In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.
This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:
is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.
Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.
There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,
President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.
Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.
All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:
A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.
Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:
Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.
‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.
I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.
Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.