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Russia has no national interests, not even in Ukraine. To have interests, a nation (or any group of people) must have subjectivity, which the Russians as a nation do not have under the current regime.
Having subjectivity here means being free to make rational and responsible decisions. The acquisition and possession of subjectivity entail several things. First, the group must have access to relatively reliable information. Second, it should be able to openly discuss its situation, formulate various action plans, and promote them in the public space. And thirdly, it must have agreed-upon decision-making mechanisms to determine which plan is the best.
None of these exists in Putin’s Russia.
The flow of information is currently under the Kremlin’s control. In recent years, a handful of media outlets were relatively independent, including TV Rain, the Echo of Moscow radio station, and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta (whose editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel peace prize in 2021). But their reach was limited and faced increasing pressure from the government. Soon after the invasion (or, rather, the expansion of Russia’s invasion) of Ukraine, Echo of Moscow and TV Rain were banned. The media space is dominated by television channels owned by either the state or Kremlin-controlled oligarchs.
The internet, reached by 85 per cent of the population, was relatively free just a few years ago. Recently, it has come under strict control. According to a 2021 Freedom House report, “Russian authorities routinely block access to sensitive political and social content on the internet.” As of May 2020, 5 million internet resources had been blocked. Several recent laws have introduced high fines for referencing prohibited publications. As a result, internet users began cleaning up their accounts in massive numbers.
Some Russians can still get reliable information, especially if they read foreign languages and/or can separate facts from propaganda messages. But those willing and able to undertake efforts to know the truth are in a minority.
In addition, many international internet resources were blocked after the invasion. As a nation, Russians have access to propaganda, but not information. Moreover, the Kremlin’s ideologists are doing their best to undermine the very notion of truth. Postmodernist slogans according to which truth is lie are being energetically disseminated by Russian officials and pro-Kremlin journalists. The implication is clear: rely on what you hear most often—on state-owned TV channels, that is.
An example: Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s former Minister of Culture and now his advisor, has persistently claimed that there is, and can be, “no reliable past,” which is why we must consider the past “from the standpoint of [our countries’] national interests.”2[A1] In July 2021, Putin appointed Medinsky as chair of the governmental commission on historical truth. He is currently leading the Russian delegation at the peace talks with Ukraine.
The system of censorship also explains the limitations of the political discourse: public debates in Russia are limited to a few hundred authors writing for a handful of elitist websites.
Acting against the people
Things get even worse when it comes to formulating any action plan alternative to Putin’s. The official opposition was domesticated long ago. The main quasi-opposition parties that the Kremlin allows to be represented in the parliament pretend that their agendas differ from that of United Russia (Putin’s party), but they almost always vote along with the ruling power. They compete with each other in drafting laws that please Putin.
The main genuinely oppositional force, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was banned in 2021. Navalny has been imprisoned on false charges, as several other opposition politicians before him. Some, like Boris Nemtsov, were assassinated. Many activists have been persecuted and forced to emigrate.
The Memorial Society, a highly respected NGO created by former Soviet political prisoners to study communist repressions and monitor human rights violations, was also banned in 2021. As a result, the political sphere has been effectively annihilated in Russia.
Also, we have almost no reliable evidence about what most Russians actually think about politics. Two or three relatively independent sociological centers still exist, but they have been labelled “foreign agents” and have had to significantly limit sensitive research.
The Russian nation has, in short, lost its subjectivity. Putin and United Russia control the parliament due to the rigged elections, and have appropriated the right to speak on Russia’s behalf. Expressions such as “Russia wants” or “Russia claims” have no meaning today. We do not know what Russia wants, and the Russians do not know either. And Russia claims nothing because it is not in a position to claim anything.
The Russian word antinarodnyi profoundly describes the Putin regime: it literally means (acting) against the people. A government deprives its people of their subjectivity when it intentionally acts against the people and is afraid of them.
There is no old money in Russia
Russia is governed by a handful of mafia crooks and FSB officers (the FSB is the successor of the Soviet KGB). Two-thirds of Putin’s inner circle received their training in the Soviet secret services and the army.3[A2] And as a Russian proverb says, there are no former KGB officers.
The Putin regime is their revenge for the democratic reforms of the 1990s. The only way they can rule the country is by using what they were trained to do: arrest opponents, disperse rallies, spread disinformation, and so on.
They see spies everywhere because real and imagined spies are their raison d’être. The despoliation of Russia’s national wealth is the only thing they are good at, no matter how loudly they shout about national interests.
The level of inequality has broken all records: the top one per cent of the population controls 75 per cent of the country’s wealth (compared to 42 per cent in the US).There is no “old money” in Russia. The country’s rulers have enriched themselves in one generation—in most cases illegally. Scholars have every reason to call the Putin regime a kleptocracy, a rule of thieves. Navalny is in jail precisely because he has been convincingly demonstrating that.
A reign of fear
Unsurprisingly, Putin and his men understand they have no legitimacy and live in constant fear. Fear is their dominant emotion. Fear defines their actions. Fear makes people irrational, a sad proof of which we see today in the invasion of Ukraine. They try their worst to appear confident, but this is a mask. Losing power is their permanent nightmare. They know that the only place they can go from the Kremlin is prison.
They use national myths as their life jacket, in a good illustration of Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ His biographer comments: ‘He did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.”
Fear is the reason for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. He hates Ukraine because he’s terrified by it, precisely because this country, historically so close to Russia, has not succumbed to his attempts to deprive it of its subjectivity.
Stalin, dictator par excellence, reportedly said: “What matters is not how people vote. What matters is who counts the votes.” This still applies in Putin’s Russia, but not in Ukraine—that’s enough to scare an autocrat.
Putin’s language of pretend patriotism is based on the Soviet/Russian myth of the Second World War, or more precisely, the 1941-1945 Russo-German war often referred to in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. From the first days of his rule to the present, Putin has spared no effort to inflate nationalist hysteria around it.
According to the myth promoted by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, the Soviet Union was a peaceful country that was treacherously attacked by Hitler and sacrificed millions of lives to liberate the world from the “brown plague.”
But the USSR was no peaceful country. It was another aggressor alongside Nazi Germany. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide eastern Europe, and in the following months, the Soviets annexed territories holding a population of 23 million people (including part of Ukraine). And in 1945, the Red Army “liberated” eastern Europe only to establish there Stalin’s dictatorship—instead of Hitler’s. Stating these facts is a criminal offense under a 2014 Russian law.
Pretend patriotism is Putin’s official ideology, even though having an official ideology is prohibited by Russia’s constitution. Stalin claimed that anyone who was against communism, was for fascism. Putin claims that anyone who is against his rule in Russia is a Nazi. He and his foreign minister, Lavrov, accuse the West of being inherently anti-Russian and, consequently, fascist, just as Stalin claimed that liberal democracy was a form of fascism. And of course, Ukrainians, some of whom dared to resist Stalin and most of whom resist Putin, are presented as quintessential Nazis.
Fanatics, opportunists, technocrats and enlightened cynics
Among the heroes of Vasily Grossman’s famous novel Life and Fate (1959/1980) there is an SS officer, Liss, one of the creators of the Nazi gas chambers, an enlightened cynic for whom politics is an intellectual game. This is how Grossman depicts Liss’ classification of his fellow Nazis: primitive fanatics, opportunists, technocrats, and enlightened masters of politics like himself. But at the very top, there were people such as Hitler who, Grossman writes, terrified Liss, because they were “made up of an inconceivable fusion of opposites:” they were masters of politics possessed by “a blindly fanatical faith.”
Putin is certainly cynical. Yet, I think he believes in his own myths.
The glorification of past victories is a way to compensate for more recent failures, including the collapse of the Soviet empire and Putin’s own inability, and unwillingness, to create an efficiently functioning and socially-oriented economy. No matter how much oil and gas Russia exports, efficiency is a thing that a mafia-run government cannot deliver.
Redesigning a country’s identity based on an inferiority complex complemented by militaristic hysterics is a dangerous enterprise. It naturally leads to hostilities as a way for these possessed masters of politics to “prove themselves.”
Since the 2000s, many in the West have argued that Russia (read: Putin) should be treated with respect and have praised him for “raising Russia from its knees.” And even when he began openly preparing for the invasion of Ukraine, Western Putinversteher (Putin-readers, or more literally “Putin-understanders”) continued claiming that he was not getting enough recognition from the West.
A high level of hysteria cannot be maintained forever. It comes as no surprise that the ideological foundations of the Putin regime have begun to fail in recent years in the context of continuing economic difficulties and the government’s obvious indifference to ordinary people’s interests.
Small military victories have always been used to inflate patriotism and compensate for a government’s decreasing popularity. By addressing his compatriots with aggressive anti-Ukrainian speeches and personally announcing the invasion, Putin has clearly shown that this is his war. He has put his reputation and power at stake—maybe because he was convinced that he would easily win, but maybe because he saw no other way to maintain them. Fear is a bad advisor, as another Russian proverb notes.
Living in an imagined world entails lying, or simply not knowing the difference between lie and truth. Putin and his men lie all the time, including about invading Ukraine. They claim the entire world is conspiring against “Holy Russia” because of its sanctity. They pretend not to understand that Russia’s neighbors feel that they are “living at the foot of a volcano”, as Poland’s prime minister recently said.
His deeply entrenched fear makes Putin see signs of aggression all around him. A NATO battalion deployed in Estonia is a threat. A video of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet joint parade in Brest, Poland, is a threat. And the main threat is democracy in Ukraine. The enemy is everywhere.
Nobody has planned to attack Russia in recent decades. And nobody will in coming decades either. That their neighbors are suspicious about them is a factor Russians must learn to live with. Had it not been for Putin, these suspicions and the memories of the Soviet war crimes would have probably faded in one or two generations. After his occupation of Crimea, war with Georgia, and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, it will now probably take centuries.
Putin is not Russia, however, as Hitler was not Germany. Russia is a great country, and its great culture is integral to Europe. Many Russians, including the author of these lines, feel responsible for having allowed the KGB-FSB mafia to establish control over our country and take away our subjectivity. Democracy is not a gift from above; it is something to be fought for.
Ukrainians are now fighting not only for their freedom but for Russia’s freedom as well. Perhaps the time will come when Russia can take its subjectivity back from Putin and stop this shameful war. But until then, Russia has no subjectivity and no legitimate interests.
Nikolay Koposov is a historian of modern Europe and an internationally recognized authority on the comparative politics of memory, especially in his native Russia, where he taught for three decades. Currently, he is a Visiting Distinguished Professor at the School of History, Technology and Society, Ivan Allen College in Atlanta, Georgia. His recent work has mainly focused on comparative politics of the past and the memory wars in Eastern Europe, including in Ukraine. His book Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia (2018) has been published by Cambridge University Press.
This essay was first published in Eurozine on 22 March 2022.