Friday 21 October 2022

The Two Vladimirs.

First Time As Tragedy, Second Time as ... Tragedy: The Leninist will-to-power is also there in Putin, but the dream is different. Not a speculative blueprint for humanity’s future, but a necromancer’s resurrection of Russia’s obscurantist past. Not the white-hot ripples of modernist self-confidence, but the poisonous fogs and vapours of the Middle Ages.

TWO VLADIMIRS, facing each other across a century of time: joined and separated by the Russian nation. Two Vladimirs – Lenin and Putin – around whose understanding of and aspirations for Russia the whole world has, reluctantly, been forced to circle. Two Vladimirs and their contradictory visions of Russia’s meaning dictating the fate of humankind. Two Vladimirs, more alike than either man would willingly admit.

THE FIRST VLADIMIR, Lenin, saw Russia’s potential. Not, simply, as an empire ripe for revolution in ways that the British and German Empires were not, but as a gigantic Petri dish in which something new and immensely powerful could be cultured.

As a dedicated Marxist, Lenin understood just how dramatically Russia deviated from Marx’s revolutionary schema. It was an quasi-feudal empire of peasants, only slowly beginning to industrialise – the starkest possible contrast with the advanced capitalist economies of the United States, Great Britain and Germany – places identified by Marx as the most likely locations for a humane socialist revolution. Lenin wasn’t bothered. A humane socialist revolution was not on his agenda.

In this respect, Lenin was all Russian. His revolutionary politics were shaped by its traditions of terrorist violence and the imposition of new orders from above.

There was a glittering seam of the most reckless nihilism that ran through Russia’s revolutionary rock. It shrugged-off ethics and laughed at caution, fostering an all-or-nothing approach to politics. Lenin mined that seam assiduously, becoming the most fearless political gambler.

He risked the accusation of being a German spy by allowing the Kaiser to facilitate his return to Petrograd. He risked everything on his Bolshevik Party’s coup d’├ętat toppling the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. He risked the survival of Russia itself by accepting the predatory terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, betting that Germany would not win the First World War, and would ultimately be forced to surrender its gargantuan territorial gains.

Having won Russia, Lenin then proceeded to abolish it. Not even its name remained. Lenin named his Petri dish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not that his socialism was all that socialist. He drew inspiration from the way the German war economy had been organised by Walter Rathenau. He admired Henry Ford’s assembly-lines. Had he lived, there is every possibility that he would have prefigured the Peoples Republic of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who famously responded to his party’s bitter internal disputes over which “road” to follow – communist or capitalist – by quipping: “I do not care if the cat is black or white – so long as it catches mice.”

What fascinated and inspired the first Vladimir were the glittering possibilities arising out of a political entity that encompassed one sixth of the planet’s land surface. An entity bursting with resources, and now, thanks to a revolution, a civil war, and the emigration of the Tsarist regime’s fondest supporters, an entity unencumbered by all the usual historical baggage. An entity whose people were a blank slate for his party to write on. An entity which, if it was as lucky as the man who created it, would go on to shape the destiny of the entire world.

THE SECOND VLADIMIR, Putin, looking back over the century separating him from the first, can see with equal clarity not only how much of Vladimir Lenin’s vision was realised, but also the dire, if unintended, consequences of that success. Though raised in Lenin’s Petri dish, and inordinately proud of its achievements, Putin is pinioned by the inescapable fact of its failure.

The Russian people: impassive, resilient, deeply cynical; but also mystical, superstitious and prone to dangerous enthusiasms; turned out to be anything but a blank slate upon which the Bolsheviks could freely write the future. Their country may no longer have been called Russia, but Russians they remained. Their empire also, which, thanks to their heroic efforts against the exterminationist Germans, expanded to encompass all of Eastern Europe.

No Tsar had ever wielded the power of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union glowered over Western Europe and the world through black, bear-like eyes: the object, alike, of humanity’s grim admiration and abiding fear.

Lacking in this Red empire was the first Vladimir’s readiness to wager everything to move the experiment forward. Stalin was ruthless, but he wasn’t brave. The man lived his whole life in fear, and made damn sure the Soviet people did the same. Lenin’s Petri dish was poisoned by his fear. The Soviet Empire that evolved may have been bigger and more terrifying that the Tsars’, but Homo Sovieticus was a pretty wretched specimen.

The second Vladimir, like the Russian Federation he rules, is a hot mess of geopolitical and cultural insecurities. He despises the late Mikhail Gorbachev for presiding over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That event, according to Putin: “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

What Putin missed completely was the historical courage of Gorbachev’s all-or-nothing bet that the entity created by the first Vladimir might yet prove equal to its creator’s optimistic vision.

That Gorbachev lost the bet is, of course, the best possible proof that Homo Sovieticus was an evolutionary dead-end. That the Soviet Union’s successor states all became hopelessly corrupt kleptocracies merely demonstrated how degraded Soviet Man’s political and economic DNA truly was. That Putin rose to become Russia’s new strongman heaped irony on tragedy.

Because its all there in the second Vladimir: the nihilism, the cynicism, the existential wager on nothing more elevating that re-swallowing the Ukrainian people. First devoured by Lenin in the 1920s, and then eaten again by Stalin in the 1930s. The Leninist will-to-power is also there in Putin, but the dream is different. Not a speculative blueprint for humanity’s future, but a necromancer’s resurrection of Russia’s obscurantist past. Not the white-hot ripples of modernist self-confidence, but the poisonous fogs and vapours of the Middle Ages.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 October 2022.


Andrew Nichols said...

Another obscuring article that fails to explain why Putin is there and the deliberate US led failure to embrace Russia post the USSR...continuiing to see them as an enemy, pushing NATO right to their border. Putin and this war were inevitable.

Archduke Piccolo said...

Well written pen-portraits, but the second is so off the mark that the caricature is not so much grotesque as a contortion.

Quite why a thinking person accepts the Western Media demonisation of Vladimir Putin is beyond my comprehension. Maybe for a start it might be a cute notion to take Putin at his word, and then see what actions follow from that. Strong man? Yep, sure. He bally well had to be. I don't think, by the way, that Putin was putting Mikhail Gorbachev down as the villain, merely that his policy, however well meaning, did not in the long run redound to the benefit of Russia, the Russian people, and peoples of the Soviet Union at large. It was hindsight talking, sure, and I believe that if were pointed out, Putin would have acknowledged as much.

Where things went sideways was the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Russia (and the rest of the former Soviet Union) became a basket case of corruption, crime, a failing economy. A lot of Russian fled the country. Some fetched up in this country. I've met two or three of them.

Economic 'fixers' from the United States - the Milton Friedmanite 'Chicago School' - were called in, and they of course scrambled the Russian economy even worse than Friedman did Chile's, Thatcher did the UK, Reagan did the US, Douglas and Richardson did New Zealand's. Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine) describes the US orchestrated plunder of Russia's wealth and resources, and the oligarchic kleptocracy that emerged. E. Wayne Merry, a US official in Moscow at the time, observed: '... economic reform in that country was one in which the United States played an important role and we created a virtual open shop for thievery at a national level and for capital flight in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the raping of natural resources and industries on a scale which I doubt has ever taken place in human history.'

How could Russia recover from that?

Funny thing, though. During that time, Western businessmen who had dealings with Putin as a public servant overseeing the entry of foreign business into Russia had this to say of him: he was up front, was quite prepared to say 'no', kept the applicants informed ... and demanded no bribe, nor did he accept one. His approval was depended upon Russian law; and a negative decision he gave without prejudice to future dealings and applications. This is what American business people were saying 20-odd years ago.

Vladimir Putin put a stop to the thievery. That was his crime - that was his ONLY crime - the same crime committed by Saddam Hussein, Col. Qaddafi, Bashar al Assad: they said 'no' to the United States. The West tries to make out Putin was in bed with the oligarchs. Tripe. He loathed them, pretty much. But what could he do? Claw back all the treasure and resources and enterprises that had been stolen? SERIOUSLY?! How about a line in the sand 'This far, and no further.' The oligarchs got to keep their wealth, and for that they had to stay out of politics.

Come up, if you can, with a better solution to the basket case Russia had become, economically, socially and politically.

And look what Putin has achieved since then. Look what his governance has achieved. Against a background of US-orchestrated malice and bad faith, unlawful sanctions, and Western stage-managed hazing. The West could use leadership of that calibre. It it amuses the hell out of me when the US (and New Zealand, too, it seems) steals boats (and presumably other assets) from the oligarchs and expects Putin to wring his hands over the loss. Putin knows better than the West does that the oligarchs deserved nothing different. It's no skin off Putin's nose, and not much off Russia's.


Archduke Piccolo said...

This present war: do you really think it is about Ukraine? Well, it is, but only marginally. I've known since 2014 that Ukraine was a cat's paw for NATO - in the same way that Georgia was. If I had been paying attention, I might have figured it out as early as 2008. I knew damned well years ago that the US and NATO was just itching for a shooting war with Russia. 'Their gonads are aching for it' I was saying at least 18 months back.

What we have is Ukraine fighting a dirty little war in behalf of the NATO (i.e. the US) whilst US and NATO supplies weapons - and (as the US was bragging even BEFORE Russia's military intervention) not a single American life at risk (not quite true, but Ukraine is bearing much the heaviest human cost).

In case you doubt this, it has emerged that the Minsk Accords that the Russian insisted upon and that were never honoured by Ukraine - were never intended to be honoured. And that was at US insistence. Bad faith has long been an American national sport. The Kiev government could continue their 8-year bombardment and attacks upon the Donbass separatists (and genocide against Ukrainian Russians - still ongoing, mark you: when the rhetoric candidly pushes for 'killing Russians', you can believe it) until the Ukraine military was in a position to assault the region in force. Did NATO/US expect Russia to intervene militarily? Of course they did; that was the point. The schoolyard bully hazes and shoves and spits in the face, and steps on toes, until the intended victim lashes out... the playbook we all know.

The West expected Russia to fall over. Russia didn't. The West expected Russia to go all out (the way the US/NATO did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya). Russia didn't. The West has made out this was Russian military incompetence. And that probably explains why the West is finding itself now in a position roughly analogous to that they intended for Russia.

I reckon it would not be a bad scheme to pretend Vladimir Putin is a very smart dude who knows exactly what he is doing. Imagine that his claims in behalf of 'the Russian Nation' are sincere. John Pilger advised Western watchers of the main stream media to 'deconstruct' what they are being told, and look for (supposing they can find any) alternate sources of information. I started doing that decades ago...


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Russian kleptocracy seems to have been a marriage between the corrupt intelligence services/bureaucracy of Soviet Russia, and Western bankers. Plus of course there was lots of "advice" from right wing pundits – some of which was taken some not.
But when those bureaucrats started shovelling cubic acres of money out of Russia into Western banks it could have been stopped in a New York minute by those banks. They didn't.
This in turn has fuelled corruption in the US and Britain, as Russian oligarchs try to influence Western politics. I guess that's one of the disadvantages of being a financial hub. And those Western bankers lobbied like buggery to stop Clinton passing money laundering laws, because it would have cut into their profits. They even managed to get exemptions from the Patriot act.
And it doesn't just affect governments, ordinary people are being pushed out of cities like London and New York, because much of this money has been put into buying property, some of which just sits there empty. The superrich corrupt everything, including democracy, perhaps especially democracy – because none of them are really in favour of it.
If anyone wants to find out more about corruption in the banking industry I suggest you read Lucifer’s Banker. It's a textbook on how to avoid paying taxes. Although perhaps not – I would want to give some of the people here ideas.
Incidentally, I might be a way for a little while, I'm awaiting the call to become the next leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister of Britain. What the hell – they've tried everyone else.

Loz said...

Stephen Cohen, former professor of Russian studies at New York University argued that the breakup of the Soviet Union into its administrative republics had nothing to do with democracy and reminded us that the overwhelming majority of citizens voted to preserve the union, including 70% of "Ukranians"!

One of the defining characteristics of Lenin's beliefs was his view that Imperialism is the highest stage of Capitalism. The devastation that was unleashed on the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the near collapse of Russia during the GFC and the relentless push to encircle Russia by NATO has clearly been a major influence on Putin's evolution of thought. Putin is not a socialist, but he is absolutely committed to the welfare of Russian people. He is no Leninist but some of his recent speeches show he clearly views that the "collective west" as fundamentally imperialist in the same way Lenin did.

Putin is clearly committed to finishing the economic subordination that western countries have historically held over their client states. The neoliberal system or "rules-based order" was built to subordinate governments to a monopoly control of international capital and its institutions. The BRICS alliance is shedding the World Bank, the IMF, SWIFT, the London metal exchange, the US Global Reserve, the London Metal Exchange, floating exchange rates etc. and in doing so, is breaking free from neoliberalism. This is all occurring with a stunning diplomacy that the new world order must be founded upon a respect for international law and equality between sovereign partners. BRICS already covers more than a quarter of the planet’s land mass with more countries signalling their wish to join next year.

Suggesting that Vladimir Putin's motivation in Ukraine is "recreating the Soviet Union" is a narrative we hear often but it is mistaken. All the oblasts of Novorossiya are now likely to return to Russia but that was never an objective of this conflict.

In the meantime, Russia is discovering a new confidence with eye-watering balance of trade surpluses, falling costs of living, 3-fold increases in trade volumes to the east while the economies of the collective west are imploding without access to the resources Russia provided.

Neil Keating said...

Does anyone remember the TV drama 'Reilly, Ace of Spies'? Admittedly it's a 'reading' of events. A bit tra-la-la-la. But still fascinating in the portrayal of Lenin and Stalin and all. And our very own Sam Neill as Reilly, the Jew from Odessa (ex British Secret Service), dreamed of heading off the power-mongers and forming a government. And oh, the music!