Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.

Is Khodorkovsky the patron saint of the Russian opposition?

The icon of St Mikhail of Segezha?

The icon of St Mikhail of Segezha?

Bear with me here. Free associating in the course of an interesting discussion with Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin on the latest Power Vertical podcast, on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case as he turns 50 in Segezha Prison Colony  7 in Karelia, I described him as the “patron saint” of the opposition. Of course, he is not a patron saint in the technical sense, an intercessor to God. But it is worth dwelling for a moment on the role he plays within the Russian political–and especially opposition political–cosmology.

1. He is (or at least seems to be) the sinner redeemed. This is a powerful theme within many saints’ lives. While by no means the dirtiest of the 1990s oligarchs, he certainly did not make his fortune through wholly legal or moral means. He played by the real rules of the time, and they were murky and carnivorous ones. But then, as Brian convincingly argues in the podcast, in the 2000s he genuinely seems to have tried to clean up his own act and that of Yukos; indeed, that was one of the things which made him so dangerous to the elite. Now, he continues to articulate views that place him within the liberal wing of Russian politics, even though that probably extends his time in prison.

2. He is suffering for his views. Martyrdom is central to sanctification, and Khodorkovsky’s tale is not just a rags-to-riches-to-handcuffs tale, but his continued refusal to recant (he would, in my opinion, have been pardoned long ago had he been willing publicly to say what the Kremlin would like to hear) demonstrates the kind of moral fiber a good saint needs.

3. He stands for values, not a particular party. On one level, this means he has no direct caucus of followers, but it also means that he is a symbolic figure who could potentially (re)unite a disparate opposition. Although I hesitate to draw comparisons, figures such as Havel, Sakharov and even Mandela were powerful precisely because of their moral stature rather than organizational powerbase. Khodorkovsky is not in the same pantheon, or at least not yet, but if the current regime continues to delegitimize itself, and if none of the active opposition leaders manages to capitalize on this, then a figure such as him might become the focus for moral outrage against the system.

According to the latest Levada polls, 33% of Russians favor his early release (and given the propaganda state in which they live, that’s quite a strikingly high figure). And yet the Kremlin is probably gearing itself up for a new court case, on an even more serious charge, of being behind the murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov in 1998. Rather than let him be released when his current prison term ends in 2014, Putin would rather see him face a third charge. Three trials in the wilderness; it certainly sounds like a saint’s hagiography…

He is the very model of the modern media monarch…

For the record, Putin is not a fascist, nor is he a tsar...

For the record, Putin is not a fascist, nor is he a tsar…

In my most recent post for Russia! magazine, Hail to the Prince!, I find myself–perhaps provocatively–looking at Putin and the tawdry extravaganza of the Popular Front for Russia convention and raising the specters of tsarist coronations, fascist rallies (more of the Mussolini than Hitler variety, for what that’s worth) and the crass theatricals of modern TV (“Putin is if anything a populist tsar, a tsar for the reality TV generation.”)

The serious point relates to the personalization of rule, a compound of patrimonial habits (in which everything is the property of the state/monarch and merely assigned at his pleasure) and a messianic belief in the ruler’s specific and numinous mission:

And this is where monarchy and fascism intersect. Both, ultimately, are personalized forms of rule, where the role of court, aristocracy, party and government are all about connecting the autocrat with his people rather than—in theory—having agency and agendas of their own, let alone acting as counterweights and constraints on him. This has been one of the striking phenomena of Putin’s recent political strategy, what I’ve (rather clumsily) described elsewhere as “institutionalized deinstitutionalization.” The People’s Front may perhaps one day become a party, but at present it is explicitly intended not to be one, or rather to be a structure which can embrace parties, individuals, groups and blocs. It is open to all, so long as they share a common worldview which, frankly, can also be summed up in all its intricate complexity by one of the rally’s chants: Narod! Rossiya! Putin! “The People! Russia! Putin!”

History and Future: Power Vertical podcast on ‘The Ghosts of Crackdowns Past’

On a day when Russian Patriarch Kirill warned of a new Time of Troubles, when “treason” was cloaked in the rhetoric of the “modernization of the country” as a “great and holy mission” then it seemed wholly fitting that the RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, The Ghosts of Crackdowns Past, should feature Brian Whitmore, Sean Guillory and me discussing historical parallels for the present drift towards repression and what lessons this might offer for the future. Admittedly, none of us went four centuries back (though I have paralleled Putin with Ivan the Terrible here), but still I thought it was a great discussion about what such historical episodes as the late 19th retreat from reform, Stolypin’s post-1905 crackdown, Stalinism and Brezhnev’s era may tell us about modern Russia.

This also raises questions about the use of history in politics, the way real (and more often mythologized) events are mobilized to legitimate particular narratives. Putin’s, on the whole, has rested on more recent history — beware a return to the terrible, anarchic 1990s — but as this loses its force, maybe they will try to use deeper history, instead. Of course, these appeals to historical authority are always contested, opportunities for different people and interests to put their own meaning and spin on the past. So maybe we should leave the last word to Kirill:

“So, too, today we must first and foremost make sure we prevent this ‘time of troubles’ from taking hold in our consciousness, in our minds… Today there are people, like the Boyars of Muscovy, who present unacceptable recipes for the modernization of our lives and improvement of our people’s living standards.”

After all, we wouldn’t want the modernization of Russians’ lives and the improvement of their living standards to be considered worthy ends in themselves, now, would we?


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