Russia shows symptoms of old disease: totalitarianism


russia levada gudkovLong before the Russian state declared the Levada Center, Russia’s only reputable independent polling organization, to be a “foreign agent” in September, its director, Lev D. Gudkov (left), knew this was going to happen, Masha Gessen writes for The New York Times:

As far back as 1994, he and his colleagues at what was then the Russian Public Opinion Research Center were challenging the narrative of a smooth transition from the Soviet system to a democratic one. By the early 2000s, Mr. Gudkov was writing about the need to revisit the concept of totalitarianism, which Kremlinologists had long retired: He thought that Russia was beginning to show symptoms of the old disease.

Totalitarian regimes have a conflicted relationship with sociology. On the one hand, they have no elections or free media from which to learn about the public mood, so they need sociologists even more than democratic governments do. On the other hand, their fear of information is directly proportional to their need for it. They fear that sociologists, if allowed to work freely, will obtain knowledge about the vulnerabilities of the regime.

The makeup of Russia’s new Duma has rather a different feel than did the last, says Hudson Institute analyst Hannah Thorburn, a Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Recently, Vladimir Putin has begun to replace many of his old, trusted, but aging and somewhat sclerotic colleagues with younger apparatchiks who owe their positions entirely to him, she writes for World Affairs. After 17 years of the same men—and they are mostly men—rotating through the top positions, the younger generation of Russians is beginning to make their way to the top of modern Russia’s political structures.

A Russian rights activist and an opposition newspaper are both contenders for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, The Moscow Times reports:

Svetlana Gannushkina

Svetlana Gannushkina

The staff of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper have been nominated for the second time, having first been tipped for the prize back in 2015. Svetlana Gannushkina [right], a migration rights activist and chairperson of the Civic Assistance organization, was also nominated. She also won the Right Livelihood Award, a Swedish human rights prize frequently called the “alternative Nobel Prize,” in September this year.  

Putin now has two overriding personal objectives, argues CSIS analyst Gerald F. (“Jerry”) Hyman, former director of USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance:

[F]irst to reassert Russian international power, to see Russia great again, to resume its rightful place as a respected or at least feared world power; and second to secure his domestic power, initially through a network of cronies from St. Petersburg but now apparently via utterly dependent and therefore obedient apparatchiks from the siloviki, the security services.

All of that is where U.S. policy must begin, he writes for The National Interest. The United States should pursue confrontation where necessary and mutual interests without illusions where possible.

Russia did not have to adopt a revisionist, revanchist approach towards its neighbors, writes the Economist’s Edward Lucas, senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis. It could have decided that its top foreign-policy priority was good relations with the former captive nations. That is the way Germany has treated countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, and France. It has worked rather well, he writes for First Things:

But Russia—it soon became clear in the 1990s to anyone who was paying attention—was approaching its former empire differently. It did not regard these “former Soviet republics” (as it termed them) as real countries. It blasted them with propaganda, twisted their arms with energy supplies, channeled money into their politics, and sponsored subversion. We in the West had to decide whether we were going to acquiesce in this or try to prevent it by accepting these countries’ desires for closer integration. Fortunately, we chose the latter course, accepting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the European Union and NATO, along with the former Warsaw Pact countries of central Europe and two of the ex-Yugoslav republics.


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