There’s a line one often hears from Russophiles or foreign supporters of the Kremlin (no, those aren’t necessarily the same thing). It goes something like this: “The Western media claims that Russia is a brutal dictatorship. But I visited Russia and it didn’t seem like the people had less freedom than in the West. How can people call Putin’s Russia a dictatorship?” Another, less propagandistic formulation might go like this: “If Putin’s Russia is a dictatorship, why are there independent media outlets like Novaya Gazeta or Dozhd TV? Why are there still opposition meetings? Why are members of Pussy Riot not only walking free, but even taking part in public events?”
These are fair questions, but unfortunately they’re not the right ones. As I have written on my blog in the past, the confusion stems from our poor understanding of what a dictatorship should look like. Especially for Westerners, the image of a tyrannical dictatorship is one that is based largely on regimes such as Nazi Germany, the “Stalinist” Soviet Union, North Korea, and popular culture such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or V for Vendetta. Sadly, pop culture often has a greater influence on people’s perceptions than actual history, and as such it goes a long way to form our image of dictatorships.
So what does our popular image of a dictatorship look like exactly? Well for one thing, there should be one party, that of the dictator. His face should be plastered all over every suitable surface for a poster, a framed picture, or a mural. Police roam the streets asking random passersby for their “papers.” Public TV screens and loudspeakers blare propaganda non-stop, from songs about the “Dear Leader” and statistics about the state’s glorious achievements in production to warnings about the need to be ever vigilant against saboteurs and foreign spies.
How does Putin’s Russia measure up? We can certainly see a cult of personality around Putin, a smattering of high profile cases for treason (some of which were dropped), citizen denunciations, and people being jailed or otherwise punished for innocuous deeds such as reposting things they saw on social media. It is clear from the selectivity of court cases that rule of law does not exist, and those loyal to the power vertical are more or less immune to prosecution or punishment while dissidents can face hard time for trivial, even imaginary infractions. And of course it’s no secret that nobody can say how or when Putin will leave the presidency. However, it’s worth remembering that some of these features are relatively recent developments within the past two years. Even as the crackdowns on dissent began in 2012, the atmosphere then was nothing like 2014 or 2015. This would have been doubly true for any foreigner living in Russia, but let us postpone that for a moment and examine the case against Russia as a dictatorship.
First, it is true that independent media, though routinely suffering harassment both by the government in the form of Roskomnadzor and unknown “patriotic” individuals, still operates under seemingly ever-tightening regulations. Opposition protests still take place, though they are typically allowed only in out-of-the-way residential districts of the capital. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation still operates, recently releasing a documentary on the shady dealings of prosecutor general Yuri Chaika and his family. In response to the popular video, now available in English as well, Pussy Riot released a satirical video openly mocking the top prosecutor. Finally, one notices that even state-run news isn’t afraid to report on bad economic news, which tends to be the norm these days.
So which is it — a dictatorship or a country no less “free” than say, a central European country? The truth is that the problem lies in our image and understanding of an undemocratic dictatorship, and if we took a more modern and realistic view of the situation we would be better able to view Putin’s Russia as it is. It’s not that the regime isn’t a dictatorship; it’s that the nature of dictatorships has evolved.
At first glance this might seem like a trick — moving the goal posts. Putin’s Russia doesn’t fit the commonly perceived definition of a dictatorship so the definition must change? But there’s really nothing disingenuous going on here at all. Countries, governments, and societies evolve — this is a historical fact. Because the reasons for this evolution of the dictatorship are manifold, I will narrow the focus to a few key factors.
Evolution of tyranny
Throughout most of modern history rebellion, whether domestic or colonial, was rarely met with anything other than savage brutality, often aimed at making examples and raising the personal costs of dissent. The Paris Commune was drowned in blood in 1871. Britain routinely savaged India, from the iron-fisted suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. No more averse to unleashing violence on Europeans, the British Empire enthusiastically terrorized Boers in South Africa, and the ever-rebellious Irish were always a convenient punching bag. In the United States, that bastion of freedom, the turn of the century saw the “Coal Wars,” where mining companies hired private armies and called out the National Guard to break strikes, often with deadly results. This, of course, was only one part of a brutal system which included state-sanctioned segregation and everything that went along with it, including the barbaric practice of lynching.
Then came a turning point. During WWII, numerous German and Japanese military personnel would find themselves on trial for crimes committed against civilian populations under occupation. A typical defense was that the alleged crimes were in fact part of anti-partisan warfare, such warfare being against the rules of war at the time. This defense didn’t work too well, seeing as how the savagery of reprisal campaigns clearly exceeded whatever disdain one might have had for unsporting guerrilla warfare. The world emerged from WWII with the idea that no-holds-barred counter-insurgency warfare, whether against homegrown dissidents or colonial rebels, was now unacceptable. Governments either had to devise new ways of preventing or suppressing insurgency, or they at least had to cover up their use of the older, less savory methods.
We get an interesting insight into one of the consequences of this development in a classic work on guerrilla warfare, War of the Flea by Robert Taber. Taber wrote his work as an eyewitness to the successes and occasional defeats of post-WWII guerrilla warfare. As he outlines the advantages of popular guerrilla warfare in his introduction, points of very little relevance to our current examination of dictatorships, he briefly touches on one topic that provides very useful insight into their evolution. Noting the “interlocking nature of industrial society,” Taber writes:
“The modern industrial society cannot function, and its government cannot govern, except with popular participation and by popular consent. What is true of the industrial state is also true, with minor qualification, of the nonindustrial states and colonies on which the former depend for the raw materials of their industry and, often, for their export markets.
For the best of economic reasons, modern governments must seem to be popular. They must make great concessions to popular notions of what is democratic and just, or be replaced by regimes that will do so. The governments of the dominant industrial states themselves, even more than those they dominate, are strapped politically by this factor of the domestic “image.” They must use the liberal rhetoric and also pay something in the way of social compromise-schools, hospitals, decent concern for the well-being of all but the most isolated poor — if they are to retain power and keep the people to their accustomed, profit-producing tasks.”
Further on, he states:
“Almost all modern governments are highly conscious of what journalism calls “world opinion.” For sound reasons, mostly of an economic nature, they cannot afford to be condemned in the United Nations, they do not like to be visited by Human Rights Commissions or Freedom of the Press Committees; their need of foreign investment, foreign loans, foreign markets, satisfactory trade relationships, and so on, requires that they be members in more or less good standing of a larger community of interests. Often, too, they are members of military alliances. Consequently, they must maintain some appearance of stability, in order to assure the other members of the community or of the alliance that contracts will continue to be honored, that treaties will be upheld, that loans will be repaid with interest, that investments will continue to produce profits and be safe. Protracted internal war threatens all of this, for no investor will wish to put his money where it is not safe and certain to produce a profit, no bank lends without guarantees, no ally wishes to treat with a government that is on the point of eviction.”
Taber, of course, was mostly concerned about the topic of armed insurgency, but these passages are very revealing. Due to industrialization, the rise of a global mass media, and concepts like universal human rights based on a United Nations declaration, governments found themselves restricted in dealing with dissent, even dissent in the form of an armed insurgency.
Naturally the restrictions were by no means absolute. The second half of the 20th century suffered no lack of brutal dictators, right up until its end. Many of those tyrants also enjoyed the patronage of the “Western democracies,” including the United States. But in spite of this something definitely changed. The Vietnam War, brought into American homes on a nightly basis by television, marked the grave of that argument which said no quarter should be given in a struggle against Communism. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” just wouldn’t fly anymore. The “better dead than red” justification found even less sympathy when trotted out in response to outrage at the atrocities of US proxies in Central America.
Of course Taber was writing long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this had another major impact on modern dictatorships. The fall in 1989-1991 was supposed to be the “end of ideology.” Even nations which still retained nominal Communist party leadership seemed compelled to adopt capitalism, most notably China. As globalization led to a rise in living standards during the 21st century, some authoritarian regimes could propose a trade-off to their citizens — economic growth and consumer goods in exchange for certain political freedoms. Putin’s Russia was one of these nations.
Free from the outside: A Case Study
Another reason why countries like Russia might seem entirely “normal” from an outsider’s perspective is simply because the observer is an outsider. I’ve covered this concept in a past article on “expat privilege,” but this applies even more so to tourists or anyone who stays for a short term. I can provide an example from my own experience.
In virtually every respect, the People’s Republic of China far exceeds Putin’s Russia in terms of censorship, lack of personal freedom, and general disregard for human rights. Russia’s authorities may have their ever useful charge of ambiguous “extremism” with which to bludgeon the occasional dissident, but in China people have been arrested for “spreading rumors” online. The law against doing so imposes a penalty of up to seven years in prison, yet what constitutes “spreading rumors” is not defined. And what about those pro-Kremlin troll armies? Forget them- they’d be dwarfed in size by China’s so-called “50 cent party,” which low estimates place in the hundreds of thousands. Whereas Russia has the trappings of a multiparty system, China is ruled by the inappropriately named Chinese Communist Party. Oddly enough, despite these facts China has historically suffered far less flak from Western journalism in the 21st century compared to Putin’s Russia, a fact which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with the massive profits Western corporations have made in the former. But leaving that aside, a little digging into Chinese politics quickly reveals that its system makes Russia look like a human rights paradise by comparison, especially when looking at the pre-2012 era.
I visited China as a tourist in 2011, and during that period not once did I feel like I was in a dictatorship along the lines of the popular image. I encountered extremely polite, friendly, and helpful people almost everywhere I went. Never was I pestered by police or authorities. People danced in parks and squares. And while my experience was of course very limited, I have also worked with numerous people who spent years living and working in China. Of course they would joke about the bureaucracy and peculiarities of life in the country, but it was clear that their experiences were largely positive and I don’t remember anyone describing the place as a dystopian hellhole.
And this cuts right to the heart of the issue, because whether in China or Russia, if you’re a foreigner you really don’t count. Unless you deliberately go to the country with the aim of organizing anti-government opposition groups or assisting those which already exist, the authorities won’t really care about you. China wants your tourism, so does Russia. You’re also unlikely to run into many actual dissidents and language barriers prevent you from learning about news the regime doesn’t want you to know about. In Russia, while it is common for some people to passive-aggressively ask provocative questions about politics, in general the population has long been soured on the whole topic of politics for many years now. Expressing a controversial opinion can start a heated debate, but it’s more likely to end with a shrug and a call for another toast or round of drinks. Don’t expect an early morning knock at your door from the FSB, following up a tip that you were “propagandizing in favor of a color revolution” in a local drinking establishment earlier that night. You’re just not that important. Or to put it another way — of course it doesn’t seem like a dictatorship to you; you were on vacation.
Don’t mess with us-ism
Another important point to understand when evaluating the dictatorial nature of Putin’s Russia is that it has no ideology, and as such, it has no need to micromanage people’s lives in an attempt to ensure that everyone is espousing the correct line about everything. Many Western critics love likening contemporary Russia to the Soviet Union, or even more maddening — the Soviet Union under Stalin. In fact the regime’s official historical narrative is quite anti-Soviet and more about a rehabilitation of the tsarist empire, but this really doesn’t matter. The so-called Communist Party of the Russian Federation plays a key role as the leading loyal opposition party, and unlike China Russia still attempts to portray itself as a type of democracy whereby leaders are chosen in fair, competitive elections. This is no doubt one of several reasons for the concessions to a new Soviet nostalgia in recent years, when government unity is sorely needed in the face of Western criticism.
In any case one’s view of the Soviet Union or Stalin is more or less inconsequential to Russia’s authorities. If you call yourself a Communist and revile the tricolor flag, fine — just don’t oppose Putin and the status quo, and try to direct your hate towards Ukrainians. If you’re a monarchist who despises Lenin and Stalin for setting the country back and robbing it of its conservative national traditions, again- no problem. Just make sure you don’t rock the boat and never lose sight of the “real enemy,” i.e. Ukraine, America, and Western Europe. While the state is increasingly promoting a nebulous, vague ideology of “patriotism” in the media and the schools, the specifics of that patriotism are open to the individual’s own interpretation. This is both clever and efficient because it means that rather than waste time and resources making sure everyone believes the “right” things, the state really only has to be concerned with keeping people away from a smaller quantity of “wrong” ideas.
What is more, and what every outside observer must understand, is that Putin’s regime doesn’t function via the leader handing down specific orders and initiating plots against perceived enemies. Russia is full of autonomous actors with their own agency. Putin’s rule has established certain more or less unspoken rules, and chief among them is that loyalty is rewarded, whether in the form of protection or promotion. More recently a new message has been sent, imploring people to be patriotic and warning them against “fifth columnists.” So when you hear about someone in the Russian hinterland being hassled by authorities over some innocuous matter, do not think for a minute that Putin has special FSB agents detailed to find that particular type of dissent, and that he handed down an order for them to arrest that individual. What is almost certainly the case is that some local official, taking cues from the media, has taken the initiative and raised a case to show how loyal and “patriotic” they are. This has a number of benefits for the Kremlin, one of which is deniability should the reaction to the case be overwhelmingly negative. Another benefit is that the case can be turned into another example for one of the Kremlin’s overarching narratives: “Sure we’re bad, but look at the fanatics we’ve got in this country! If Putin leaves the throne, they’ll step in to replace him!”
And finally on this point, a modern dictatorship, contrary to our pop culture-influenced perceptions, doesn’t necessary rely on a myriad of strict rules and regulations for everything. Instead, regulations and the terms they use are vague. “Extremism” is a perfect example of this. The “political activity” which justifies labeling an NGO as a “foreign agent” is another. If you have rules, people can find ways to dissent while protecting themselves by simply making sure they follow all the rules. On the other hand, if the rules are vague and arbitrarily enforced, nobody knows what constitutes breaking them. It’s like walking in a minefield, and as such people will fall in line and censor themselves rather than risk breaking some obscure law they don’t understand or have never heard of. Again this saves the authorities a lot of time and energy.
Meet the soft dictatorship!
I would argue that Putinist Russia is a dictatorship of a new type, a soft dictatorship. This is not to make excuses for it or defend it; the idea is to ground one’s analysis in reality rather than bend reality to fit a preconceived notion of what dictatorships look like. Even in the early years of Putin’s rule there have been pundits and journalists who characterized his regime as a totalitarian dictatorship. I’m sure some of them would gladly take what has happened in recent years and claim that they have been vindicated. On the other hand, one might argue that those pundits were crying wolf, using the dreaded “t-word” during a time when Putin and Russia still had other options and alternative paths open to them. And whether one agrees or disagrees with that last point, I think it is reasonable to suggest that the vast disparity between the mid-2000’s Russian society and the dystopian picture those pundits were painting at the same time might have done wonders for pro-Kremlin propaganda. After all, RT scooped up a number of expats who, regardless of their individual beliefs, clearly rejected the “totalitarian” narrative of Russia.
Lastly, one must bear in mind that we are dealing with a practically infinite timeline, and as such there is no reason to assume that Russia’s current soft dictatorship can’t devolve into something more traditional, along the lines of China or Syria under the Assad regime. In the 90’s we saw that the Russian government was willing to fire on its own citizens with tanks and snipers. In more recent years we have seen how Putin, in spite of declaring Russians and Ukrainians to be one people, has hitherto shown no remorse over starting and sustaining a war in Ukraine which has displaced well over a million people and killed approximately 9,000 to date. Occasional statements from government sources often appear to be veiled threats aimed at the populace, warning them in case they get fed up with focusing only on local, specific economic grievances and unleash their anger on the system as a whole.
As the economy deteriorates and Russia finds itself increasingly isolated and bogged down in foreign wars it wasn’t prepared to fight, dissent will rise, and if it gets bad enough things will inevitably get messy. This is that point when the system can no longer honor the deal of living standards for loyalty, and the Russian people stand to lose everything they gained in the mid-2000’s. This would be where the government tries to stuff the cat back into the bag and runs into resistance. However, I think it’s safe to say that barring some kind of unforeseen catastrophe, Russia hasn’t yet reached that point and the authorities aren’t going to play the old-school tyranny card until they really need it, when hundreds of thousands are gathering in the streets of Moscow and other major Russian cities. So far the system has managed to avoid this by using propaganda against real anti-system dissent while making concessions to groups with specific economic demands. The former they can keep up for some time, but the latter might become very difficult, very soon.
We would do well to observe and understand this soft dictatorship, not only in order to understand Putin’s Russia but also to recognize the vulnerability of liberal democratic systems to such politics. Hungary and Poland are two examples of liberal democratic states which appear to be sliding toward authoritarian dictatorship. Turkey is already there, often beating Russia in the field of censorship. Ukraine manages to hold contested elections, but an authoritarian current clearly lurks just below the surface, using the war as justification. Even the US has recently had to deal with the shock of seeing what amounts to a proto-fascist make huge waves in a presidential primary race. Russia’s not the only place where we find charismatic con-men promising the masses order, greatness, and stability if we would only give them our vote and defer to them in all things.
If the citizens of Western democracies believe that a dictatorship necessarily entails the dystopian trappings of North Korea, they’ll most likely be blind to the dangers that exist within their own political systems, cracks in the façade that allow democratic institutions to be hampered or replaced by the trappings of the soft dictatorship. What is worse is that these days soft dictatorships like to portray themselves as viable alternatives to allegedly weak liberal democracies. To this end their propaganda often claims there is no significant difference between their systems and those of democracies; indeed they are either just as democratic if not more so. Or if they admit to being less democratic, the propagandists claim that the government provides economic prosperity in return. If the citizens of democratic countries fall for this charade, there’s no guarantee that they might not one day vote or not vote their way into tyranny.