Richmond World Affairs Council

Putin’s Russia, Part VI: A Political Machine – Society

Most tellingly, the majority of Putin’s mass popular support stems from the historical contrast of current living conditions in Russia against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1990s , which continues to cast its dark shade in the minds of Russians.

 

Russia, under Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s, was marked by years of anarchy and abuse during the long, costly, and unstable transition towards liberalization and decentralization. The country plunged into political deterioration, economic depression, and widespread social decline and wrecked the standard of living as corruption, inflation, and lawlessness ran rampant in the country. This experience effectively discredited liberal alternatives to Russia’s longstanding historical system of authoritarian governance among the Putin administration, many intellectuals, and the common Russian people. Ever since Putin became the head of the Russian state, he has striven to push the country past the disastrous decade of the 1990s and Russia’s failed attempt at adopting the Western political economic model of liberalism and decentralization. He reverted back to Soviet-era authoritarianism by reinstalling the role of the centralized state and its presence in civil society. Putin restored order and stability in Russia by subsuming primary control of the political economy under his personal management.

 

The Putin system has created popular support among the elites and masses for his regime of electoral authoritarianism by improving Russia’s economy, restoring order to its government, and providing for the people’s welfare, but it’s been sustained by his control of the media. Putin has expanded the government’s monopoly on the media to transform the institution into an extensive matrix of disinformation (White, Sakwa, and Hale 133). Now, the media functions as another political instrument of the Putin regime—it regularly blasts the public with false or conflicting information to deceive them and maintain a favorable image of the Putin regime. In this manner, the media has mobilized the public behind Putin’s policies and antagonized them against his political opponents at home and abroad. Its biased coverage has degraded the media into the government’s “lapdog”. The 2006 death of Anna Politkovskaya demonstrated to members of the media the dangers of challenging Putin’s political authority. Her exposes on Russia’s role during the controversial second Chechen War Putin waged landed her a place in the coffin. Since then, the media has taken extra precautions to practice self-censorship, in order to protect themselves from undermining their relationship with Putin’s administration. As a result, most journalists have ceased to pursue sensitive issues in Russia. Most TV stations, for example, refused to conduct interviews with Boris Berezovsky, a prominent oligarch during Yeltsin’s time, after he was exiled by Putin. The media, in maintaining Putin’s political legitimacy, has restricted the people’s exposure to the hypocrisies of the pseudo-democratic regime.

 

Together, elite and mass popular support for Putin’s regime has created an illusory civil society wherein the state rule reigns predominant. Instead of policing and protestingagainst any perceived injustices, the hostility of the Kremlin, oligarchs, and the passivity of most Russians has left society placid over the apparent authoritarian-democratic hypocrisies of the current political regime. The Putin regime has carefully safeguarded the welfare of the Russian people, whether it was through providing state-funded social benefits or carving an elite path to economic wealth and political power. The standard of living has, as a result, improved considerably under the Putin regime versus during Yeltsin’s rule. Over time, Russian society has also evolved to become “extremely individualistic and self-centered,” as it is often characterized by observers. Given these conditions, the likelihood of any unhappy factions of society merging to collectively protest Putin’s rule is, as a result, highly unlikely. Putin has crafted a system of centralization and pervasive state control that’s rooted out any form of opposition to render him as the indispensable leader of the Russian state. Through close management of Russia’s politics, the economy, and society, Putin’s political machine has effectively destroyed any chance of Russian civil society developing into the politically-aware, self-monitoring societies found in many Western nations.

 

Instead,  in President Vladimir Putin’s wake, we are left with a Russia reminiscent of George Orwell’s canonical literature, 1984—a society of unaware, politically disengaged, but content citizens who zealously promote Big Brother.

 

 

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