The continuing Soviet collapse

November 9, 2015
A crane lifts a monument of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, in St. Petersburg April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

A crane lifts a monument of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, in St. Petersburg April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

It’s commonly believed that Russia is diving head-first into an ever-deeper authoritarianism. The ideology is no longer Marxism Leninism: instead, it’s an amalgam of resurgent imperialism, Eurasian exceptionalism and a deepening, and popular, hatred of the United States and Europe.

It’s not common, yet, to see Ukraine, with which Russia wages a frozen, part covert, semi-war, as on the same trajectory. But, like Russia, it’s strengthening what’s become known as the “power vertical” — a post-Soviet system of governance in which the formal institutions are subverted. Despite democratic trappings, the central structure is severely hierarchical, with effective power vested in the presidency and the presidential administration.

Two leading political scientists, one Russian and one Ukrainian, have produced important essays on the current situation in their respective states. Both speak to the despair engendered in both liberal-minded Russians and a broader swathe of Ukrainians over the failure of the projects and promises of democracy. In Ukraine, that disillusionment is both sharper and wider, as the hope of a more democratic and “European-style” politics diminishes. Instead, there is political infighting, continuing control by the wealthy oligarchs, unchecked corruption and fears of renewed warfare.

In the first essay, Mikhail Minakov, president of the Foundation for Good Politics in Kiev, writes that Ukraine remains in thrall to wealthy oligarchs, despite a democratic façade. He believes that in spite of the 2014 Maidan Square revolution that toppled Moscow ally President Victor Yanukovych, the system remains configured for continued authoritarian rule. The barely concealed struggle between Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and current President Petro Poroshenko; the shadowy control the oligarchs exercise on politics and on the judiciary; the supine state of the opposition parties – all leave the way open, Minakov believes, for a strengthening of the presidential-dominated “power vertical.

Regional elections last week were poorly attended, and showed continuing low support for Poroshenko in eastern — mainly Russian-speaking — regions of the country. In September, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt made an unusually pointed charge, in a speech to business executives in the ultra-corrupted port of Odessa, that the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Kiev was an “obstacle” to anticorruption reforms. The office had failed to “successfully fight internal corruption… rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor-General’s Office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform,” he said.

Anders Aslund, the most prominent economic expert on Ukraine, has estimated the loss to the country’s GDP over 2014 and 2015 as 16 percent. That number is comprised of 7 percent in lost production in Eastern Ukraine, 6 percent from Russian trade sanctions and 3 percent in lost foreign investment. He has called, repeatedly, for urgent Western assistance.

Ukraine has, however, been of immense use to Russian President Vladimir Putin — according to the Russian commentator Andrei Kolesnikov, a former deputy editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In an essay he says that “following the annexation of (the Ukrainian province of) Crimea in March 2014, the Russian public has embraced an increasingly conservative and nationalistic ideology… and have thrown their support behind the commander of the fortress, President Vladimir Putin.”

Kolesnikov shows that hostility to both Europe and the United States has increased steeply since the invasion of Crimea — a rise similar to the increase in inflation over the same period. Over that period, too, those seeing Josef Stalin (architect behind the death of many millions) as playing a “positive” role also grew strongly — an opinion shared, at the beginning of this year, by just over half the respondents to a Levada Center poll. The Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its role as an important but faithful supporter of the Russian ruler. Both “ideology and the Russian Orthodox Church,” writes Kolesnikov, “‘sanctify’ this political system, which closely resembles a corporate state… the state legally enshrines concepts such as “foreign agent” and “undesirable nongovernmental organization” among others, which gives it plenty of tools to exert complete control over real civil society.”

Both Minakov and Kolesnikov argue that change can come. “Sooner or later,” writes the Russian, “both those on top and those on the bottom will create the demand for a pragmatically formulated, liberal economic ideology.” For the moment, however, the strongly nationalistic and militaristic trend in Russia and the weakness of, and disillusion with, the Ukrainian government, combine to make change in a benign direction highly unlikely.

Together, these two states made up over two thirds of the population of the Soviet Union. With much smaller Belarus to Ukraine’s north, these were the core of the Soviet state, the Russians seeing the other two — with some condescension — as both little brothers and big buffers against an always-feared (and often suffered) Western invasion. Ukraine’s efforts to claw its way to the West represents, for Putin, an inadmissible lèse majesté, a move he has sought with present success to kill by weakening the country to the point where its very statehood is put at risk.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s story “Conversation Piece 1945,” a former White Guard colonel, anti-communist and Christian, says that in spite of his views, he puts Stalin on a par with Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great as a mighty leader. “Today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of Old Mother Russia. She is again a country of soldiers, of religion and true Slavs.” Such views, writes Kolesnikov, “can still be heard in Moscow’s conservative quarters, corporate backrooms, luxury apartments.” It is the privileging of power and national glory over peaceful co-existence: the need to subdue those within its boundaries who rebel against the national imperative.

Both the EU and the United States encouraged Ukraine to “come west, young nation.” That they may not have thought through the consequence of the invitation doesn’t relieve their responsibility to deal with it.

Ukraine will need very large financial assistance for some years if it’s not to slip deeper into a corrupt authoritarianism — and from there, it would be only a step back to return to the embrace of “Old Mother Russia.”

28 comments

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In terms of political freedom, press freedom and growth of civil society Ukraine is way ahead of Russia. Notwithstanding this, Ukraine must press on much harder with economic and administrative reform and the fight against corruption.

Russia under Putin has descended into an insular,xenophobic dictatorship. The state controlled media blasts out continuous hysterical anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda and disinformation. There is a militant extreme nationalism and chauvinism, Russian messianism, glorification of imperial conquest, partial rehabilitation of Stalinist policies and practices, paranoia and a siege mentality. These are features typical of fascist states.

Any thinking Russian can only be deeply disturbed and ashamed of where Putin has taken Russia.

Russia has now occupied territories taken from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. By doing this Russia has created a serious threat to security and stability in Europe.

Dictators typically fabricate external enemies in order to distract from internal repressive rule and falling living standards. Putin is playing this card.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

This authoritarian system of government is what Erdogan is creating in Turkey. Yes, Turkey, that NATO Country.

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

I never knew, reuters is a CIA agent. All utter lies, totally biased. I will not come to your site again.

Posted by Kishore_Sahni | Report as abusive

Under Putin, Russia’s economy has shrunk and is now slightly smaller than that of Italy. Italy!

Let’s think about that. Largest country on earth, taking 12 time zones of drunken space…. produces the same value of goods and services as tiny Italy. GDP per capita in Russia is now less than Czech Republic or Greece. Haha. Greece.

Good Job, Putin. You are the captain of Mission Third World Toilet.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

What a great propaganda…..

Posted by cpsaras | Report as abusive

Will Russia fall apart anytime soon? It is hard to know. With falling oil prices and an economy in ruin I can’t see Russia not falling apart at some future date. The question is, is Putin willing to go to war with the West before the country tanks? That possibility does exists in my way of thinking.

Posted by seedman2013 | Report as abusive

Russia is just jealous because all of their good-looking women leave for better lives elsewhere. Make a better country and they will stay. Give them a reason.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

EU is bankrupt , US is bankrupt where the money will come from for all those fools after their colored revolutions ?

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

You think a regime change is called for, perhaps? The Russians have probably never been a happier people or had a more popular President.

Posted by pbecke | Report as abusive

In any given nation, if the majority of the people favors an authoritarian form of government, who are the rest to say no?

Posted by nadodi | Report as abusive

Ukraine Is and always was part of “Old Mother Russia”

You are nothing more than a mouthpiece for the believe in American exceptionalism, Mr. John Lloyd. Your view of the world is one sided, black and white, and quite frankly; very boring.

Posted by Nietzschele | Report as abusive

Thanks to John Lloyd for this interesting article, adding a new perspective on relations between Russia and Ukraine and the corruption problems in those governments.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

The author painta a pretty depressing picture of today’s Russia. Drunken, dying losers fighting over a shrinking pie, stupid foreign adventures. The good news is that out of the cesspool of despair we can expect to see a resurgence of all that wonderfully ponderous and depressing Russian literature of yore. And now we see the spectacle of discovering that they cheat at sports as well.

Sometimes a country must hit rock bottom to regain its dignity. We should all pray for the Russian people.

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

The author painta a pretty depressing picture of today’s Russia. Drunken, dying losers fighting over a shrinking pie, stupid foreign adventures. The good news is that out of the cesspool of despair we can expect to see a resurgence of all that wonderfully ponderous and depressing Russian literature of yore. And now we see the spectacle of discovering that they cheat at sports as well.

Sometimes a country must hit rock bottom to regain its dignity. We should all pray for the Russian people.

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

“That number is comprised of 7 percent”

Grammar 101 error.

Posted by sgmin | Report as abusive

We are now approaching two years into the latest Orange reformation. For the entire two years western journalists have been forecasting the end of Putin. He is still there, looks to be there when Obama is gone, and increasingly Ukrainians are disillusioned with the west. That will deepen, especially as Ukraine now has to pay cash for its gas supply.

Despite the forecasts (including in Reuters) the Crimean Tartars have not revolted or been shipped off to Siberia, a reborn Red Army has not fought a battle at Dukla Pass on the way to Vienna, no one has invaded anyone for control of Transnistria (no one but our man in Europe, Breedlove, could imagine anyone fighting for Transnistria), Poland and the Balts still buy Russian LNG, and Putin seems to be on the offensive in Syria, creating a very credible threat to the stability of NATO by arming the PKK.

Perhaps Reuters should re-examine its staffing in this area. Der Spiegel seems to have some writers who understand Eastern Europe.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Hello Obama. We are heading to where Russia was and now we might meet the Russians in the middle. What is this story about anyway, Soviet Union difficult return (or better yet the hiding of America’s trek to socialism and treking towards our own end)?

Posted by blueberry123 | Report as abusive

What a load of anti-Russian propaganda. The writer barely hides the foam behind his teeth. CIA paid writer for sure.

Posted by Chris1235 | Report as abusive

If Russia didn’t have nukes they would be NOTHING on the world stage.

Posted by JeremyCrumb | Report as abusive

One simple fix for the problem of corruption would be to implement a Whistleblower program modeled on the succesful program the US has put in place.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Amazing how dishonest Reuters is…News?….laughter

Posted by owlafaye | Report as abusive

And at the moment notice Putin plays “mercy” card, agreeing to 3 installments on Ukraine 3 bill. debt. Putin “The Merciful” thinks, rightly so, US and other “meddlers” in his affairs will ease sanctions slightly, but obviously crippling Russia. If this happen, this would be cheapest purchase of prime touristic property (mind Crimea).

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

Good summary of depressing Russian coexistence with neighbors. One historical mistake- in difference to other European continental countries, invaded countless times and recovering, Russia was invaded three times only- 16/17 C. by Poles, 19th C. by European coalition under Napoleon, and by Germans in WWII (Poland recovering Polish historical territories of western Ukraine and Austrian and German troops in south eastern Ukraine in the end of WWI were result of crumbled monarchy and anti bolsheviks upraising in the region, and as such can’t be called invasion.) Constant danger is a myth cultivated by soviets and now post soviet Russia as useful propagandist tool. Up to demise of Nicholas II such term as encirclement didn’t exist in Russian mentality- In literature before Stalin vise, you will find a lot of praise for Russian way of living of slaving nationalities, murder, dark intellect- yes, encirclement- not.

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

Attempting to create a democratic form of government in totalitarian states like the Mideast, Russia, China, and all of the countries that have never had government by the people is a waste of time. Democracy has to evolve over time. The small city states of Greece had a form of democracy, but they were tiny – more like towns. American democracy arose from very specific circumstances that have not been repeated anywhere else. You need people who think for themselves and who want to take personal responsibility for their lives. That is a rare thing. It doesn’t exist in nature. The majority of humans do not want to think for themselves. They don’t know how to make decisions. They are willing to give up freedom for security. That’s why Russians still revere Stalin, why many Germans would still accept a Hitler, why Mao’s face is plastered all over China. You can see the same thing in this country with sycophantic supporters of wackos like Obama who will dance to any tune he plays. Only a few people actually think and make decisions based upon knowledge of what they are voting for. The rest are praying to their masters.

Posted by Aranhas | Report as abusive

“It’s commonly believed that Russia is diving head-first into an ever-deeper authoritarianism.”

This is a remarkable way of starting of a news article. It is dripping with bias, and the most damage will be done to those of us who are already poorly informed about global events and the long history of that region of the world.

Russia and Putin are definitely NOT saints – but neither is any country involved in this madness. We have over 600 military bases worldwide. They have ten (10) and only around their borders. And they believe that events are closing in on them.

It would be a good idea to remember that they have nuclear weapons. They aren’t going to simply fall like Iraq and Libya. They have Nuclear Weapons.

Posted by AmericanDude55 | Report as abusive

It is an indisputable fact that Russia, even under the conditions of economic warfare by the West, is more prosperous and democratic than ever in its history. There are thousands of independent media, harshly critical of the government, unlike the US where 5 corporations control 90% of the media.

I challenge anyone to provide evidence of a time when Russia was more prosperous and enjoyed more civil rights. The claims of a dictatorship based on imperialistic ambition is pure Western propaganda. The US has troops in over 150 nations, bombing in 7 nations (all Muslim); Russia has troops in 6 nations and is bombing only against ISIS in Syria. Since Putin was elected in 2000, the GDP has tripled and wages, adjusted for inflation, have doubled. This is the basis of the support of the government by over 80% of the citizens, compared to a 10% approval of the US Congress.

Repeating US propaganda is a sure recipe for more failed policies.

Posted by ruffsoft | Report as abusive

The amazing quote: “With much smaller Belarus to Ukraine’s north, these were the core of the Soviet state, the Russians seeing the other two… as… big buffers against an always-feared (and often suffered) Western invasion.”
I have not understood: the author considers the former repeated Western invasions to be “Russian fantasies”, in reality not taken place?

Posted by HelCabak | Report as abusive

Rule by wealthy oligarchs, unchecked corruption, and fear of more wars don’t sound too different from many aspects of so-called “Western Democracies.” There are king makers in the US who buy senators, representatives, and major stock in most elected presidents. We even had one president (Does anyone remember or care?) who was “selected” by the Supreme Court. After extensive brokering by the powerful, he was installed as if he had been chosen by free ballots not murky “hanging chads,” and the swampy and vague process of the Florida election process, plus the divination of the US Supreme Court. When that happened I saw democracy struggling and gasping for breath in the USA or the self-proclaimed paragon of freedom.

Posted by Axadental | Report as abusive