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The myth of Vladimir Putin’s progressivism


For that segment of the left that thinks more in terms of hegemonic blocs and geopolitical chess games between imperialism and “anti-imperialist” states than classes, Putin is something of an exemplar. Immanuel Wallerstein, perhaps its most respected and principled representative, made the case for Putin in a July 15, 2007 Commentary titled “The Putin Charisma“:

Yes, he has upset a good portion of the intelligentsia, but there is every indication that he is quite popular with most Russians, unlike some other presidents of major states today. It seems that Russians see him as someone who has done much to restore the strength of the Russian state, after what they see as its humiliating deterioration during the Yeltsin era…He has opposed United States plans to install antimissile structures in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has gotten support for his stand (if quiet support) from Western Europe. He has used control of gas and oil exports from Russia itself and from both Central Asian and Caucasian countries not only to obtain greater rent for Russia (and thereby greater world power), but more or less to impose his terms on energy issues on Western Europe.

I imagine that most supporters of Putin on the left would make a case something like this:

1. Oil Populism:

He has taken advantage of Russia’s oil rentier status to fight the poverty and inequality that was a legacy of Yeltsin’s oligarchy-friendly rule. While by no means a socialist, he has something in common with Hugo Chávez who embodied the same economic policy. MRZine, a major outlet of hegemonic bloc theory, published a talk by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov that obviously took him at his word:

It should be no surprise that Russia today is making use of its natural competitive advantages. It is also investing in its human resources, encouraging innovation, integrating into the global economy, and modernizing its legislation. Russia wants international stability to underpin its own development. Accordingly, it is working toward the establishment of a freer and more democratic international order.

Sounds almost Bolivarian, doesn’t it?

2. Anti-Imperialism:

Russia, along with China, is standing up to American imperialism in places like Libya and Syria. Of particular interest is Putin’s steadfast resistance to jihadism wherever it rears its ugly head, especially in Chechnya. For this sector of the left, political Islam has become as much of a bogeyman as it was to people like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens in 2003. The very same “foreign fighters” who went to fight the American occupation in Iraq are now shunned as tools of American imperialism. Russia Today, an English-language news service funded by the government, is widely considered to be a friend of the left, especially those predisposed to the global chess game analysis. An April 20, 2013 piece by Eric Draitser, who blogs at, made the case for the Russian government:

As more information comes out regarding the alleged bombers and their ideological leanings, there will undoubtedly be a propaganda assault to shape this narrative in the interests of the United States and the West. Talking heads will be on television twenty four hours a day explaining to Americans why Chechnya is such a hotbed of terrorism, asking how something like this could happen, etc. The truth is however, Washington has perpetuated the conflict through its propaganda machine that will now be employed to once again turn friend to enemy. Perhaps, instead of being the world’s greatest purveyor of terror, using it as a weapon to achieve geo-strategic objectives, the United States should actually work with peaceful nations such as Russia to combat terrorism worldwide.

3. Standing up to foreign meddling

Probably the thing that endears Putin to this sector of the left above all is its willingness to suppress the NGO’s that have foisted “color revolutions” on unsuspecting victims everywhere. Unlike other heads of state, Putin has had the balls (the word certainly applies) to shut them down, an act that gladdens the heart of Global Research, a long-standing member of the global chess-game tendency. On July 14, 2012 they published an article by Veronika Krasheninnikova, a staff member of a Russian think tank, that cheered Putin’s crackdown:

In fact, the multibillions of Western funding have profoundly distorted Russian civil society. A marginal pro-American group of NGOs that was pumped up with US dollars like a bodybuilder with steroids — it has gained much muscle and shine. Those few Russians willing to serve foreign interests were provided nice offices, comfortable salaries, printing presses, training, publicity, and political and organizing technology which gave them far more capacity, visibility, and influence that they could possibly have had on their own. Money and spin are the only means to promote unpopular ideas, alien to national interests.

On the other side is the silent majority of people who are squeezed out of the public space. In Western, and also in Russian media, civil society turns out to be represented by Ludmila Alekseyeva (The Helsinki Group) and Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, rather than by a worker from the Urals, a teacher from Novosibirsk or a farmer from Krasnodar Region.

Yesterday I had the very great fortune to attend a film screening of “Winter Go Away,” a documentary on the 2012 Russian elections that was co-directed by 10 filmmakers, including Anna Moiseenko who was there to speak about the film in the Q&A. Poet and revolutionary Kirill Medvedev, who I have discussed before, was also there to speak about the current situation in Russia.

I can only say that this film is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who has defended Pussy Riot against Putin and tries to keep up with the Russian left. (The film shows the feminist punk rockers being dragged out of the church.) Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an interview with one Matvey Krylov who has just been released from prison for throwing water at a government official. The interviewer can’t seem to wrap his head around the question of someone going to prison for throwing water at another person. After repeatedly asking Krylov to explain what happened, the young man—who looks just like the sort of person who would have been found camped out in Zuccotti Park—tells him to Google his name. That will tell him all he needs to know. I followed this recommendation and discovered to my delight that my good friends in Chto Delat, a left-wing artist’s collective, has a report on their website:

The Moscow Times November 1, 2011 Water Stunt May Earn 2 Years in Jail Alexey Eremenko

An opposition activist faces two years in jail for splashing water in the face of a prosecutor who jailed his comrades and allegedly threatened to kill him, the Agora rights group said Monday.

Dmitry Putenikhin, a member of The Other Russia, attacked Alexei Smirnov outside Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court on Friday shortly after it jailed five people, including three fellow activists, for participating in Manezh Square rioting last December.

The verdict has raised eyebrows because the riots were racially charged, while The Other Russia is not a nationalist group. Critics say the authorities chose the organization as a scapegoat.

Putenikhin, also known under the alias Matvei Krylov, did not flee after the attack, explaining to journalists that his actions were “improvised.” A video released by RIA-Novosti showed police brutally detaining him and three other people minutes after the attack.

During the Q&A, I described the agenda of the global chess-game left to the speakers. Kirill’s response was most edifying. He said that the idea of Putin somehow having a continuation with the “anti-imperialist” USSR is embraced by both the “civil society,” Perestroika wing of the anti-Putin opposition as well as some elements of the Putin camp, except that the former group places a minus where the other group puts a plus.

But what really gave me pause to reflect was his explanation of the driving forces of the opposition to Putin. While people like Kasparov were still stuck in the perestroika mode and limited exclusively to issues such as freedom of speech (as important as they are), the grass roots of the movement has been driven to take action by the neoliberal policies of the Putin regime, especially in health care and education.

The light bulb went on over my head. Wasn’t this the same scenario that played out in Libya? The pro-Qaddafi left was stuck in a time warp that viewed the dictator in the same light as the mid-80s, the head of an oil rentier state dispensing royalties to the masses in a paternalistically dictatorial fashion. When a movement broke out against Qaddafi, who had imposed neoliberal policies for the better part of 20 years, his defenders made the same kinds of arguments being made on Putin’s behalf today.

Just as I have done for Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi before him, I did a search in Nexis (access to which is one of my most valued benefits as a Columbia University retiree) for articles on Putin’s economic policies.

The first significant report of Putin’s intentions appeared in the NY Times on April 2nd, 2000.

The victory of Vladimir V. Putin in the presidential election last Sunday has focused attention on an opulent Moscow building known as Aleksandr House, where a team of liberal-minded economists and other experts has been quietly drafting Mr. Putin’s blueprint for Russia.

German O. Gref, head of the Center for Strategic Research and master of Aleksandr House, confidently predicted this week that by late May Mr. Putin will be ready to release ”a breakthrough scenario envisaging the most radical reforms,” from an overhaul of Russia’s cumbersome tax code to a streamlining of its infamous bureaucracies.

With the exception of tax reform, the contents of the program are still vague and, on critical issues like land reform, still under debate. But the Aleksandr House team—which includes some of Russia’s best-known pro-market reformers—has already firmly established itself as the beachhead of liberal economics in the coming Putin administration.

Four years later, on March 16, 2004, Putin’s aims became clarified as the Guardian reported:

Despite the self-acclaimed miracle of Russia’s economic growth, most citizens still live in grinding poverty and a tenth can barely feed themselves. What little is known about Mr Putin’s domestic plans suggests he does not want to bridge this gap through a greater welfare state but through harsh market reforms.

Professor Oksana Gaman-Golutvina, of the Academy of State Service, said: “Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.”

Mr Putin will reduce VAT and the social security taxes companies pay for each employee, theoretically creating more jobs. Students will have to pay for more of their education, patients for more of their health care.

Rail fares and utility prices will rise astronomically as franchises are sold off.

Roland Nash, the chief strategist at the Renaissance Capital bank, said the reforms would “hit the average Ivan in the pocket.”

Hmmm. Obama is on record as admiring Ronald Reagan. I wonder if he has been studying Vladimir Putin’s presidency in light of this:

Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.


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