What Putin’s Crackdown on Pussy Riot and Gays, and Actions In Ukraine Have In Common
In a long – but fascinating – article, Pando’s Mark Ames explains that the West totally misunderstands Putin.
He’s not trying to build a Greater Russian empire or trying to counter the power of the West for some humanitarian reason.
Rather – says Ames – Putin’s actions in Ukraine, his persecution of the band Pussy Riot, his anti-gay crusade, and his crack-down on alternative websites are all part of a Nixon strategy of appealing to Russia’s “silent majority” who despise Moscow’s liberal class:
Every hack knows that “all politics is local” — but we rarely apply this adage to understanding the politics of the rest of the world.
The forgotten ugly truth is that Putin came to office with the enthusiastic support of Russia’s liberals — the St. Petersburg (neo)liberals, and also many of the most prominent Moscow intelligentsia liberals.
The important thing to remember is this: Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and its big city yuppie class is small in numbers, outsized in influence and importance…. and hated by the rest of Russia.
Russia has the worst wealth inequality in the world.
Most living Russians still remember the Soviet era, when wealth inequality was so minute it was measured in perks rather than yachts. That’s what the Russians mean when they tell pollsters they preferred the Soviet Union days and rue its collapse. Lazy hacks interpret those polls as proof that Russians are still evil empirelings, for the sheer evil joy of having a Warsaw Pact to boast about. Rather than the obvious: Russians lived longer and easier under Soviet rule, then started dying off by the millions as soon as capitalism was introduced, when poverty exploded and they found themselves in the most unequal country on earth.
[And it’s not just Russians: In a Gallup poll late last year, a majority of Ukrainians said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was more harmful (56 percent) for Ukraine than beneficial (23 percent).]
To an outsider, these are all problems that need solutions. But to a political animal like Putin, this huge pool of human resentment and nostalgia is a potential power base: Russia’s Silent Majority.
Putin’s surprise decision in 2007 naming as his Kremlin successor a Petersburg liberal, Dmitry Medvedev, showed how important the liberal/yuppie demographic was in Putin’s political calculations …. His choice of the liberal, well-liked Medvedev was not simply because Medvedev didn’t threaten Putin; he also reflected a Russia that liberals wanted: cultured, civilized, European, raised in an elite central district in St. Petersburg. For awhile it worked; many liberals and big city yuppies were impressed, pleased, and harbored hopes that Medvedev could be won over to their side, seeing him as naturally one of theirs. Keeping the big city liberals happy, or at the very least from turning against him, remained a key plank of Putin’s politics.
That fantasy — that Medvedev was anything but Putin’s yes-man, or that his Kremlin perch mean that Russia was now plausibly European, was shattered for good in late 2011, when Putin announced that the jig was up: He was switching places with Medvedev and moving back into the Kremlin, and the only thing remaining was for Russia to rubber stamp his decision with a ritualistic vote.
That domestic political calculation changed in December 2011, when tens of thousands of young Muscovites took to the streets in the “manager class revolution,” protesting Putin’s crude way of re-installing himself in the Kremlin. They were outraged at the way Putin made fools of them — all those years, Putin had insisted Russia was “civilized” and democratic in its own Russian way — part European, part Russian — which is exactly what the “manager class” needed to hear and to believe. They travel a lot to the West. It’s hard to explain just how existentially important those trips to the West are to the “manager class.”
But when Putin made that announcement that he was switching seats with Medvedev, the awful reality hit home to the urban “manager class” that they’d been duped. And they were outraged.
The outrage was over the humiliation of having your despot shove his despotism in your bourgeois face. The New York Times headlined their story: “Boosted By Putin, Russia’s Middle Class Turns On Him.”
Putin lost the crucial big city yuppie class. They’re gone for good. There are a lot of ways an autocrat in a nominally democratic country can respond to that. Putin has chosen a new politics appealing to the Russian Silent Majority, and that means appealing to their resentments, heating up the culture wars between liberal Moscow and the slower, fearful masses in the rest of those eleven time zones. To exploit the huge differences between the Moscow liberals and yuppies opposed to Putin, and the rest of the country that resents them.
The Silent Majority has waited at least two decades for payback, and now it’s on, and it’s not pretty. It’s why Putin targeted Pussy Riot. We Westerners loved them; they were heroes to us, brave punk rock babes fighting the Man and getting jailed for being punk. In our world, that’s cool. But in Russia, Pussy Riot was completely despised by nearly everyone, across class and regional lines. One poll after they were jailed showed only 6 percent of Russians supported Pussy Riot; the poll could not find a single respondent who said they respected the jailed band members.
By exploiting Russian disgust for Pussy Riot and equating the opposition movement with Pussy Riot, Putin was able to conflate the liberal opposition with a decadent, alien art troupe whose purpose seemed to be to humiliate Russia and mock their culture. Nixon couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect symbol of his opponents.
The Nixon Strategy also explains why, after all these years, Putin suddenly targeted Russia’s gays for a vicious culture war campaign. In the Russian Red States, the violent, cruel state-managed homophobia — in which a leading TV anchor told his audience that gays’ hearts and organs should be burned and buried deep underground — was red meat, an acknowledgment at last that Russia’s Silent Majority matters. And the more Moscow yuppies and Westerners berated Russia for attacking gays, the more the Silent Majority identified with the Kremlin.
What he’s doing is shoring up his new political base while tightening the screws on whatever remained of liberal freedom in Russia, taking control of the Internet, seizing control of the handful of opposition online media sites, and ramping up the culture war against liberals, gays, the decadent West… The fact that we, the US and EU and a few billionaires, funded violent regime change groups in bed with west Ukraine fascists and Russophobes has only made Putin’s domestic job easier. You can see it in the aftermath of the Odessa fire massacre that killed over 40 pro-Russian separatists: It shut up even Navalny.
So if Putin is neither the defiant counterweight hero or the neo-Stalinist imperialist, but rather playing a Russian version of vicious Nixon politics, what should the West do?
That’s easy: Stay the Hell out of Russia’s way for awhile