Opinion: How Russians became radicals Managed democracy's path to a religiously extremist Kremlin
As 2015 comes to an end, Russians are looking back on a year that began with bombs falling in eastern Ukraine and ended with new bloodshed in Syria. In an opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, editor-at-large Maxim Trudolyubov reviews the evolution of his country's belligerence, and its impact on democracy as it's known in Russia. Meduza translates that text here.
Russia has secured its status as the most unpredictable and radical player among the major world powers. The wars Russia wages today are fought simultaneously in reality and in the headlines, with the front lines existing equally on the ground and in people's minds.
It's impossible to say when or with what these wars might end. Will Russia begin another armed conflict in the next year, and if so where? How exactly will today's severe economic crisis affect Russia's belligerence? Does the government have a real plan to address the recession? How does Moscow view the new world—and the unsteady peace upon which it rests—that it's trying to build with its recent actions? No one can answer these questions with much confidence—and that is the only thing we can say confidently about Russia at the close of 2015.
It's said that there are politicians who take it upon themselves to fix the economy and tackle public health and education, after becoming indispensable to the system and casting aside all term limits. The whole thing sounds like something out of a fairy tale, except for the particular case of Russia, where it's treated as a fact.
But politicians are still human beings, and, when they free themselves from such constraints, they grab everything within arm's reach, and they go to war with everyone they can.
And here there seems to be a paradox: if you've got no rivals and there are zero limitations on your time in power, you should feel like you're living in a political paradise, with every reason to be as calm as can be. But the people occupying the Kremlin today are far from calm. Freedom, it so happens, carries with it a great many temptations and pitfalls, and no one among Russia's powerful and propertied today has managed to resist these temptations. Impunity has made it impossible to cure Russia's corruption with a simple outpatient procedure.
But this is just half the story.
Freedom from competition and term limits, it turns out, creates a special political dynamic: no one is willing to take power from the people who have it, but someone still has to fight for it. Spin doctors are forced to fight against the fatigue of the audience. The protagonist of Russian politics, Vladimir Putin, descends into the water, he flies into the sky, he rides a horse, he sings, and he jokes as best he can—but even his grateful Russian patrons lose interest sometimes, and focus instead on their wallets, their roads, and their schools.
The Kremlin has learned how to stir up the public to the point of a complete detachment from reality, but it can only do it at the cost of putting the national consciousness on a military footing.
Once you reimagine any external event as part of a war of aggression, your own aggressive actions become morally justified. For years, the Kremlin fortified Russians' defensive consciousness. After the country's last failed effort to rescue its popularity by peaceful means (the Sochi Olympics), the Kremlin decided to make militarizing citizens' minds its main mechanism for conducting domestic politics. A person with a militarized consciousness, even when attacking a neighboring country like Ukraine, can believe that his war is in the interests of the nation's defense.
Russia's modern-day managers are trying with all their strength to cultivate in people's minds the concept of "Sovietism," substituting for the history of the USSR a myth about the golden Soviet era. In the heads of the people who embrace this idea, this imaginary Soviet Union is dimensionless, beautiful, and invincible.
But even this, it seems, isn't enough for the engineers of Russia's new political reality, and so they work to add a religious element: political orthodoxy, which isn't to be confused with actual Orthodox Christianity. Most importantly, this new ideology is capable of sacralizing violence. Its proponents, as Sergei Chapnin explained in a recent paper, are developing “a new concept in Christianity of ‘holy war,’ which has a totalizing nature, and is projected both into private and social life, as well as back into history.”
It's impossible to ignore how typologically similar this new phenomenon in Russian culture is to radical currents in the Islamic world. Russian “Orthodoxism,” it's safe to say, has roughly the same relationship to Orthodox Christianity as Islamism does to Islam. It is not a creed, but an ideology, constructed with radical political goals on the foundation of a religious tradition.
So where does Russia find itself today, at the end of 2015? Throughout the Putin years, Russia's political leadership has struggled to suppress publicly competitive domestic politics. Society didn't resist. It supported the Kremlin, because it was busy with other matters, earning money, shopping, going on vacation, traveling, and watching television.
Kremlin officials worked tirelessly to improve the manageability of Russia's party system and its electoral process. How can we measure their success? Consider the following metric: Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and an advocate of honest elections, can't win elected office under the current conditions. And the same goes for any independent nationalist, liberal, or leftist.
Manageability obtained. Success!
But wait a second. The whole of Russia's complex and risky political system wasn't put in place “to stop Navalny.” When it canceled direct elections and reshaped electoral legislation after the Beslan terrorist attack, the Kremlin always argued that it was fighting against radicals—religious, nationalist, liberal, and all others. And Navalny wasn't even on the political horizon at the time.
If you try to find a justification for what Russia's ruling elite has done with society's cooperation, the answer should sound something like this: “The political system we've built should guarantee that a radical capable of drawing the country into an armed conflict with ideas of holy war should never come to power.”
The only trouble is that precisely such a radical is already sitting in the Kremlin.