We need to think about ‘Russia without Putin’, argues Tony Wood, an editor of the New Left Review, in a recent book with that title. By this he doesn’t mean that we should be thinking about how to overthrow the Russian president, rather that we shouldn’t make Putin the centre of every discussion about Russia. Russia isn’t what it is because Putin made it so, Wood argues. He’s a symptom not a cause. Getting rid of him won’t change anything. Instead, if we want to understand modern Russia, we need to look at the ‘broader structural forces’ which have shaped it; i.e. we need ‘to learn to see Russia without Putin’.
In his book, Wood attempts to do just that. His approach reflects his ideological position – socialists tend to downplay the role of individuals in history and stress instead the importance of ‘broader structural forces’. For Wood, the most important of those forces in Russia’s case is capitalism, or more precisely the specific form that capitalism has taken following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The defining feature of this form is a ‘symbiosis of state and business’. In recent years this has led to an ever-faster ‘revolving door’, as businessmen move into government and government officials move into business. The result is a ‘blurring of the boundary between the state and the private sector’, resulting in rampant corruption and abuse of state authority in order to boost private profit. Neither Western sanctions nor the removal of Vladimir Putin will change this, Wood argues.
Wood’s leftist inclinations shape also his analysis of what needs to be done to rectify this situation. He rejects the idea that Russia’s problem is the maintenance of Soviet-era attitudes, the continued existence of Homo Sovieticus or sovok. In fact, he argues, the retention of Soviet institutions provided post-Soviet Russia with at least some form of, albeit inadequate, safety net on which citizens could fall back, thereby facilitating the transition to capitalism. I found this the least convincing part of Wood’s book, as Soviet social institutions, the remnants of the Soviet welfare state, and so on, are distinct things from the Soviet mentality, often associated with phenomena such as a poorly developed legal consciousness. I think that you can argue that the former have proven helpful while the latter hasn’t.
For Wood, however, the solution to Russia’s problems doesn’t lie in further dismantling of socialism in favour of Western economic liberalism. It’s clear that he isn’t much of a fan of the latter. And this leads him to criticize Russia’s ‘non-systemic’ opposition. It’s weakness, he says, lies in the fact that it is hopelessly divided. The liberals think purely in terms of regime change. But this has little appeal to the masses. What does concern the masses are economic and social injustices – pension reform, increases in truck drivers’ fees, unhappiness with garbage disposal, and the like. In Wood’s eyes, the opposition will never get anywhere until it can combine its political activism with social and economic activism against the injustices of the capitalist system. But instead of that, the Russian intelligentsia is determinedly neo-liberal in its economic approach. Aleksei Navalny, for instance, supports economic reforms of a sort which, Wood says, reflect ‘conventional Western social and economic policy’ and which ‘led the world into a pervasive crisis from which no exit is in sight. If put into practice in Russia, they would likely worsen the situation for millions.’ The liberals’ economic policies thus cut them off from ordinary people, and ensure their defeat.
Instead of aping Western liberal economics, what Russian oppositionists need to do, says Wood, is to challenge the very fundamentals of the capitalist economy in Russia and ‘in short, to envision an alternative model for Russia.’ At this point, I found myself thinking that Wood sounds an awful lot like the Russian conservatives I’ve studied for my forthcoming book. You can easily imagine someone like Sergei Glazyev saying all this. In fact, you don’t even have to imagine it, because it’s precisely what people like him do say. Glazyev, for instance, complains that, ‘Our economy has turned into a cannibalistic mechanism of production, with the offshore business-aristocracy taking money out of the country without paying taxes,’ concludes that Russia needs to reintroduce its “moral norms” into economic policy, and argues that, ‘At the foundation of our traditional worldview lies the imperative of social justice.’ So it’s not like there aren’t people in Russia saying this stuff and criticizing the fundamentals of the capitalist order. Yet, they don’t seem to enjoy a lot of support; their message doesn’t obviously resonate very far.
And that, it seems to me, poses a problem for Wood’s analysis. There’s a danger, I think, in supposing that your own ideological preferences are necessarily other peoples’ and that if only they changed their minds to coincide with yours, then their problems would be solved. There’s a lot to be said for Wood’s thesis that we need to look at deep structural issues not personalities. But I’m not at all convinced that the Russian people are ready to accept the idea of a fundamental revolution in their social-economic system. On the contrary, the continued popularity of Vladimir Putin suggests that they prefer stability, with all its many imperfections. Appeals for fundamental change aren’t likely to be attractive.
There’s a reason for that. And that is that things aren’t all bad under the present system. For all its attacks on prevailing stereotypes about Russia, ‘Russia without Putin’ ends up being just another form of negative reporting. It challenges the common narrative about why life in Russia sucks, but at the end of the day it agrees with the basic proposition that it does – just for different reasons from those normally suggested. There is undoubtedly much truth in the model of Russian society and government which Wood lays out, including the corrupt mixing of state and business. But while that model explains how individuals exploit state power for their personal advantage, it can’t explain the many things the Russian state does do which benefit its citizens (as any state which wishes to stay in power surely will do). Just look at the improvements in infrastructure (most notably in Moscow) in recent years. How do they fit into the model?
‘Russia without Putin’ is a valuable addition to the literature about contemporary Russia. Its approach is very original, and reflects a willingness to engage in deeper analysis than that commonly found among supposed Russian experts. And I found a lot to agree with in it. Certainly, the form capitalism has taken is important factor shaping modern Russian politics. But is it the be-all and end-all of it? I’m not so sure. And does the solution to Russia’s problems lie in a rejection of Western economic liberalism and a fundamental reshaping of the Russian economy? Again, I’m not so sure. I’m also not convinced that such a reshaping could have the appeal which Wood thinks it would. But then I’m an economic liberal and not a socialist, so that’s just my own biases at work. Put Tony Wood’s ‘Russia without Putin’ on your reading list, and decide for yourself.