Vienna, September 18 – Vladimir Putin was wrong to say that “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe from Russia’s point of view was the collapse of the USSR,” the Levada Center’s Aleksey Levinson argues. In fact, it was the falling away “of the entire Stalinist empire,” one that embraced the non-Russian republics, the socialist bloc, and part of the third world
“This was a utopia realized as an empire,” Levinson argues in an essay posted online today, “and an empire realized as a utopia.” And “the shock of [its] loss” many Russians feel and their sense of being “defenseless” against the rest of the world, he says, explains both their search for a new utopia and their political configurations (www.politcom.ru/8824.html).
The Gorbachevian elite, the Levada Center analyst suggests, “attempted to realize a utopia of openness, while the early Yeltsin one pursued one of encapsulation and paralysis.” And that in turn opened the way to “the current form of utopia [in Russia] – [one based on] a neurotic-aggressive expression of resentment.”
This latest utopia is being used by the new elite “which is carrying out a policy of the symbolic punishment of former colonies,” an attempt, Levinson suggests, “to realize now an anti-empire as an anti-utopia.” But that is far from the only thing that is going on as a result of this shock of loss.
“Left in a position of one-on-one with the rest of the world, Russia is at the same time living through the phantom of the imagined reconstruction of the empire/utopia and the [simultaneous and very different but real] need to become a national state,” a need that the Moscow ethnic specialist Emil Pain has argued.
And consequently, atone and the same time, “Russia is painfully losing the imperial resource but surprisingly acquiring a national, national-confessional and ethnic resource,” a development that is promoting “a phenomenon never before seen in the history of Russia – the symbolic unity of the ruling elite and the public.”
One example of this, Levinson says, is the almost universal approval among Russians of military actions against Georgia last year, a level of support they did not manifest for Moscow’s earlier campaigns in Afghanistan and Chechnya, when many parents did not want to send their sons to fight.
Another reflection of this “consolidation” of the nation, he suggests, is the nature of the support for Putin. “To the extent that the figure of the president symbolizes this new (pseudo-imperial and really national-ethnic) unity, and not anything else, its position (as expressed for example in ‘ratings’) does not depend on anything else,” including his actions.
As the old system collapsed, the ruling elite first sought to employ “universalist (‘all-human’ and ‘democratic’) values,” but these turned out not to be much in demand. And consequently, as the process of devolution proceeded, elites turned ever more to “particularistic and pseudo-universalistic ideological values,” which have proved more popular.
The collapse of the empire also opened broad channels for mobility, leading to the emergence and fusion of the political powers that be, business and the force structures – “from the legal to the illegal” – and their interpenetration from the local level to that of the Russia as a whole.
In this, Levinson says, “there are just as many similarities with the Soviet infrastructure (the CPSU plus the KGB plus the leadership of the economy) as there are distinctions from it. But it is not, he insists, “an artificially articulated ‘vertical’ but rather a naturally occurring molecular or crystal structure.”
This system, he continues, “is relatively young and its channels of mobility are not yet stopped up,” but it “is sufficiently mature that it is concerned about its own reproduction.” At the same time, Levinson says, “the present elites have sufficient freedom of action and sufficient room for maneuver in any particular direction.”
All this would seem to “promise this regime long years of a peaceful life,” but “Russia entering into the phase of transforming itself into ‘a national state’ faces difficulties from an unexpected side:” a demographic crisis which “even the wises behavior of the powers that be and society” cannot cope without extraordinary difficulties.
That is because, Levinson points out, “the logic of the construction [by ethnic Russians] of relations with various ‘others’ whose national and ethnic flowering has been delayed by circumstances and the logic of [their own] situation where they are experiencing a sharp demographic squeeze and ethnic crisis are contradictory.”
As other nations have felt in the past, Russians now have a sense of being “a ‘disappearing people,’” one whose existence is threatened by demographic decline and by the demographic rise of people who often are viewed as fundamentally different than and hostile to the Russian nation.
In this situation, “one cannot exclude that the demographic crisis, the fear of losing control over too broad a territory and too extended borders which they do not want to use political means to defend will generate another breakthrough of the military under the pretext of putting all human resources of society under its control.”
At the very least, “the anti-Western rhetoric which seems such a convenient means of integration of society … will lead to anti-Western jests and actions in politics and economic behavior,” even though “the projection of this line in the next decade promises the gradual loss of Russia of its place … in that part” of the world “dominated by the West.”
Given that this is the likely trajectory of Russia’s development, “the most acceptable policy” for the West with regard to that country “will be [its] marginalization” all the more so because “contemporary Russia … has ever less to offer than West besides raw materials and arms (for [the West’s] enemies).”
And that suggests, given “the logic of the international situation,” that Russia should “reorient” itself toward China. An equal partnership is not possible, Levinson argues, but anything less is something Russian society, given its current situation, won’t accept, leaving post-imperial but not yet national Russia in an increasingly difficult position.