I spend most of my time on this blog mocking all the exaggerated nonsense which passes for political commentary nowadays. It’s a rare day that I come across something which is both stimulating and well-written. Fortunately, this is one of those days. Via Facebook (which has its uses), I was pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Patrick Lawrence in this summer’s edition of the magazine Raritan Quarterly, of which I had not previously been aware. I can recommend it to you all, and you can find it here.
In my last post, I made fun of the demand that people should learn less about history and culture. Those making this demand clearly fear that an understanding of context will undermine the simple narratives they are peddling. This is how Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin) became a dirty word. Understanding is a bad thing. Patrick Lawrence comments in his article that,
None of our prevailing versions of Putin has any context. There is no trace of Russian history, political culture, national priorities, or national identity in any of them. In conversation I call this POLO, the power of leaving out, for it is perniciously effective. Leaving out context is an old trick among the propagandists – and of our press, we must at last recognize. It now turns our discourse into irrational nonsense.
Amen to that! But what is the context that we need to understand in this case? Lawrence argues that it relates to the fact that Russia was ‘a late developer’ compared to that part of the world which we call the West. This created a problem for Russians, as they had to answer the question ‘Was to modernize to Westernize?’ Answering that question in turn required them to engage in some soul-searching ‘for believable accounts of identity’. In response, says Lawrence, the great majority of Russians came to a common opinion: ‘Russians had to cut their own path into the modern. It was to be theirs alone, sui generis. They would have to think it through and make it.’
As it happens, this is an important theme in my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism. Lawrence makes the point, however, by citing examples from what one might call the political ‘left’ of Russian history – Alexander Herzen and the lesser known Mikhail Mikhailovsky. The fact that one can use examples from throughout the Russian political spectrum to make this point confirms its basic validity. While seeking to modernize, Russians have also sought to preserve (and one might even say, create) their own identity, in other words to modernize in their own way, while preserving what they value from their past. ‘There is plenty to suggest Vladimir Putin is well acquainted with this notion,’ writes Lawrence, ‘This modernizer is consistently attentive to the unmodern, and the unmodern in Russia is vast.’ [As an aside, I note that this sounds remarkably similar to Alexander Dugin’s idea of the archeomodern.]
According to Lawrence, this explains much of Putin’s behaviour. On the one hand, Putin wishes to modernize Russia. On the other hand, he is well aware that he governs a deeply conservative country in which people, as Lawrence says, ‘value order … above democracy’, and following the economic and social collapse of the 1990s (another vital piece of context) ‘want life to improve … but want little to do with Western neoliberalism.’ Governing in such a situation, ‘requires constant acts of balance,’ notes Lawrence. Putin isn’t an all-powerful autocrat. He ‘needs to build a broad consensus to get anything done.’ This explains many of his actions. The infamous legislation prohibiting the ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual practices’ to minors, for instance, can be seen as a kind of compromise which aimed to appease the conservative mood of the public while not going too far in the direction of a form of social control Putin is not actually interested in. Similarly in foreign policy, Putin’s instincts were initially pro-Western and he still insists on calling Western states his ‘partners’, but he is under consistent pressure from critics at home who ‘complain he is too slow in protecting Russia’s interests against the West’s repeated challenges to them.’ ‘These internal complaints’, notes Lawrence, ‘are part of the domestic politics Putin must manage.’
Seen this way, the policies Putin pursues can be seen as a response to Russia’s historical and domestic political context, not, as they are normally portrayed in the West, as the products of his own personal, malicious personality. And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it, Lawrence notes that ‘the majority of Russians consider that he acts broadly within Russian tradition.’ Putin’s rule, therefore, fits with a model of legitimacy in which ‘legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospects of well-being within the polity.’
Lawrence concludes that Western commentators are so obsessed with ‘the need to believe’ that they have acquired an ‘inability (or refusal) to see’ along with an inability to think. Alas, I think that this is all too true.