WHEN IN THE final days of his anti-climactic election campaign Vladimir Putin sought the blessing of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, he confirmed symbolically an attachment both to the Russian Orthodox Church and the czarist tradition. Add to the pious optics of this gesture the state dominated, and eastern Europe dominating, megacorporation Gazprom as well as the country’s informal ‘silovik’ network of former security operatives—embedded into the country’s banking, commercial, media, and energy sectors—and one would have in a single photo-op a complete representation of the current Russian state.
In Russia everything relates to, and depends upon, the state. Atop the state we find the once and present and future Vladimir Putin. Rehearse his personal history, and you get an illustration of how thoroughly dependent one’s fortunes are upon the kindness of Mother Russia. Putin’s paternal grandfather was a cook to Lenin and Stalin, and the few material comforts which devolved to his impoverished parents were dispensations of the state. From here we leap to a backwater Dresden job with the KGB, where Putin’s hard work and extraordinary attention to detail put him atop a KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Bureau.
The next step, from the FSB to the Presidency, was again a case of blessings from on high. Yeltsin dismissed his too popular for comfort Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, as well as Primakov’s pro-Chechen successor Sergei Stepashin. (Stepashin resigned, but the temporary nature of his appointment was a matter of record.) In response to an anti-corruption campaign, Putin attacked the Yeltsin rival and chief prosecutor Yury Skuratov, using dubious evidence of a sex scandal to end this whistleblower’s career. Within months Yeltsin designated Putin as Prime Minister and president-in-waiting, and with Putin’s ascendance the work of extending and consolidating the power base set down by the previous decade’s rampant kleptocracy went forward.
According to a May 2011 Paul Bonicelli Foreign Policy article, Putin’s present objective is a ‘neo-czarist state’ in which citizens will exchange a degree of freedom and political choice for a compensatory degree of stability and prosperity. ‘Freedom or prosperity’ may seem a false antithesis in the Capitalist West, but in the immediate years after 1991 Russians experienced the shock therapy of economic and political liberalisation along with a sharp decline of the living standard and the prestige of the motherland. In the Western media, the topic ‘What do Russians think?’ comes up often, as if reports of public opinion in Russia were anything more than the convenient sums of behind-the-scene manipulations. Anyone who has bothered to look into the question notices that Russians, like any other diverse group, think everything — including that life was better under comrades Lenin and Stalin. For obvious reasons having to do with the human lifespan, Romanov nostalgia is hard to find. Who however can doubt that, for a plurality of citizens, the best days are all behind?
Into this membership list of the Best Days Behind club one could well toss Mr. Putin himself. With the attenuated foregone conclusion of the presidential election behind, consider the facts of 2012 which are certain to govern developments from now forward. Valdimir Putin has strenuously cultivated his image as a pious and muscular Stalin-era Russian nationalist. His geopolitical instincts appear to be governed by nostalgia, the lost supremacy of Russia on the ice rink and the Cold War strategic rivalry with the United States. Even his chief political inheritance and asset, the crony network of former KGB employees and state-dominated enterprises, is backward-looking in all respects.
As Putin sought the miraculous intervention of the Tikhvin Virgin Mary, the parliament’s State Duma pondered a law which would introduce new punishments for the offending of religious feeling. This too portends a resurgent and largely unnoticed nostalgia trope, the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church to its long diminished status as an authority both in matters of politics and Russian nationalism. The Holy Father and Russian Patriarch Kirill Gundyeav has proclaimed Putin’s political longevity a miracle of God, an instance of back scratching which has as its complement a 2009 United Russia provision giving the patriarch the right to review and amend legislation. Not quite satisfied with this enlarged sphere of authority, Patriarch Kirill and his spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin have been advancing the cause of an Orthodox political party. (In this effort, the church has been scrupulous to circumnavigate Russian prohibitions of political parties formed along religious lines.)
Why should any of this matter to a North American audience? Perhaps it shouldn’t. But before you draw that conclusion, consider that Putin’s militarism and hostility to the West (in particular, the United States) are shared by his Orthodox allies, and that across his political network a consensus now exists that the way forward for Russia is backwards — to the strategic posturing of the Cold War and to the prestige and authority of a state-church alliance which must reject constructive engagement with the West while striving after the lost glories of old Russia. And then allow yourself to ponder the surreal possibility that in some quarters the Cold War hasn’t ended.