The Matryoshka Doll of Russian Society

Article published on March 15, 2004
community published
Article published on March 15, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Social conflict is keeping Putin in power. Only the Russian oligarchy can open up Russia’s passive matryoshka doll.

In 2002 Vladimir Putin brought together 6,000 delegates who represented Russia’s 350,000 registered NGOs to profess that ‘it would be counter-productive and dangerous if power alone put life into civil society. Society must be developed alone, feeding on a spirit of freedom’. This cynical President has Russian civil society in the palm of his hand. And he is making it spin like a ballerina in the Bolshoi Theatre. Interpreting his statement as the head of a limited democracy defers a psychological analysis of the traumatic changes which have taken place in the last few years.

Civil society was not prepared for the drastic changes which began with ‘de-Sovietisation’ but had further implications such as the criminalisation of the Communist past, ongoing insecurity in cities, the Chechen conflict and the almost legendary alliance between the Orthodox Church and Putin.

‘De-Sovietisation’ in progress

In the Communist society everything was guaranteed. ‘Homo Sovieticus’ was a conformist. His energy was not used to attack but rather to procure resources through a network of contacts including family and close friends. And in this way what was known as normalnaya zhin or everyday life carried on, a routine which, despite the structural changes that Russia suffered, still seems to be deep-rooted in the collective unconscious.

These family networks which were created as a prop against the State in order to get the maximum possible benefit out of the State (never to undermine or question it), is preventing the formation of a feeling of collective solidarity (paradoxical as it seems in a Communist regime). Few are the networks of solidarity within civil society which have begun to make an appearance and which are trying to involve society as a whole in the collective construction of a common future.

Social instability and transition

Another factor must be added to this radical change in the socio-economic structure: revisionism of the Communist past. The process which carried Yeltsin to the Presidency constantly denounced the Soviet past and in particular the mass crimes of the Stalin era and the one following it up to the economic and political restructuring of the 1980s. All this had a definite cathartic effect on Russian society which discovered for the first time the true face of Communism.

This process hit Russian society hard, provoking a terrible sensation of lost roots, questioning the past, and opening up a painful wound in collective and individual self-esteem. At the same time, Russia lost its status as a great power.

Add to this insecurity among citizens, which has been growing since the dictator fell and the restoration of the State generated conditions ideal for the proliferation of the Mafia, and the conflict with Chechyna, which oscillates between barbaric war crimes committed by the Russian army and terrorist attacks by independent Chechen groups. You find yourself facing an atmosphere which favours the appearance and consolidation of an authoritarian politician like Putin.

The alternative is oligarchy

Putin’s arrival signalled a turn towards a certain amount of stability, helped by economic improvement which was perhaps typical of economic trends but still perceptible.

Putin has managed to penetrate the different centres of power in Russian society and to control them. From security (he began his career in the secret service) to religious institutions through a strategic alliance with Alexis II (leader of the Orthodox Church) in a moment of spiritual void, which the Church has profited from to extend its influence into civil society. His iron grip on the media and the Khodorkovsky case, his only serious political opponent, imprisoned for alleged corruption, have smoothed the way towards re-election.

As Vladimir Gusinsky, founder of the Russian station NTV pointed out, ‘Putin is obviously exploiting the fear he inspires. And the bigger this fear becomes, the greater his power is’. The pseudo-dictatorial spiral which Putin has immersed himself in is even beginning to frighten the President himself. ‘Even Putin is afraid. He is afraid of the people who will remind him of the blood bath in Chechyna or the elimination of an independent media...The greater his fear, the bigger the temptation to turn himself into a living dictator and to mould a successor who would govern with an iron fist’.

From the psychological trauma which Russian society is suffering from, an alternative for political change only emerges with difficulty. Rebellion by the oligarchies seems the only alternative. The prospect of an increasingly authoritarian regime and a progressive distancing from the EU and the UN could be the factors which might compel the Russian oligarchies to make a decision. They will only be able to participate in this revival and join the rest of civil society when they stop being afraid of Putin and unite. Putin knows this and fears it. That’s why he put his main opponent, the oligarchic Khodorkovsky, in prison.