Aleksandr Podrabinek: On the logic of opposition – pushing back against dictatorship

28 August 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

The war against Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Russia as well as Ukraine. For this reason, it would not be bad to understand how the country sank into its present condition, who failed to prevent it and who helped.

The guilt of the Russian regime and its top officials is tremendous and obvious. Just as obvious, though, is the guilt of those who at the most critical moments in recent history did not tell this regime no. Our society proved gullible and naive, entrusting the country’s fate to former Party members, Young Communists, Chekists, and indifferent officials. The creative elite threw a loyalty party, preparing to avoid conflict with the regime rather than risk their relative well-being. The political opposition performed miracles of servility and surrendered the boundaries of democracy one after another until it had surrendered everything that should have been defended. After that there was no more opposition. The most fearful went into emigration. Those who remained kept quiet for the most part, while others wound up behind bars — like Aleksei Gorinov, Mikhail Kriger, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Grigory Melkonyants, Aleksei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, and hundreds of other political activists all over Russia.

No one is more to blame for this catastrophe than we ourselves. But the Kremlin had plenty of helpers in the West. Without their help the dictatorship could scarcely have found the strength to decide to go to war against Ukraine. All these years, as the space of freedom was narrowing in Russia through the regime’s efforts, the West ignored the mounting threat, since this seemed to be a threat of a purely domestic Russian nature. Even the war against Georgia wasn’t a cold shower for the Western democracies. As before, oil, gas, and other minerals flowed westward in a powerful stream, while hard currency, modern technology, and goods flowed eastward.

Now that the war in Europe has seriously alarmed the entire Western world, they’ve decided to push back on the Kremlin’s policy of aggression. Many correct words have been spoken. Harsh warnings have been given. Ukraine has been rendered significant humanitarian and moderate military assistance. Russia has not gone unnoticed either. There have been more than ten packets of international sanctions approved alone. How effective have they been?

The ban on the import of high tech goods and dual-purpose goods looks good only on paper. Russia is successfully skirting these sanctions with the help of third-party countries and the flow of contraband. The ban on the export of energy resources has complicated the country’s economic situation but by no means critically. Oil and gas exports are finding nontraditional paths, and the high prices compensate for sanction-associated difficulties. The personal sanctions against active supporters of the war are a nasty joke but again not critical and can be survived without particular losses.

The departure of most Western countries from the country was painful for the population. The shortage of imported goods, skyrocketing prices, limits on foreign travel — all this has affected nearly every person living in the country to some degree. How effective has it been? Imagine someone who walks to work through a minefield every day along a tested and seemingly safe path. And then he’s told: “Now you won’t have Hollywood movies, Chanel perfume, or Armani suits.” Well, yes, that’s disappointing but not so as much as turning off the path at a threat to your life and, having reached the dragon, shaking your fist at one of its heads. He might have taken that step when everything around him wasn’t mined yet, but those days ended in the early 2000s. Then these sanctions would have been effective; today they aren’t. Today the average Russian has no levers of influence over the regime such as there are in a normal democratic society. This doesn’t mean he can’t do anything at all, but what he has left entails a risk to his freedom and life. What do sanctions have to do with that?

These sanctions have another extremely interesting aspect. Some of them fit quite well into Putin’s policy. All ideologues of despotism—from Plato and Campanella to Hitler and Pol Pot—have promoted a closed society and the omnipotence of state power. One of the basic instruments for subordinating society to the state has always been the manipulation of information and control over free speech. This instrument was used widely in the Soviet Union, and the present-day Russian regime has incorporated it, too. Oversight over the dissemination of information is one of the Kremlin’s most important objectives. Western sanctions help in this quite well. When Microsoft or Google blocks their services in Russia, that is exactly what Putin and his circle are trying to achieve. Isolating Russian society from the outside world is one way to strengthen authoritarian rule. These measures also include limiting travel out of the country. Here the Kremlin has had less success, but the campaign of various bans and invented difficulties has not died down. A major argument in this campaign has been the Western sanctions that limit travel to the countries of the West for all Russians.

It’s not irrelevant here to recall the West’s strategy for opposing the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc. At that time, the West put significant efforts into breaching the Soviet system of isolation. Volunteers would bring into the Soviet Union literature banned there at risk to their own freedom. Western media made every effort to see that information got into the Soviet Union and was disseminated there. The West tried to ease the visa process for Soviet citizens by expanding cultural exchange and cooperation in many areas. Now that Vladimir Putin and his comrades have adopted the course of reviving Soviet methods of state governance, the West’s position is the exact opposite. Then, the logic of pushing back against totalitarianism was based on condemnation of the regime and support of society. Now the West is equating Russian society to the regime, although the surge of political repressions in Russia attests to the opposite: the interests of society and regime do not coincide. The West is completely ignoring this fact and the successes at opposing Soviet totalitarianism. Does this mean that the West’s past experience has been deemed a failure and the collapse of the Communist system is not what the free world needed?

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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