Welcome to the "RuZZkiy Mir"
I was shellshocked by the war like everyone else. Now after my initial panic has subsided I wanted to say a few things.
Here in America, most of the “experts” interpret Putin’s enduring rule in general and this new war of his in particular as Soviet reboot. He’s supposed to be some sort of Stalin 2.0. But that view of things is wrong on just about every level. I believe it’s actually a much worse narrative than simply “Back to the USSR.”
Despite how bad the reality of the USSR could be and how cynical its nomenclature was, at its core the Soviet Union did pursue communism — a liberatory utopian ideology. It inspired people all over the world. So on paper at least, the country did stand for something good, something to aspire to. The USSR wasn’t just a continuation of Imperial Russia under a new name and flag but with the same exploitative ideology. That’s a very simplistic Cold War lens that shows a complete lack of understanding of Russian history and politics.
But Putin’s regime — one that is finally taking a much more definitive shape — is very different. It is not rooted in any utopia. It doesn’t offer any alternative or any new inspiring way to organize society. It was pragmatic from the start and what it aimed to do was to preserve a semblance of stability in post-criminal-privatization-Russia of the early 1990s. Now it’s taking a new turn and foregoing stability. But it’s not that surprising that many people in Russia are cheering for it.
Vanguard of the Russkiy mir: Rogozin, Vaino, Sechin, Matvienko, Shoigu, Medvedev, Lavrov, Volodin…
After decades of quasi-socialism and poverty in the Soviet Union, people were plunged into the quasi-capitalism, much more feudal and raw than people experience in the West. A majority of Russians became even more impoverished, a minority benefited form the privatization of state industries and the new business opportunities that opened up in a capitalist society. The entire country turned into a brothel, lacking any ideology whatsoever. Some people of course turned to the Russian Orthodox religion in a desperate attempt to have some meaning in their lives because the old paradigm was destroyed. But it’s hard to call those people truly religious, the same way there were not really Marxist-Leninists before that.
The failed “civil society” in Russia that many of the liberal Russians who fleeing the country are now crying about didn’t fail yesterday. It didn’t even fail under Putin. I believe it already failed in the mid-1990s, after privatization and the creation of a tiny robber baron oligarchy. But there was no public discourse around that. Besides some pensioners protesting the loss of all their savings, this privatization was rarely criticized by liberals — even the liberals who were opposed to whoever was sitting in the Kremlin. In fact, liberals often laughed at critics of privatization, calling them “sovki” — meaning Soviet simpletons. As far as I could tell, the “civil society” that liberals were supposedly building boiled down to them having their civilized bourgeois lives with western goods, tourism and travel, and media projects. No one seemed to care about the need for economic justice for their plundered and robbed country. If they had bothered to look beyond their own little comfortable world, they would have seen the swarms of impoverished people who didn’t have time or energy to engage in “civil society.” And now it’s exactly this part of the population — the screwed-over, poor, and bitter Russian people — that is being engaged and weaponized by Putin’s propaganda, whipped into a patriotic frenzy to support a war that’s presented to them as confrontation of Holy Russia and the Satanic West.
What is happening now is not the reviving of USSR in any shape, it is not “1984” coming to life. Putin’s project is distinctly and openly anti-Bolshevik. If anything he is a counter-revolutionary — a counter-revolutionary former KGB agent. He evokes the images of the great empire of pre-revolutionary Russia, an empire that Lenin fractured because he created national “princedoms” (Putin’s words) with distinct borders. Recently at a huge pro-war rally that took place right next to my childhood home, Putin praised 18th century admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who supposedly never lost a war and is now canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time Putin evokes the victory over Nazis in the WWII to whip up the support and justify this war. And it works — his approval ratings went up and a majority of Russians does seem to believe that a reboot of the Great Patriotic War is happening right now, with another crop of satanic Nazis who need be destroyed and taught a lesson once again. The fact is that people so easily fell for it is also a consequence of the non-existence of politics in Russia. There is only the aesthetization of politics, which as Walter Benjamin noted is rooted in the fascist nature of a regime.
In the last month, Putin consolidated his power and purged most of the opposition for good. He suppressed all the remaining free media, censored free speech, and further criminalized any dissent. And now the narrative of “national traitor” is on the rise. Now anyone who opposes the war is suspected of working for the enemy. I was recently called “not Russian” by an RT journalist due to my “state of mind” and my supposed “allegiance.”
But I want to repeat this: Despite Putin’s parasitic weaponization of the memory of the Soviet Union’s WWII victory, at its core Putin’s project is not revival of the Soviet Union. It’s the rebuilding of “historic Russia,” as he proclaimed himself. His regime is hybrid — not very ideologically coherent, but overall distinctly anti-Soviet. And if anything, what is happening now will finish off the last point of pride related to the Soviet Union — victory over Nazis. So he is “denazifying” Ukraine and decommunizing Russia at the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d finally managed to bury Lenin’s body and get rid of the mausoleum.
But since majority of western people just found out where Ukraine is on the map six weeks ago and everything is taken out of context, I think it’s important to talk about Russian society as it exists.
The society that was restructured in the 1990s and then maintained by Putin for the last 20 years was sort a feudal brothel. Very bleak but with a tiny minority having a carnival like existence in the center of Moscow. I grew up in this brothel and though I was too young and sheltered to know it intimately I definitely perceived the “feast during the plague” vibes and also felt the quiet but bubbling resentment of the people not invited to that feast. I also was poisoned with cynicism, apathy and materialism, like pretty much everyone else.
Thinking about it now as an adult, The Exile is really one of the only literary projects that captured that spirit — feverish, carnivalesque, but also bleak and scary. The cult of youth, beauty, and money. It was a very brutal world and continued to be brutal, despite the thin veneer of liberal media, urban revival, a gastronomy boom, and the general prettying up of Moscow that happened in the last decade. Now, when a lot of this veneer is gone within just a month, it’s clear how superficial it always was: just a playground for the liberal intelligentsia, who despite their participation in opposition protests, lived really well — never rejecting the state or oligarchical money that bankrolled their projects.
Russian liberals — many of whom have left the country en mass now — interestingly are similar to Putin in their hatred of the USSR. They also deny the importance of the Russian Revolution. To them it was the genesis of everything evil, a senseless bloodbath. Documentary filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov explained it really well here, so I don’t want to go into detailed analysis of Russian liberals. But in short: they are very colonial, right-wing snobs who look down on “uneducated masses” and see themselves as European Russians. Meanwhile most of them are themselves just a few generations away from these same “uneducated masses”.
Everyone remembers and quotes Putin once saying how the collapse of Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and maybe he believes it. But “catastrophe” he’s referring to is not the loss of the USSR as a socialist state, but the loss of land — it is about losing the “historic Russia” he keeps talking about now.
What is ironic to me though is that Putin and his inner circle are Soviet creations. And it reminds of a passage from Anatoly Mariengof’s 1928 novel, Cynics, about early-1920s Moscow. Its main heroine Olga, a daughter of White Russians that had fled abroad, is herself enchanted by the revolution and the Bolsheviks. But then, in this one scene, she goes to a street market with her husband and notices that the revolution has given birth to a monster — a new bourgeoisie.
Putin represents this hybrid Soviet-bourgeoisie monster. Most people in his circle are upstarts. They used to be very active Soviet citizens, often Communist Party members and careerists. Most of them come from very humble peasant backgrounds, their parents were factory workers. Putin famously said that his mother didn’t even finish middle school and was a menial worker all her life. Putin and his people are the children of this older, humbler Soviet generation. They moved up and became government bureaucrats and professionals. They benefitted from the Soviet system, they are creations of it. And yet they have turned against the ideology and the system that brought them into existence and into power.
I’m not saying that these people have to adore the USSR for all the opportunities it gave them. But it’s ironic that these people — grandsons of simple Russians peasants — want to revive Imperial Tsarist Russia. I mean, Tsarist Russia was a rural backward peasant country with a largely illiterate population and a tiny group of French-speaking rentier landowners who treated their peasants like cattle, extracting their labor value, raping their young serf women, and then hopping from one sanatorium in Europe to another to improve their health. And now Putin’s people — just a few generations away from these same peasants — praise and glorify that world.
What’s amazing is that Putin’s circle even rejected and rebranded the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Decembrist were aristocrats and military officers who tried to overthrow the monarchy and free the serfs. In the Soviet Union, their uprising was always considered heroic and proto-revultionary. But in Putin’s Russia the Decembrists are vilified. There’s even a big budget film — produced and funded by the Russian state — called Union of Salvation, where Decembrists are shown as dangerous degenerates and clueless, bored aristocrats, while Nicolas I is shown as a sensible and kind ruler.
Putin’s people are truly reactionary and much more conservative than even the liberal bourgeoisie of the Provisional Government of the February Revolution. So they would find enemies in both Lenin and Nabokov — that’s how backwards they are. Both Lenin and Nabokov would have been horrified by today’s turn of events. It feels more like Putin is cosplaying Ivan the Terrible — land grabbing, absolutism, “traditional values,” rampant paranoia.
I imagine that after an ideologically incoherent hybrid 30 years, there will be some version of a restoration of an “Imperial Russia” — resting on a base of extreme nationalism with some fascist flair. There will be lots of simple slogans that won’t even have to appear to be humane. Their point will be to give a feeling of unity and pride to the impoverished Russian people, who have to live in this Russkiy mir. And we don’t have to wait too long. It’s already happening.
Want to know more? Read Evgenia on the art and life of another great Russkiy Mir leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who recently passed away: “I had no talent...so everything pushed me towards political activity.”