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Opinionista

The rise of repressive right-wing Russian nationalism under Vladimir Putin

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Gerrit Olivier is an emeritus professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria and was South Africa’s first Ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan. He is a former Chief Director in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs.

Russia has had its proud moments in history, but it is also responsible for some of the worst humanitarian aberrations, continued today under Putinism.

Despite Russia’s dark and bloody history of revolutions and popular resistance against repression, democracy never took root in that country.

Although the Soviet Bolshevist Revolution of 1917 got rid of centuries of autocratic Tsarist rule, a new autocracy emerged which in many ways resembled the old Tsarist one, making way for the Soviet Bolshevist repressive system while the proletariat remained silent, becoming part of the tragedy they helped to make.

As Alexander Kerensky (Chairperson of the Russian Provisional Council) remarked in 1917, “the Russian people are perhaps no more than rebellious slaves’’. Despite their plight, they could never liberate themselves from their perennial miserable existence.

Maxim Gorky, once the golden boy and propaganda ikon of the Bolsheviks, found what happened hideous and intolerable, lamenting that:

‘‘A revolution is only a revolution when it arises as a natural and powerful expression of the people’s creative force… Can we really say that one year after the Russian Revolution, the people, having been liberated from the violence and oppression of the old police state, have become better, kinder, more intelligent, and more honest people? No, no one could say that. We are still living as we lived under the monarchy, with the same customs, the same prejudices, the same stupidity, and the same filth. The greed and malice which were inculcated in us by the old regime are still within us…

“The Russian people, having won its freedom, is in its present state incapable of using it for its own good, only for its own harm and the harm of others, and is in danger of losing everything that it has been fighting for for centuries. It is destroying all the great achievements of its ancestors; gradually the national wealth, the wealth of the land, of industry, of transport, of communications and of the towns, is being destroyed in the dirt.’’

Kerensky is joined by Christian Michel, who wrote that: “The darkest forces never give up. The French Revolution, the Soviet one, all the others, appear first as a liberating struggle. But they soon morph into dictatorship”.

This is precisely what happened under Putinism.

Civil consciousness suppressed

In 1921, soon after the peasant revolt, a new dictatorship had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one as the tsars were simply replaced by Bolshevik dictators.

A historical catastrophe, a tragedy, no doubt, but was it inevitable? Perhaps it was. Centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule prevented the ordinary people from acquiring the consciousness of citizens.

As historian Orlando Figes pointed out, a direct line could be drawn from serf culture to the despotism of the Bolsheviks. Through the ages “absolute power” became the holy writ of Russian political life. The abstract concept of a civil society, or civil rights, remained largely alien to the Russian proletariat in their isolated world.

As exemplified by Putinism today, the popular notion of power in Russia is being articulated in terms of coercive domination derived from the ancient traditions of serfdom rather than from the rule of law, and from 70 years of brutal and unrelenting Bolshevism, permeating the entire Russian societal spectrum. This power is arbitrary and violent.

After 70 years, the Boris Yeltsin democratic counter-revolution of 1991 brought an end to Bolshevik totalitarianism in Russia, an end to the Communist party, and all its repressive institutionalised substructures, introducing a new democratic constitution, a free market and democratic political competition.

But this freedom was only a brief interlude. The Yeltsin regime was a miserable failure, his popularity hitting rock-bottom, opening the way for a KGB coup d’état by stealth.

Age of Putin

By the year 2000, Russia hovered at the brink of bankruptcy, being a failed state and Yeltsin a spent force, eager to make a Faustian deal with Vladimir Putin to stay out of jail for corruption. The title of Catherine Belton’s  splendid book says it all: Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West.

It is still a mystery how Putin, an obscure and dour KGB apparatchik, without personal charisma, managed to get to the top. However, what we do know by now is that he was an important cog of a financially resourceful underground KGB/East German Stasi black market.

His agenda was to restore what Yeltsin destroyed. From the very beginning of his presidency, Putin made it clear that Yeltsin’s new democratic Russia was a historical deviation and re-introduced a Soviet style of government with fear and wanton repression, replacing the rule of law.

To Putin, the fall of the Soviet Union was a “major catastrophe”.  With abundant luck (the timely steep rise in the oil price, in particular) and masterful strategy, he transformed Russia’s politics, economics and foreign relations into success stories, occupied Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, encountering only mild reaction from a limp-wristed West.

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine news hub

At the opening of the Winter Olympics, he boastfully declared: “At last Russia has returned to the world arena as a strong state — a country that others heed and can stand up for”.

To the acclaim of the masses, he promoted a new creed of extreme Russian right-wing nationalism, revived Soviet symbolism (flag, anthem, and Stalinism), rabid anti-Westernism, and paranoid security policies: a veritable police state.

At his presidential inauguration on 7 May 2000, he gave notice of a return to the traditional paradigm: “We should not forget anything. We should know our history as it was and take lessons from it and always remember those who created the Russian state and defended its values, who made it a great and powerful state. We will preserve this memory and this connection through time… and all the best from our country we will hand over to our descendants.’’

And so, Putinism emerged.

Undeniably, Russia has had its proud moments in history, but it is also responsible for some of the worst humanitarian aberrations, continued today under Putinism.

Once again, as Kerensky intimated in 1917, Russians could not liberate themselves, allowing Putin to reintroduce authoritarian Soviet-style repression after he took over from Yeltsin in 2000, using fascistic patriotism to project himself as “Russia’s saviour” against the threat of terrorism and perceived Western (liberal) decadence and imperialism.

This important political reversal happened without any public outcry, rather by remarkable acquiescence. Putin’s public approval ratings shot up to the 70s and 80s, rendering him virtually untouchable, and he was projected to remain president until 2036.

Yes, there were protests in the streets, particularly led by Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov. Both were murdered. Other dissidents like Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Sergei Skripal, Viktor Yushchenko, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Oleg Orlov, were poisoned, shot, or jailed by Kremlin henchmen.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thousands of Russians mourn Navalny at funeral, defying Kremlin

Putin and his siloviki (former KGB henchmen) seemed unperturbed about ruling Russia like a murderous mafia state. His answer was simply to progressively ratchet up his brutal Stalinist security regime, eliminating all opposition and freedom of speech. Popular protest became too risky for many Russians who preferred to keep quiet and stay at home.

The brief interlude of democracy and rule of law under Yeltsin in the late 1990s made way for a new syndrome of fear, slave-like habitual subservience, and cowed compliance among many Russians. They seem content to live in the abnormal state of Putinism.

But they are not free. The habitual subservience of the peasants Kerensky wrote about in 1917 is being replaced by fear, a personality cult of “Putin-mania” and orchestrated pseudo-patriotism.

But how long will it last? Putin and his Gestapo-like henchmen must realise that their destructive regime of terror is not sustainable. Opinion polls show that support for his “special military operation” in Ukraine is at its lowest since the start of the war.

Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin

People place flowers at a makeshift memorial for late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny organized outside the Borisovskoye cemetery following his funeral ceremony, in Moscow, Russia, on 1 March, 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Maxim Shipenkov)

Alexei Navalny’s murder drew thousands of Russians to the streets to mourn his death and join his funeral. An anti-war movement led by wives, sisters, and mothers of soldiers called Put Domoi (the way home) turns up every weekend to lay flowers at the tombs of unknown soldiers.

Hundreds of thousands turned up to sign in support of Boris Nadezhdin’s presidential campaign, just to be eliminated by the cowardly paranoid regime. In an atmosphere of draconian oppression and dissent, these could be the early green shoots of a democratic tsunami, a sign that democracy is not dead in Russia.

The forces of change, international exposure, professional mobility, ineluctable internet penetration and inevitable economic decay will make more Russians aware that they live in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, a veritable gulag.

The Soviet system imploded inevitably after 70 years. The same fate awaits Putinism, although it won’t take that long. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    imho modern Russia has very little to do with right wing or nationalism. It is ENTIRELY a money and power grab. 120y ago it was the royal family and their cronies, now it is the little poison dwarf and his oligarchs.

    By some accounts today’s rusputin counts among the top ten wealthiest people on the planet. Very little of that is sitting patriotically in Mother Russia.

    He will probably die in a ditch like the other tyrants.

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