Putin and Russian Politics
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and we’re continuing our discussion with Professor Alexander Buzgalin. Thanks for joining us again.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: So, one more time, the professor is the director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. So, we left off, the last segment you were talking about the tremendous inequality in Russia today. A billionaire class of maybe one hundred billionaires, a country, economy far, far smaller than the United States or China, average wage, you were saying, is something, what, five hundred dollars a month?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. Wage of one half of population.
PAUL JAY: Fifty percent of the population, twenty million people living on, what would you say, under the poverty line, which was what, about one hundred and fifty dollars a month? So, gross inequality. And people could see the lifestyle, this lavish lifestyle of the oligarchy. And a pretty modest democracy. I think the kind of tyranny that gets described in the Western press is ridiculous, and especially when elections here are also pretty ridiculous. That being said, there’s certainly not as much democracy, especially in terms of Western Europe as a comparison. All that being said, Putin seems to be incredibly popular, maybe- we’re told seventy percent popularity, in elections he wins pretty close to seventy percent of the vote. Why?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, this is big question mark. I can give some explanations, but in some aspects, this is big question mark, even for me. I will use historical approach. I’m a Marxist professor, as you said, and this is true. First of all, as we mentioned in previous segments and previous parts, we had terrible disorder, criminalization and a crisis, very deep crisis in the 1990s. And Putin was nobody and power was in the hands- I mean nobody because he was not in power, in political elite. And power was in the hands of barons, new barons, bankers and Yeltsin. So, when he came to power, economy had, first of all, gross, because of oil prices, but it was gross, and then stabilization. It was stagnation but not decline. Second, it was stabilization of the rules of the game, not because it was dream of Putin or because he was so strong and so good, but because it was necessary for ruling class to keep the rules of the game in order to make normal profit in normal circumstances. After primitive accumulation of capital, after everybody against everybody-
PAUL JAY: Which means free-for-all grabbing the assets.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. So, when violence is used, not only commercial methods, normal commercial methods, to kill economically, competitor, but also direct methods to kill him physically, feudal methods.
PAUL JAY: For real.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, when capitalism, when concentration of capital achieved level when there is big corporations, for them it is necessary to have the order. And they required order and they required Putin. And for people it was also not so bad, because finally, we didn’t have now permanent wars, wars in the streets of the big cities. We still have not very peaceful life, but still, not so bad as before. So, first stabilization. And now, first factor why Putin is popular, because people did not see a position which can change situation without new crisis and catastrophe. People are afraid of any changes. When we are starting to talk, they say, “Oh, changes, it will be worse. It cannot be better.”
PAUL JAY: So, Putin or chaos.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes. So, they are afraid of changes of the rules of the game. These rules are bad but they’re our rules. We have terrible policemen, you have I think movie in America, “Killer Cop,” yeah? So, but we have cop, maybe-
PAUL JAY: Well, there’s lots of actual killer cops too, it’s not just movies.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it’s true. So, that’s why it’s better to have rules of the game then to have new chaos. First fact. Second fact, and very important, the problem with opposition. We have two types of opposition. One is artificially created by Western media. In Russia, they are not serious. This is liberal opposition, or so-called liberal opposition, people who had power during Yeltsin’s power, Yeltsin’s presidency in 1990s and people understand that if this guys who are talking about democracy will have power again, it will be no democracy. Because in 1993, I want to remind, they destroyed parliament by tanks and it was no problem for them. And we had political prisoners before, and we have now, so it’s more or less the same. But it will be even more strong capitalist exploitation. Plus, we will be under the control of NATO and Western capitalist- ir in Russia, it’s Western type of life. And here we are coming-
PAUL JAY: If this liberal opposition would be successful, it would have a much stronger imposition of capitalist interests.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, and people don’t want this. Communist opposition- so, opposition of Communist Party, when it was nearly victory of Zyuganov, leader of Communist Party in 1996, and he said, “No, no, I will not be president.” After that, Communist Party lost popularity and support. People understood they are not decisive and strong enough for taking power. Even if they win elections, it will be nothing. So, it’s necessary to have real strong, real decisive, responsible opposition. And absence of such a position is an important factor.
PAUL JAY: So, why is it- where is a kind of more indigenous, even if you want, social democratic opposition that isn’t pro- Western? Where is it?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, the question is why we don’t have strong opposition. First of all, this opposition exists like idea, like a dream, like a vision, but not in reality. Why not in reality? Again, big question mark. And even theoretical problem for us, I cannot give a very well-founded answer. I am very sorry for that. It’s my obligation, it’s a call to do this, but I can give only some characteristics why not, features why not, mainly because Russia had a very long history of paternalistic organization of social life. Five hundred years of Russian empire, then shot, explosive, revolutionary explosive of social creativity, revolution and first years revolution. And Stalin’s model, which again, extremely paternalistic model we had. And finally, last decades of Soviet Union, we discard this question. It was period with peaceful life when everything was from the state. It’s like a family where father is strong, father can beat kids, but kids are not hungry, they have dress, they have education, they have peaceful life, and everything only from father. Kid himself or herself cannot do anything, he or she can only ask father, “please help us.” And father will give what you need.
PAUL JAY: As long as you get along with it.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. If you are not protesting, yeah? So, that’s why this tradition destroyed real energy of self- organization. And it’s necessary to have long traditions in order to fight against huge power of bourgeoisie. But we have, underground, wish and intentions to have such opposition. That’s why it can appear very rapidly, by the way.
PAUL JAY: How actively does the state suppress attempts to create this kind of opposition?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Let’s maybe move to the questions of democracy, oppression of opposition and ideological debates a little later. I want to stress one more factor of why Putin became popular. So, one more factor which is important, he used nostalgia on Soviet Union and real dreams about rebuild of Russia as respectable, strong state. During all epoch of semi-colonization of Russia by the West in 1990s, we had this dream, hope. And Westernization was brutal. Instead of very deep, good, smart Soviet Russian culture, we received this modernization of our life.
PAUL JAY: During the ‘90s.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. And even the English language became everywhere, in the advertising and so on. And it was big attack on the national pride and big attack on the morality and mentality of people. Putin used patriotic slogans, he rebuilt, again, respect to army, respect to the state, respect to- in Russian language, state means not apparatus, state means country with population, history, territory all together as value. And they have values of history of Russia during five hundred years. And this value was protected during fascism during second world war, and we paid huge price. Thirty million people were killed to keep this value of life and to defeat fascism. That was not nothing. That’s why he uses patriotism, he used idea of the victory in second world war. This is very important part of our intellectual ideological, cultural life right now.
PAUL JAY: “Make Russia Great Again”
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. And the idea to make Russia great again became important. And then, he proved this by three decisive steps. And before, we didn’t have leader who can be risky, decisive and responsible. And in Russia, there is need in such leader. This is, again, tradition and mentality. So, first, Crimea. Second, support, more or less support Donbas, independent region inside Ukraine. And finally, Syria. It was not so important for Russia but first time Russia- not Russia, first time in the modern history, first time during twenty-five years, we, mankind, had country which said no to NATO. Even China never said no, China said, “We’ll stay.” And Putin came- not Putin, Russian elite, better to say, the supportive people came and said, “NATO, boom! Go out. We don’t respect it. You don’t like it? No problem, we will beat you.”
PAUL JAY: Why do that? The Chinese strategy of gaining, slowly, slowly and sometimes quickly, gaining more strength economically and avoiding direct confrontation with the United States, at least until China is even much stronger, seems like a pretty smart strategy. Why get into such a direct confrontation with the United States?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, China’s strategy in economy was impossible from the point of view of creation of enormous wealth in the hands of a few families during a few years. It was necessary to spend forty years to create Chinese capital. And this Chinese capital is under the control of bureaucracy, and they are not very happy with this. In Russia, during a few years, they created enormous wealth. They have the same number of billionaires as China, and China is ten times bigger. So, that’s why Chinese model of economic, stable growth was not profitable for Russian ruling forces.
PAUL JAY: I get that, but why the-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: The policy- I will explain. For Putin, in the situation of such deep contradictions in the country, with negative relation of majority of people towards economic policy, it was necessary to have something which will show that he is strong, good and protector of Russian people. Foreign policy was the only chance. And I think it was also for his personal values, mentality, ideology. Russian elite had double consciousness. They partly came from criminals, but majority came from state party officials of the second, third, fourth generation. And they still have, inside themselves, love to Russia, love to country, love to state. And they want to be respectable, together with the country.
PAUL JAY: Respected.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Respected by everybody, together with the country. They associate themselves with the country. They are not rich without nation. They want to be “Russian” oligarchs.
PAUL JAY: So, part of standing up to the United States is part of “Make Russia Great Again.”
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes. And by the way, it is reflected by a big part of population all over the world. When you come to Arab countries, when you come to China, to India, they applaud, “Guys, first time we have a force which beat NATO.” Maybe not beat, but at least not capitulated and not- abstained, said no.
PAUL JAY: I just want to say, in standing up and “Making Russia Great Again,” I don’t want to in any way suggest the United States doesn’t deserve to be stood up to. I’m talking a strategy and a tactic here. The- just, I know I’m going to get some email. In terms of this popularity, “Making Russia Great Again,” it included an alliance with the Russian orthodox church, and a very dark right-wing side of this emergence of what this new “great Russia” is. Why?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: We have, as we mentioned before, re-feudalization of our life. We have a lot of elements of late feudalism. And this is reality. And the growth of the role of churches, institution- not even religion, but church is an institution, is part of power of these top officials, together with the oligarchs. They must have ideology. And by the way, in Russia we have enormous debates now, what is national ideology of Russia? And nobody knows. Common ideas, patriotism, but patriotism is not enough really, for ideology. And the question is, what kind of Russia do we want to have? And if you love Russia, what does it mean? What is Russia? And here, church is not bad idea, not bad- not from my point of view. From my point of view, this is terrible because we have re-feudalization of consciousness, of education, of even science. We have theology everywhere, priests can come for the scientific forum to say you must make your scientific debates, you’re welcome. I don’t know, something like that. And so, this is not good, really. And the church is a very bureaucratic organization, very commercialized organization. I don’t know if this is the case for the United States, but we have a lot of anecdotes about this, about church, about the wealth, their accumulation of capital, and so on, and the internet. So, this is part of our reality.
PAUL JAY: Certainly, part of the religious life in the United States is the based on T.V. evangelical- what am I trying to say? Evangelist. There’s a great body of T.V. in the United States, evangelists who go on T.V. asking for money, and of course, the Catholic Church owns a lot of land, and so on. But the main religion here is the interweaving of Christianity with Americanism. And it’s, I guess, somewhat similar. I mean, look, Americanism over here- look at the American oligarchy. But Putin- it’s not just about the “Make Russia Great Again,” it’s not just about this connection and use, or alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, but there’s a real right-wing spirit about this state which also makes use of development of the right wing in Europe, to have allies in developing, kind of, the right-wing nationalist movement in Europe. Why?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Again, very complex question. But first of all, I want to stress that I don’t know about Europe. I think they have similar features. But in Russia, conservative ideology and conservative trends and culture grew up as alternatives to liberalism. We have forced, primitive, and very aggressive liberalism- not liberalism, attack of these right liberal values. And they were implemented, and they were implemented not like values of freedom, or even not like values of personal pride and activity of personality, but as values of money, commodity, commodity and money. And this came to our life, and Soviet life was different from this. And I mentioned that for, let’s say the most progressive part of Soviet Union, money was mean, not goal. And when we received this primitive commercialization of everything under the slogan of liberalism and freedom, under the slogan of democracy, we received chaos and criminalization of life. Then it was necessary to look for alternative. And Putin came and said, “We have alternative.” Traditional values of Russia. And it’s not nothing, it is a very good culture. It is traditions of heroic struggle against fascism. It is Soviet culture, which was very humanistic, like classic Russian culture. So, what is better, Hollywood movies of permanent battles of stupid soldiers against another stupid bandits, or Leo Tolstoy and so on?
PAUL JAY: But some of that narrative is not from the Soviet Union, some of that narrative is “great Russia,” pre-Soviet Union, which is its alliance with the Russian Church.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it’s all together. We have from one hand, idealization of Russian empire, primitive and very strong with church and so on, from another hand, we had gained a lot of Soviet movies, especially about victory in great, patriotic war, WWII. And these movies are really very good, and very humanistic.
PAUL JAY: Because you get this contradictory, at least on the face of it, where you have like Russia Today television inviting various prominent left-wing personalities to have their own shows, even, and tons- all kinds of left-wing guests. On the other hand, a clear sympathy for the rise of Trump as president. In Europe, with Marine Le Pen in France, others, this connection with the rise of right-wing neo-fascism. This is a complicated patchwork, but it tends to favor the right.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: You are absolutely right, and the situation is really dangerous. Because let’s move back in the history. In 1920s, late 1920s, early 1930s, in Europe was alternative. Either we are going to the left- social democrats, communists, anarchists, everybody together, or we are going to Nazi fascism, national socialism, quasi-socialism, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and so on. So, now we have more or less the same. Why? Because it was crisis of liberal capitalism. It was necessary to have something other. And Great Depression showed that it’s necessary. It was necessary. The same now. There is crisis of neoliberal ideology. What can be the alternative, so-called left social democrats in Europe became liberals, sometimes even more stupid than real liberals, neoliberals. What is in the eyes of Russians, Le Pen and others, alternative to liberalism. And they have a lot of “blah, blah, blah,” but this “blah, blah, blah” are against market fetishism sometimes. This “blah, blah, blah,” are against democracy as opportunity to make whatever you want. Plus, very big question which I don’t want to debate now, but I think now that destruction of traditional values through methods of market is more negative than positive. When we have marketization of life, and struggle against family oppression, lead to the marketization of family relations, I don’t know what is worse, the kid beat by father or the kid who has the bargaining with father about money for his activity.
PAUL JAY: Well, it’s worse than that. You have such an opioid and drug crisis in the United States, it’s partly because there’s no values left- so little values left in the culture.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I think this is a big problem for the left. They did not create alternative to right-wing opposition to neoliberalism. But this is another topic.
PAUL JAY: Okay, we’re going to continue this discussion. Please join us for the next segment of our discussion with Professor Buzgalin on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
Alexander Buzgalin (Aleksandr Vladimirovich Buzgalin) is a Russian Marxist. He is a professor at Moscow State University and the coordinator of the Social Movement "Alternatives". He was a member of the Organizing Committee of the Russian Social Forums. At Moscow State University he is on the Faculty of Economics, and is the Chair of Economic Theory and Political Economy. He is chief editor of "Alternatives" quarterly journal, head of the Center (research group) on "Knowledge Economy" Department of Political Economics, Head of Socio-Economics Department of Political Economics and Center "Knowledge Society." Director of the Institute of Socio-Economics Moscow Finance and Law University, member of the Editorial Board of a number of domestic and international journals, etc. Buzgalin is 1st Deputy Chairman of the Standing Organizing Committee of the Moscow Economic Forum; Coordinator of Polit-Ekonomy Association of the CIS countries; 1st Deputy Chairman of the Public Movement "Education for All." He is the author of more than 350 publications, including 26 monographs and more than 100 articles published in Russian scientific journals (on "Economic Issues", "Problems of Philosophy".) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Buzgalin