The Wolves, the sheep, and the watchmen: Aleksandr Podrabinek on the harm of compromises

25 January 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

Who is going to blame a wolf for being a predator? That’s his nature: to chase down the weak, drag lambs from the sheepfold, and feed them to his family. To guard against wolves there’s a watchman, whose responsibility is to shoot unwelcome visitors. There’s no eliminating wolves altogether, and maybe there’s no point in that, but they have to be kept at bay.

What’s the point of today’s accusations against Vladimir Putin? That’s his nature. Who ever expected anything else from a career KGB officer? The flurry of accusations against Putin today exposes the bewilderment and short-sightedness of his present-day critics. You miscalculated and now you’re in shock? You mean it wasn’t obvious that nothing good can be expected from Chekists?

In a similar situation, after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Vladimir Bukovsky put it wittily and accurately: “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 elicited genuine shock in the world, which, I remember, surprised me in the extreme. It was as if before this there had not been Soviet expansion in literally every corner of the globe. This amazement, indignation, and incomprehension had something low and sham about it, something like the indignation of a man who marries a prostitute and discovers—oh my!—that she’s not a virgin.”

It’s the same with Putin. What is this bizarre surprise? It’s as if they were counting on the tsar to be good and he turned out to be bad. As if this hadn’t been preceded by a years-long suppression of civil liberties that has now plainly and simply spilled over, beyond Russia’s borders. So now, instead of murderous self-analysis, there are furious accusations not only against Putin, not only against the Russian regime, but against all Russians in general, and Russian history, culture, and language.

Accusations and more, accusations spilling overboard, so that no one remembers how catastrophically wrong you were about the Russian regime and about ignoring the sensible voices of the Putin regime’s critics inside Russia. For twenty years you cajoled Putin, remained on friendly terms with him, gazed into his eyes and asked him to be partners—and you’re surprised at the results? Yes, after twenty years of uncontrolled power anyone would lose a proper perception of reality. It’s a natural process, and it’s not a matter of Putin personally but of his overlong sojourn in power. Something you facilitated to a significant extent by recognizing the power he usurped over the country as legitimate.

Look around you. We have the same kind of ungovernable dictators ensconced in North Korea, Iran, Belarus, Turkmenistan, China, Venezuela, and Cuba. You meet with them at summits, sign trade agreements with them, and recognize their right to act as representatives in the UN in the name of countries they basically enslaved. You behaved in exactly the same way with Putin for the last twenty years, too. You could have been the watchmen of democracy, but you preferred not to notice your partner’s wolfish ways.

I can predict your question: And just who is this “you”? Who are these accusations aimed at? Who is to blame for what has happened? I’m not going to try to wiggle out of it. The Russian people are to blame first and foremost. Out of sloth, placidity, and short-sightedness they put their trust in political scoundrels, farmed out Russia’s future to them, and when the thunder of war and repressions broke out it was too late. The authoritarian regime had firmly cemented over all the instruments of democracy.

Scoundrels who represented the political elite successfully embedded themselves in the regime, some as loyal servants, others in the form of a dealmaking opposition. From time to time they would switch positions. Everyone was playing by the same rules. Those who understood opposition to mean confronting the regime, not collaborating with it, were a negligible few.

There’s nothing to be said about the docile Duma “opposition,” but even the “nonsystem” opposition refused to go outside the framework of a system that from one day to the next was becoming more and more brutal, more and more inhumane. Citing their law-abidingness, the democratic opposition’s leaders accepted the rules of play imposed on them by the regime even when those rules were anti-rights and anti-constitutional. They asked for consent to hold street actions, took part in illegal elections, and served in legislative bodies formed in violation of democratic procedure. Opposition leaders readily agreed to meet with the president, who they themselves considered illegitimately elected. The political class in Russia was fundamentally not independent and became part of the authoritarian system the Kremlin constructed, perhaps unwillingly.

The greater part of the human rights movement behaved in a similar fashion. With Putin’s rise to power, the human rights pathos gradually flickered out, to be replaced by simpler and less dangerous activity in defense of the interests of disadvantaged social groups, legal and humanitarian support, education, and concern for the historical memory. Defending human rights would have led to a confrontation with the regime, and human rights activists did not want that. They were taking grants from the presidential fund, joining public councils under the cruelest ministries, and cringing before high-placed officials.

Human rights activists justified themselves against charges of servility with the theory of small deeds. They said with unconcealed irritation and infantile fervor that they were prepared to fraternize with the devil himself if that might help a single person. They truly did help one person! Hypocritical collaboration with human rights activists wholly suited Putin because for him the private interests of individual people meant little, but the human rights activists helped him create his image as a busy but tolerant, fair, and democratically inclined president. Meanwhile, Western politicians looked on this collaboration appreciatively and decided that things couldn’t be all that bad in Russia if famous human rights activists from the Moscow Helsinki Group, Memorial, and other human rights organizations were discussing critical problems of Russian life at a roundtable with Putin. This was the kind of picture Putin needed then, and he got it.

Journalists and cultural figures contributed their mite to strengthening the dictatorship. Most of the mass media came under total Kremlin control, and the most loyal of them fed from the state budget. A few resisting media held on within the established framework, obeyed the censor’s demands, and received partial financing with the Kremlin’s blessing. Many cultural figures who enjoy international fame and respect accepted state prizes from Putin’s hands or participated in his “electoral” campaigns. And once again Western politicians looked at them and thought that if favorites of the liberal public like Vladimir Voinovich and Mikhail Zhvanetsky were accepting prizes from Putin’s hands, then nothing so terrible was going on in Russia, we could do business with this regime, agree to compromises, live in friendship, conduct trade, and not think about the consequences.

Twenty years of unending compromises have ended in logical ruin. Now that war in Europe has apparently dotted all the i’s, it would be useful to ponder whether the West’s policy toward Russia was correct. Were Western leaders in fact so naive that they believed Kremlin PR that exploited the opposition, human rights activists, and cultural figures? Or were they just pretending so that they could quietly continue relations with the dictatorship, which were not unprofitable for their countries? After all, they had to understand that the export of Russian gas, oil, and other natural resources was allowing the Kremlin to build up arms and prepare for the next war. Shouldn’t the West take some responsibility for strengthening the authoritarian regime in Russia?

Of course, now it’s simpler to anathemize everything connected in any way with Russia without going into the details and painting them all with the same brush. Isn’t this happening because many in the West would like to forget how they nurtured Putin and the current Russian regime? So that no one remembers that? On the other hand, look how stern we are now!

The West’s years-long support of Putin, of course, does not erase our Russian guilt. Each has his own responsibility. To be honest, though, the West possessed many more opportunities to influence Putin’s policy than the Russian opposition did. Even if it hadn’t been so servile and fearful. The West’s instruments of influence were incomparably more effective at the time than the possibilities inside the country. The authoritarian regime’s entire might was built on the profit from exporting hydrocarbons. That money went to the army. That money went to the police and special services. The West gave Putin that money.

As a result, Russia was left without watchmen. No one wanted to guard our home from the predator. Neither we nor our strong and good neighbors, whom it would have cost nothing to drive the wolf away from the sheepfold. Instead, they nurtured him and kept him in sporting trim. Now everyone is going to pay for this. Perhaps not everyone identically, but everyone. Some already are.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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