20 September 2014

The New Yorker: “Watching the Eclipse”

At first, Putin had little interest in ideology. Then a vision emerged of a Eurasian Russian imperium, fending off Western decay.
At first, Putin had little interest in ideology. Then a vision emerged of a Eurasian Russian imperium, fending off Western decay.

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

An avid reader about tsarist Russia, Putin was forming a more coherent view of history and his place within it. More and more, he identified personally with the destiny of Russia. Even if he was not a genuine ideologue, he became an opportunistic one, quoting Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other conservative philosophers to give his own pronouncements a sense of continuity. One of his favorite politicians in imperial Russia was Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister under Nicholas II. We do not need great upheavals, Putin said, paraphrasing Stolypin. We need a great Russia. Stolypin had also said, Give the state twenty years and you will not recognize Russia. That was in 1909. Stolypin was assassinated by a revolutionary in Kiev, in 1911. But Putin was determined that his opportunity not be truncated: Give me twenty years, he said, and you will not recognize Russia.

David Remnick

A great account of the major changes in Russia’s attitude towards the West since the end of the Cold War, written from the perspective of the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. Reading it, what struck me most was the similarity with the situation in Germany before the Nazi regime: a country defeated, deprived of its former glory, struggling to find a new sense of purpose and clinging desperately to the first leader promising to bring back the ‘good old days’. I’m pretty sure we should not give Putin twenty years with Russia.

Nearly a quarter century after the fall of empire, Putin has unleashed an ideology of ressentiment. It has been chorussed by those who, in 1991, despaired of the loss not of Communist ideology but of imperial greatness, and who, ever since, have lived with what Russians so often refer to as “phantom-limb syndrome”: the pain of missing Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic states; the pain of diminishment. They want revenge for their humiliation.

People in the West twenty-five years ago were surprised by how calmly Russians seemed to absorb the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Mezhuev, the conservative columnist, said. It seemed to them as if we had voted on it! But in no time at all people were told that everything they had worked for was nonsense. They were told that the state they lived in was based on an unfair idea, that ideology was a myth, the West was only a friend—a complete reversal of ideas. The West underestimated the shock. Only now are we facing the consequences.

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