Popular memory and the economic underside of Russia's 'geopolitical disaster'

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During the on-going Ukrainian crisis, we in the West have been treated to the endless replaying and paraphrasing of Putin's quote regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical disaster of the  20th century.

This, or something akin to it, is generally the extent of the notion we are treated to, and it often accompanies suggestions that Putin's manoeuvres in Crimea are tantamount to the Sudeten crisis: Hitler's 1938 annexation of part of then Czechoslovakia according to the justification that he was intervening on behalf of German speakers.

Two questions less hyperbolic, and more analytically and politically useful, than "Is Putin Hitler" might be: "But what does 'geopolitical disaster' actually mean in the Russian context?" And: "What did Putin actually say?"

Putin's quote on geopolitical disaster is from his 2005 Address to the Federal Assembly, which is available in English on Kremlin.ru.

Indeed, it is part of a broader lamentation on the state of post-Soviet Russia and the fate of former citizens of the USSR identifying as Russian who found themselves as precariously situated minorities in newly independent states.

Putin states: "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."

He goes on to add:

Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups -- possessing absolute control over information channels -- served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances and the paralysis of the social sphere.

There is a lot in there.

The 'Khasavyurt capitulation' refers to the Khasavyurt Accord, the ceasefire signed at the end of the First Chechen War in 1996 and a source of humiliation for the Russian state.

My suggestion is, however, that the geopolitical disaster might be more fruitfully viewed and debated in terms of economics first. In such a way can we capture the manner in which it affected the daily life of post-Soviet Russian citizens and many others in the post-Soviet space instantaneously subjected to a social, political and economic vacuum and corresponding decrease in living standards.

In other words, one should pay close attention to the social and economic rationales accompanying Putin's oft-recycled statement, a statement which resonates with many Russians precisely because it taps into memories of a period that profoundly eroded their well-being, if not basic dignity.

It is in such a context that one might understand the not inconsiderable popularity of Putin's nationalistic and populist overtures in Russia during the current Crimean crisis.

Some scholarship can be invoked to corroborate Putin's suggestion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was in fact an economic calamity of the highest order.

In his piece "Workers in Modern Russia,"i Mike Haynes succinctly enumerates the challenges facing Russian citizens after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

In the 1990s Russians had to struggle through the longest and deepest economic depression that any major economy has experienced in peacetime. Between 1991 and 1998 output fell by over 40 per cent, falling at -6.8 per cent per year. Industrial and agricultural output fell even more. Inflation in 1992 wiped out, within weeks, family savings accumulated over decades. Average real wages were halved. As chaos in the economy worsened, many were paid months late, often forced to take wages in kind, and large parts of the economy reverted to forms of barter. The catastrophic cost to the population as a whole, and Russian workers in particular, can be counted in a single statistic. In the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which averages per capita income, life expectancy and literacy, Russia dropped from a rank of 26 out of 130 in 1987 to 72 out of 174 in 1994.

Piotr Dutkiewicz and Vladimir Popov have referred to the oligarch influenced Russian state in the 1990s as the 'privatization of the state'ii -- the veritable collapse of state institutions and the abuse of state organs by private economic interests.

Such a period was exacerbated by the neo-liberal 'shock treatment' -- rapid privatization and turn over to a market economy irrespective of effects on prices, employment and industrial output -- strongly advocated by the IMF, World Bank and United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as the initially steady, albeit, now stalled, Eastern march of NATO into former Soviet republics in the post-Soviet era.

For such reasons the idea that Western countries have less than benign intentions in Russia's 'neighbourhood' resonates in the minds of many Russians citizens and politicians.

That Russia's current economic and geopolitical situation is not singularly attributable to Western actions is somewhat beside the point. Putin's efforts to restore the state's coercive, administrative and fiscal capacity while restoring Russia's international standing have been central tenets to his presidencies and a source of domestic legitimacy for many who remember the 1990s all too well.

A reconstituted state with strong central authority and a corresponding aura of moral and practical legitimacy has come to dominate the Putin era. Playing the nationalist or populist card is powerful in such a context.

Putin's forays into Ukraine are indeed deeply politicized events. We should ask serious questions about what Putin's decisions, and those of the West, mean for the fate of Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars and anyone else caught up in the current conflict. But our analysis must go deeper than name calling.

Dr. Ray Silvius is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Winnipeg.

i In Gareth Dale. Editor. First the Transition, then the crash. Eastern Europe in the 200os. Pluto Press.2011. pp. 49-73.

ii Dutkiewicz, P., & Popov, V. (2006). Ahead or behind? Lessons from Russia's postcommunist transformation. In A. Kuklinski, & B. Skuza (Eds.), Turning points in the transformations of the global scene (pp. 233-251). Warsaw: The Polish Association of the Club of Rome.

Photo: flickr/Bryan Jones

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