RICHMOND, Indiana, September 8 – Vladimir Putin is not pursuing the kind of authoritarian modernization described by Fareed Zakaria as characteristic of illiberal states but rather an updated and specifically Russian version of Stalinist modernization based on the search for enemies and the instillation of fear, according to a leading Russian commentator.
But this distinction has been obscured, Irina Pavlova argues, because Putin’s approach, thanks to the possibilities offered by modern information technologies, does not require many of the features of classical Stalinism such as the GULAG and a new iron curtain even though the essence of Putin’s approach is the same (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/p.156568.html).
Exploiting the mass media, including television and the Internet – technologies Stalin and his henchmen could only dream about and thus “could not imagine how such PR-technologies could be used to disorient society” – Putin is able to create with a few carefully targeted and reported murders the climate of fear Stalin needed to kill far more people to achieve.
In an essay on Grani.ru last week, Irina Pavlova argues that Putin’s approach reflects the unfortunate reality that “the Russian authorities [at present] are incapable” of pursuing the kind of modernization Zakaria says is likely in those countries that lack liberal democratic institutions (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/p.156568.html).
And she suggests that her somber conclusion is inescapable if one considers recent statements and actions by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In talking about the country’s industrial problems, they have launched what is clearly “a planned campaign of ideological preparation for the ‘dekulakization’ of the so-called oligarchs.”
Unlike Zakaria’s authoritarian modernization, a term which some analysts of Russian affairs are inclined to apply to Russia as well, Moscow officials have begun talking about “concrete enemies” of any modernization and about the supposed end of “the era of small business,” two ideas with obvious Stalinist links.
In addition, Pavlova says, there has been “a new wave of calls for modernization ‘from above’ not only by the so-called patriots but also by liberals close to the powers that be.” And “some of these,” she continues, have proposed that “Vladimir Putin” is uniquely prepared to “head up this modernization.”
But what is most important and what sets Russia part from the other authoritarian regimes that Zakaria has been talking about is a broader set of ideological themes Putin and his colleagues have been using to “strengthen in the consciousness of the majority of Russians a view of what [the nature of the state in Russia] must be like.”
That view rests on the idea that “the greatness of the country can be guaranteed only by a strong centralized power, in fact a dictatorship, and that only such a power can arrange things” so that Russia can develop as a powerful state and keep its enemies at bay “’in a state of fear,’” as Stalin himself observed.
In Pavlova’s view, the Russian powers that be have gone so far in the direction of “officially elevating Stalin to the rank of a model state ruler for Russia,” that is it time to place one’s bets on whether his rehabilitation will take place on the late dictator’s 130th birthday (December 21st) or on the 65th anniversary of Victory Day (next May 9th).
As she points out, “strictly speaking, Stalin’s policy was never condemned at the state level.” Instead, Khrushchev and others denounced “the cult of personality,” rather than the man himself. And that lack of a clear finding of Stalin as a criminal is allowing the current Russian leadership to exploit his image as the creator of “Victory” and of Russia as “a Great Power.”
Pavlova argues that the return of Stalin in this way grows out of the failure of the policies of Putin and Medvedev. It shows that they have absolutely no idea of how to transform Russia into a contemporary state and society and so are reviving elements of a past they believe was effective.
Obviously, she continues, the copy will not be the same as the original. Stalin and his entourage had no experience with or ideas about television and the Internet and thus “could not imagine how possible it is to disorient society by means of PR-technologies,” opening the way for the instillation of fear “without mass repressions.”
But such differences, however much some may hope otherwise, do not change “the essence of what is taking place,” the Grani.ru commentator points out. “The main failure in the policies of the present powers that be related to economics. They of course unbelievably enriched themselves but they couldn’t force the country to develop.”
As even Medvedev has noted, as long as the oil money was flowing “like a river, the country continued to live on the Soviet inheritance and the country’s raw material riches. Roads were not built, heating and electrical networks were not renewed, and industry was not diversified.”
Russia, of course, could go in another direction by creating “the conditions for normal private entrepreneurial activity,” Pavlova says. But if those conditions were created, neither Putin nor Medvedev would be able to survive in office, however much both of them talks about the need for creating the kind of law-based state that might make the situation better.
And because that is the case, she concludes, Russia appears at risk of suffering another bout of the kind of vicious and violent authoritarianism Stalin practiced, a form of modernization that may look impressive to some but that is certain to prove after enormous suffering just as defective and doomed as the model on which it is based.
Putin pursuing Stalinism not authoritarian modernization, Pavlova says