12 days ago of such misquotation of the Kremlin leader is attracting ever more attention, and one can only wonder whether this is unique or the start of a new pattern.

On August 17, Tatar-Inform carried a story about Putin’s meeting with representatives of the national social organizations of occupied Crimea. According to the news service, Putin gave as “an example of the peaceful co-existence of representatives of various confessions and various nationalities … the Republic of Tatarstan” (

            The Kazan-based outlet then ascribed the following words to Putin, albeit not in the form of a direct quote: According to Putin’s “words, Tatarstan is a strong and peace-loving region” and he “directed the attention of the participants of this meeting to this fact and propose using its priceless experience.”

            Several writers have pointed out that what Tatar-Inform reported did not perfectly correspond to Putin’s speech, but Mikhail Shcheglov, the head of the Society of Russian Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan and of the “Let us Help Novorossiya” movement, has now savaged it on the website of the World Russian Popular Assembly (

            He compared what Tatar-Inform reported with the text provided by the Kremlin itself ( and found some significant differences. Putin did say that Tatarstan was “an example of the peaceful coexistence of representatives of various confessions.” But he did not add “and various nationalities.”

            That is Shcheglov says “already a creative development of the thought of the president of the Russian Federation which hardly can be called correct.”

            In addition, he continues, “the phrase that ‘Tatarstan is a strong and peace-loving region’” is one that “could not be said by the president of the Russian Federation by definition.”  Such “epithets,” Shcheglov continues, “are appropriate for an independent state and not a subject of the Russian Federation.”

Are there perhaps “’aggressive regions’ in Russia?” Shcheglov asks. He doesn’t provide an answer, but perhaps some others can.