Today, I want to talk a little more about Vladimir Putin and modern Russia. Reading back over the post I wrote last night, about how Etienne Balibar seems to be the only one who anticipated Russia’s current return to oppressive geopolitics, I didn’t really like what I wrote.
It was basically just a reiteration of what Putin’s Russia had been up to, and wondering exasperated why no one else could have seen this coming. I admit, I wrote it rather late in the evening. So I couldn’t quite make the ideas clear.
|We saw this moment as a great victory for democracy,|
and it was. But victory wasn't finished yet. The symbol
is always easier to deal with than millions of real lives.
Let’s do that today.
I could make a pretty strong case that this failure of geopolitical prediction is at heart a failure of empathy. In two short years, all the most powerful symbols and the central political institutions of Soviet and European communism had fallen. Figuratively and literally.
The actual political phenomena are so complex that it could take hundreds of history books to give a truly comprehensive account. But in the context of this argument, here’s how I’ll lay it out. With the Soviet economy in crisis, Russian leaders tried liberalizing the economy a little, opening up more flexibility than the crumbling bureaucracy of the Brezhnev era could have allowed.
Economic unrest and a more liberalized political atmosphere provoked protest across the Eastern Bloc, Hungary opened its borders to Austria and East Germany, East German dictator Erich Honecker stepped down, and the government opened talks on reunification. There was a party at the Berlin Wall, and it hasn’t stopped since.
On the Russian side, Mikhail Gorbechev’s economic and political liberalizations weren’t sitting well with hardline communists in the government and army, who deposed him in a military coup. But a protest movement in Moscow encouraged many in the Soviet army to turn against the plotters.
At the front of this protest was former Politburo member turned democratic activist Boris Yeltsin. With Gorbachev under lock and key the entire time, Yeltsin became the public face of the democratic movement in Russia.
Since most of the anti-Soviet opposition in the other 15 republics was nationalist, the Soviet state collapsed into 16 different countries. Most of them remained autocratic dictatorships – Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
|The democratic revolution in Russia was genuinely|
mind-blowing – an event that we long considered
impossible in the West. Our problem is that our
leaders (and us too) learned all the wrong lessons
from this wonderful moment.
Some of them transitioned to democracies – Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and most importantly Russia. Georgia democratized about ten years after independence. Ukraine’s was a difficult transition, having spent 15 years after independence as a Russian client state, then a democratic revolution interrupted by Viktor Yanukovich’s resurgent nationalism with Paul Manafort’s public relations team.
How did we understand the fall of European communism popularly in the West? Ronald Reagan demanded that they tear down the Berlin Wall, and we did. Reagan wins!
I mean, I oversimplify it to make sense of it here, but that’s basically what the popular Western belief amounts to. That triumphalism – in the wider context of the 1990s’ generally booming Western economy and gung-ho spirit – led no political leaders in the West to question the wisdom of liberalizing the Russian economy by selling off trillions of dollars worth of state assets to a small group of businessmen, even though most of them were former leaders in the Soviet military, communist party, or espionage agency.
Within only a few years of independence, Russia was a basket case. Its economy was in tatters, its people having lost so much of the financial support systems they could once rely on for basic dignity. Unable to contain or control the looting of his country or the downward spiral of his society, Yeltsin became a broken man living at the bottom of a vodka bottle.
We in the West saw the triumph of democracy – blind to the authoritarianism of countries most of us English speakers can barely spell and to the collective depression of the Russian people.
All we saw, popularly speaking, when we thought of the new Russia, was the triumph of democracy. We saw Yeltsin’s greatest moment standing on a tank in the middle of Moscow, marking an end to dictatorship and Russia’s first experiment in democracy.
We’d watch spy movies filled with Russian gangsters and – as a society anyway – never connect the explosion of the mafia in Russia’s economy with what we’d enabled in the name of freedom.
Even the espionage leadership of the United States – who had the intelligence capacity to have known better – had its focus drawn to the Middle East instead. The political leadership of the United States as the 21st century started were all democratic triumphalists.
They saw the fall of the Soviet Union as vindication of America’s right to dominate the world – Earth itself would run according to the model of the American market and business society. The American military would be its police force and missionary unit – first stop, Iraq. Our leaders were driven by ego and arrogance.
Reagan spoke, and the wall fell. It was almost biblical to so many Americans, unfortunately even the ones in the White House. Now Bush would speak, and hundreds of democracies would bloom across the world.
We were idiots. Our minds were narrow. Our eyes were closed.
They and so many of us presumed the Russian story was over – the Soviet empire had fallen, so they were a democracy now. The thought of a democratic country returning to dictatorship on its own was senseless to them. So they took their eye off Russia, even as that country’s own espionage agency led a coup against their deflated democrats.
The scattered person could see it happening, could see the failures of understanding, the neglect, the condescension that was turning millions of people against democracy and back toward life under authoritarianism. But no one would listen to an aging academic like Etienne Balibar in his speeches and essays on European nationalism in the late 1990s.
Vladimir Putin surprised Western popular culture two years ago with his invasion and subversion of Ukraine, his intervention in Syria on behalf of a neo-Stalinist dictator. I find most disturbing his military flights into Swedish airspace, purposely intimidating a Scandinavian social democracy as they consider an explicit alliance with NATO against just such Russian military agitation.
If we had been partners to the Russian people instead of looters and arrogant masters, we could have avoided this whole mess. That would have required empathy and understanding the society that had been our enemy for generations. I think we could have done it.
If we’d bothered to try.