Russia Marches Forward to the Past

  • Share
  • Read Later

Putin: Rummaging through Russia's past

History, in Vladimir Putin's Russia, tends to move backward. His approach to government and reform is improvised and haphazard, but the KGB officer-turned-president is consistent in one respect: He is constantly rummaging through Russia's authoritarian past for models and ideas.

Putin infuriated high-minded intellectuals this week by proposing that Russia revive the national anthem of the old Soviet Union. The very suggestion even provoked Boris Yeltsin to make his first negative comments about his chosen successor. But Putin's defense of the anthem illuminates his own view of Russia's totalitarian past. If we accept the argument that the Soviet anthem should be rejected because of its brutal connotations of purges and labor camps, he told state TV on Tuesday, "We have to agree with the idea that our mothers and fathers lived useless, senseless lives, that they lived in vain. I cannot agree with this, either with my head or my heart."

The remark was revealing. Things were not so bad in Soviet times, he clearly feels. The country was respected abroad and stable at home. There were mistakes, but these did not undermine the essence of the regime. (Liberal anti-Communists on the other hand hold that violence and brutality were the only things holding the Soviet state together — it was therefore illegitimate, and collapsed once its crimes were publicized, admitted and denounced.) Putin is, in other words, on the far liberal end of the spectrum of the Brezhnev-era Communist party and KGB elite — aware of the flaws, but fiercely protective of the state, willing to countenance changes, but only under the closest supervision.

His strong-arm tactics have been reminiscent of the more liberal side of a police state. In the case of Vladimir Gusinsky's liberal Most-Media empire, Putin adopted a tactic used by the KGB's 1920s incarnation, OGPU. When they decided in the mid-'20s to suppress a group of prominent intellectuals who had deviated from the party line, Soviet leaders (led by the "liberal" Bukharin, who was later purged by Stalin) urged a low-key approach — economic pressure. OGPU simply engineered the closure of the group's publishing house. The tactic remained a favorite in the KGB arsenal. In the late '80s an overly pessimistic Lithuanian activist predicted to me that his organization would soon be quietly wound up. The authorities would audit them, he said, find they had did not have a receipt for stationery, and paralyze the organization with investigations into economic crimes. Gusinsky may be able to make the case that the same thing happened to his media empire after it fell foul of Putin.

Putin does not, however, restrict himself to the Soviet era in his quest for authoritarian inspiration. When he decided to wind up the upper house of the legislature, the Federation Council, he revived the idea of the State Council, an advisory body that had existed under Czar Nicholas II. The difference, though, was that while Nicholas — who was no fan of representative democracy — allowed part of the State Council to be elected, Putin's council is entirely nominated.

Still, the president's primary source of ideas is the period when he was a young KGB officer — the 1980s. This week the editor of one newspaper that is under serious pressure from the Kremlin remarked to me that Putin's plan for the press clearly harked back to the earliest stages of Gorbachev's glasnost, was cautious, careful and always cleared in advance with the leadership. If the Kremlin has its way (which is still far from certain), the editor predicted, the electronic media that reach the mass of the population will be totally cowed. Newspapers, which remain the preserve of Russian society's small upper echelons, will be allowed more latitude — perhaps even occasional criticism of the prime minister.