Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"We have awoken a giant and filled it with terrible resolve"

The actions of the Russian government seem determined to eliminate any and all moderates and polarize society along ethnic and cultural lines. Putin's regime seems curiously helpless to put down any demonstrations or protests that elsewhere would be deemed extremist and fascist, while at the same time slamming down on any sort of democratic/moderate/liberal opposition protests that are tiny compared to ultranationalist outbursts. Worst of all, as an outside observer, it seems that it is the government itself that seems to both create and nurture the "us vs. them" to divide in the Russian society, not realizing what kind of powder keg they're sitting on and lighting a fuse to.

Meanwhile the actions of the police and other 'force' structures (silovyie struktury) are so eerily reminiscent of the tsarist police during its last few years (what I wrote my M.A. thesis on) that I get goosebumps reading the current news. It is entirely likely that Putin is trying to shore up his political power in the same fashion that the Tsars tried to do almost a hundred years ago, and it is entirely likely that the results will be the same.

The was a kind of jubilation, or at the very least hopeful expectation that the Russian people (and other nationalities as well) had throughout the 80s and 90s. Even in the worst parts of the 90s when the communists were seemingly on the verge of a democratic victory there was no strong and convincing rhetoric of "us vs. them" or abandonment of democratic principles in favour of economic stability (beyond grumblings and demonstrations by increasingly politically-irrelevant old people) which is basically Putin's platform. What the 90s created, however, was a large and powerful junta (I can find no better word that conveys illegality of what they had done - oligarchy sounds too 'legitimate' for my taste) that was able to use Yeltzin's impending retirement and physical and mental disability to push through a candidate that will guarantee the kind of regime they needed to survive and prosper.

By 2000 the kind of Russian people who were necessary for real democracy either emigrated or were economically desperate enough to believe that Putin did not necessarily mean the end of democracy. Here's how demography worked against democracy - at the height of emigration, Russia was losing more than half a million people a year to emigration. Those were the people with the: a) skills, b) money, c) work ethic, d) desire to make things better for their family. In other words - the middle class. By late 90s the middle-class was diminished and impoverished both economically and morally. The middle-class that slowly grew up under Putin now tend to associate their prosperity with Putin and economic stability at the price of democracy, however, now it seems like they're starting to wake up.

An average modern Russian (according to polls) associates poverty with democracy, Russia's apparent "weakness" on the global stage with an American conspiracy, crime with "blacks" (by which Russians mean anyone from Caucases or Central Asia - chornyie, the Russian word for people of African descent is different), wealth with corruption, police with legal crime, politicians with liars and puppets of the rich elite, and so on. Fortunately there is some indication that the grassroots organizations that connect seriously pissed-off Russians (whether on environmental issues, taxation, etc.) are becoming more effective. Unfortunately these organizations either deal with purely economic or non-political issues (that could be a good sign if South American democratic movements of 70s/80s are any indication. Most of the successful anti-fascist/anti-junta South American movements grew out of religious, economic, and even sport-based organizations) or much worse - with ethnic issues (in which case they become ultranationalistic or even openly nazi organizations).

For example, the most recent wave of violent protests in Moscow and st. Petersburg started out as a huge violent riot of soccer fans who were protesting the shooting of a "Spartak" fan club member whose murderers were set free by the corrupt police, and has turned into an anti-government/anti-immigration riot that the gov't is content not to stop in any way.

A cogent and powerful argument can be made that the reason why every openly democratic-liberal party/faction has failed in Russia is that all the really successful parties/factions have traditionally stressed nationalism and paternalism, whether populist or not, and that it is a sign that Russian people are either incapable of, or not yet ready for, real democracy. Now I personally would not entirely agree with such an argument, but it has been made and it has been made well.

Do the radicals stand a chance to win in the Duma however? Thanks to Putin and co. the Russian political system is very effectively rigged to prevent a real opposition. However, an even greater consequence of this is that the radicals are no longer interested in using democratic means to gain power, as they realize (quite rightly) that doing so is pointless! Even before the recession, the radicals (of either stripe - left, right, or pro-gov't) have taken to the streets and have often used street violence to make their point. Ultra-radical nationalists kill journalists, liberal opposition members, immigrants, foreign nationals. Ultra-radical left-wingers have taken to vandalizing gov't offices, attacking members of openly fascist/ultra-nationalist/nazi parties, and attacking police (try to find some news about anti-police gangs in the Russian Far East - not sure how much coverage they got in the English-speaking media). Ultra-radical pro-gov't faction is content to let the police contain and disperse the other two factions and then attack them without any repercussions or danger.

There is a Russian word (really a Polish word that was borrowed) - 'Bydlo'. It used to mean herd of cattle, then it also started to mean serfs, specifically referring to docile dumb peasant serfs. Putin and co. have been treating Russian citizens like 'Bydlo' for the last decade - considering incapable of rational or independent thought, willing to be led around as long as they are fed. Well the cattle is waking up, and the idiots in charge are too busy stealing to read history textbooks and realize that every time the mob of Russian people wake it is never merciful to its one-time shepherds.

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