Sunday, August 30, 2015

‘No Barrier between Destroying Food and Destroying Enemies of the People,’ Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – If Russia continues on its current course and if the regime restores a totalitarian system, “if the interests of the state stand above all,” Lev Gudkov says, “then there is no logical, moral or legal barrier between the destruction of food [which is happening now] and the destruction of groups of the population declared to be enemies of the people.”

            When “the authorities decide what is moral, what is art, what is worthy and what is not, what is history, how people should engage in sex and how to bring up their children,” the head of the Levada Center says, “then these are signs of the establishment of totalitarian control” (

            “Of course,” he adds in a new “Novaya gazeta” interview, “we still are dealing only with attempts to impose it.” But both those attempts by the regime and the support that they are receiving from the Russian population mean that it is important to focus on them and consider how they might be blocked before a new tragedy occurs.

            Russia has been moving from “a typically authoritarian program” in which the authorities say do what you like as long as you don’t touch politics to something more ominous, Gudkov’s interviewer Andrey Lipsky says, arguing that since 2012 “we have become witnesses and unwilling participants in a dangerous drift of the Russian political system toward totalitarianism.”

            Many are inclined to blame this on propaganda and thus to conclude that if the propaganda changed, this would be enough to change the course of the country. But that is a mistake, Gudkov suggests, because “Putin is only a personification of mass ideas, their arithmetic mean.”

            That is, the Kremlin leader “is the embodiment of suppressed desires,” of actions people would like to take on their own but can’t. “But he is not the initiator of this,” Gudkov says; “he if you like is the catalyst or activator of it.” And that in turn means that “the situation is much more serious than it appears at first glance.”

            Such popular attitudes had been reemerging in Russia well before Putin, the sociologist continues.  And they were able to come roaring back with him because “the main part of the institutional system, that is, the most important institutions, was practically unchanged from Soviet times.”

            The “secret political police” never went away and “chekists, former KGB officers with their mentality and their understanding of reality, their phobias and their ideas about the interests of the state came to power … This ideology penetrated into the functioning of new Russian state structures and has been preserved up to now.”

            Moreover, Gudkov adds, “these Soviet institutional structures were not simply restored but combined again into a system. That which fell apart in 1991 and which with mixed success some attempted to destroy in the first half of the 1990s today has been restored completely.”

            Not only is there a secret police, but there are other aspects of “the so-called totalitarian syndrome” as well: a one-party system which gives some a chance to rise and freezes others out, state control over the media which transforms them into propaganda outlets, and a fusion of the state and the economy thus allowing massive corruption.

            But most worrisome is the way in which all these things have the effect of convincing people that there is nothing they can do and therefore they should not try, Gudkov says.

            Another totalitarian feature in Russia today is “the leader as the symbolic personification of the whole.” Before the media revolution, he had to be a charismatic figure, but television has changed that, the sociologist argues.

            “Our president,” he says, “is a media personage and not a statesmen proposing new political goals, new horizons and decisions. This is not a Churchill or a Roosevelt; this is a function of the media.”

            And another feature is ideology. It had not appeared to exist until recently. “As was said, it was only business. But with the Ukrainian crisis,” that has changed and a new ideology, one based on the idea of “a divided nation” which must be restored has become the ideological foundation of the regime.

            Not only does that provide a focus, but it provides a justification for any suffering and an explanation of why nothing can be done until that situation has been overcome. But it has a darker meaning: it restores to Russia something characteristic of all totalitarian regimes; and that is the notion that there are “enemies” around who are blocking Russia’s realization of its goals.

            “This was the Jewish conspiracy” of the Nazis, “the class enemies” of Soviet times “or as now, the Americans and the West,” whose “’rotting’ liberal democracy” threatens Russia and which must be opposed by “the rebirth of the nation and state and the return to traditional morality.”

            The only thing the current Russian regime can’t promise that other totalitarian regimes have is social mobility, Gudkov says. At best, it can promise the restoration of the past; but it is not being challenged on that because “the opposition is still also not in a position to propose” an alternative and the population lacks the self-confidence to demand one.

            What people should be focusing on now, Gudkov says, is less the nature of totalitarianism than on the ways in which totalitarianism can be overcome. “The Nazi and fascist regimes were destroyed in the course of a military defeat. The Soviet regime however fell apart from the inside and only partially.”

            “Its basic institutions, above all the organization of power and the political police were preserved.”  But the trigger for the new drive toward totalitarianism was the sense the regime had that the mass protests of 2011-2012 were a direct threat to its rule if it didn’t do something, given anger about growing inequality and the moral condemnation of the authorities by some.

            In order to deploy “’the silent majority’” against “the protesting minority,” Gudkov continues, the Kremlin played on popular aspirations for the recovery of Russia’s status as a great power, feelings that in many cases served as compensation for increasing poverty and increasingly harsh uses of force.

            What the population was showing, Lipsky suggests and Gudkov agrees, was its willingness “to a limitation of freedoms” and its acceptance of “a certain degree of repression. Not that when millions would be shot but in a more classical and less bloody understanding of this term.”

            Gudkov calls this “capillary repressiveness which penetrated the entire body and fabric of social relations” even if it is relatively small compared with what happened in the 1930s.  Support for it reflects, he says, “the fear of the new, the fear that all reforms will bring only a worsening of life.”

            “The ideology of perestroika,” he recalls, “was this: we will destroy the monopoly of the CPSU and immediately will arise a liberated individual who will be kind, intelligent, free, capable of solidarity and all the rest.  But another person appeared instead,” one without these qualities but who accepts the use of force as the ultima ratio.

            According to Gudkov, there is still some hope: approximately ten percent of the Russian population is interested in and animated by the values of democracy, “the more educated and the more entrepreneurial.” But at present, this group is divided and disoriented and mired in depression.

            What is needed now, he concludes, is an active search for new forces which can provide optimism and the basis for a new rise in social consciousness.

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