Putin really could fall — but will that help the West as much as we think?

Putin faces multiple crises and his grip on power may be fading. None of that will solve the West's problems

Published October 8, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony to receive credentials from foreign ambassadors to Russia at the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on September 20, 2022. (GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony to receive credentials from foreign ambassadors to Russia at the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on September 20, 2022. (GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

The disarray and likely collapse of Vladimir Putin's effort to mobilize 300,000 conscripts to fight in Ukraine suggests that his iron grip on power could someday soon be broken as quickly and surprisingly as the czar's grip was broken in 1917 and the grip of Soviet totalitarianism was broken in 1990. But with what consequences?

A hundred years of Russian experiences with overthrowing autocracy suggest only another turn in a depressing cycle. Americans tried but failed to arrest that cycle when U.S. troops actually invaded to support anti-Bolshevik White Russians in the 1920s and when free-market evangelists in the 1990s put their dirty fingers into the Russian economy, only to wind up getting burned. 

In "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People," Jonathan Schell reminded us that revolutionary Bolsheviks were surprised that the imperial regime fell quickly and with little bloodshed. Between 1989 and 1991, most Russians and Westerners were equally surprised by the speed with which the supposedly impregnable Soviet Union lost its grip on Eastern Europe and on Russia itself, vanishing almost as if in a puff of smoke. The reason is that autocracies that are run mostly on fear — on domestic terror — drain their people of the spontaneous energy and comity, or love, that can sustain a healthy society. So those societies fail. And if their public's fear is displaced by contempt, they unravel.  

Huge upheavals in technology, economics, communications, migrations and demographics over these past hundred years have exposed the bankruptcy of fear as a social glue and have weakened the grip of old-style authoritarianism. But the new technologies and other arrangements have also intensified top-down surveillance, indoctrination and control in increasingly subtle and even seductive ways in the hands of rulers in Hungary, Singapore, Turkey and other countries whose elites are more imaginative than Czar Nicholas II or Joseph Stalin and their legatees. (See William Dobson's "The Dictator's Learning Curve.")

Putin, who spent his childhood under Stalin and his formative years in the KGB, is almost a throwback to the old authoritarianism, and has not seemed to master the new authoritarianism's greater subtlety and intimacy. Watch this three-minute video of Putin entering the Kremlin, which I posted here in Salon with another warning about him a few months ago. Notice the cartoonish postures of his guards and the obsequious deference of the nomenklatura, receiving him in ways that suggest that Putin's curse may truly be Russia's. For better or worse, Russian civil society has never had anything like America's libertarian-individualist strain or its civic-republican ethos.

But are those differences really to the West's advantage? Right now, American libertarian individualism and civic-republican cooperation are undergoing disturbing, funhouse-mirror distortions at the hands of Donald Trump, a professed admirer of Putin's "genius." Trumpism carries dangers that are metastasizing not only in America but also in Marine Le Pen's France, Giorgia Meloni's Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe.

The irony is that while Putin's vulgar authoritarianism may be weakening in Russia, with unpredictable consequences, a new authoritarianism is rising among tens of millions of citizens in Western democracies who demand to be lied to and recruited by myths as simplistic as Putin's, myths that tell them whom to scapegoat for their stress and dispossession and whom to follow to "fix it."

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The demagoguery of Trump and his Fox News heralds is more a symptom of this spreading virus than the main cause of our crisis. That cause is partly conspiratorial and malevolent, but often it's just mindless: Americans (and other Westerners) have been increasingly stressed and dispossessed in recent decades by the frantic financialization and consumerization of civil society. It's groping and goosing us 24/7, bypassing our minds and hearts on its way to our lower viscera and our wallets by titillating us, intimidating us, tracking us, indebting us and leaving us enmeshed in a spider's web of commercial come-ons and pressures.

Unlike Putin, Donald Trump is both a product and an accelerant of that social malady. Putin has his oligarchs and his rubber-stamp parliament, but he hasn't mastered the new autocrats' learning curve, which may be transforming the West even as he clings to the weakest elements of Russia's old authoritarianism: a society running on fear more than on love.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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Authoritarianism Autocracy Commentary Donald Trump Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War