Stanislav Markelov was a lawyer, human rights defender, and activist who was killed during the first decade of Putin’s regime. He and his colleague, the journalist Anastasia Barburova, were shot in downtown Moscow in plain sight, in front of several witnesses. This cold-blooded murder, as the investigation would reveal, was organized and carried out by Russian neo-Nazis, who called themselves “Russian nationalists.” Stas and Nastya were killed by the “Russian World,” the emergence of which they both tried to resist. On the anniversary of their deaths we would like to share an article by Markelov, written at the end of 2008, together with a preface by journalist Dmitry Okrest.
For 14 years straight January 19th has remained a symbol of international antifascist solidarity. On the day after the murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, several hundred antifascists closed off the downtown area, as was their custom when Nazis killed their comrades (with the help of “leaks” from the police, as was demonstrated later), and law enforcement put them behind bars (thanks to tips from the neo-Nazi groups, as would later be confirmed). In his practice as a lawyer, Markelov represented antifascists, labor union leaders, ecologists, and victims of “counter-terrorist operations” (he defended the victim in the high-profile case of Colonel Budanov, among others).
Immediately after the brutal murders, a committee was formed that included journalists, human rights defenders, and streetfighters. Every year since then diverse groups of people who consider themselves antifascists have come together to honor the memory of Nastya, Stas, and, together with them, everyone who has suffered from violence toward which the Russian government has turned a blind eye or which it has explicitly condoned.
Not long before his death, Markelov noted presciently that before the face of Russian society “there flickers either Vlasov tricolor flags, with portraits of disgraced oligarch thieves, or red flags with the bloody-red dictators of old, or the imperial rags of holy banners.” Now, we have been watching as the Russian state waves flags in a frenzy against the backdrop of unprecedented aggression, trying to convince people of the necessity of the Ukrainian campaign. Interspersed on these flags are slogans about denazification and the defense of the Russian-language population, calls for struggle against Iblis and NATO, regret over Soviet statues dismantled in Ukraine, and even prayers.
Traditionally, people have laid mountains of red carnations at the site of Stas and Nastya’s murders, near the White Chambers on Prechistenka Street, not far from the Kremlin. Today, quite a few of these people have left their motherland, holding antifascist demonstrations outside of the country, as they used to in Russian cities. The slogan of all January 19th marches remains unchanged: “To remember is to fight.” However, not long ago, a photograph from one of these demonstrations, edited on photoshop to express support for the war in Ukraine, ended up on an propaganda display. This outrageous incident demonstrates yet again just how important political memory is, wherever activists are. As long as they remember they continue to fight.
After a Pathological Sleep
Having survived the 1990s, Russia is like a person awakening from a pathological sleep full of nightmares. She is happy that she has survived, that the nightmare of criminality has dissipated, but she has no clue who she is, where she is heading to, and can hardly feel the ground under her feet. In this condition, she finds consolation mainly in the memory of the time before the sleep, reimagining her previous life as a rosy, problem-free childhood.
The difference in values that characterizes concepts and ideas existing in Russia is determined by the extent to which they prolong the pathological sleep — whether it started only during the 1990s or started earlier and applies for the entire period up to 1917. Respectively, one’s cranberry-romantic memories can either refer to the youth of a Soviet pioneer or to the good old Czar, who for some reason brought about the country’s defeat in all wars and a series of revolutions.
At the same time, even slight attempts at restoring the reddish-moronic power of the Communist Party or the synodic-orthodox retrograde attitudes bear no relevance to/for Russia’s reality.
Let’s take the standpoint of a doctor who has just seen a person awake — rather than a whinger moaning about Russia — and look at the opportunities for the country’s economic and social development,in its current state, and in the circumstances which it confronts. Like a fabled character who finds herself at a crossroads, Russia has a choice of four possible trajectories to take, each corresponding with a cardinal direction. According to Russian tradition, everyone should decide for herself where the west is, where east is, and who to worship.
So, the first path it can take is an open but tattered society. Had Popper seen what his “open society” had led to, he would have immediately retracted his famous book. When fused with Hayek’s and Friedman’s ideas, “open society” has turned into a roadside booze barn at a time of plague. Globalization brought the world’s maladies to Russia; and since it does not heal up its internal ills, when combined with foreign leprosy, it acquires a fatal disease. This is no longer a mere prediction but what the authorities, the mafia, and the oligarchy modelled and forcibly imposed on us in the 1990s. In terms of importance, however, this triad should be put upside down, topped up by the liberal ideology that the controlled media is knocking into people’s heads in order to completely dismember their brains.
Proceeding on this path means the [Russian] economy opening wide to all Western goods, especially those of low quality, because it is easier to dump them into a country that has become a consumer dump. No one really wants a labor force, especially a qualified one. Therefore, the population confronts quite a democratic choice: either flee the country or destroy oneself via more intense friendship with the degenerate vodka. Main production capacities are of interest only when used for products sold at dumping prices abroad. Accordingly, only those whose work can facilitate trade speculation or establish relations with the authorities are in demand. Authorities, in their turn, exercise only the role of night-watchmen, guarding the thieves. Choosing this path, or rather continuing it, automatically suggests that society is shaped according to the so-called Bantustan politics: wars between local clans who aim to divide their spheres of influence, which recall Georgia or Tajikistan in the 1990s, although more distant examples of Zaire, Afghanistan or Somalia are more accurate in this case.
Today’s authorities, concerned about their self respect and even greatness, will never follow this path and will try by all means to eliminate the consequences of the 1990s. Those who promoted this policy during the 1990s are the only exception to this. Their personal immunity and even reverence are understandable given that continuity is one of the ideological pillars of current politics. Moreover, lambasting the former rulers creates the same disrespectful attitude toward the current authorities and undermines the ancient Byzantine principle of the royal transfer of authority to the new Emperor.
Curiously, in this regard, the present situation is radically different from the Russian traditions of the twentieth century and even previous centuries, where each new power was built on the ruins of the previous one. As you may recall, Stalin always asserted himself as the successor to Lenin who furthered the latter’s cause — even when this continuation ironically meant the complete elimination of Lenin’s fellow revolutionaries and the revolution itself.
This Byzantine revival with regard to the course of the 1990s, for all its praise of stability and tradition, means that Russia is losing the relative though rather limited freedom which marked the short period when the new government came to power and revised the legacy of its predecessor.
The new path began after the global economic crisis of 1998, when the total collapse of the speculative economic system, having socially finished off our fellow citizens, cleared the way for new, much less parasitic economic structures. The time of the “banana kings” meant that the country lived off its fairly strong stock of raw materials, providing prosperity for the elite and a more or less acceptable existence for the general population by throwing crumbs from the czar’s table. This system could last for quite a long time, and at the turn of the millennium it seemed that it would determine the development of Russia for decades to come. Under this system, the extractive industries boomed. Regions rich in resources, or economic centers through which the trade and management of money and raw materials were conducted (primarily Moscow), were relatively prosperous. The rest of Russia had no choice but to gradually wither away, or to relocate its able-bodied population to the booming and prosperous regions, to feed its family members who had been unfortunate enough to be born in an underprivileged region.
The choice of a “banana republic” has gradually receded as central government has strengthened, and now seems completely unrealistic. Its vestiges are maintained at the level of still powerful but gradually crumbling oligarchies, which are trying to cling to the liberal ideology as the last defense of their secure existence. But the regime is no longer interested only in material prosperity, being unhappy with the position of “banana kings” which means surrendering all political power to world metropoles in exchange for support, security, and superprofits.
Admittedly, today’s Russian authorities are not just greedy; they are interested in economic resources as one of their main levers of influence. The regime is not going to hand over its power to anyone: it has long ago taken away real power from the regions, using the bugaboo of terrorist danger, and it maintains an armed neutrality with the global superpowers, realizing that now it cannot have a real fight with them. But even armed neutrality looks ridiculous without arms.
As for the main adversary, the oligarchs, it can be said that Caesar is honored on coins and the oligarchs are given the leftover coins; otherwise dissenting oligarchs are sent to a distant Siberian prison to sew felt boots and thus partake in the national wealth. It is precisely to the oligarchs that the role of “banana kings” is reserved, if not “banana barons” with a guarantee of material well-being and without any political leverage. Attempts to cross this line are severely punished (Yukos, Alekperov). The tendency seems to lead to the situation where “banana barons” will turn into small “banana feudal lords” and remain absolute rulers only in their enterprises or in a brothel.
The two remaining paths allow for more or less independent politics. One of them is the most vicious to liberals, and it was cursed throughout the 1990s as the worst legacy of a totalitarian system. The fact that this model has boosted the economy of ideologically open and not at all totalitarian countries has naturally been dismissed as an unfortunate misunderstanding. In the post-Soviet space, the model of the closed dirigiste economy was most fully realized in Belarus in the late 1990s-early 2000s. It revived the country’s economy following the economic turmoil of Shushkevich, when the country was rife with inflation, i.e. unlike Russia, not only prices were sky-high, unaffordable for the majority of consumers, but there was also a lack of goods at the market. This way is really dangerous as it leads to political authoritarianism, as Belarus demonstrated. But even its current political unfreedom does not compare with the same indicators in economically free China or some republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasia.
The dirigiste option means state regulation of the economy with subsidies flowing into the socially important industries, the gradual growth of economic ties, maintenance of living standards for the entire population, though not at a high, but at an acceptable level, a tendency to provide equitable income for the population. Economic isolation from external expansion inevitably leads to a political clash with economically stronger foreign partners. As already mentioned, such a situation can turn a country into a “besieged fortress” prompting the authorities to abolish political freedoms in order to unite society against external threats. Under Keynesian reforms, however, Roosevelt managed to avoid this danger despite three presidential terms, and de Gaulle’s era culminated in the French people taking to the streets to cry out “Dix ans, ça suffit!” [Ten years is enough].
Despite its forced political independence, this way does not satisfy the Russian authorities today. It forces them not to adopt “armed neutrality” but rather a confrontation in one sphere or another. Protecting their socio-economic interests would harshly and painfully impact the income of several economic oligarchies and countries receiving tremendous profits from Russia. The “benevolence” of the current government is apparent in how it is ready to sacrifice its citizens’ socio-economic interests to avoid a conflict that could put it at risk.
However, the main reason for rejecting a closed dirigiste model, combined with social security, lies elsewhere. This direction makes the status of a great superpower baseless since material resources are supposed to be distributed throughout society. This means that the authorities will not have sufficient resources to significantly grow their power. Therefore, they don’t even consider this option now, and the highly concentrated ruling circles (or a circle, to be precise) have something else in mind.
Their plan is somewhat similar to Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China. However, the fuel for the leap (to the delight of Russians) will not be the workforce but material resources and authority. In other words, financial influence and administrative backing are channeled into sectors that can make a breakthrough in the economy and confirm Russia’s claims to superpower status in the shortest time possible. Hence the love for nanotechnology and other newfangled scientific and industrial fetishes, all while many regions still live in absolute poverty.
It is interesting to compare the possible social outcomes of the two alternatives of independent development. With the so-called “Great Leap,” economic achievements should be significant and feasible in a short time. It is not a coincidence that the goal of Russia’s development is to double its GDP. However, the economic income will be unevenly distributed between the various strata of society and production areas. This means not only the deepening of social inequality but also a situation of a socio-economic rift between the leading and backward regions of Russia. The borders between regions will become more tangible, and cities will increasingly resemble third-world megalopolises with wealthy districts on one side and slums on another.
What could be better than rapid economic growth, right? The problem is that giant leaps tend to have terrible consequences, surfacing not immediately but after many years and even decades. The social apathy provoked by the authorities and forcibly instilled back in the 1990s in the population does not mean there are no social problems. Due to social disarray, activism and protests today are often ugly and take the form of national crimes. They will develop into serious social revolts at the end of the “Putin plan” in the 2020s and 2030s of this century. And in general, in the 21st century, Russia can turn into a country of permanent social tension. Tradition has nothing to do with it. The social rift we can discern today will require political compensation later when it finally takes shape.
The growth of large manufacturing and processing centers and the indifferent attitude toward the rest of Russia threaten to develop into equally grave problems. What Russians think of Moscow is well known; it is impossible to mention it in publishable terms. If most of the regions remain at their present level, while Moscow becomes a prosperous center, it is scary even to think what this attitude will result in. The problem is not only in the capital itself; Russia is not only rich but also frighteningly large. Even small countries like Italy or Sweden have suffered economically from having to adopt a policy of “feeding lame ducks.” The Italian economy works to support the poorer southern regions, and the Swedes persistently have to pour money into their more impoverished north. Italians do not know how to deal with Berlusconi’s Lega Nord and its separatism. Many relatively prosperous and ideologically free countries are in a similar situation (Belgium, Canada and Quebec, France and Corsica, Spain and the Basque Country, etc.).
History knows another “patchwork” state: Austria-Hungary. It also concentrated on strong imperial power and support for the leading regions. The weaker areas eventually woke up, and we can’t see the largest country in Europe on the map today [as the empire dissolved after World War I]. The centralization of power is now delaying this problem in Russia; it may be long-lasting, but it is unrealistic that it will last indefinitely. Sooner or later, the nuts and bolts of the old mechanism begin to unscrew, and then it turns out that the state machine cannot be sustained only by the central government. And what can hold together the country, torn into prosperous and distressed parts?
Our citizens, awakened from their slumber, are not yet asking such questions, and the authorities are steadily leading them in the right direction. The most frustrating thing is not that their consciousness has finally begun to change, but its ideological self-deception. There flickers either Vlasov tricolor flags, with portraits of disgraced oligarch thieves, or red flags with the bloody-red dictators of old, or the imperial rags of holy banners. Seeing no real alternatives, people who have only begun to feel the taste of social stability, are flailing between these musty mannequins, not knowing which iconostasis will offer them great imperial advantage. What if, eventually, society believes in the medieval Byzantine delusions buried in the graveyard for so long? What if, along with the new economic growth, they raise another frayed banner to stage a senseless massacre à la World War I or II? Anger and resentment for the humiliation of the 1990s are now more than enough to want that.
First published on 23 June,2008, on the website of the left-wing Institute for Collective Action (IKD) and the Rule of Law Institute