Better dead than red, white and blue

By electing Vladimir Putin president, Russians chose a product of the same repressive police state that has cost millions of lives -- because being a superpower is better than being a Western plaything.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

With a 52-percent majority, acting president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has won the Russian presidential elections held Sunday. His main challenger, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, garnered about 30 percent of the vote. The only Western-oriented liberal candidate, Grigori Yavlinsky, came in third with 6 percent.

Thus, more than 80 percent of Russians voted for a former KGB agent or a communist. After nine years of U.S.-assisted reform, IMF and World Bank loans and dialogue with the European Union, the Council of Europe and NATO, not to mention four years of perestroika, Russian citizens overwhelmingly supported candidates with either avowedly anti-Western views or suspected enmity for the West, democratic ideals and free-market economics. How has this happened in a land scarred by decades of uniquely vicious secret police repression and ruinous communist rule? What does this mean for Russia and its relations with the West?

Monday's election results would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. During the late 1980s and the early '90s, pro-Western politicians and dissidents (Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Sobchak and Andrei Sakharov, to name some) dominated Russian politics and national life. The reactionary communist coup attempt in August of 1991 was foiled in part by thousands of democracy-minded protesters who confronted tanks in the streets of Moscow. Russia's liberal media vilified the KGB and communists, and dissidents who had resisted KGB repression were heroes.

In many ways, former President Boris Yeltsin was a benign figure. But his true legacy will be his constitution, which effectively makes the Russian president a czar. It is difficult to imagine that Putin, with Yeltsin's empowering constitution in hand, will be benign. Indeed, there is reason to fear just the opposite.

While much of the Western press has been preoccupied with the question, "Who is Putin?" the new president's KGB background speaks volumes about his likely proclivities. The war he launched in Chechnya and his treatment of Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky confirm his resolve and attitude to criticism. And his own words, which are often the argot of cops and thugs (he has famously promised to "rub out" Chechen "bandits" in their "outhouses," for example) leave Russians with little doubt about what they can expect from him.

Putin has never released a campaign program, but at times he has made statements about what he would do if elected. He has said that he plans to raise defense spending by 57 percent to "respond to new geopolitical realities, both external and internal threats." He has pledged to restore a "comprehensive system of state regulation of the economy." He has described Russians as "not ready to abandon traditional dependence on the state and become self-reliant individuals," and said that they want "a restoration of the guiding and regulatory role of the state." Most chillingly, he has praised the KGB as the guardian of Russia's national interests and advocated the establishment of a "dictatorship of the law."

"Dictatorship" has a special ring for Russians. Millions of Russians perished during almost three decades of Stalin's dictatorship. That dictatorship operated according to a constitution and code of laws that rendered illegal everything from tardiness in the workplace to less than enthusiastic remarks about the Leader to the "suspicion of espionage" -- a crime punishable by death. In Russia, "diktatura" means blood and beatings, prison camps and shackles. Laws can be composed (and imposed) according to the whims of the ruler.

It seems implausible that Putin would attempt to resurrect in full the dictatorial practices of the Stalin years -- a generation of Russians has grown up with the freedoms of perestroika and the Yeltsin era, and task of stifling them would appear unmanageable. But his treatment of the press and repetition of the word "dictatorship" do not bode well, and may indicate that he plans to try.

Despite all this, Russians elected former KGB agent Putin president. Why?

Let us first dismiss the wishful thinking and delusional cant about Russia promulgated by certain Western reporters and various officials of the Clinton administration -- that Russia has been "on the path of reform," "in transition," "building a free market," "establishing democracy" and so on. On the one hand, much has changed in Russia since Gorbachev introduced perestroika: Elections have been free if not fair; political debate has been, at least until recently, lively and unrestricted; private commerce has been legalized, if controlled by the mafia and monopolies; citizens have been allowed to travel. But the general trends have been negative and disappointing.

Russians have watched their country slip from the promising turmoil of the perestroika years to the communists-vs.-Yeltsin street-fight passions of the early '90s to the contract killings, rigged auctions and pervasive atmosphere of criminality of roughly the past five years. In view of all this mayhem, the optimism professed by Western politicians about Yeltsin's reforms sounded more than misguided. It came across to Russians as rhetoric meant to support thieving Russian oligarchs and corrupt Russian officials operating with two aims -- to enrich themselves and to weaken Russia for the benefit of the West, the United States in particular.

To understand Putin's rise, we first have to look back to the actions of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and to Russian history.

On the morning of Dec. 31, 1999, Yeltsin appeared on Russian television to address the nation. "I am leaving," he said, his voice close to breaking. "Why hold onto power for another six months when the country has a strong person, fit to be president, with whom practically all Russians link their hopes for the future today?" He wiped away a tear. "Why should I stand in his way?"

Indeed, Yeltsin had no compelling reason to stay on, and every reason to quit when he did. He was, after all, a power-driven former Communist Party boss. Though he was called a democrat by the Western leaders he embraced, Yeltsin unabashedly embodied many of the traits of the typical Russian autocrat. His authoritarian demeanor and adroitness at defeating his rivals won him, at least in the beginning, as much popularity among average Russians as enmity among his opponents. Power and survival mattered to Yeltsin. Granting people the freedoms for which they hungered assured him in the early 1990s of a populist appeal no other leader could match.

But by the end of last year, things had changed. His impulsive behavior, tolerance of corruption and inability to stop the fall in living standards had destroyed his popularity. Presidential elections were originally scheduled for June 2000. Had an anti-Yeltsin candidate won, as was likely given Yeltsin's single-digit approval ratings, Yeltsin and those associated with him might have faced prosecution for everything from genocide to theft of state assets to abuse of power and the destruction of the Soviet Union. The time to resign was New Year's, when the popularity of Yeltsin's chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, was high enough to ensure the latter's victory in early presidential elections.

Yeltsin's decision to resign surprised everyone, including me, but it should not have. Over the past three years, Yeltsin had appointed and fired four prime ministers, apparently in a search for one who would grant him immunity from prosecution when his second term ended. Last summer he appointed the fifth, Putin, an obscure former KGB agent and the head of the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB). Soon after, Chechen rebels invaded Daghestan, a republic in the south of Russia, and apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk began blowing up.

The war in the Caucasus and the so-called threat of domestic terrorism gave Putin his chance to establish himself politically; in fact, it is conceivable that toward that end, he and his KGB associates engineered both the war and the explosions. In any case, Russian forces drove the rebels out and pursued them into Chechnya, with much support from the Russian public, who saw in the war a chance to revive their country after years of drift, humiliation and decay.

When, at the end of 1999, Putin's war-based popularity hit 75 percent, Yeltsin resigned, knowing that the constitution would mandate elections in three months -- too little time for Putin's popularity to wane significantly. It made no difference to him that Putin had never held a political office before. Putin was a trusted member of his entourage. Yeltsin's trust was well placed: Putin's first decree as acting president granted Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. The transfer of power differed only in procedure from the abdication of a sovereign in favor of his loyal crown prince.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The West has misunderstood Russia. This is not surprising, for Russia is remote from the West, and in more than just geographical terms. After the demise of the socialist system and the police state, Russia still has not westernized in the way much of Eastern Europe has.

Centuries of illiteracy, autocracy and isolation made Russia different from the West long before the Revolution of 1917. The single most decisive event in Russian history took place in the 10th century, when Kievan Rus (the ancestral Russian state) accepted Christianity from the Byzantine Greeks, from Constantinople and not from Rome.

A century later the Christian Church split in two, with Rome and Constantinople excommunicating each other, and a state of hostility was born between Russia and Europe. Four centuries later, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, and Russia was left the sole standard-bearer of the True Faith, the last remaining defender of Orthodox Christianity as the Greeks had bequeathed it to them. Russia thus became the bearer of a unique civilization.

If Russia had remained a middle-sized medieval state, this split might not have mattered much to the world. But Russia expanded in every direction to cover one-seventh of the Earth's surface by Soviet times, which meant more than 8.5 million square miles. (By comparison, the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, covers about 3.5 million square miles.) Along with its size, Russia's vision of itself as the possessor of the True Faith would give it a sense of messianic mission that throughout history would grant it a national identity that only the United States could match.

Yet Russia's isolation from the West had its costs. It missed both the Renaissance and the Reformation. The church and state were effectively one until 1917, and in Soviet times the church served the state and the KGB as it now serves the Russian government. Until the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, most Russians were slaves and there was no civil society. A civil society may hardly be said to exist even now.

Traditionally, despotic rulers from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great and Stalin enacted laws for their own benefit and forced Russians to develop their country at horrific cost in human lives. Yet under totalitarian rule this century Russians built the only country that could rival the United States militarily and scientifically -- no small achievement. Always, the regnant principle has been that a strong ruler is necessary to force progress on recalcitrant and lazy masses. Thus, Russia's former superpower status derived from autocracy, based on notions of absolutism deriving from Orthodox Christianity. That absolutism found its most virulent expression in Marxist-Leninism.

Seven decades of Bolshevism proved the most destructive and disruptive of all. The Bolsheviks atomized a thousand-year-old society, blasted apart rural communities, re-enslaved peasants on collective farms and exterminated or drove abroad Russia's Westward-looking aristocracy. Stalin killed more people than Hitler.

Yet there have been no Nuremberg trials since the fall of the Soviet Union. The murderers are free or have died in peace. Their descendants run most of the country today. There has been no repentance for the crimes of the past, for the millions exiled into Siberia or executed. In a land where neighbors were taught to inform on neighbors, where one class was sicced upon another, notions of common good hold little currency.

The understandable result of all this is a widespread and ingrained cynicism among Russians: Many believe that only a ruthless KGB master can lash the masses back into line, eradicate oligarchs and clean up the government. In Putin they believe they have found such a man.

A consensus has evolved in the past couple of years between Russia's political elite and its citizens, a consensus that the past is past and what counts now is Russia's status in the world as a great power.

Russia's messianic mission has largely survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. A separate and unique civilization, Russia answers to itself -- not to the international community or the United Nations, not to the European Union and not to the United States or NATO. This is inevitable, for Russia's civilization and separate identity are buttressed by a vast and isolating territory, abundant natural resources and superb scientific capabilities -- plus, of course, nuclear weapons.

Russia, thus, is not a country that has strayed from the Western path, a country that can be "won" or "lost" by foreign aid, "engagement" or ostracism. These are words of Western debate that have had little to do with events in Russia.

Despite the theft and corruption of the past decade, Russia can suffer capital flight of $1.5 billion a month and still remain basically solvent thanks to its oil and natural gas reserves. It has not needed the financial aid the West has given it since 1991 -- and this is dawning on Western leaders now, as they watch Russia reassert itself in violent and unpredictable ways.

Putin's election and the confirmation of Communist Party leader Zyuganov as Russia's second most popular politician should cause a fair degree of unease among Western politicians, for both Putin and Zyuganov have exploited to their benefit the anti-Western sentiment that has been increasing among their supporters. There are many reasons for this shift against the West, including the perception that the West supported Yeltsin to weaken Russia. NATO's intervention in the Kosovo conflict combined with its expansion into Eastern Europe convinced a majority of Russians that, as Putin has said, Russia still has enemies.

So, what does the future hold for cooperation between the West and Russia? Russia will not be a docile partner. Nor will its national interests coincide with those of the West, especially if the United States aims to expand its military alliance onto former Soviet soil and intervene in the internal conflicts of other participants in Eastern Orthodox civilization. (The Serbs are Eastern Orthodox, too.)

If Russia's economy improves over the next couple of years -- and it should, given the stability Putin will foster -- the newfound revenues may go into arms, as Putin has pledged. NATO will be forced to rethink its strategy of expansion, and to abandon the ill-founded doctrine of humanitarian intervention that led it to intervene in Kosovo. That doctrine was born of what will probably pass as an ephemeral moment in history, when Russia was mainly democratic, in disorder, and relatively well disposed to the West.

The West, in sum, must prepare to work for a cautious and realistic entente with Russia, for a new balance of power between two civilizations that briefly drew close, but, as Putin's election shows, are now parting ways.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

MORE FROM Jeffrey Tayler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------