Monday, November 24, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Russia Increasing Resembles Brezhnev’s Soviet Union

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 24 – Russia increasingly resembles Brezhnev’s USSR with its “imitation of power, imitation of obedience, imitation of unanimity of belief and imitation of trust,” according to a leading Russian commentator, an implicit warning that those who are comfortable with that should remember what happened after the Soviet leader passed away.
In an article in the current issue of Moscow’s “New Times,” Valery Panyushkin says that the gap between image and reality became glaring at the time of the Georgian war, with Russian forces on the ground not doing what the Russian president said he had ordered them to do (
In the hearing of all, he continues, Dmitry Medvedev said that “the war is over and the army is stopping and leaving Georgia.” But “the army did not stop and it did not leave.” Either the army was acting in an insubordinate way or at a minimum “sabotaging the public order of the supreme commander.”
And this situation only became worse when, as the international financial crisis began to affect Russia sending the stock market, exchange rates, and employment down, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went around the country denying the obvious, saying that there was no crisis and that anyone who said otherwise was sowing panic.
Nine years ago, Putin’s standing with the population rose “thanks to his televised propaganda,” Panyushkin continues, but now “in the middle of 2008, despite [an equally intense] televised propaganda campaign, the stock markets did not blindly follow the prime minister” but instead reacted to reality.
And perhaps not surprisingly, in an effort to rescue their ratings, the president and prime minister took another page out of Brezhnev’s playbook: “almost at the same time, they used one and the same tested public relations ploy – they appeared in public with animals,” Medvedev with a dog and Putin with a baby tiger. But in spite of this, the markets continued to fall.
“If one recalls the much-commented-upon photograph of Putin with a naked torso while fishing in Tuva, then a completely new model of Putin is being created. He is now Rambo. He remains alone and alone fights against everyone. But no one fights against him. No one openly confronts him, like Khodorkovsky,” Panyushkin says.
But he adds, “the forest is full of partisans, and there is a feeling that the entire country is engaging in partisan style activities.” And consequently, it is possible that this time, “just like the last time, “the country will fall collapse as soon as [both the government and the country] cease to imitate” reality.
In many ways, Panyushkin says, “the Brezhnev paradigm” is being repeated as Karl Marx predicted, first as tragedy and then as farce. As then, Russians don’t like corruption but learn to use it. As then, they don’t approve of the privileges of the elite but instead seek to acquire some for themselves.
One of the many examples he gives of this farcical return of the past is the role of the Internet, which Panyushkin suggests is “now playing the role of samizdat in Brezhnev’s times.” Just as with samizdat, so too with the Internet, “it is still impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
And similarly, just as the nationalist “Veche” enjoyed greater popularity than the human rights samizdat journal “Chronicle of Current Events,” so now the Internet site “Classmates” enjoys “a much larger audience than any information site, something the users of the latter often forget.
But behind all of these similarities is an even more fateful one: “The powers again as in Brezhnev’s time have begun to be conceived as something like a phenomenon of nature. It doesn’t enter into anyone’s head to argue with them; instead, society is inclined so as to adapt to the powers that be and to live its own live, deceiving and using the regime in its own interests.”
That explains why no one particularly cared when Medvedev and Putin increased the presidential term from four to six years. After all, Panyushkin points out, in the current configuration of power, “what’s the difference?” And again like in Brezhnev’s times, “no one is able to think that these times will at some point end.”
And that helps to explain the widespread nostalgia for Brezhnev’s time revealed in poll after poll, a fondness for the past that is particularly great outside of Moscow and despite the deficits there today which closely resemble those of 40 years ago for everything “from vodka to meat.”
And that highlights a continuing reality which will have to change if Russia is to make progress. “Russia is a community of people who do not believe that they can do something their lives. More than two-thirds think that their lives do not belong to them. … [And] in poser societies they value stability not change.”
The reason for that is found in “the mantra of this stability,” the Moscow commentator says. Russia needs it, in the view of most of its population, lest things become even worse for them and their country.

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