Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vladimir Putin: Rebuilding Russia

Disclaimer: I wrote this entry-level English essay for a Berkeley student in exchange for a few shekels. The directions were to argue an opinion over a controversial persona, so I chose Putin. As this was for a school highly Marxist school, and because I was getting the student in enough trouble by arguing for Putin, I took it a bit easy. I didn't press against homosexuals, for example, and neither did I press the (((ethnic))) character of either the Bolsheviks or the oligarchs who inherited their empire.

I also kept it very basic, meaning that I didn't go into the problems with the Moscow Patriarchate, but maintained a positive attitude towards Putin's cozy alliance with the newly powerful Russian church; neither did I go into Putin's friendship with the oligarchs of his own choosing, but restrained myself to lauding him for crushing the worst of them. The writing, the ideas, and even the format of this paper are basic as well, seeing as this was for a first year course.

I nevertheless stand by the essential idea of this paper, which is that Putin, despite his many issues, is fundamentally a force for good in the Russian universe, and that he really aims to institute a lot of Solzhenitsyn's ideas — that's why I decided to republish this here.

‘Time has finally run out for communism. But its concrete edifice has not yet crumbled. May we not be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty.’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While Solzhenitsyn made the observation above in his 1990 essay Rebuilding Russia, it is essentially as true as ever today. Sure, the ‘concrete edifice’ has made way for something different thanks to more than two decades of kleptocratic practises and democratic innovations in Russian politics, but the rubble remains. This is evident not only in the continued corruption among the ruling classes (even if they’re now private rather than public), but in the continued social mores of the Russian and post-Soviet peoples. Abortion, alcoholism, divorce rates, illegitimacy, etc., are all still highly prevalent factors in the Federation. Moreover, while Russians have again identified as Orthodox after the fall of state atheism, they have not fully returned to Orthodoxy in a meaningful way that reflects a return to authentic belief; indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, only 5% of men and 9% of women attend religious services at least once a month. If Solzhenitsyn was right when he said that Bolshevism is an example of what happens when men ‘forget God,’ it remains as crucial as ever that Russia rediscover her Orthodox identify in order to prevent and finally reverse the ills that currently afflict her.

It may be fortunate, then, that in Vladimir Putin Russia has one of Solzhenitsyn’s most ardent admirers entrenched in the Kremlin. Thanks to the Russian president’s efforts over the long course of his rule, there are no fewer than three of Solzhenitsyn’s books that are currently required reading in Russian schools, including The Gulag Archipelago. In 2006 Putin awarded the Nobel-prize winning author the Russian Federation state decoration for outstanding achievements in the cultural and educational spheres, and then met privately with him in Solzhenitsyn’s own house, during which time Putin stressed the ideological compatibility between himself and Solzhenitsyn wherever possible.

The relationship was not at all one-sided either, as Solzhenitsyn, however reservedly,
expressed praise for Vladimir Putin as well. According to the former US ambassador to Russia William Burns, who visited with the Soviet dissident months before the latter’s death, ‘Solzhenitsyn positively contrasted the eight-year reign of Putin with those of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which he [Solzhenitsyn] said had “added to the damage done to the Russian state by 70 years of communist rule.” Under Putin, the nation was rediscovering what it was to be Russian, Solzhenitsyn thought.’ While he also conveyed criticism of the nepotistic and plutocratic status of Russian corporations and big money oligarchs, Solzhenitsyn clearly had favourable impressions of the way that Putin’s Russia was going.

Contrary to the ongoing demonization of Vladimir Putin in the West, there is little that connects him to the likes of Hitler or Stalin that the media try and compare him to, certainly not in religious affairs. On the contrary, Putin has improved the lot of his people in various ways, which includes (1) the stabilization and the increase of influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia; (2) the restoration of a semblance of an identity to the Russian people that has been distorted and molested since the Petrine Enlightenment; and (3) the cleaning up of the vampiric oligarchs that installed themselves as quasi-rulers in Russian society during the Yeltsin era. None of these things were achieved in a wholly positive nor even lawful fashion, and infact they often meant compromising on crucial issues or resorting to plainly barbaric actions. Nevertheless, the net result of Putin’s leadership has been a serious improvement in areas that have long been debilitated, which has led to a small revolution in terms of the moral and economic health of the nation.

The Russian Orthodox Church suffered an unprecedented trauma in the Soviet era, particularly under Lenin, pre-WWII Stalin, and Khrushchev. The official ideology held that the Christian religion was a relic of feudalism, and that the Orthodox Church was a superstitious institution that preyed upon the Russian people. The advance of revolutionary socialism is alleged to free the country from its priestly grip and share the enlightenment of materialistic atheism with everyone. This led to the closing of churches, the killing and torture of priests, and the banishment of Bibles everywhere; the public space went from being littered with icons and host to regular processions to a sea of red and gold in the form of Soviet banners and propaganda posters. In a letter to Molotov in 1922, Lenin made the following command: ‘The more representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot on this occasion, the better.’ Many of us are familiar with how the state attempted to indoctrinate the next generation at an early age. There is, for example, the anecdote of Russian officials telling schoolchildren to ask God for sweets and subsequently, when the sweets failed to materialize, telling them to ask Stalin for the same thing. We can imagine their confusion, as well as their delight, when all sorts of little treats were immediately brought in by more Russian officials while their prayers achieved nothing.

The Russia that Putin inherited may have started to reassert its Orthodox identity on the surface, but it was far from doing so in any meaningful way — something that he aims to rectify. From the beginning of his rule Putin has trumpeted a ‘return to Christian values,’ and this has accelerated with his resumption of the presidency in 2012, which has meant censoring theatres showing plays at odds with Orthodox teachings, blocking major porn sites from Russian servers, and reaffirming the traditional Christian idea of marriage.  In early 2013 Putin met with delegates to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishops’ Council, where he made the following statement that succinctly summarizes all his efforts in the relationship between church and state: ‘We want to continue our multifaceted and positive partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church and will do everything we can to help the Church as it rebuilds itself. We will work together to consolidate harmony in our society and strengthen our country’s moral backbone.’

Putin himself associates his political image with the national religion. In May 2016, Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, went together to the monasteries on Mt. Athos, one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodoxy; the fervour that many in the East have for Putin as a representative of their Christian culture is shown in the fact that a shirt with Putin’s visage printed on it was selling fast at souvenir shops on the mountain. While this image does not really correspond to the personal life of Putin, who has likely been romantically involved with ex-gymnast Alina Kabaeva for some time now, the fact that Putin is continually staging public events at divine liturgies, alongside the visit to Mt. Athos, demonstrates his desire to be seen as a leader with a strongly spiritual and devoted character — because what Russian nationalism wants is a ‘holy leader.’

There are more profound indicators of Putin’s effect on Russian society. One of the most impressive is the decline of abortion over the course of the ex-KGB man’s reign. While a disheartening ratio of 32% of all pregnancies end in abortion as of 2014, this is roughly half as high as it was when he first took over in 2000. Although this decline can certainly be attributed to rising living standards, it’s also signalling the success of Putin’s anti-abortion measures such as the one signed into law in October 2011, which limited abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This correlates with the rise of birth rates, which have risen significantly from an abysmal 1.2 (total fertility rate) in 2000 to 1.75 in 2014. In light of the falling birth rates across the Western world, this is a substantial achievement, as the greater the population growth, the less of a burden an aging population will be on the next generations.

One constant complaint that the Western media makes of Putin’s Russia is that it persecutes LGBT activists and homosexuals, but this is only because Russia has been moving in an opposite direction than that of the progressive West. As Putin himself says on several occasions, there is no condemnation of homosexuals as such; in an interview with Oliver Stone Putin says that ‘We have no restrictions or harassment based on gender. Moreover, many people explicitly talk about their non-traditional sexual orientation. We maintain relations with them and many of them achieve outstanding results in their activity.’ The reason that Russia disallows homosexuals from getting married is firstly because it goes against the religious values of the country, and secondly because ‘same sex marriages will not produce any children.’ To institute something foreign to both the culture of a nation as well as its well-being cannot be said to be the mark of a strong and prudent leader.  

The rediscovery of Russian religious identity goes hand in hand with its rediscovery of national identity. While ethnos and religion are synergistic in every people, it is particularly true of the Russians, who are said to have a ‘messianic’ penchant that derives from their capacity, their hunger for suffering; Dostoevsky himself said that ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering.’ A suffering soul is a deep soul, and this manifests in a vibrant and virile religious life, such as the one that the Russian nation as a whole enjoyed prior to the Westernization that occurred beneath Peter the Great.

That Marxism and revolutionary socialism took such a strong hold in Russia before any other developed nation, in spite of Marx’s predictions that it would be England or Germany to turn first, can be attributed to the innately religious character of revolutionary socialism itself, which burns with a fire not unlike the spiritual fervour of fanatical fundamentalists of various religions. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky also said that ‘It’s easier for a Russian to become an atheist than for anyone else in the world.’ These kinds of paradoxes or apparent contradictions are immersed deep within the Russian psyche, something that Nicolas Berdyaev noticed when he said: ‘The inconsistency and complexity of the Russian soul may be due to the fact that in Russia two streams of world history — East and West — jostle and influence one another…. Russia is a complete section of the world — a colossal East-West. It unites two worlds, and within the Russian soul two principles are always engaged in strife — the Eastern and the Western.’ This can be plainly seen in the history of Russia of the past five hundred years, with certain factions agitating for stronger relations with the West while other, ‘Slavophiliac’ elements argued for a retreat into the primordial depths of the Russian heritage. The consequence of this debate resulted in the barbarity of the USSR, where the worst of both worlds found their ultimate expression.

In order to recover from this calamity, and in order to preclude any chance of it happening
again, the Russian character must come to terms with itself. In the 1990’s Boris Yeltsin engaged in a mild, all-encompassing sort of civic identity that brought in every different people of the nation into one relation, simply that of being a citizen of the Russian Federation. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, things have begun to swing towards a more nationalistic determination. Whereas at first Putin warned against ethnonationalism as ‘a bacillus’ that, if uncontrolled, may destroy the Russian Federation as it destroyed the USSR, during Putin’s third presidential term there’s been a clear progression towards emphasizing the Russian ethnos as the ‘core’ of the country: ‘The core and the binding fabric of this unique civilisation is the Russian people, Russian culture.’

This trend has culminated in the aggression of the Russian state towards Ukraine, which it feels to be fundamentally one with itself by virtue of their common ethnocultural identity. The dangers of this move consist in how the international community views the annexation of Crimea and the Russian support of Ukrainian separatists in the Donbass as flagrant actions in violation of international law. The benefits, however, not only consist of the economic gains of uniting with the oil– and grain-rich Ukraine, but also in forming a solid bloc constituted by people of highly similar interests and characteristics.

In a nation as large and heterogeneously constituted as Russia, however, there nevertheless has to be a project towards embracing the outlier elements, the peoples who do not correspond to the traditional idea of an ethnic Russian. It is for this reason that Putin has been adamant on stressing unity throughout the nation, saying to a meeting of various members of the Russian ethnic universe that ‘the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia.’ Even as Putin emphasizes the role of the ethnic Russian in the creation of the new republic, he’s also drawing in other ethnicities to a central Russian identity that goes beyond ethnos altogether. This is fully in accord with the traditional Russian idea of an empire, which necessarily involves rule over multifarious peoples without treading all over their own identities.

This is the sum of the fine balancing act that Putin engages in: celebrating the historical Russian people as the leaders of the country without distancing other members from the central idea of what it means to be Russian. The international community has every right to be scandalized by any criminal actions on Putin’s part against the sovereignty of nations like Ukraine, but from the Russian perspective such actions are perfectly commensurate with its pursuit of a ‘Eurasian’ bloc that is politically and culturally unified. This is moreover in line with the ideas of Putin’s ‘tutor’ Solzhenitsyn, who argued for the unity between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, saying that ‘We all together emerged from the treasured Kyiv, “from which the Russian land began,” according to the chronicle of Nestor.’ By reorienting Russian identity around this common heritage, Russia may be taking one confident step towards reacquiring its traditional character that preceded the Westernizing perversions and the Asiatic backlashes that have characterized the country for the past several centuries.

One of the first defining moments of Putin’s Russia was his disruption of the corrupt network of private businesses that benefitted enormously from the privatization of ex-Soviet industries in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, and of the subsequent economic development that occurred under his watch. Numerous kleptocrats, who owned their own media that constantly lambasted the positive moves of the Russian state out of Yeltsin’s crime-ridden society, were jailed or exiled for illicit economic activities. Private investors such as Boris Berezovsky who bought for a dollar and sold for hundreds more meant that the Russian people footed the bill; the things which were once basic commodities now became things to be exploited by those who could make money off of them. Without any regulations watching over this freshly freed market, vampires and vultures thrived in an economic wasteland.

Vladimir Putin’s regime was not supposed to hinder the rule of the ‘New Russians,’ the oligarchs who were birthed by Gorbachev and thrived under Yeltsin; he was supposed to be merely a continuation of the prior weak government. Thus, it was to their immense surprise that he increasingly instituted fairer systems that curtailed their ruthless exploitation. Through the Federation Statute 95-FZ of 2003 all the little fiefdoms created by the oligarchs were standardized, meaning that they were all subject to the same federal law, meaning that they no longer had absolute control over what went on in whatever regions they sucked dry. This not only led to increased consumer spending, but also to an economy strong enough to pay off its debts; this meant that Russia was able to pay off its IMF debt ahead of schedule in 2005 before paying off the Paris Club in 2006 and the United States in 2007. That debt-ridden Western governments can accuse Russia of ‘irresponsible spending’ involves no small measure of hypocrisy.

One more important aspect of the Russian economic development under Putin is how fair it is to small businesses. This is again something that Solzhenitsyn addressed in his final years: ‘Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin's times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption.’ Even as he has had to rely on big business for support, especially in the early years, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to be fair to small and medium businesses to ensure a truly competitive market and to foster the growth of a genuine middle class. In September 2016 he announced at the meeting of the Council on Strategic Development and Priority Projects that ‘We should reach over the longer term small business employment level and its GDP share comparable with indicators of countries where businesses, small and medium-size ones in the first instance, are the backbone of the economy.’

Vladimir Putin is no saint — something that we know for a fact due to the constant chirping of the Western media. There is always another side to the story, however, and, as we have seen, this applies no less to the current President of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin, in league with the teachings of his ‘mentor’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has helped to transform the Russian state from a weak puppet of international, corporate, and criminal interests into a powerful free agent that’s taking his country on a new course. The Russian people are no longer subject to the persecutions of state atheism and indoctrinated with communist ideas; they are instead exhorted to rediscover their common Orthodox traditions and to practise Christian values. They are no longer defined by an international idea of ‘Worker Solidarity’ nor by the flimsy conception of ‘civic identity; they are being encouraged to return to the organic national and ethnic parameters that define their history. Finally, they are no longer victim of the conspiratorial capitalist oligarchs that leeched off of an already languishing population; they are being helped by a relatively benevolent state to create their own economic destiny.

As Western cultures continue to get drawn into the moral and philosophical abyss that’s been created through secular and progressivist values, Putin’s Russia, with however many bumps along the way, looks to a more solid past to ground itself for the future. Putin himself has a response to the Western societies which unceasingly attack his government, whose values led to a ‘rejection of their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. [Many Euro-Atlantic states] are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that put same-sex partnerships on a par with large families; belief in Satan on a par with the belief in God.’ From the words of the foremost Soviet dissident and the policies of a former KGB man, it can safely be said that the Russian Federation is moving away from the horrors of communism and towards a society once more informed by the Orthodox spirit that created its people. While his actions have often been more than questionable, and sometimes far from lawful, there can be no doubting that Vladimir Putin has played a profound part in rebuilding Russia from the ground up.

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