Stagnation or decay more likely than evolution for Russia
December 23, 2022
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst, until recently commentator at Rosbalt labeled “foreign agent” in Russia 
Sergei Shelin writes about the absence in modern Russia of institutions, social practices and ideological complexes suitable for building a country free of great-power ambitions. Because of this, attempts to convince Russians that the Putin regime is harmful to their interests are doomed to failure.
On December 6, Latvia’s National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) annulled the license it had issued to TV Rain, which had been forced out of Russia in the summer. At the beginning of 2022, TV Rain was the only opposition TV channel in Russia. It was persecuted and finally banned right after the invasion of Ukraine. After that, the TV Rain journalists resumed broadcasting from Latvia. Thus, the Latvian government’s decision to cancel their broadcasting license has been a severe blow.

Of those who spoke publicly about the matter, most journalists, along with almost all regular viewers of TV Rain, consider the Latvian regulator’s decision unfair. The author of this article shares that view. Yet more broadly, things are clearly not in favor of TV Rain. Ukrainians and many Russian emigrants were indignant at the sympathy for ordinary soldiers in Russia’s war expressed by TV Rain journalists on air when speaking with the soldiers and their relatives.

The NEPLP charged TV Rain with several violations. But if we put aside accidental mistakes, it was a TV Rain presenter’s reference to the Russian soldiers as “our army” that the Latvian authorities found unacceptable.

“For quite a few years now, we were all told that we have a really well-equipped army... There was no mobilization like this, either for the war in Afghanistan, or with Chechnya, or with Syria... How do you explain to people what actually happened, why suddenly our army needs the help of guys who had military department training 30 years ago at university?... Literally everyone is becoming victims [of this war]: the people on whose territory our army came, and the people whom they are trying to forcibly, coercively, to mobilize, to force to fight, kill and die themselves.”

There is nothing easier than to reproach the journalists for their failure to rid themselves of residual loyalty, for being unable to separate themselves from the regime. But the problem is much deeper, and it was not TV Rain that created it. The journalists, whose anti-war stance has been repeatedly confirmed, want to keep in touch with the Russian audience. That is natural. But because they try to speak in a language that is organic for that audience, a paradoxical situation arises: their viewers are outraged by the poorly equipped soldiers, while ideas about the criminality of the war itself are not necessarily shared by these Russia-based TV Rain viewers.

Anti-Nazi emigrants from Germany also argued about whether to sympathize with “their” soldiers, and most felt sorry for them in one way or another. In poems written in California in 1942, Bertolt Brecht imagined himself dying among the soldiers in the Russian winter (though it never would have occurred to him to write "our Wehrmacht"). However, this was not a problem for him, as he had an alternative with which he could identify. The German exiles wanted a new Germany to take the place of the Nazi regime. And they imagined what intellectual and institutional elements they would use to build it.

But what to use to build a free Russia without great power ambitions if and when the current regime ceases to exist? What national values can people who reject the Putin regime – from opposition groups to the public in democratic countries – appeal to? What might be useful from what is available in Russia? The answer is bitter: literally nothing.

Army: Violence does not require an order

Let's start with "our army.” According to a pre-war survey, the army is the most respected institution in Russia (61% said they trust it).

The evolution of this institution into something fit to serve the country and ready to subject itself to a civilian regime is hard to imagine. The Soviet and Russian armed forces are an army in which, under Stalin, marshals beat generals for mistakes made during service and in which, to this day, certain lower-rank servicemembers are subject to mandatory and constant ritual humiliation by other lower-rank servicemembers. Declamations about “officer’s honor” popular in the army are the ideas of people who know only mafia ethics.
"The violence on the occupied territories of Ukraine is an organic product of how this army operates. It does not need orders from above and occurs naturally. There are almost no mechanisms to prevent it."
There is nothing to prevent "organized" war crimes. In a joint investigationThe Insider, Bellingcat and Der Spiegel identified soldiers who are aiming cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities. Based on phone metadata records, the investigators reconstructed a team of 33 military engineers who program missile trajectories. It is people with different backgrounds, from veterans of the war in Syria to yesterday's corporate IT specialists. What they have in common is a light and cold-blooded conception of service. While they are launching missiles, they are also engaged in their usual worldly affairs: one is on the phone with coin trading sites, another haggles with sex workers over prices.

An understanding of personal responsibility in this environment is clearly the exception. Meanwhile, frustration with the stupidity of military commanders, poor equipment and the inability to take care of soldiers is widespread. As long as that anger does not get out of control, it works only to strengthen "our army." But in critical situations, it seems, the anger is capable of overflowing its banks and destroying the army and the state machine along with it. Still, it can hardly help create an alternative order.
In the recently built Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, churchgoers pray to portraits of victorious generals. Source: Wiki Commons
Russian Orthodox Church: A prayer for war

Next on the list of most trusted institutions is the presidency (53%) and the FSB (45%). Let's forget about them, however, since the autocratic ruler and secret services are the current regime, and we are looking at alternatives. Next after them comes the church (40%).

What helped many Italians and Germans walk away from fascism and Nazism in the mid-1940s was the historical distance between the Catholic and, to a lesser extent, Protestant сhurches from these regimes. For all their conformism, the clergy did not merge with the regimes. Thus, it did not share their fate and helped its flock to break with them.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) cannot play such a role. If you look for analogies, it is the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) of the 1930s, a movement among German Protestants that wanted to make the clergy a part of the state apparatus and promoted the teachings of “Aryanization.” This movement failed to gain the upper hand, and by the end of the 1930s it had almost died out.
Russia’s state clergy has no peers.
"The Moscow Patriarchy functions as a department of the presidential administration, and the ROC adjusts its doctrine in line with the current needs of the regime."
As a staunch loyalist, Russian Patriarch Kirill has firmly backed the war in Ukraine. Source: Wiki Commons
And it is not just support for a war with fellow Orthodox Christians. The clergy choose loyalty to the authorities out of habit. But on September 25, four days after Putin announced the mobilization, Patriarch Kirill went much further:

“The Church understands that if someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains true to his calling and dies, then he undoubtedly commits an act that is tantamount to a sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others. And thus we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that he committed.”

Ukrainian Orthodox theologian Sergei Shumilo, technically Kirill's coreligionist, called this "blasphemy" and "borrowing the ideas of ‘Shadheedism:’”

“Calls for ‘sacrifice’ fundamentally contradict the spirit and letter of the Gospel and the patristic Orthodox doctrine. Indeed, according to Orthodox teaching, only repentance and communion wash away sins. No death ‘while fulfilling military duty’ (moreover, in a war of conquest!) will automatically redeem or wash away the sins of a person. The ROC never knew such a deviation from the Orthodox faith in its entire history.”

Accusing the head of the ROC of “preaching an un-Orthodox doctrine” might be written off as a wartime schism. But here is an objective review of the largest religious building of the Putin era and recently opened – the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces:

“... Warriors will go to paradise. Those who defended the Fatherland with weapons in their hands. First of all, the generals. In the conchs of the apse there are images of generals and admirals: Suvorov, Kutuzov and Nakhimov. Their ranks and names are made out of haloes, or more precisely, halo-like forms up around their heads. And what an, hmm, interesting solution. Churchgoers praying to late generals... The paradise of military-patriotic Orthodoxy is an eternal battle, a battle that has no end. The Soviet idea of a sacred war finally has received its religious form…”

The main Putin church is one where believers pray to portraits of victorious generals (the image of Putin himself was also there before being removed at the last second). It is a church of war, interpreted as jihad.
Federation Council member Andrei Klishas claims that "there is no greater power in our country than the words of the president." Source: Wiki Commons
Obedient institutions and disappearing intelligentsia

Combining the above-mentioned institutions with any non-imperialistic regime looks dubious. Other institutions and social practices are either fakes, like parliaments of every level and "system" parties, or components of the Russian patronal state. The judicial system has outlived the ideas not only of independence but also legality in general. “From a political point of view, from the point of view of legitimacy, there is no greater power in our country than the words of the president,” Andrei Klishas, a senator in the Federation Council and the man formally behind the core laws of recent years, was quoted as saying on December 8. This is the Russian interpretation of Roman jurists’ thesis that "the will of the emperor is the law." In the Soviet era, such frankness was impermissible.

Professional ethics are obsolete everywhere you look. School teachers are forced to conduct weekly lessons of conspiracy and militarism called "Conversations about Important Things” and as members of election commissions to falsify ritual-like elections. Russia’s teachers are now firmly associated with such activities, not education.

After the start of the war, almost all university rectors signed a statement along the lines of:

“It is very important these days to support our country, our army, which is defending our security, to support our President, who, perhaps, made his most difficult, agonizing, but necessary decision … Universities have always been a pillar of the state…”

At the same time, the last traces of independence for the Higher School of Economics (HSE) were eliminated. The HSE, organized in the early 1990s as a Western-style university, is among the largest educational institutions in Russia. The new rector of the HSE, Nikita Anisimov, who had been imposed by the authorities, signed the statement, while an effort by a group of teachers to protest petered out. The uniqueness of the HSE is rapidly fading now amid the emigration of many faculty and staff. The same process is ongoing at other universities as well.

An example of the defeat of a historically powerful institution was the "reform" of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). Under Soviet rule, the Academy of Sciences was very prestigious, and membership provided relative independence. During the coup d'état in October 1964, one of the main charges brought against Nikita Khrushchev was his quarrel with the Academy and intention to dissolve it. During the perestroika years, several academicians, most prominently Andrei Sakharov, were major political figures. Putin has turned the RAS into a minor institution, the head of which is regularly brought out to sing the praises of both the ruler and his courtiers. The September 2022 election of a new president for the RAS was the most fictitious in the memory of living academicians. But the Academy is no longer capable of quarreling with the supreme ruler. An opposition group of academics, the July 1 Club, includes only 3% of members and corresponding members of the RAS, and with the outbreak of the war has almost ceased its activities.
"The degradation of all professional organizations is not the result of mass repression but rather looks like alien elements being removed from the system."
In terms of the scale of damage done to advanced professional groups in Moscow, St Petersburg and to a lesser extent other megacities, the events of 2022 resemble the consequences of the terror of the late 1930s, though without the death. The class that has been the driving force behind the most important local events for more than 30 years, from Gorbachev’s perestroika to the mass street protests of Navalny supporters in 2017-2021, has if not completely disappeared, then dramatically shrunk and fallen into apathy (see more about public apathy in Mikhail Vinogradov's article in RP).
The upshot is that Russia has become a more homogeneous and even less Westernized country.

Four collapses and the Putin man

Russians living today have seen the fall of the Soviet empire and then the gradual collapse of three projects of nation-building.

The Yeltsin-Gaidar project, the first of them, failed back in the 1990s, though its finale has only now taken place. The stewards of Yegor Gaidar's ideological legacy, the “system liberals” and technocrats at the head of the Russian economy, did not even try to prevent the war. Moreover, when it began, they showed themselves to be a true bulwark of the Putin regime. While the generals were failing and losing campaigns, the brilliant managers of the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance have organized something like an economic miracle on the home front.

The second project, authoritarian modernization, was carried out in the first half of Putin's rule before completely degenerating by the early 2010s.

Navalny's project was the third. It was crushed in the early 2020s at an early stage, during its first attempts to address local issues and put forward a social policy.

The militant, imperialistic restoration turned out stronger and more viable than all these efforts to give Russia the appearance of a modern country.
"It must be accepted that the empire of the mid-1980s, on the eve of Gorbachev's perestroika, was institutionally better prepared for radical changes than Putin's Russia today."
Institutions were more independent than they are now. Professional groups more firmly held onto ethics, whatever they might be. And the mind of the ordinary man was not in such harmony with imperialism as now.

The Putin man, who overshadowed and drowned out all the others and sets the tone in today's Russia, is very resilient. He is not interested in his income taxes or where his taxes go, as income taxes are paid by his employer. But he knows whether Stalin was good or bad. He has no idea what is in the interest of his hometown, but he will gladly talk about public “patriotic” events and Immortal Regiment processions. He does not understand why Russia should not invade Ukraine, but he is well versed in the machinations of the "Anglo-Saxons.” He is completely normal when it comes to everyday affairs, but he starts to look insane if you talk to him about something of public significance.

That Russia, with or without Putin, could get tired of the war and force the government to stop it. The empire can live indefinitely in stagnation, though is not completely safe from coups or an uncontrolled disintegration. But the most difficult thing is to imagine its quick evolution into something modern, not gripped by great-power manias. Today's Russia as a country is completely unprepared for that.
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