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Reading Anne Applebaum’s superb historical analysis of the Soviet prison system, Gulag: A History, one of her observations struck a particularly resonant chord:

“The crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler. Ken Livingston, a former British Member of Parliament, now Mayor of London, once struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the Nazis were “evil,” he said. But the Soviet Union was “deformed.” That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even those who are not old-fashioned left-wingers: the Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler’s Germany was wrong.”

It’s an important distinction in the context of Gulag, one that Applebaum works to dissect given the different view that many ordinary people have of Nazi and Stalinist concentration camps — and of the regimes that spawned them. Applebaum continues:

Book Cover – Gulag: A History“It is not only the far Left, and not only Western communists, who were tempted to make excuses for Stalin’s crimes that they would never have made for Hitler’s. Communist ideals — social justice, equality for all — are simply far more attractive to most in the West then the Nazi advocacy of racism and the triumph of the strong over the weak. Even if communist ideology meant something very different in practice, it was harder for the intellectual descendants of the American and French Revolutions to condemn a system which sounded, at least, similar to their own. Perhaps this helps explain why eyewitness reports of the Gulag were, from the very beginning, often dismissed and belittled by the very same people who would never have thought to question the validity of Holocaust testimony written by Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.” 

This issue of how ideology can cloud understanding is one touched on in various ways by Applebaum in her masterful work. The abracadabra of propaganda, disinformation, and one’s own predisposition to force contemporary and historical reality into a pre-determined ideological mold, has lead many thinkers not only astray, but to embrace the opposite of their professed beliefs. The far Right, while taking a completely different tack, fared no better. As Applebaum observed:

“The Western Right, on the other hand, did struggle to condemn Soviet crimes, but sometimes using methods that harmed their own cause. Surely the man who did the greatest damage to the cause of anti-communism was the American Senator Joe McCarthy. Recent documents showing that some of his accusations were correct do not change the impact of his overzealous pursuit of communists in American public life: ultimately his public “trials” of communist sympathizers would tarnish the cause of anti-communism with the brush of chauvinism and intolerance. In the end, his actions served the cause of neutral historical inquiry no better than those of his opponents.”

From the opposite pole of the political spectrum, ideology trumped fact with similarly absurd and/or tragic consequences. The solution to this tragi-comedic enterprise is remarkably simple. There is an old joke that runs: A patient walk’s into a doctor’s office and says, “Doctor, it hurt’s when I do this.” “So don’t do it,” the doctor prescribes.

Just don’t do it. And how not? Evidence and evidence-based reasoning. Follow fact, data, logic, evidence, reason, and Occam’s razor. While there is no guarantee of arriving at the truth, many obvious falsehoods are eliminated. 

Ilya Ponomarev and Vladimir Milov

Fast forward to 2015. In a series of conversations with Ilya Ponomarev (See: “Opposing Putin’s empire of swindler’s and thieves”) and Vladimir Milov (“Mind of the crocodile — Inside Putin’s empire”) I have been exploring the state of contemporary politics and economics inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia with two of the leading thinkers of the progressive Russian opposition. Although the Soviet Union and communism are long gone, understanding Russia can still be a complex undertaking, in part, as I pointed out in the latter essay, because the arc of Russian history, even in the last century and a half, has been markedly different that that of the West:

“Serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, and arguably its legacy persisted long after. When the Russian Revolution in 1917 finally overthrew the Tsars, what followed was vastly worse. The succession of World War I, the Revolution, the Civil War, the collectivization of agriculture, the liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor (hunger-extermination), the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, and the Second World War (the “Great Patriotic War” in Russian parlance) — to say nothing of the “zeks” marooned on islands of the Gulag Archipelago — shattered Russian society to a degree that is almost impossible to comprehend or overstate. If civil society takes time to weave, Russia put its social fabric through a meat grinder that utterly shredded it. … There is almost nothing in contemporary Russian society that can be understood without reference to this history.”

Ilya PonomarevThat said, understanding Russian society, politics, and economics is an entirely “do-able” enterprise. It simply requires evidence and evidence-based reasoning. Critical to this is not succumbing to propaganda, disinformation, or ideologically constrained thinking [Note: For more on this see “Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots.”] 

All of which brings me back to parliamentarian extraordinaire Ilya Ponomarev. I won’t repeat his biography here [See: Opposing Putin’s empire of swindler’s and thieves.] In brief: Ponomarev has become Vladimir Putin’s most formidable parliamentary critic on issues such as Crimean annexation, anti-gay legislation, vote rigging, corruption, government incompetence, and anti-democratic measures. And for this he has felt the full fury of Vladimir Putin, having been forcibly exiled, his assets seized, his parliamentary immunity repealed, and his aide, Leonid Razzvozhayev, jailed. Putin is currently attempting to have an Interpol Red Notice issued against him, which would request participating states to arrest and extradite him.

Ponomarev comes by his political courage honestly. In 1981 his grandfather, Nikolai Ponomarev, then Russian ambassador to Poland, was credited with persuading the Kremlin not to launch an invasion of Poland (a la the 1967 Prague Spring), an initiative that subsequently cost him his diplomatic career. Ilya Ponomarev’s mother, Larissa Ponomareva was a member of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber, until she was forced to resign after being the only deputy to vote against the so-called Dima Yakovlev Law, a punitive piece of legislation adopted in retaliation for the United States’ Magnitsky Act, which in turn sanctioned Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky, murdered in a Moscow prison cell after revealing massive theft from the Russian state carried out by government officials. Ilya Ponomarev is one of the clearest-thinking analysts of Russian politics and one of the most courageous voices opposing the authoritarian rule of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In this conversation at the Halifax International Security Forum we continue our discussion of recent political and economic developments in Mother Russia. 

Christopher G. Majka: The invasion and annexation of Crimea and the war that Vladimir Putin has fomented in the Donbass in Ukraine have greatly damaged Russia’s relations with Ukraine, certainly one of Russia’s closest and most important neighbours. And also with other neighbouring states such as Poland, Latvia, and Estonia — indeed with virtually all the countries of Europe. He has incurred trade sanctions and other measures that have proved costly to Russia. Why is Putin doing this?

Ilya PonomarevIlya V. Ponomarev: Generally, Putin is thinking about his role in history, and he definitely thinks of himself as a historical figure — Peter the Great, Stalin; in that category. They may not have been the nicest people with regard to Russian citizens, but at the end of the day they moved Russia forward. I think he sees himself in that mold.

From another perspective, there are some more immediate concerns, which would otherwise be in the background, in particular in relation to the Euromaidan in Kyiv. This was seen as Putin’s personal defeat because he heavily supported Yanukovych who ran away. [Note: Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, fled into exile in response to the Euromaidan revolution.] So Putin needed to turn defeat into victory, which is how Crimea came into the picture.

Secondly, he needed to (try and) illustrate that revolutions can never be profitable for a country. That people will inevitably suffer. “You see a revolution happened in Kyiv and now the country is being dismembered.” That’s Putin’s message to Russians. 

CGM: Although Yanukovych was not entirely Putin’s man in Ukraine, he nevertheless represented the same politics, namely that of the kleptocratic state dominated by a small elite of powerful oligarchs. And the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine was therefor a rebuke of Putin’s vision of government.

IVP: I wouldn’t say “vision” because I wouldn’t say that Putin has any clear vision of government. I think he is a very tactical person, opportunistic in his approach. And that’s essentially the problem. Because if he had some vision, or some long-term strategy, it would have been implemented during the last fifteen years. But that hasn’t happened.

The question isn’t really whether Yanukovych was pro-Russian or anti-Russian, or neutral, or pro-Ukrainian — I actually think he was primarily pro- his own pocketbook [laughter] — but at the end of the day, his pocket was in Ukraine.

CGM: So if he lined his own pocket at least the pants were Ukrainian!

IVP: Yes, in this sense he was pro-Ukrainian! [laughter] However, he was seen as pro-Russian. And especially in the last few months of his rule when he accepted Russia’s offer of a $15 billion infusion into Ukrainian national bonds, this impression was reinforced. So when he was ousted it conveyed the impression that Putin had also been ousted.

CGM: Although Putin claims to be concerned about the encroachment of the European Union and NATO into the Ukraine — which he regards as being within Russia’s sphere of influence — have his actions not created the exact opposite result? For example, six years ago only 21 per cent of Ukrainians were favourably disposed towards NATO. Now that number has more than tripled to 64 per cent. And in Poland and the Baltic republics people are very happy to be part of NATO. Even in unaligned countries such as Finland and Sweden the possibility of joining NATO is being studied. So, in annexing Crimea and starting a war in the Donbass, is Putin actually setting back his own agenda?

Vladimir PutinIVP: Precisely. Putin is very shortsighted. He is extremely tactical. He thinks about immediate concerns and doesn’t think long-term at all. He doesn’t have any clear strategy. He has two objectives that he is willing to pursue. One is to have a “new Yalta” agreement, in which the West acknowledges that, at least the territory of former Soviet Union, is Russia’s sphere of influence. That post-Soviet countries will not be given NATO membership and are within Russia’s economic orbit.

His other objective is to create a kind of ultra-right conservative “Internationale” to draw together all [those] who are discontent with their governments. Mostly this [includes] the ultra-right; those who love conspiracy theories. There are, sadly for me, some leftists amongst them. These people simply think that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

CGM: How much influence do you think the extreme right has upon Putin? Ultra-fascists like Alexander Dugin with his National Bolshevik Front and his neo-Eurasian views and Fourth Political Theory. Or neo-Stalinists like Sergei Kurginyan with his paramilitary Kurginyan Army and Essence of Time movement. I know that Dugin has ties to the Kremlin and the Russian military, but do these extreme right-wing views have an influence on the Kremlin?

Kurginyan Army

IVP: The question is, who influences whom. The mindset of the Russian elite is very post-modern. It’s all a game for them: today you are fascist, tomorrow you are leftist, the next day you are communist. It’s a position of extreme cynicism.

Generally Putin is conservative. He likes to go to church and pretend that he is religious. But is he a true believer? I highly doubt it, because otherwise he would not have done many things that he has. What I think he wants to do is to unify the extreme right around himself.

In Poland, for example, I don’t know if there is a conscious agreement or not, but he is obviously supporting Kaczyński, despite the fact that he (Kaczyński) is totally Russo-phobic [Note: Jarosław Kaczyński, conservative leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice party.] But because he thinks that Kaczyński will stop shale-gas exploration in Poland and that would favour Russia.

In Ukraine you can see the same thing. The amount of promotion that the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor) received on Russian (state-controlled) television was phenomenal. With that kind of support, the fact that they received only 0.7 per cent of the vote, well, it’s clear that Pravyi Sektor simply don’t know how to do politics! [laughter] If you would calculate it financially, it would probably have amounted to $100 million in free television time! [laughter]

[Sidebar: The far-right Pravyi Sektor was the second most mentioned political group in Russian media in the first half of 2014. Despite that, the group’s leader Dymtro Yarosh, received only 0.7 per cent of the vote in the May 2014 presidential election. In November 2015, Yarosh resigned as the leader of the group.]

CGM: But did it convince ordinary Russians that Ukraine had been taken over by fascists?

IVP: Yes. It’s a psychological approach, that’s what Putin exploits. That’s what he was trained to do.

Everyone likes to be nice. Who would want to admit that we shot down the airplane (Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17)? Who would want to admit that Russia supports fascists? People want to believe that we are fighting fascists. People want to believe that Russians are liberators. And they are given the proper foundation (upon which) to place their beliefs. If there are minor discrepancies of fact, well, just ignore them.

CGM: It’s interesting that, as you suggest, this originates in KGB tactics.

Vladimir PutinIVP: Yes, that’s the training. That’s Putin’s profession, and he’s very good at it. He is very bad at strategy, because in the KGB no one engaged in strategy. Because strategy was the prerogative of the political leadership of the Communist Party. If you were starting to think about strategy while a member of the KGB that would be dangerous. “You don’t need to think. Just talk to people: use them. Gather information and relay it to your superiors.” Then the political leaders would decide what to do.

CGM: Yes, if one examines the Ukrainian situation it seems to have been developed by someone with a strong command of tactics, but no understanding of strategy. What is the exit strategy in this fiasco?

IVP: Exactly. We had a very good ally in Ukraine, the closest ally that we could get. And now, we’ve totally (alienated) them.

CGM: During the first presidency (2000–2004), Putin seemed to be more pragmatic in his political views. Now in his third presidential term (2012–present) he seems anything but pragmatic: dictatorial, authoritarian, reactionary, embracing archaic Slavophile and pan-Slavist rhetoric, and increasingly imperialistic and intolerant, for example in regard to his anti-gay legislation. What happened over the last fifteen years?

IVP: I think he is genuinely conservative in terms of his personal beliefs and values. But in regard to this “pan-Slavic” vision, if you look at the facts you will see that whatever he does it actually works in the opposite direction — it disintegrates the Russian sphere of influence. And it’s not because he is stupid, because he is definitely not stupid. It’s because that vision is a secondary, or tertiary, or even quaternary concern for him. Putin’s primary goal is a solidification of power within Russia, and he has very skillfully manipulated Russian public opinion with such (Slavophile) rhetoric, allowing him to consolidate his own position. I don’t think he really cares much about this greater “pan-Slavic” unity.

Vladimir PutinCGM: So, is he consolidating his position? There is this perception in the West that Putin’s power depends, on the one hand, on the oligarchs and their financial and political support, and on the other hand, on the middle class who support him because he was able to bring to an end the chaos of the 1990’s and their living standards improved, particularly during the first two presidencies (2000–2008).

IVP: I think this is the wrong perception. Putin’s regime is a classical Bonapartiste regime of the 19th century, which was very well characterized by Marx. One of his constituencies is, as you correctly pointed out, the upper bourgeoisie, the oligarchs and elites supported by the security forces.

And then the other constituency is the lumpen-proletariat, those who are dependent on financial support from the state. That’s how Putin retains power. He pumps oil which goes into the hands of oligarchs, and the oligarchs share some of the profits with Putin, which then go to benefit the lumpen-proletariat, who are brought to polling stations and vote for whomever they have been told to vote.

The middle class, however, is Putin’s enemy. They were quiet for a long time because there was a kind of deal: “Don’t mess with our affairs and we won’t mess with yours. We won’t interfere in politics as long as we are permitted to do whatever we want to do.” But, the economic nature of Putin’s regime supposes that there is an unending consolidation of finances in the hands of highly placed crooks, Putin’s cronies. We call them the members of the “Ozero Cooperative.” There was a condominium that Putin established when he was the first vice-mayor of St. Petersburg, which is called “The Lake” (Ozero), and many of Putin’s cronies are members.

Zero Cooperative: aerial view

[Sidebar: The Ozero cooperative (Озеро in Russian), is a gated cooperative of luxury villas in the village of Solovyovka on the shores of Lake Komsomolskoye on the Karelian Isthmus near St. Petersburg. Established in 1996 its members are: Andrei Fursenko, a former Russian Minister of Industry, Science and Technology and chair of the Center for Strategic Research North-west (amongst many other positions); Sergei Fursenko, the director of Lentransgaz, a subsidiary of Russian gas giant, Gasprom: multi-billionaire Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s personal banker, head, and largest shareholder of Rossiya Bank; Victor Myachin, the CEO of Abros, the investment wing of Bank Rossiya and majority owner of the giant insurance firm Sogaz; Nikolai Shamalov (assets $500 million), a co-owner of Bank Rossiya and a controlling shareholder of the Vyborg Shipyard (amongst many other business interests); Vladimir Smirnov, former director of Tekhsnabexport, which markets Russian nuclear goods, technology, and services; Vladimir Yakunin, former president of Russian Railways and now the chair the International Union of Railways; and Russian president, Vladimir Putin.]

So, all the wealth is going into the hands of the oligarchs. This is an on-going monopolization of the Russian economy. Although this was never an articulated strategy — but I think it is a conscious one — this is to marginalize the Russian middle class. There has been a huge wave of middle-class emigration. It jumped five-fold in 2014 from what it was the previous year. These are official numbers, but I think that the real numbers are much greater. Now many people who are an entrepreneurs or small businesspeople are thinking about how they could leave the country. I think it’s a conscious approach because I think Putin believes that these are the troublemakers.

CGM: How do the Russian oligarchs view Putin’s Ukrainian escapades, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the development of the conflict in the Donbass? Are they concerned about the international repercussions of these actions?

IVP: Of course they are worried. For some it restricts their ability to travel. For others it restricts their access to Western capital and hence to fundraise for various projects. So this leads to a crisis in liquidity.

There are two different types of oligarchs. One group is the “inherited” oligarchs from the Yeltsin era. These are people whose wealth is not as a result of Putin’s influence. Those oligarchs made a deal early in Putin’s regime that they would not interfere with politics and Putin would not interfere with them. 

[Sidebar: The so-called “grand bargain” that emerged from Putin’s power struggle with the oligarchs was a quid pro quo in which, in return for being able to retain their fortunes and the privatized assets of the state that they had acquired, the oligarchs were compelled to give their explicit political support to Vladimir Putin. Those who later reneged on the deal and attempted to follow an independent political course, such as Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky, were variously arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and exiled. Putin took a zero-tolerance approach to oligarchs who did not tow the political line.]

They don’t like what is going on in Crimea at all because they are more market oriented, in the sense that they are more integrated with Western (economies and enterprises) and less integrated with the Russian government. But they are totally quiet.

Vladimir Putin and Arkady RotenbergThe other group of oligarchs are those who have emerged under Putin’s era. These include members of the “Ozero” condominium. And this group, they “pretend” to be government managers rather than business people, or at least their businesses are heavily integrated with the Russian government. People like Gennady Timchenko (owner of the Volga Group; estimated fortune: $15.3 billion) Arkady and Boris Rotenberg (co-owners of Stroygazmantatz; estimated fortune of each: $4 billion) Igor Sechin (executive chair of Rosneft; estimated fortune $10.4 billion), Maxim Chernizov (principal of Internafta; estimated fortune: unknown). They have been heavily rewarded by Putin. They are loyal to him. And the sanctions that were imposed were mostly imposed on them. So in return, Putin has given them many new appropriations and new access to public funds so they are actually getting richer as a result of the sanctions. Yes, of course, it is an inconvenience that they cannot go to their villa in Italy or on the French Riviera, but in return they have been compensated financially.

CGM: Within all of this corruption and kleptocracy, do you see any opportunities for political change in Russia? A vision for a post-Putin Russia?

IVP: I think that the biggest problem the Russian opposition has is the lack of such a vision. It’s very understandable why this is so, because the Russian opposition consists of several different groups of different political views. And the people who are most influential in terms of media, and who are best known amongst the common people, are from the era of the 1990s. And they are generally hated by Russians because nobody wants to go back to the 1990s. They are neoliberal in their political views, and these views are not popular. The views that are popular amongst Russians are either leftist or nationalist.

Metrics of the Russian EconomyI come from the political left wing and I think that there has to be a transitional program, which is very clear and apparent to common people, for the masses, so they would understand what they would get in return if a revolution happened. And it will: I am 100 per cent convinced of that. Putin is doing a terrific job of demolishing all the roots of civil society. He is creating a tabla rasa for the opposition to build on. If we can create a coherent view, something that different groups in the opposition agree on, then we can have a vision and build traction with ordinary Russians.

I think that soon Russia will face a choice of either going strongly in a leftist direction or in a nationalist direction. This may happen by 2017 when foreign reserves have been depleted, as they are now (becoming) because of sanctions and the falling prices of oil. The government will delay reforms as much as possible. The ruble has been significantly devalued just to pump-up the state budget. What this means is the commercial debt of Russian corporations has increased (because this debt is denominated in foreign currency). What the government (has been) doing is transferring debt from state to private enterprises. And state enterprises will be sustained. They will always be given emergency loans from the central bank. This will result in increasing unemployment and the prices in the shops will go up. Construction costs will increase.

CGM: This has the potential of creating significant social discontent.

IVP: Yes. And what Putin continues to say is “It’s not our fault — it’s the fault of the bloody Americans.”

CGM: Thomas Piketty in his book, Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century, pointed out that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, what is almost certainly the largest transfer of public to private wealth in history took place [Note: For more information see Thomas Piketty: Economics transfigured.] Something on the order of $4.3 trillion in public assets ended up in private hands.

IVP: With nothing in return, yes. 

CGM: This effectively created this first generation of Russian oligarchs.

IVP: Yes, these assets were “donated” to them by the Russian state. [laughter]

CGM: This is obviously a concerning development, indicating, as it does, a massive degree of private control over what used to be the public domain. And Russia has not been alone in this neoliberal tendency of privatizing public assets. In the West such situations have lead to a discussion, at least amongst those in the left, as to how to return control of important assets to the public sector. And also, how to regulate private assets so that their management leads to more widely desirable social goals, and not just the further enrichment of a tiny minority of the very wealthy.

IVP: There is an interesting thing in Russia. Formally, what Putin has done over the last ten years, say from the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, is that he has returned a lot of property to the control of the state. Now the country’s economy is dominated by large government-owned banks and government-owned oil companies. But that doesn’t mean that they are controlled by the public. They are controlled by the same oligarchs. They pretend to be government employees but in fact they are private business people. And they run their companies like private enterprises.

For example, Rosneft, the largest Russian oil company, which is run by Igor Sechin. [Note: Sechin has long served (since 1994) as Putin’s chief of staff, both in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and then the presidential administration.] Sechin receives $50 million USD in salary, plus he controls part of the shares of the company. Meanwhile, the dividends that Rosneft pays to the Russian state, its nominal owner, are minimal.

CGM: So a façade of public ownership that has been subverted by private interests.

Yukon LogoIVP: Absolutely. And I would say, vice-versa as well. Some of the private enterprises in Russia actually play a more important role in our society than the nominally state-owned companies. For example, the Yukos Oil Company, before it was crushed by Putin, sustained a lot of social infrastructure in the regions where it was operating. Even now, although the company was liquidated a decade ago, if you go into some rural areas, you will find village libraries created by Yukos. Or at Tomsk State University there are buildings on the campus constructed by Yukos. So the private company, Yukos was much more socially responsible than the public company, Rosneft, which took over Yukos’ assets and property.

In Russia I would not put an equals sign between who formally controls property and what is the nature of that property. The most important thing about privatization is how people actually view the privatization and how they assess the property status. For example, you could be a very successful entrepreneur or businessperson and have created your business from scratch. And if you have created something then people think that this is good. However, if you have taken something that was created by the nation, something that our ancestors worked to create, or that Komsomol (the political youth organization in the Soviet Union) members toiled away at, people ask, “Why is that?”

CGM: An excellent question.

Ilya PonomarevIVP: I think that is the source of many problems in Russia, this question of the status of property. When you look at the mindset of the oligarchs, the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, they considered themselves managers rather than owners of the assets they acquired since they understood that they acquired them totally illegally. I remember Khodorkovsky saying to me, because I was then working for him as a deputy, “At any time someone with a rifle can come and say this is ours.”

And this psychology, this thinking, has two consequences. Firstly, these oligarchs tended not to reinvest in the companies, but to squeeze them out as cash cows. And then transfer this money outside of Russia, because they didn’t feel safe in Russia with this capital. They anticipated that it could be taken from them at any time.

The second consequence is that they understood that they were totally dependent on state actions in regards to their property and that’s why they needed to keep a very low political profile, because the state could always find a reason why this property should be removed from them. So that’s why they are 100 per cent loyal to Putin. 

Now with this new generation of oligarchs, they are indebted to Putin personally, because it was he who appointed them to CEO positions of various state-owned enterprises. And they are also loyal because Putin does not object if they steal money and they personally enrich themselves. But as soon as they stopped being politically loyal their positions would be immediately removed from them. So both groups are very loyal.

If this property were “real” they would act differently. And most people do not recognize these assets as “real” property because they consider it illegal. 

CGM: Fascinating. I’m wondering, given Putin’s close control of the media, and the generation of much pro-government propaganda, to what extent there is an understanding of these issues amongst the Russian populace? 

IVP: The middle class has been confused about the issue we were just discussing. They feel they can’t comprehend what is going on, they don’t know what should be done, and that makes them apolitical. The reason they are not politically engaged is because they don’t understand with whom they should be engaged with. In terms of the oligarchs, the middle class understands that they are all crooks and they think Putin is as crooked as the oligarchs. Engage with leftists? Leftists are calling for a solution that is dangerous. Engage with the nationalists? That would be the equivalent of Americans associating with the Tea Party. They are confused and so they don’t participate in politics altogether.

Putin reaches out to the lumpen-proletariat and with them he has a lot of traction. Because he says, “You see, I crushed Khodorkovsky, so I am against the oligarchs.” And they say, “Yes.” And he says, “You see, I am restoring the Soviet Union piece by piece; just look at Ukraine.” And they say, “Yes, the Soviet Union was very good.” And he says, “I may not be perfect, but the alternative is worse, so you had better stick with me.” And they say, “Yes.”

CGM: It seems that much of Putin’s success in the past has not been due to any of his own abilities, but simply that because when he took office in 2000 oil prices were $27 USD per barrel and by 2013 they had risen to $112 USD per barrel. Is the dramatic fall in oil prices having an impact on Putin’s government? If the economic prosperity that oil revenues brought to Russia declines significantly, will this be a threat to Putin’s hold on power?

IVP: It definitely will be a problem, although I wouldn’t exaggerate the scale of it because the actual price of oil production in Russia is between $3–$4 per barrel — the actual production costs. I know this exactly because I used to be with Yukos. Take away all the corruption and so forth, and this is what the costs are.

CGM: How about programs of social reform in Russia? Has Putin been able to achieve anything substantial in this regard?

Ilya PonomarevIVP: Putin has pumped up these reforms tremendously, however, he has done so in a very inefficient way. The best example of this was the so-called reform of social privileges that happened in 2005. For example, veterans used to enjoy free rides on public transport. A bus goes from point A to point B and it burns the same amount of fuel whether the veteran is on the bus or not, and it’s the same salary for the driver, etc. So actually transporting these veterans had almost no incremental cost. What the reform was about was to give veterans the same amount that they would spend on public transportation, so if they wanted to spend it on transport they could; otherwise they could spend it on something else.

But, when the state started to calculate the costs they discovered that they were tremendous, so they cut back on what they gave veterans financially in compensation for the privileges they had previously had for free. (What they received) was much less then it cost them to actually use public transport. So this pissed off a lot of people. They became really angry. There was almost a revolution over this issue, and Putin had to spend a lot more money to calm everyone down. It ended up being a huge expense. 

If you look at other reforms that were carried out by Putin, they were done in a similar fashion. He was taking these neoliberal ideas, for example that everything has to be monetized, and the results are increased social obligations by the state. So now, to cut down those costs would be extremely difficult.

We’ve recently been comparing Russia with Ukraine. Look at the numbers: Russia spends far more on welfare than does Ukraine. If we take GDP per capita in Russia it would be something like $15,000 USD and in Ukraine it would be $7,000. But if you go into a rural home in Ukraine and one in Russia, the comparison would definitely not favour Russia. The people in Ukraine live in much better living conditions. And that’s because (while) Russians have better wages, pensions, and social benefits, on the other side they have tremendous costs associated with housing and utilities.

CGM: Thank you very much for your time.

  Ilya Ponomarev addressing rally in Novosibirsk

Putin’s politics: Asserting dominance of post-Soviet space

These conversations with Ilya Ponomarev and Vladimir Milov bring to focus a number of salient features of Russia and its president. A central — indeed perhaps the central — political tenet of Vladimir Putin’s rule is asserting dominance over post-Soviet space — a Yalta 2.0 division of Europe into Eastern and Western spheres of interest — the third iteration of an ancient Russian imperial notion.

To state the obvious, the Russian empire was an empire. A long succession of czars had assiduously devoured neighbouring territory — from Finland and the Baltic Republics to Poland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far East — accreting it to the Russian heartland. Rather than expanding to other continents like imperial Britain, Spain, and Portugal did for their colonial possessions, imperial Russia simply devoured its neighbours (like the Austro-Hungarian empire did on a smaller scale). 

Woman with photos of Stalin and LeninThis presented a problem for the Bolsheviks. Although nominally opposed to imperialism on Marxist grounds, they were quite attached to Russian imperial possessions. It was actually Joseph Stalin who first articulated Bolshevik policy on this in his 1913 article, “Marxism and the National Question.” It argued for both national self-determination (in other words the right of all the constituent nations of imperial Russia to go their own way if they so chose) while at the same time agitating for proletarian internationalism and against national-cultural autonomy, since the onset of socialism would cause nation states to wither away. While written at Vladimir Lenin’s behest and direction during Stalin’s short visit to Vienna, later when Lenin subsequently published “The Right of Nations to Self Determination” in 1914, his emphasis was much more emphatically on the right of nations to secede from the Russian Empire:

“It is precisely the special concrete, historical features of the national question in Russia that make the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination in the present period a matter of special urgency in our country. … It would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state.” – Vladimir Lenin (1914)

However, subsequent events revealed this rhetoric as effectively empty. Immediately following the October revolution Lenin and Stalin were taken aback when imperial Russian possessions actually took them up on their offer and began to secede. Finland, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, Georgia, and Armenia all demanded or declared independence. Their many centuries of experience with Great Russian chauvinism impelled them to put as much political distance between themselves and Russia as they could.

After some consternation (during which Finland was actually granted independence by Stalin), in January 1918, Stalin submitted a “revised” policy to the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets in which it was declared that the principle of self-determination of nations “ought” to be understood as the right of self-determination not of the bourgeoise but of the toiling masses of a nation. Thus the principle of self-determination should be subordinated to the principles of socialism. At this point, a mere three months after the Revolution, the principle of national self-determination went out the window and the Bolsheviks began to replicate Czarist imperialism, albeit under new communist attire. With the post World War II Yalta agreement and the Soviet dominance over all of Eastern Europe, this new empire assumed an even greater extent than it ever did under a Russian Imperial regime. 

Then, of course, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and by 1991 even the Soviet Union was no more. Once again all the ex-Soviet republics fled the Russian yoke, and all its erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies fled to join NATO and the European Union. Now, as both Ilya Ponomarev and Vladimir Milov make clear, the central political project of the Putin presidency is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Karl Marx wrote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I wonder how he might characterize this third repetition of Russian imperialism and hegemony? Perhaps as lunacy?

Putin’s economics: The kleptocratic oligarchs

The central economic project of the Putin presidency is the kleptocratic regime run by a coterie of Putin-friendly oligarchs. As Ilya Ponomarev points out, this is also, to a substantive degree, a historical repetition. Seemingly reversing the Yeltsin-era privatizations, in the last decade Putin has brought substantial private assets under nominal public control. In truth, these are simply re-branded fiefdoms of oligarchs, but with the salient difference that should any of then cross Putin they can be removed as nominal public ‘directors’ at a moment’s notice, thereby ensuring their fealty.

In some measure this is a replication of Soviet-era state enterprises. Gone are the five-year plans, controlled currency, and protected and hermetically sealed East-Bloc economic zones, but returning are elites that serve at the behest of the government. An important difference is that while the Soviet era nomenclatura had limited power to enrich itself in managerial positions of state enterprises, siphoning off public earnings for private gain, the power of the current oligarchs to enrich themselves at public expense is almost boundless — so long as they politically support Putin.

Putin holds this project together using several levers: 

1. Near complete control over Russia’s media, and particularly state television from which the large majority of ordinary Russians receive their information on politics, economics, and current events. All three major television networks, Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV, are owned and controlled by the government and resolutely broadcast content supportive of Putin and the government. [Note: For further information see “Putin’s Russia: The muzzled press” in “Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets.”]
United Russia Logo

2. An iron grip over Russia’s political system. Putin’s political party, United Russia, (currently lead by Prime Minister and Putin confidante, Dmitry Medvedev) holds 49.5 per cent of seats, supported in large measure by Gennady Zyuganov’s Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (19.2 per cent), and Vladimir Zhironovsky’s imperialist, authoritarian, and borderline fascist Liberal Democratic Party (11.7 per cent).

What democratic opposition exists to United Russia falls within Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (13.2 per cent), a moderate social-democratic bloc, which has been cobbled together from nine different political parties, sometimes of divergent beliefs and objectives, but vaguely in the political center. Even so, its political position has been somewhat tortured, at first supporting Vladimir Putin but opposing his party, United Russia; then opposing Putin’s government while supporting Dmitry Medvedev’s modernization program.

3. Near complete power over the police, army, judiciary, and other important leavers of public control. Not least of these is the FSB (Federal Security Service), the re-christened KGB. Putin’s sixteen years in the KGB “organs” (he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel) taught him how to use the dark arts of state security to bend the reluctant, and importance of knowing where the skeletons are buried in order to coax the recalcitrant.

How sustainable this system is in a world of sub- $40/barrel international oil prices is a moot point since the relative prosperity that $100+/barrel oil prices brought to the Russian economy is in decline, and Russia’s foreign reserves to stave off significant austerity will not last forever.

Political imperative: An end to “spheres of interest” 

Where all this leaves the rest of the world is in an uncomfortable place. As Ilya Ponomarev has pointed out, Western support for the democratic Russian opposition simply makes them more unpopular. Penalizing Putin and the oligarchs with sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and the war he has fomented in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, may be counterproductive since Putin’s control of the media is such that it allows him to shift blame for the deteriorating economy and results of corruption and kleptocracy onto the West, which is depicted as the source of all of Russia’s economic woes. Ultimately, it is a decision for the Russian people  — and the Russian people alone — to determine whether they wish to proceed along this political and economic path. Like every other country they have the right to determine the shape of their future.

There is, however, one indispensible lesson that needs to be understood by every actor on this political stage. The imperial era of spheres of interest must come to an end. A Yalta 2.0 agreement must never be allowed. For just as Russians must be free to determine their own destiny, so must the peoples of all other countries be free to make social, political, and economic choices that reflect their values. Unlike Bolshevik policy, which asserted the right to national self-determination, but then quickly subjugated it to a Russian political agenda, upholding the right of every country and its citizens to choose their own path must be a central principle of international relations. Without this there is no democratic, just, and equitable world.

The Red Herring: NATO “Expansion”

NATO and Warsaw Pact LogosIn this regard the question of NATO requires particular attention. Vladimir Putin wishes to subordinate of the rights of Eastern European and post-Soviet states who have chosen to join the European Union and/or NATO, asserting the “right” of Russia not to be “surrounded,” and in order to accommodate Putin’s desire for a Russian “sphere of influence.”

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all the Warsaw Pact nations once controlled by Russia (and portions of the ex-Yugoslavia) have fled to join NATO and the European Union: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia. They did so, not under any compulsion, nor were they devoured by a metastatic “expansion” of NATO, but because one after another the new democratically-elected governments of these states asked to be admitted.

Why? Because they had all experienced decades, or even centuries, of Great Russian chauvinism — first under the Czars, later under the Bolsheviks. They feared another dose of such “fraternal relations.” They wanted collective security within a democratic framework.

Putin matryoshka dollNATO has clearly not always been a benign entity, nor indeed was the Warsaw Pact (recall the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1967 to crush the Prague Spring with its aspirations to “socialism with a human face”). However, the salient point is that the democratically elected governments of all of these countries freely chose to participate. To argue that their choices must be subordinated to allow Vladimir Putin to re-constitute Russian dominance of post-Soviet space is to deny all these nations — and their inhabitants — their intrinsic right to be the agents of their own destiny. National self-determination is a fundamental norm of all democratic and civil societies.

Such democratic choices may well challenge Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but that’s his hard luck and illustrative of what Putin offers. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia have chosen to throw in their lot with Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. His other neighbours have opted for a different path. Upholding the right of every country, and its citizens, to choose their own destiny should and must be a central principle of all international relations in the 21st century.

This is the third part of the Putin’s Russia series. Part I is “Ilya Ponomarev: Opposing Putin’s empire of swindler’s and thieves” and Part II is “Vladimir Milov: Mind of the crocodile — Inside Putin’s empire.”

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...