9 September 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Speech at the 32nd International Economic Forum in Poland, 9 September 2023
Dear ladies and gentlemen!
I would like to touch on two topics today: how Russia is seen, not from Warsaw or Kiev, but from Moscow; and how Russia arrived at its current state. I shall try to be brief.
There is a widespread opinion in the West that Russia is today acting out of motives of classical imperialism. Two main arguments are cited: the seizure of foreign territories and historical traditions.
I shall not talk about historical traditions. Firstly, because it would take the conversation into the inaccessible depths of the past. Secondly, because historical events cannot serve as convincing arguments for the resolution of political problems today. I shall only note (and this is important for understanding the problem) that in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century, many empires behaved exactly like empires – with territorial claims and militaristic rhetoric. Such were, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Japanese Empire, the European colonial empires, and finally the Third Reich. At that time Russia was in no way unique in its imperial ambitions.
Now these empires have become democracies, but Russia has not. However, in fact, it has remained an empire only in terms of external indicators. Empire in the 21st century is a nonsense. Seizing other people’s territories does not make a country stronger. Everyone understands this.
For the Kremlin, the imperial narrative is just a propaganda trick, intended to deceive the people, an attempt to justify its hard-line policy in some way. The other narrative is victory in the Second World War, pride in previous generations and resentment at the whole world for not appreciating Soviet heroism enough.
Both narratives are pulled from an old set of worn-out propaganda templates. Something newer and more convincing is needed, but no, nothing better has been found. For a long time they tried to come up with a new national idea, but they did not find one. They had to make do with what was at hand: false second hand pathos, Soviet values that had long lost their freshness.
I am surprised at how easily the West took the bait and began to explain current Kremlin policies in terms of imperial motives. Even in Russia, few fell for this. Real imperialist sentiments don’t exist in our country. No one in Russia today will go to war for the imperial idea, especially not as a volunteer. Nobody needs it. It’s enough to remember that when the Soviet Union somewhat quietly collapsed, nobody lifted a finger to save it. People had other, more serious concerns.
Nothing has changed since then. People in Russia are preoccupied with survival, not with dreams of territorial gain. In the West, they talk about Russians’ imperial complexes after watching Russian state television and reading Russian government newspapers. Yes, you’ll find enough of that there. In those places they play the imperial card to the full. But this is nothing more than a show that does not reflect the real moods in Russia at all.
Why Western politicians, journalists, commentators, political scientists, and public figures fell for this bait is beyond understanding. Perhaps it is because for them it simplifies the picture of the world, drawing a clear line between good and evil, and is suitable for mass consumption without any additional processing?
I will certainly be asked: if Russia is not pursuing an imperial policy today, what is it? What is the driving force behind the war against Ukraine? I can answer easily: Kremlin policy today has only one goal – to preserve the power of President Putin and his inner circle. That’s all! There is nothing else – no imperial ambitions and no concern for the future of Russia, no ideas, no global plans, no projects and no prospects. All the current Kremlin rhetoric and propaganda bravado serve just one thing – the preservation of dictatorship for an indefinitely long period of time. As George Orwell wrote, ‘the goal of power is power.’ Nothing else. Nothing new.
This is the angle from which we should view the war against Ukraine and the wave of political repression in Russia that is unprecedented since Stalin’s time. Not yet as severe as in Stalin’s times, but in terms of intensity it has already overtaken everything that occurred in the post-Stalin era.
Aggression outside and repression inside the country – these are the two most effective tools for a dictatorship to keep power. And there is no need to attribute any other ideological motives to Kremlin policy, including supposedly imperial ones. There is no need to catch a black cat in a dark room when it is clearly visible in the light of day.
How did we get to this state of affairs? In the early 1990s, Russia had a chance to take the path of democracy. We missed the opportunity. Our society turned out to be too trusting and naive, too gullible and carefree. It entrusted the fate of the country to political imposters – former Party bosses and Komsomol activists, power-hungry Chekists and obedient officials.
Our creative elite, for the most part, proved to be too fearful and docile. They preferred not to irritate the authorities, not to contradict them, and were always ready to serve them, and often did not shy away from picking up crumbs from the bosses’ table.
Even many former dissidents – my old friends and comrades – rushed to get into government, a government that was dressed up in democratic clothes, but in essence was not democratic.
Our political opposition wrote on its banner ‘Open for Negotiations’ and went to the Kremlin to reach agreements with the authorities, preferring not to engage in confrontation. The opposition surrendered democratic frontiers one by one, always hoping to avoid a deterioration in relations. The results were inevitable: when all the frontiers had been surrendered, there was no more opposition. The most fearful went into exile. Those who remained have been mostly silent, because the price of a critical word has become unbearably high in Russia.
No one is more to blame for Russia’s troubles than ourselves. But we should not ignore the help the West has given the Kremlin either. Without this help, the dictatorship would have been unlikely to have developed as it has done, or become so strong. All these years, while civil liberties were being stifled in Russia, the West looked the other way, unwilling to interfere and exert influence on the illegitimate government. It would have been OK for the West not to interfere, but instead it actively helped the Kremlin.
The West was happy to maintain trade relations with the authoritarian regime. Western leaders looked Putin in the eye, hugged him at meetings, danced at parties, and the most dexterous at the end of their terms of office joined the boards of directors of Russia’s state-owned companies.
How many times did the best representatives of the Russian opposition call on the West to adopt a tougher course toward the Kremlin, a more consistent sanctions policy! To no avail – the benefits of cooperation with the despotic regime always proved more attractive than any arguments. Two outstanding figures of the Russian opposition have paid the price for this: Boris Nemtsov with his life and Vladimir Kara-Murza with 25 years in prison.
Now the West has imposed sanctions against Russia that should have been imposed 20 years ago, when authoritarianism had only begun to gain strength. When Russian society, if hurt by sanctions, could still in some way influence the authorities. Today, these tools are no longer available, and there is little that sanctions can do.
And to say the least, these sanctions are somewhat strange. The West needs aluminium to build aeroplanes – let’s remove investments in bauxite mining in Russia and its export to the West from the list of sanctions. Do we need oil? Well, we see that the northern section of the Druzhba oil pipeline that runs through Poland is in operation to this day.
Right now, while we are discussing the horrors of Russian imperialism here, about 400 kilometres to the north of where we are, Russian oil is running merrily through pipes to Germany. This year it is planned to pump 3 million tons. And no war is going to prevent this – the Druzhba pipeline has been removed from the sanctions list. And do you want to know what 3 million tons of oil is worth in monetary terms? At an average annual price of $70 a barrel, it will amount to approximately 1.5 billion dollars. And then there’s the southern section of the pipeline, which brings Russian oil to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Even Ukraine, the Ukraine at war with Russia, is now shipping gas to the West through its gas transportation system. The Kremlin gets a nice profit from all this in its budget, which is spent mostly on weapons and what’s left over on prisons and handcuffs for those who are unhappy with the regime.
I don’t know, maybe there is some higher political wisdom in cursing Russia while at the same time profitably trading with those in power in the Kremlin who have doomed our country to destruction, and Ukraine to death and ruin. Most likely clever people in Brussels or Washington will find some arguments for this phenomenon. But I in Moscow do not accept them.
And the last thing I want to say. We must clearly realize that wars and repression will stop only on one condition: if Russia takes the path of democracy. All other victories will be local in nature and short-lived. On that basis, we need to think about where the efforts of the international community should be directed.
Translated by Rights in Russia