The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The World Through Vladimir Putin’s Eyes

Vladimir Putin Official PortraitThe Sochi Olympics have put the spotlight on Russia, and there has been great excorciation of Russia for its discrimination against gays, and much mockery for the problems with the Games, such as one of the five Olympic rings not opening, Wifi that doesn’t work, bathrooms with two toilets in the same room and so on.

What is interesting about this is that there are so many minor problems.  Do you remember these issues during the Beijing Olympics?


And, if you’re older, like me, do you remember them from the Moscow 1980 Olympics?


In 1980 USSR, the Russians could still put their fingers down and make things work. Oh, to be sure, wherever the Politburo and the best of the KGB wasn’t watching, it was a mess, but if they concentrated their efforts on one place, things got done.

Whatever problems the USSR had by 1980, let alone by the time it fell, for many Russians, it was better than what came after.  Putin believes this:

When Igor Sechin was working as President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff a decade ago, visitors to his Kremlin office noticed an unusual collection on the bookshelves: row after row of bound volumes containing minutes of Communist Party congresses.

The record stretched across the history of the party and its socialist predecessor — from the first meeting in March 1898 to the last one in July 1990, a year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bloomberg Markets will report in its March issue.

Sechin regularly perused the documents and took notes, says Dmitry Skarga, who at the time was chief executive officer of Russia’s largest shipping company, OAO Sovcomflot.

“He was drinking from this fountain of sacred knowledge so that Russia could restore its superpower status and take its rightful place in the world,” Skarga says.

Sechin’s back-to-the-future fascination with his country’s communist past is something he shares with Putin, who, soon after coming to power in 1999, restored the music (though not the lyrics) of the Soviet-era national anthem and later described the collapse of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Why does Putin believe this?  It seems like nonsense to most Westerners.  But if you’re Russian, and you remember the 90s, you remember a time when rapacious oligarchs seized control of the country, the population went into sharp decline, where there wasn’t enough food and where hot water was a luxury denied to many.

You remember constant humiliations at the hands of the West, as they carved up Russia, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and you remember that NATO kept expanding East even though Bush Sr. had promised Russia that wouldn’t happen.

The 90s were terrible.  As bad as the late USSR was, the 90s were worse.

The sardonic joke was “everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie.  Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was true.”

To put it simply, privatization, known as shock doctrine, was a huge failure in Russia.  It led to control over the economy being in the hands of a few rapacious oligarchs, none of whom didn’t routinely use coercion and violence to get their way, it led to a collapse in population, life span, of oil production… of everything.

If this was capitalism… why would the Russians be impressed?

And meanwhile, in Chechnya, the Russian military couldn’t even put down an insurrection.  The Red Army may have failed in Afghanistan, but in the provinces of the USSR, well, no.

So Putin gets in charge, and he looks at what privatization; what shock doctrine has done to the country, and he think that the USSR is better.  So he makes examples of some of the oligarchs, re-nationalizes the key parts of the economy, including oil and high tech production, as well as those parts which can’t compete.

Peskov says, “for example, in shipbuilding it’s absolutely pointless to carry out privatization,” he says. “You can privatize enterprises, but they won’t be competitive; they will be doomed to failure. So consolidating the assets under the state’s wing is the only way to preserve key sectors of the economy.”

Next he turns on Chechnya and he wins his war, he crushes the Chechens, then he pours billions into rebuilding their capital.  Bear in mind, this is sold as an “anti-terrorist” war, just like Iraq and Afghanistan were sold to Americans.  Remember how popular Bush was as a “war president”?

Putin starts bringing countries which were once part of the USSR under the Russian umbrella again, and tries to slow the advance of NATO and the EU East towards Russia’s border.

So what Putin has done is look at the results of the collapse of the USSR: the economy trashed, population declining, oligarchs stealing, Russia humiliated, a major insurrection in the South, and he’s reversed them.  The economy may not be brilliant, but it grows fast for most of the 2000s.  Oil production grows and exceeds USSR production, and pays for more than 50% of the government’s budget.  Population stops declining.  Unemployment drops, and is lower than in some European nations.

Perhaps state capitalism, which is what Putin is doing is “inefficient”, but it’s supplying jobs and it’s paying the government’s bills.

And Putin is genuinely popular.  In the last few years there have been demonstrations, but while Putin’s reelection wasn’t fair, it doesn’t appear to have been stolen.

Why?  If you remember the 90s, and most people do, Putin has demonstrably made most Russians better off and strengthened Russia.  And very few Russians are crying tears for what he’s done to the oligarchs, all of whom are little better than Mafia dons themselves.

If you’re Vladimir Putin, you think you’ve done a great job.  You think that the West are a bunch of flaming hypocrites who hate Russia, as well.  Look at all the screaming about human rights during these Olympic Games.  While there was some about China in 08, it was magnitudes less.  And if China doesn’t discriminate against gays, well, they certainly are at least in the same league as Russia when it comes to human rights abuses.

Besides, who can take the US, which invaded Iraq based on lies, which tortured, which has the world’s largest assassination program and whose NSA runs a surveillance state which in certain respects would make the Stasi blush, while imprisoning much of its black male population, and bailing out private actors to the tune of trillions of dollars to lecture anyone else?

To Putin, Western lectures look like sheerest hypocrisy.  The West, in its banking scandals, proved itself as corrupt as Russia, and on a much larger scale. In Iraq it proved that it would brutalize non-Western populations for no reason.  In Greece it has driven its own population into penury, and all through the West the surveillance state rises, and people continue to lose their rights.

Meanwhile Russia’s unemployment rate is better than most Western nations.

None of this is to deny that Putin is not an evil man, and though I don’t know if he’d put it that way himself, I doubt he has any misconceptions about the fact that he’s a strong man; a man on horseback and a man who has committed innumerable war crimes, while ruling through fear and intimidation as well as popularity.

Russia’s got problem, big ones, and Sochi has highlighted them.  Putin has failed to transition the economy from resources, and he has not kept corruption under limits: corruption is one thing, that the system can’t be made to work in high profile circumstances like Sochi, is another.

But when your economy is more than 50% reliant on oil, it’s almost impossible to stop corruption or to transition off of resources.  Resource economies are corrupt, period, because whoever has control of the resources makes so much more money than everyone else, and people will do anything to get near the money spigot, while those who do control it can buy anyone they want.

In this resource economies are similar to financialized ones. In both cases, there is a money spigot, and you are either attached to it, or you aren’t. If you are, life is great. If you aren’t, well, not so much.

So, if there is a money-spigot, do you want it controlled by oligarchs, or by government?  Which devil is worse?  The Russian answer, Putin’s answer, is government.  Right now the West’s answer is oligarchs.

Neither is right, of course, but that’s another essay.

For now, look at Russia, and the world, and try to see them through Putin’s eyes.

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  1. Celsius 233

    … the economy traashed,

    …re-natinalizes the key parts

    Just a couple I caught.
    Interesting read.

  2. Celsius 233

    “For now, look at Russia, and the world, and try to see them through Putin’s eyes.”

    Oh so few even understand, much less exercise, that juxtaposition.

  3. rkka

    Um, Duffy, Russia isn’t dying. Russia isn’t drowning. Russia isn’t going down. Again, Christian Russians are included in the groups experiencing higher birth rates than in the 1990s. You are correct that Muslim birth rates are higher, by an amount that will cause the % of Russians that are Christian to decline by about a tenth of a percentage point per decade.

    In other words, it’s a total non-issue.

    Now, in NATO member, EU member, EnthusiasticFreeMarketDemocraticReforming Latvia, yearly deaths exceed births by 1.5 to 1.

    That is what a ‘dying, drowning, going-down nation’ looks like, and that ain’t Russia.

  4. someofparts

    Post like this are why I bookmark this website. Perspectives outside of the American bubble of self-congratulatory newspeak are a welcome break.

  5. rumor

    A valuable and instructive piece, Ian.

    I wonder if you’ve read this recent Maclean’s article about Putin? It may serve as a companion to your own. I think it may be reaching too far in its conclusions, but it’s still a decent bit of reporting.

  6. And Mussolini made the trains run on time.

    The demons that Putin has raised will not be easily bound.


  7. I think it unconscionable that you called Mr. Putin an “evil man.” Of course no world leader today is spotless. But Mr. Putin is a Christian and appears to be a genuine Russian patriot.
    I am glad I did not send a contribution to your work. At first I was impressed with you but this editorial leads me to believe you are a kind of neocon, or at least like many Americans who indulges in name-calling and in anti-Russian sentiment. It would be better to look to the mote in our own eye than the beam in our neighbor’s. And yes, that’s a Christian notion.
    I do appreciate the ease of use of your comments section.

  8. I have come to worry less about places like Russia these days than I do my own government. That is the saddest aspect of your insightful post Ian.

  9. rkka

    “One, russia’s population decline in 90′s was mostly attributable to drastic decline in life expectancy.”

    A good deal of it, very true.

    “People where dying.”

    Yup. The death rate per 1000 population rose about 50% during FreeMarketDemocraticReform.

    “Second, developed nations trends are altered by sudden economic crisis, as in 1930′s when american birthrate dropped dramitically.”

    Again, very true. The birth rate fell about 50% during FreeMarketDemocraticReform.

    Raven, I’ve loved your blog for years.

    It’s a fact though, that the Anglosphere continued to wage Cold War against Russia after 1991, in the hopes of killing Russia once and for all. That Putin wasn’t picky about his means for Russia’s recovery in the teeth of Anglosphere hatred of Russia isn’t something to be suprised at.

  10. rkka

    Jeffrey Sachs has finally figured it out, and spilled the beans:–sachs-praises-russia-s-post-soviet-economic-progress-and-says-that-rapid-long-term-growth-is-within-reach

    “For two years (1992-1993), I was a macroeconomic adviser to Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, trying to help Russia to end the high inflation and extreme shortages that characterized the last years of the Soviet era, and to begin Russia’s transition to a market economy. I recommended a macroeconomic stabilization strategy that had been highly successful in nearby Poland, and that called for timely financial assistance from the United States, Europe and the IMF, just as Poland had received.

    Unfortunately, the West did not provide the needed financial assistance, contrary to my (and many other people’s) recommendations, and the Russian economic and financial calamity was more severe as a result. At the time, I attributed Western inaction to incompetence on the part of the US government and the IMF. Looking back, it is clear that there was also a deliberate strategy by US neoconservatives, such as then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to weaken the new Russian state. The US government was also complicit during the mid-1990s in the plundering of Russian state-owned property, including oil assets that were unscrupulously privatized.

    The good news is that Russia was able to bounce back from those terrible years, no thanks to the West or the US government.”

  11. Debt serf

    Why are so many people over the age of 40 still fighting the Cold War with anti-Russian sentiment? There are so many real problems in the world to worry about the Russians these days.

  12. Thank you.

    “It’s a fact though, that the Anglosphere continued to wage Cold War against Russia after 1991, in the hopes of killing Russia once and for all.”

    A very long time ago, under another ‘nym, I once commented that we could now start writing articles about the failure of capitalism in Russia. It seems to me that the economic policies that have done so much harm in the West were first implemented in Russia. I do not think there was any intention to destroy Russia as such, though the USSR was much hated. The public was largely glad to see the Cold War over.

    If Putin is so secure and Russia so stable, why is Putin desperately trying to direct attention away from himself with a campaign of homophobia? Leaders who are confident of their power and public support do not go seeking scapegoats. I think that tells us that the view of Putin that has been set out here is wrong: he is at risk from demographic change, just as our reactionaries are, and he has made enemies within Russia. Russia has a long, dark history of brutal imperialism on its borders, and so has many enemies there. I do not see how this will play out. It is hard for me to imagine a re-armed Western Europe, but it is equally hard for me to imagine that Western leaders will tolerate future imperialism on their eastern borders.

  13. Ian Welsh

    Things are slowly turning against Putin, yes, and eventually he’ll get tossed out (probably dead). But he’s more popular than the West gives credit for.

  14. Oooof! The danger of posting when in the middle of the night. RKKA, as you point out, the Dick Cheney faction of the Republicans did act to weaken Russia. While a small minority, that faction was and powerful.

  15. I have been on a Russian jag lately and it was not spurred by the Olympics, but that event has certainly helped me to do some serious geography lessons. I recently read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir “Little Failure” which mostly chronicles his families emigration saga from Russia to Queens in the late 1970s. But he also does go back and report on life in the U.S.S.R. as told to him by his parents and grandparents. Intrigued with this, someone recommended Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Von Bramzen emigrated in 1974. Both had Jewish heritage, but came from entirely different classes (yes classes in Russia) and different regions, said a Russian friend of mine who knows Anya. To read about Russian/Soviet lives during the Stalin period from the point of view of what they ate or didn’t eat makes what they suffered very visceral although I’ve never experienced hunger like that. Horrifying, really to imagine boiling leather for soup. It also made me think of the food scenes in “12 Years a Slave”. Not one person or child should suffer from hunger in this world. Stalin brought hunger but so did the neo liberals in the 1990s and so do the neo liberals bring hunger here and around the world.
    I don’t know what to do, but I have begun conversations about change by mentioning books like these that don’t seem to have a political agenda. I can find some common ground through talking about food especially among these rancher types here in Montana.

  16. guest

    @Debt Serf: Besides what’s been said above,

    1) Many of them are still pissed we (yes, I’m American) didn’t seize the excuse provided by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and just blow up their country and decimate their people.

    2) Because you think NORMAL weapons “concentrate the mind”? How about lots of nukes, which even remnant Russia still has?

  17. guest

    ^IOW Russia is an impediment to the United States being even more murderously insufferable than it already is.

  18. markfromireland

    @ Ian Welsh February 20, 2014

    Ian in what what way are things turning against him? I really don’t see it. He dragged Russian living standards back from the gutter into which they’d fallen – indeed they were still falling when he took over. People remember that.

    He’s a patriot who made a deeply patriotic, not to say chauvinistic people, proud to be Russian again.

    He is wildly more popular than westerners who read and hear nothing but carping think he is.


  19. markfromireland

    @ The Raven February 20, 2014

    If Putin is so secure and Russia so stable, why is Putin desperately trying to direct attention away from himself with a campaign of homophobia?

    I don’t think he is trying to do that. Russia is a deeply homophobic, and racist, and – well pick your prejudice …. society. Actually once you get outside of the North American and North-Western European enclaves you’ll find that people call blacks “niggers” without thought. That gays are either “queers” or “dirty queers” again as a self-evident truth. And that Jews are “Zhids” (Yids) or Kikes and so on.

    It’s not just Europe either. Ever been exposed to the … appalling doesn’t even begin to describe it … homophobia of the average Jamaican?

    I could go on and on but I’d probably just wind up depressing both of us. I’d love to agree with you that that’s why he’s playing the homophobic card but I don’t. So I’ll say it again, I don’t think he is insecure. I think he’s a populist doing what populists do.


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