Putin’s Cold New World

Putin’s Cold New World

Vladimir Putin speaking in Crimea, March 18, 2014 (The Council of Federation/Flickr)

Is Russia somehow different from other powerful nations? For Westerners, it has generally been an unpredictable country, and therefore an interesting one for travelers and scholars. Books by intellectuals who have traveled there and promised to explain its peculiarities are a well-established tradition. Such texts have been written by, among others, Denis Diderot, Madame de Staël, Adolphe de Custine, John Reed, Anatole France, André Gide, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Some, like Sartre, stumped for the Soviet Union, acknowledging its monstrosities long after the rest of the world had recognized them. We can laugh at the naïveté or corruptibility of these otherwise great thinkers. But attempting to understand Russia can wreck even the most astute minds. Max Weber, the author of two monographs on Russia that attempted to treat it with concepts formulated for describing Western society (rationalization, bureaucracy, and so on), did not understand the meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution. He reduced it to the overthrow of an ineffective monarch.

Foucault, meanwhile, was mistaken in the other direction, believing that the invention of the Panopticon was the best universal descriptor for institutions of discipline in Western society. Yet the first Panopticon was built not in the West, but in Russia, constructed by Jeremy Bentham’s brother Samuel in Krichev at the request of Catherine the Great. It is one of the many examples of how Russia received Western ideas—like anarchism, nihilism, Marxism, and neoliberalism—and turned them into brutal reality.

The Cold War placed the West in a new situation. With the development of weapons of mass destruction, the danger was no longer losing a war but total annihilation. It was then that systematic and intensive study of the history of the Soviet Union, Russia, and its subordinate nations began. This was a search for a solution to the puzzle of Russian difference, with the hope that the behavior of its leaders would finally become predictable.

But Russian politics is a mystery even to many Russians. The gap between authority and society in Russia is not present on a similar scale anywhere else. We wonder why Putin’s actions in Ukraine strengthened his popularity at home (with favorable poll numbers of up to 80 percent) and helped marginalize any protest. The handful of intellectuals, artists, and human rights activists who do not support Putin have ended up like Alexander Herzen, who supported the 1863 uprising in Poland and consequently lost the friendship of Russian émigré society and half of the subscriptions to his journal Kolokol, to say nothing of the absolute condemnation he experienced in Russia itself.

For almost its entire history, Russia has lacked an autonomous intermediary class between the ruler(s) and the people. Tsars and later general secretaries were surrounded by advisers, the military, and the bureaucratic apparatus, but there was nothing like the bourgeoisie, the nobility, or the middle class as they existed in other large and powerful countries. Even Russia’s working class did not exist in significant numbers until after the “workers’ revolution” of 1917, which was carried out by the intelligentsia. Russia did have an intelligentsia, and a very interesting one at that. But the intelligentsia is nothing more than a symptom of social underdevelopment, an attempt to overcome serious social problems (termed “accursed questions” by intellectuals) in one large leap.

An important consequence of this binary division was a contrasting dualism—either society supported the authorities en masse or, when it rebelled, it did so totally. Nowhere was the seizure of power so brutal or rulers so despotic; nowhere have masses of people appeared to sway so dramatically from passivity to sudden rebellion.

Attempts to explain Russian absolutism led to the emergence of two main schools of thought. One emphasized the cultural differences between Russia and the West, which resulted primarily from the differences between Roman and Greek Christianity (the latter is more influenced by Gnosticism and therefore exhibits a contrasting dualism in typical social attitudes), Byzantine and Mongol lessons in despotism, and the lack of a Roman legal tradition in Russia. Culture is first of all influenced by geography, and in Russia this means difficult agricultural conditions and a lack of natural borders. Both triggered a strategy of defense through offense, resulting in the hypertrophy of power and territory.

The second school, which dominated after the Second World War, explained Bolshevism as the result of the influence of (Marxist) ideology in the absence of liberal traditions. In short, the first school advocated cultural determinism, while the second favored ideological determinism. To the first school belonged scholars such as Martin Malia, Leszek Kołakowski, and Andrzej Walicki; the second included James Billington and Richard Pipes.

What we have observed in Ukraine confirms that Putin’s Russia is irredeemable. Vladimir Putin is building a true “empire of pieces,” grabbing parts of former Soviet republics, but it remains unclear where his expansionism will end.

Last winter, no one knew just how much Russia there was in Ukraine. European leaders were caught completely by surprise when Victor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, refused to sign an agreement that would tie the country’s economy to the EU. But less than a billion euros in economic aid to Ukraine would completely fail to compensate for the economic losses Ukraine would suffer if Russia placed an embargo on Ukrainian goods. At the same time, Ukraine was supposed to meet the conditions for a $15 billion IMF loan, at very high cost to its people. It appeared that Ukraine was being invited into Europe by a handful of countries, chief among them Poland, but that no one else wanted it in the EU or believed that such a venture had any value.

It was only when thousands carried EU flags in inspiring mass demonstrations in the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, that so many ordinary Europeans woke up. The test for Ukrainians and visitors alike was enduring the cruel cold, which became truly difficult after an hour or two, especially at night. The thought that demonstrators stood and slept there for days, weeks, and months, and that they were ready to stand there indefinitely, transformed even the greatest pessimist into a true believer that Euromaidan would achieve its goals. That temperature would either push you to surrender or to fanaticism.

Ukrainians were more pro-EU than the EU’s own inhabitants, many of whom were disillusioned by Brussels’s bureaucracy. This was an embarrassing situation. Why would one stand for months in the bitter cold like the people of Euromaidan, simply to connect with the terrible Brussels bureaucracy governing the EU?

Then, as soon as the Sochi Olympics ended, Russia began its conquest of Crimea. The resultant masquerade may have seemed necessary for the benefit of Russia’s own citizens, who alone could believe it. Many Russians would have been even more pleased if the Duma hadn’t hidden behind anonymous uniforms and had openly claimed what it saw as rightfully Russian.

What is Putin’s ultimate goal? He has none. Under his rule, Russia plays the game however its opponents allow.

The results of the referendum were an obvious fraud; even in conjunction with the very effective boycott by Ukrainians and Tatars, a supposed 96.8 percent approval for annexation was impossible. This raised a significant question: why was there no attempt to conceal the falsification of the results from the West, which could easily have been done by using a more realistic number that could still speak for annexation? In order to make a show of strength to the West, it was enough to know that it was Russian soldiers who were occupying Crimea, not Crimean citizens, and that they were armed with Russian equipment, not post-Soviet weaponry stolen from the black market, as Putin claimed with a smile at a press conference. Everyone knows that we are falsifying the results, he suggested, but they won’t do anything to us anyway.

Of course, Ukraine is not repressing its Russian minority—the Russian minority is repressing Ukraine. That is why, in Crimea, in what must be the first such instance in history, soldiers from Ukraine proved their patriotism and courage by not fighting the enemy.

What is Putin’s ultimate goal? He has none. Under his rule, Russia plays the game however its opponents allow. Its goals depend on Western actions.

This is unfortunate, because the West would rather not act at all. Until this year, Ukraine was beyond the field of vision for almost all EU countries, who applied a policy of courtesy not toward Ukraine but toward Poland, the Baltic States, and Sweden. The Euromaidan’s determination made the citizens of EU countries notice Ukraine. An opportunity for more pluralistic attitudes appeared in Germany, based on its traditional policy toward Russia, which involved speaking over the heads of smaller nations, historically by partitioning them but today merely by ignoring them. Germans governed by the tough Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck have a hard time turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Russia, let alone the annexation of Crimea.

Nevertheless, Germany, the world’s largest exporter of highly processed products, and Russia, the world’s largest exporter of raw materials, tried as hard as they could to believe in each other’s good intentions. This is why former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder could believe that Putin is a “flawless democrat,” as he said without hesitation.

The annexation of Crimea pulled out contemporary Europe’s stitches. Those countries not threatened in any way by Russia looked out for their own economic interests. The British looked out for the interests of Russian oligarchs, who are a source of revenue for the City of London, law firms, and soccer clubs. The Italians were concerned about gas and oil, and the Spanish were thinking about Russian tourists. Cyprus, meanwhile, is Russia’s largest investor—no comment needed.

It’s obvious that the European Union is afraid of threatening Russia in any serious way. But it could, if all of its member states took the risk together. Russia gets 70 to 80 percent of its revenue from the sale of natural resources, of which the European Union purchases more than half. In one stroke, the EU could cut about 40 percent of Russia’s GDP. Russia does not have a similar advantage over any single country. As a result, Europe, the largest economy in the world, finds itself helpless in a confrontation with a country that in economic terms (excluding the energy sector) resembles Nigeria more than any European country. Ukrainians were willing to die in order to open the door to the European Union, which is now unwilling to bear the economic costs of a confrontation with Russia in order to protect them.

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, is split in half, so it cannot serve as an effective source of pressure on either the West or on Russia. Countries like Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria are completely dependent on Gazprom. They can choose between defending what Victor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, calls Putin’s “pragmatic” policies or sitting quiet. Otherwise their citizens will be drinking cold coffee at breakfast tomorrow. When they appeal to Western leaders, the countries closest to Russia—Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Romania—fall back into their “unheeded Cassandra complex,” as Czesław Miłosz called it.

And where is the United States? Too far away or, in any case, closer to Iran than to Ukraine. Under Obama, the United States at least pressed the EU for harsher sanctions. In the future, some suggest, it may be able to restore EU energy sovereignty, substituting American shale gas for Gazprom’s.

My leftist Ukrainian friends reacted badly to the slogan “Glory to Ukraine!” This is a nationalist slogan, they say. But it has become the slogan of Euromaidan and, I have argued, acquired a less exclusive meaning. As a leftist from Poland, I have defended the presence of nationalists from Svoboda at Euromaidan, while my friends in Ukraine have objected to this and warned that Euromaidan had become dominated by nationalists. But they have nevertheless bravely participated, organized, and cooperated with others.

Ukrainians were willing to die in order to open the door to the European Union, which is now unwilling to bear the economic costs of a confrontation with Russia in order to protect them.

The utopia of Euromaidan called into question nearly all interpersonal divisions, including ones that are very sharp in everyday political life. In a democracy you can argue to your heart’s content, and joint rallies with nationalists don’t make sense. But when you are fighting for democracy and sovereignty, the division between left and right is suspended as a secondary consideration. This is what was called “antipolitics” by the anticommunist Hungarian dissident, György Konrád.

For this same reason, all historical disputes between Poland and Ukraine have been suspended. No one in Poland was especially surprised when the leader of Poland’s nationalist right wing, Jarosław Kaczynski, stood on stage next to the leader of Ukraine’s nationalist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok. Because of Russia’s actions, we have a meaningful context for celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of communism in Poland. Where are we now? In the West, or still in the East? This part of the globe is slippery. Political geography will be decided by events in Ukraine.

Poland has a strong tradition of modern political realism that prohibits complaints about the West as frivolous and counterproductive. This is a reasonable position and, for the first time in history, the dominant one. The first tenet of this tradition is: “Martyrdom does not replace work” (Stanisław Brzozowski). The second: “There will be no independent Poland without independent Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus” (Jerzy Giedroyc).

This tradition requires that we hide our sabers and work consistently toward a strong domestic economy, keeping an eye on history to make sure that it does not sour relations with our neighbors, and while working with them, respecting the current borders, national identity, and sovereignty of each of our partners.

If you are going to watch out for someone, look first at yourself. This is why Poland is now ranked ahead of Russia among Germany’s trading partners. And if you are going to look outward, then turn to the United States, which Poles trust much more than Europe. (Although, of course, without hope that anyone in the West would ever die for Poles or Ukrainians, because that has never happened.) When Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sent the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs a proposal for the partition of Ukraine into the lands that had “always” belonged to Poland and those that had “always” belonged to Russia (such as Crimea), Polish politicians referred him to a psychiatrist.


Sławomir Sierakowski is a sociologist, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, and the leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), the largest movement of left-wing intellectuals, artists, and activists in Eastern Europe. He writes a monthy column for the international edition of the New York Times.