Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Why don’t Russians just overthrow Putin?

In the previous post, I described five conditions that need to be in place in order for a revolution to happen. It’s not just about masses of people coming to streets. It’s an intricate combination of numerous complex factors.

Now let’s analyze the current situation in Russia through the lens of these factors. Why don’t Russians just overthrow Putin? Well, we’ve been trying for 10 years!* Alas, it’s not that easy. Here’s why. And most importantly – what to do about it.

The oil prevents large economic crisis

Historically, most revolutions are triggered by at least some sort of an economic crisis.

It’s not easy to admit it, but the present-day Russia is following the development path of Gulf monarchies, not European nations. It shares way more similarities with countries of Arabian peninsula than I wished to admit. Dictators sitting on large stockpiles of oil deposits have almost infinite resources to invest into reinforcement of their military, as well as to maintain an okay-ish level of population’s wellbeing – so that people don’t get hopelessly desperate.

It’s obvious that Putin’s regime was carefully watching the unfolding of Arab spring revolts of 2010s. During those times, 4 presidents were overthrown, and political regimes in 6 more countries underwent significant changes. Alas, none of the oil-rich countries of the Arabian peninsula were shaken by revolutions. Massive uprisings in Bahrain and Oman were quickly suppressed thanks to the oil-financed troops of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Any emerging revolts in Saudi Arabia and UAE were shut down before even being able to unfold properly. Oil was also the reason why revolution went so horribly wrong in Libya, the only country in the region that had oil out of the neighboring Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, etc.

After the wave of revolts in Middle East, the Russian regime learnt from mistakes of the fallen dictators. The years around 2010 is exactly when it all started to go downhill: as the regime began to militarize and tighten up all the loose bolts. That’s how we ended up with more than USD 46 billion spent on the internal military force in 2022: Russian Rosgvardiya, with almost 350,000 heavily armoured soldiers recruited for ensuring internal security and law enforcement, including insurgency suppression and riot control.

The internal troops are always kept at hand thanks to yet another reason: the history of Russia itself. The current government is well aware that back in February 1917 the Russian empire collapsed precisely thanks to the fact that the emperor didn’t have a sufficient police force to prevent the unfolding uprisings. While normally the capital of Saint Petersburg was full of loyal battalions of internal army whose sole aim was to protect the emperor and his family, with the start of WWI, most battalions were sent to fight at the Eastern front. Russian empire had suddenly become a police state with a lack of policemen. So on the 23 of February, when the revolts unfolded, only a few paramilitary groups (such as Cossacks) and several army divisions remaining in the city were sent for help. The latter mainly consisted of newly recruited soldiers frustrated by their living conditions who were quite indifferent towards the regime and only did the bare minimum. Later they would join the revolution too.

What to do in order to rid dictators of their financing? A mere embargo on oil is not likely to help. Authoritarian regimes in countries such as Iran stay relatively strong even without access to Western oil markets. The only hope is that the regime will screw itself up due to its own incompetence. So I would follow the accelerationist path of Nick Land: the more liberty the regime has, the faster it will fall due to its inherent inconsistencies and contradictions. Let the government be even more wasteful and more ignorant, let the industry crumble in rust, let the markets collapse. Following the words of Henry Miller: let’s summon more cataclysms, more disasters, more calamities.

It’s painful to admit it, but long wars help too. Almost all formerly powerful European empires collapsed as a result of WWI. So the foreign strategy chosen by Putin is helpful in bringing closer his own demise.

The elites aren’t divided

In order for a revolution to happen, elites have to become alienated from the regime. This includes economic, political, and military elites.

Looking at history, in order to annoy the elites, Putin has to do one of the following. Either start socialist reforms and nationalize key industries to upset the economic elites. Well, he loves Soviet Union but not as much. He could also suppress the church and turn clergy against him. Well, in a society ridden by 70 years of communism, simply no one would care. Alternatively – he could choose to pursue some really crappy war strategies to irritate military elites and the more competent army commanders. Oh well… We’re getting there.

But let’s start from the first group. When it comes to economic elites, what are the chances that oligarchs would turn against the regime? The genesis of Russian economic establishment comes from the criminal groups emerged in the 90s. The present-day economic elites predominantly consist of oligarchs who obtained their wealth either through criminal activities, takeover of formerly state-owned industries or appropriation of natural resources – neither way entirely legal. The economic elites are expected to be loyal and cooperative, and if they aren’t – they get quickly removed. See the growing number of Russian corporate managers, executives, members of director boards that tend to fall out of windows or commit unexplainable suicides.

The political elites? Russian political establishment is recruited from the former KGB (now FSB) circles, Putin’s alma mater. To prevent division of political elites, only members of a tight mafia circle are allowed to share political power, linked by a vicious system of shared criminal responsibility and a stash of blackmail materials collected against each other. What the members of United Russia are truly united by is a system of shared responsibility for bloody atrocities. If one member of the circle betrays the system, he becomes a scrape-goat. The state crimes are abundant, so it’s nice to have someone to blame for endless bribes and corruption. And indeed, there’s no shortage of ex-ministers, former legislators, and parliament members blamed for some shady deeds from the past based on a suddenly resurfaced evidence.

The best bet is always on military. As already mentioned, the Russian revolution of February 1917 succeeded thanks to the fact that army lost loyalty to the emperor. When army battalions were called to suppress the demonstrations unfolding in Saint Petersburg, some divisions decided to attack the police instead. The following day, several army officers refused to fight alongside the policemen, so instead they shot their commander and cheered other battalions to leave barracks and go to streets. Everything was utterly chaotic, and yet the masses of people together with soldiers and striking workers became so huge that the revolution eventually succeeded.

Another example of army losing loyalty to the regime was the failed 1991 Soviet coup d’état that was coordinated by military officials opposing the newly established Gorbachev’s government and the new parliament. And even though the army was on the side of insurgents first, the coup eventually failed when the soldiers refused to obey orders and shoot civilians, therefore the new government managed to defend itself in the end.

Alas, the present-day Russian army is organized as a corrupted hierarchical structure – not too different from a prison. It’s filled with the most desperate, least educated conscripts from distant and economically devastated regions of the country. Under such circumstances, the military force is quite prone to state propaganda and genuine hatred towards the opposition. Same goes for the police force. Otherwise policemen won’t have genuine motivation to rape the arrested with a dumbbell, right. The Internet features numerous horrifying records from Russian police stations exposing tortures and abuse of the detained protesters.

How to turn police and military force against the government? There’re two ways. First way is to spread resistance narratives that would reach not only a small cohort of young educated urban population active on Twitter, but also people at periphery of the country that have 9 classes of middle school and see military as the only way out of poverty. More about this later. The second option is to continue leading crappy wars. Invasion of Moldova? Amazing. Annexation of Finland? Even better. The more erratic commands of the regime become, the more likely military officers are to get disappointed in its competence. See the previous post for a description of how irrational wars inspired a military coup that led to collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1970s.

Propaganda still works

Let’s face it, Putin has a pretty good narrative with his critique of the West. Western nations have done terrible things in the past? Absolutely (think of the Middle East in the 20th century). The future that left-wing progressive activists are leading America to is dismal? No doubt. Does it mean that Putin’s dictatorship is a viable civilizational alternative? Absolutely not! It’s a manipulation through the logical leap, a missing chain in the logical inference.

The propaganda is effective because it’s confusing. Here’s a list of logical fallacies I managed to count while listening to the recent speech of Putin from September 2022:

– Either / or logical fallacy (the West is not good therefore Putin’s authoritarian Russia is amazing)

– Correlation vs causation (West is democratic AND also bad Russia must be great thanks to its strong centralized government)

– Slippery slope fallacy (Europe refuses to buy Russian oil Western elites want to deindustrialize Europe)

– Appeal to emotions (‘We all remember scary 90s, the times that were hungry, cold, hopeless‘)

– Faulty generalization (the West was involved into colonialism and opium wars the West is against human nature, truth, freedom, justice)

– Defective induction (America protects gender and sexual minorities Western values lead to degradation and extinction (infamous ‘parent one’ and ‘parent two’)

– Proof by example (in the 90s, a few Western corporations tried to buy stakes in Russian businesses following collapse of the Soviet Union the West wants to steal Russian territory and resources)

– Accusation in a mirror (total inversion of all narratives and blaming West for everything Putin himself does: power politics, disrespect of national sovereignty, despotism, Goebbels-style propaganda. ‘Dictate of the US is based on brutal force: US uses threats and blackmail thinking that these old methods are going to work for them forever’)

Obviously, we need to invest more into education, and first of all – into education of people on the principles of basic logic.

What’s also disturbing is that starting from the last point the propaganda becomes straight-away surreal. Mirrored accusations are used to produce wilder and wilder constructive claims: ‘Russia is built on the strong moral values of Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism’. ‘Russian culture is open to everyone’. ‘Russia ensures sovereign path of development for all nations’. ‘Russian values are mercy, benevolence, compassion’. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. We’re truly born to reenact 1984.

Not only propaganda is schizophrenic but also dangerous – especially in relation to how much it refers to death as a virtue. The regimes that praise death like jihadists or proclaim all victims as martyrs like the Islamic Republic of Iran tend to cultivate a perversely motivated military force. In his propaganda, Putin always refers to the heroes of WWII ‘who died for the right to speak their language, preserve their culture, tradition, faith’ encouraging present-day soldiers to do the same. Ukrainian government is portrayed as Neo Nazis, which doesn’t help it either.

Obviously, propaganda is designed to appeal to those people who don’t have enough leisure time to figure out politics on their own (with the most concerning fact that the things propaganda criticizes are often legitimate). In a sense, democracy is just a theocracy. Our intelligence is based on categorization and differentiation, the tools we use to build explanation frameworks to interpret the empirical world around. But people are limited in their free time. The ready-made, easily available frameworks therefore naturally meet enough demand. A century ago, almost everyone was religious: many were illiterate, books were rare. Naturally, people were limited in their capacity to find other, better interpretation frameworks. People these days? A poor man from Russian province who earns $300 per month is not expected to spend his free time searching for sources why state propaganda is wrong. Poverty cultivates bad faith and false beliefs.

Civil society is suppressed since 2010

In order for a revolution to happen, society needs to be politically active. For example, existence of well-developed civil societies in Eastern Europe of the 80s facilitated their fast transition to democracy (such as in Czechoslovakia).

There’s no doubt that Russian government has put an enormous effort into researching methodologies of population control. The term ‘political technologist’ (or political strategist) emerged in the late Soviet Union to describe graduates of political science faculties recruited by the government to use their knowledge for manipulating masses and making sure the regime stays in power through the mix of legal and illegal, overt and covert ways. For example, to prevent emergence of civil society, the government propagates narratives that encourage people to be politically passive. Don’t get involved into politics, it’s a dangerous business. Do you want troubles? Remember the 90s. Unfortunately, many have internalized this faulty rhetoric.

We need to fight the narrative that Russians are politically passive – because it simply contradicts Russian history. Some say that Russian society is traditionally passive after the centuries of submission to Tsar, Emperor, or the Party. This is simply not true. Just look at the life in Russia during the times of February 1917: the society featured dozens of organized political communities, left and right wing parties, workers unions, military organizations, and soldier committees. All these diverse social groups would later emerge from the underground to constitute the new provisional government. The society was civil as hell, and we need something similar in place if we want another revolution to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to organize political communities in a sensible way under the rule of authoritarian regime. Where the freedom of association is prohibited, opposition parties are banned, freedom of speech suppressed, and independent media outlawed. In 2022, all visionary leaders of political opposition were eliminated: through arrests, imprisonment, or fabrication of fake court deals. As one human rights group formulated it, ‘the country is now experiencing a fully-fledged witch hunt against independent groups, human rights defenders, media outlets and journalists, and political opposition, decimating civil society and forcing many into exile’. Just a few weeks ago, one of the last opposition leaders remaining free, Ilya Yashin, was arrested and sentenced to 8 years in prison. However, nothing prevents opposition narratives to at least spread from abroad. 

We need more ideologists and visionaries promoting their views, more narratives appealing to lower classes of society (the ones that typically constitute military forces). The battle of ideas is more influential than battles on barricades, as the former provide foundation for the latter. The more inclusive political discourse is, the better. In order to gain support, protesters should be seen as ordinary members of society – not extremists, as propaganda often tries to present them. That’s the way to persuade police and military get on the side of opposition and leave the regime effectively defenseless. That’s why what Russian libertarians are doing these days is extremely useful (though they restrain themselves to mostly theoretical deliberations, not practical action).

An important prerequisite for revolutions is the spreading of education across population. Education makes people feel confident enough to claim their right to participate in politics. To demand representative power and democracy. It spreads dissatisfaction with autocracies and their monopoly on power. So that’s what we need to work on. Politics is not a thing too complex where no one knows the entire truth. Politics is just a set of theories that can be learnt from books. Politics is based on plurality of views and clash of ideas where no one has a monopoly on truth.

International environment has no impact

This point is tough because honestly speaking Russia doesn’t have much need for allies. It’s quite a massive civilizational pole on its own. And the Cold War has proved it. A ‘black hole’ and a ‘great void’ needs neither friends nor allies.

Of course, there’re geopolitics and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Back in the 90s, he called Eurasian continent a big chessboard with the West playing to gain control on one side and a coalition between Russia, China, and Iran on the other. According to Brzezinski, as of 1997, Russia basically had four options for a future geopolitical strategy. Two involved cooperation with the West: either through becoming an equal strategic partner of the US, or through modernization and aspiration for a NATO membership. Alas, after the fall of Soviet Union, Russia found itself in a deep crisis, both social and economic, which made it a weak partner that nobody really wished to have. And the right moment was lost anyway, as the government’s attitude towards the West had changed forever.

So the Russian regime focused on two remaining options. One was to create a ‘Eurasian Union’ similar to the EU, that would unite Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Central Asian states. This vision was rather faulty – the EU model implies a union of equal states, which in Eurasian region is almost impossible, as any union would inevitably be centred around the largest and most powerful economy of the area – Russia – and resemble a reincarnation of the Russian empire rather than the EU. So such a union would never be sustainable and would need to be maintained by brutal force (which is happening these days in a way).

Another vision for Russia was to create an anti-US alliance with other countries that don’t accept the so-called American hegemony: China and Iran. First – as the most populous and fast-developing Asian economy, second – as the most militarized and powerful Middle Eastern state. I’m skeptical of success of such an alliance: China doesn’t treat Russia as an equal partner that could be more beneficial than the US in terms of investments and access to technologies. Frankly speaking, China seems to be quite indifferent to anyone around, as well as morally ambiguous. The Islamic republic of Iran is the only remaining partner to have. Well, let it be: the crappiest alliance of all, the true union of losers who cannot exchange anything useful but pseudo-traditionalist rhetorics, missiles, drones, and fresh ideas for a riot control.

Conclusion

Anyways, hopefully this sheds some light on why the overthrowing of Putin is a bit more difficult of a task than some people may think, and why a whole decade of peaceful demonstrations and civil resistance yielded pretty much nothing: from 2011-2013 revolts against the rigged elections, to 2021 demonstrations in support of Navalny and anti-war protests of March 2022.

The most important thought to convey is that Russian people are themselves victims of the oppressive regime that occupies their country, the criminal gang that not only terrorizes other independent states but also population from domestic territories that it basically depends on. But generations change, and without reasonable transition of power and any solid foundation for it, regimes lose their legitimacy. All personalist regimes eventually degrade as rulers inevitably become weakened, predatory, and erratic. At one moment dictators lose touch with reality. Muammar Gaddafi didn’t believe that Libyans could genuinely hate him and claimed that protesters must be acting under the influence of ‘drugs put in their Nescafé’ (how familiar). Given the current trend, it’s not too unlikely that one day Putin may repeat the destiny of Gaddafi: a dictator who thought he’s leading his country for greatness (utopia of the ‘Third International Theory’) only to fall from the golden throne of his bulletproof tent into a concrete drain pipe, with a bullet in stomach, bayonet in the ass – and a picture of his mutilated face printed on covers of newspapers and haunting nightmares of dictators for years to come.

* March 2022: anti-war protests, 60 cities, almost 20,000 people arrested and detained since February 2022. Almost 400 criminal and 5,000 administrative court cases opened. Numerous documents of tortures and police brutality upon detention. Spring 2021: protests after the detention and incarceration of Alexey Navalny, lasted for 2 months in almost 200 towns. Largest protests after Putin’s reelection in 2012, up to 50,000 people in Moscow. 2018: protests after the fraudulent Moscow parliament elections. 2017 and 2018 – protests against corruption (150,000 people in total), 7 all-nation rallies, more than 100 cities, led by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation. 2011-2013: massive protests at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow for fair elections and civil liberties, triggered by Putin’s reelection and constitutional amendments. 160,000 people in Moscow in February 2012.

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