Recently I have been observing a mild attack of Putinophilia in the neoreactionary circles specifically and on the Right generally. I can distinguish three sources of this phenomenon, more or less corresponding to our three components.
The first source is the most primitive: the natural monkey reaction to an alpha male. In contrast to the insipid and dithering Western leaders, Putin is unquestionably a macho man. He does not try to hide his affairs very much, and was unapologetic when discovered. He is tough and mean, and is not at all shy to display this (and to use such displays for his purposes). This wins him respect and admiration from our manospheric component.
Second, he publicly makes much of supposed Russian spirituality and of the Russian Orthodox Church (R.O.C.) in particular, extolling Russia as the defender of the faith. This appeals to our traditionalist component, and kindles vague hopes that holy mother Russia will lead the West out of its quandary, possibly via an Orthodox Christian revival (I believe Bruce Charlton has an especially bad case of this malady).
Third, he is not afraid of standing up to the US-led ‘international community’. He supports Assad in Syria, sells weapons to Iran and hobnobs with China. He regularly denounces the State Department’s meddling and interference (which by no means prevents him from happily meddling and interfering himself). Lately he often makes noises criticising the modern Western nations, multiculturalism and political correctness, like his last year’s speech[♾] at the Valdai conference. His propaganda media, of which Russia Today is only the most visible organ (and which he reorganized late last year into an even more powerful structure), often present facts about the West which Western media prefer to ignore. This cannot fail to please our political philosophy component, sick of Cathedral’s lies and obfuscations.
Regretfully, I must smash these pleasant delusions. Like Lincoln’s speeches, Putin’s public pronouncements are dictated solely by expediency and can never be taken at face value. For all his bombast about the Russian people’s historic mission and his support for the R.O.C he does little for the Russian population beyond what is necessary to prevent rebellion, and it is unclear whether he has the desire, the ability or capability to do anything effective, because of Russia’s peculiar constitution (I use the word in its original, small-c sense). More on this later.
Now I don’t deny that the Russian Orthodox world has produced some good and interesting theology and religious philosophy over the centuries, although most well-known names — e.g. Berdyaev, Florensky, Soloviev, Shestov — belong to the long XIX century (this is not an accident). Splinters of the R.O.C. — especially the so-called Church of the Catacombs — did display wonders of faith and resisted the Soviet power. Nevertheless the main body of the R.O.C. has been a tool and organ of the state from its very beginning (after Stalin decided to permit the Church during WWII, it became for all practical purposes a branch of the KGB, with its top hierarchs being on the nomenklatura list of CPSU’s Central Committee). This being the preferred reactionary arrangement, the R.O.C. never suffered much from the pull of the leftist singularity and was ever a pillar of support to the government, but form alone is not sufficient. Content does make a difference, and the content of the R.O.C. was never up to snuff. The unculturedness, ignorance and even illiteracy (!) of its country priests was and still is a persistent problem, precluding any actual pastoral activity except the bare administration of the sacraments, the payment for which constitutes the priest’s livelihood. The parishioners, on their side, tended and still tend to view the sacraments as a sort of magic, and happily combine bits and pieces of Christianity with folk superstitions, witchcraft, magic and, recently, New Age and pseudo-scientific nonsense. The vaunted Russian spirituality has always existed principally in the imagination of the intelligentsia, who, conscious of the huge gap separating themselves from the masses and haunted by a feeling of being somehow inauthentic, idealized and even idolized the wise, authentic peasant people (this sounds familiar). The depth of their misunderstanding became clear in the failure of the narodnichestvo movement, which, in modern terms, was an attempt by members of intelligentsia at community organizing the people. The peasantry remained very lukewarm and conservative until Lenin recycled the program of the Socialist Revolutionary party and won their support by a transfer of land. However, this decree did not jibe with Communist ideals (it was superseded only four months later), and the peasantry had to be beaten down again and again to ensure compliance, until it was ground to atoms or destroyed.
To review the current state of the Russian masses. The demographic situation in Russia proper is dire. To be sure, TFR has been recovering since the 1999 low, but to what extent this represents shifts in maternal age at birth, responses to the Russian financial crisis in 1998 etc., is unclear. Although the Russian government does not publish fertility statistics broken down by nationality, a glance at the maps suffices to see that TFR in the regions predominantly populated by ethnic Russians is far below replacement, while for Turkic-speakers and Chechens it is well above replacement. Various efforts to stimulate fertility — cash handouts, cheaper loans, medals etc.— have met with failure, or stimulated undesirable or dysgenic reproduction. For 7 years the Russian government has been trying to woo back ethnic Russians from former USSR republics with perks and subsidies, but so far only 150,000 have signed up for resettlement, probably because most of those who wanted to return to Russia proper did so around the time the Soviet Union collapsed. Labor migration has been much more in evidence. Russia’s principal export is energy in various forms, almost all of it funneled through state-owned companies, and the redistribution of this Niagara of export profits produces billions of dollars worth of federally-funded boondoggles, inefficient infrastructure projects (the principal aim of these being to steal and embezzle state funds, nobody cares if villages rot, roads vanish and the bridges collapse next year) and private housing construction financed by the funds so embezzled. These projects generate construction jobs. Also there are streets to be swept and other menial work to be done, and the supply of immigrant labor from neighboring countries not blessed with hydrocarbons is huge, so why pay more? Besides some 3 million legal immigrants, there are at least 4 million illegal immigrants, mostly from USSR’s former Central Asia republics, who frequently live and work in truly Dickensian conditions. (They are less liable to binge drink, as well.) On the other hand, tens of thousands of educated Russians emigrate yearly to the Western countries, and a similar situation obtains in the second-largest post-Soviet state, Ukraine.
A discussion of quantity, while important, is not sufficient without a discussion of quality, and the situation here is no better. Russian love for alcohol in all forms is and has always been legendary (alcohol trade was heavily taxed when not monopolized by the state, and this “drunk money” constituted up to a third of state revenue). On top of this, criminality and drug use is rampant, and general squalor and degradation widespread, especially beyond the bubbles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Work ethic and civic virtues are next to non-existent (not that they ever were that strong). Shoddiness, littering, neglect and destruction of communal property are closer to African than to European standards. Nothing in an American slum or a French ZUS would startle the median Russian. School quality, which used to be a bright spot in Soviet times when it was needed to produce competent engineers and scientists for Cold War, has deteriorated, partly as a result of state neglect (taking the shape of constant ‘reforms’) and partly due to the importation of progressive educational ideas and policies, increasing paperwork load on teachers, lowering standards, cutting material from the school program in favor of ‘patriotic education’ and so on. Higher education has become a joke, with grades, tests, exams and papers up for sale, both as direct and indirect bribery and as a lucrative business — belonging to the service industry, I suppose. Campuses abound with blatant advertising for paper- and thesis-writing, including Ph.D. theses, which nobody bothers to remove. Students don’t bother to learn, and teachers don’t bother to teach. Finally, what still remains of Russian science suffered a very heavy blow last autumn, when after an ineffectual protest the government ‘nationalized’ the Russian Academy of Sciences — which was not a scientists’ club like the American one, but rather an independent research body like the German Fraunhofer Institut and Max Planck Institut. This reform certainly had valid grounds — there was much ballast and dead wood in RAS’s institutes, the legacy of Soviet nomenklatura hankering for sinecures for their offspring, wives and paramours, as well as garden-variety academic log-rolling — but now that everything will come under direct control of the government with ornamental advisory input from RAS, which will be managed and funded according to the preposterous scientometric criteria so successful in the West, even the most die-hard patriot scientists begin considering emigration or a career in the private sector, which again usually means emigration. Only the offshore IT industry is flourishing, partly because there still are quite a few smart wild-growth Russian hackers and partly because the industry is so isolated from the rest of the country and from its government.
A determined and capable ruler might be able to turn this juggernaut around in a few decades, but bad as Russian demographics are, the situation with internal governance is even worse, although it is by no means new. Russia’s governance is often described as ‘corrupt’, but this description misses the point. The rule of law has never existed in Russia long enough to take hold. Accordingly, there is no widespread respect for law. There might be written law, but it has always had about the same relationship to actual governance as the American Constitution has to actual governance in Washington, DC. Law is for your enemies — to beat them with, or for them to beat you with. Therefore, rather than describe the whole system as ‘corrupt’, it is more enlightening to say that the legal framework is a sort of Potemkin village, intended to conceal reality rather than structure it. It is true that some pieces of the framework do function more or less as written, but it is merely because no-one important is interested in them.
Well, then, what is the system? Its first incarnation appeared around XII century, when cash-strapped or stingy princes, unwilling or unable to provide their tax collectors and other officials with expense money for trips to the country, made it the duty of the populace to support such officials with food, lodging and transportation as required. Unsurprisingly, this duty was called ‘kormlenie’ (feeding). The officials quickly began to collect such emoluments whether they really required them or not, and a pattern of officials deriving their sustenance directly from those under their jurisdiction was established. However, the feeding system expanded and developed to its full potential in the XIII century, after the Mongols smashed the fragments of the Kievan Rus and brought their military-oriented organization principles (partly borrowed from the Chinese) with them. These principles combined with internal processes in the Russian society to create a governance system wherein officials (a) served at the pleasure of the prince or superior officer as hired administrators and (b) were expected and themselves expected to derive their livelihood from the jurisdictions entrusted to them and from the official business they conducted (this extended to Church officials). In American terms, it might be called a militarized one-party spoils system. In Olson’s terms, it combines the worst features of roving and stationary bandits into a sort of stationary organization of roving bandits. It has some parallels to the sale of offices practised in medieval Europe, but is arguably even more pernicious because whereas a sale cannot be easily revoked, a hired administrator can be fired, reassigned or demoted at will.
The feeding system creates exceptionally perverse incentives and, once entrenched, is very stable. Because the officials have no expectation of permanence, they extract surplus far in excess of the Laffer limit, stifling the productive economy and starving it of investment. Even for them it is more rational to consume surplus than invest it (after capital controls collapsed with the Soviet Union, much of the extracted surplus is exported; even the Russian foreign trade bank estimates the yearly outflow of capital at 10% GDP). Any investment is unsafe and everyone, including non-government actors, avoids it. This reduces quality of capital and productivity, saps the will to excellence and contributes to the general shoddiness and temporariness of everything around. Like a badly mismanaged corporation, the feeding system does not reward competence in its officials, rewarding instead the most ruthless, brazen and conniving brown-noses (often also quite stupid: this story about Russian diplomats and spies in New York committing health care fraud is typical). What is more, the feeding system makes life is very difficult for any conscientious officials: the salary is usually very low, your boss demands his cut, your coworkers look upon you as a black sheep at best and actively resent you at worst, and you have probably paid a large bribe for the promotion/hire and now have debt to discharge. Such an example also exerts a baleful influence on the general populace, who become accustomed to the idea that honest labor or honest business is stupid and that nothing is or can be done without greasing palms and pulling connections. The legal and regulatory system is under selective pressure to become complex, incomprehensible and self-contradictory, so that almost any person or business is in violation of some thing or another, giving the officials a lever to extract the surplus.
In modern Russia, the courts, prosecutors’ offices, tax offices, police and other law-enforcement arms are all run on the feeding system (this is why legalistic resistance tactics, like Navalny’s, fails to achieve much. His organization can sometimes curb the worst excesses of minor offices that have little clout, but beyond that the government is treating him as a nuisance), while fire safety and public health offices are the bane of the service industry, customs and certification offices leech off of the importers and so on. Anti-corruption drives are mostly for show and to keep public resentment in check, although they also have some use as a tool of faction. The surpluses are distributed through state corporations, where officials and their relatives sit on boards and serve as corporate officers, and through the state budget via lucrative state contracts sold with no or only formal bidding. After distribution, what is not spent on luxury consumption is funneled through tax havens to the West, where assets are at least reasonably safe from confiscation by competing services or colleagues. Putin himself is a representative of this system, and his effusions on the war-mongering and decadence of the West and the spiritual superiority of Russia serve the same purpose as Soviet leaders’ effusions on the war-mongering and decadence of the West and the scientific communist superiority of the Soviet Union: they are part of the country’s political formula. The fact that there is more truth to the part of this propaganda which concerns the West than there was in Soviet times is, from Putin’s point of view, merely a happy accident.
Now in most of what is now Ukraine the feeding system never took hold until the XVIII century, when Russian emperors swept away the vestiges of local Ukrainian self-government and reorganized their Ukraininan holdings on the same footing as properly Russian lands. What is now western Ukraine was long ruled by various European powers — Rzecz Pospolita, the Hapsburgs etc., who introduced European ideas of law and order. Even in what is now central Ukraine, most towns had self-government rights — a thing unknown in Russia except for Novgorod, destroyed by Moskovian tsars in the XV century. Serfdom also came with Russian rule along the East-West gradient ubiquitous in Ukrainian society, as did the Soviets. On top of this, for reasons both of geographic and cultural proximity, western Ukrainians often go to labor in European countries. All these factors combine to produce a much larger proportion of people in Ukraine who wish to live in an orderly and lawful society, even if they don’t have a clear understanding of what this would entail, much less how to achieve it. In contrast, everybody understands that the current government represents the Russian governance system. This is the root of the protests and civil disobedience which started late last year. The abrupt retreat by the government from signing the so-called association treaty with the EU in Vilnius was merely the trigger; few Ukrainians have any idea what the treaty actually contains. The law-and-order faction saw that the government (which, to them, resembles hostile occupation forces) is turning decisively and probably irrevocably towards Russia, and rushed to arrest this motion without any clear plans or strategy. Certainly this rush was not orchestrated by the State Department as some claim; especially after the government used riot police in the ‘suppression of prison riot’ mode to clear away a few hundred of students who were staying overnight in the main square (some of them ran into a nearby monastery for sanctuary — this is supposed to be the XXI century), it was just obvious to everybody concerned that the next day (Sunday) they must go and join the demonstration. I don’t know, maybe it was the State Department that ordered the riot police to clear away the students with extreme prejudice? I grant that some remnants of the Otpor-trained NGOs have surfaced in such circumstances, but in fact there is no evidence of prior organization, otherwise the campaign would have been much more effective. The opposition parties seem to have been caught by surprise by the scale of the action, and did little but provide audio equipment and MPs, who serve as a sort of armored knights because the police is usually afraid to tackle them. Most Ukrainian parties have little in the way of real low-level organizations, being merely ‘political cooperatives’ joined more by business interests than by anything else. The only party that has such an organization, the nationalist Svoboda (regularly denounced as fascist, nazi, far-right, or all of the above), did the most, but even this party has no real ideological unity or consistency beyond the bare minimum of Ukrainian nationalism. As a result, although there has been a deal of self-organization — accepting and distributing donations in money and in kind, preparing food, providing medical and a bit of legal services, connecting people coming from out-of-city with locals who provide lodging etc. — even now, a month and a half on, there is no clear strategy, set goals, plan of action or even generally accepted leadership. The government seems to have realized that clearing out the demonstrators is apt to backfire even if possible, and is waiting for demonstrations to fizzle out. It has proved to be very difficult to clear out the demonstrators without resorting to actual weapons — there is not that much riot police in Ukraine, not more than six or seven thousands all told, almost all of them are already concentrated in Kiev. Therefore the government resorts to hiring thugs to beat journalists, MPs etc. to try and cow the demonstrators, while the latter’s defense in and around the main square relies on Afghan veterans. Finally, the loyalty of the army is an untested quantity. Resorting to armed force will mean an instant and irrevocable jump into Putin’s loving embrace and very probable arrest of accounts and properties held by government officials in the West, as well as travel restrictions. Thus for the moment there is a stalemate. Russia may move more assertively after the Olympics is over; some think that a repetition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is in the works, with the solidly pro-Russian (except the local Tartars — a fine historical joke) Crimean peninsula as the likely target. On the other side, there is a persistent feeling in a part of the anti-government faction that it might be easier to reform the country after shedding the eastern and southern districts most contaminated by Russian influence, though there is also strong sentiment against dismemberment of the country. Most Russians don’t even see why Ukraine should be a country at all; a reduced pan-Slavism is also a part of Russia’s political formula, while on the practical level Russia would prefer to control the hydrocarbon pipes itself and not have to split profits with their neighboring government, which, while valuing the political independence that gives them their share of the spoils, has no use for Ukrainian nationalism.