Recurrent totalitarianism and Russia’s conservative shift

May 2, 2022
by Lev Gudkov
Lev Gudkov, Special Academic Adviser, Levada center, on the conservative shift in Russian society and how the illusions entertained by some in the liberal camp kept them from forming realistic opinions about repressive policies at home and the rising danger of a war with Ukraine.
Read more: Lev Gudkov, Vozrvratnyi totalitarianizm (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2022).

The trends gleaned from public opinion polls indicate that the strengthening of the authoritarian regime in Russia has more likely been met with approval by society, though not across the board and not always. Occasionally, there have been times (in 2005, 2010-13, 2018) of widespread discontent and sliding support for the “national leader,” as well as anti-Putin demonstrations. However, a strong, organized political resistance to the anti-democratic regime has been practically nonexistent. That said, public opinion polls are not the best way for sociologists to study societal or even institutional transformations, as polls must also be weighed against how structural shifts are reflected in the mass consciousness and in group opinions about current processes. Yet this is the only way in Russia, as the study of changes in related areas is practically nonexistent, owing to the fact that academic and university organizations that might conduct such research are subordinated to the state.

By the end of the 1990s, the naive belief in the inevitability of Russia’s democratic transition had considerably weakened, becoming an ideology of a pro-Western educated minority.
"Losing touch with the mood among the poor, depressed and disoriented social majority, Russian liberals increasingly withdrew into their own, confined space."
Vladimir Putin with people in the Red Square, 2012. Source: Freestockimages
For them, the transition was not a methodology or best practices for political action, but rather the basis for their group identity and self-isolation. The more authoritarianism and the centralization of power manifested themselves, the more psychological barriers the liberals erected to keep out the unpleasant facts and reality of Putin’s policies. Clinging on to the accounts of protest activity that could be used to affirm a belief in the imminent end to the regime (“… we are witnessing the agony of Putin’s regime”), the remnants of the democratic community lost the ability to understand and soberly analyze the processes connected with the restoration of totalitarianism in contemporary Russia.

No evidence about other changes in society (e.g. the growth of militarism and popularity of the army and political police [KGB-FSB], nostalgia for the Soviet Union and Stalin, the refusal to study Soviet history and acknowledge the crimes of the Soviet state against society, the influence of the extremely reactionary, fundamentalist and anti-democratic Russian Orthodox Church, the expansion of censorship, and the increasingly tight control over the media, the education system and culture) was taken into account, but rather rejected as far-fetched “horror stories” and the sophisticated work of covert agents of the regime.

As a result, this part of the liberally minded public in Russia was constantly late to diagnose events and proved themselves blind, or intellectually and morally paralyzed, when federalism was destroyed, when an unexpected war with Georgia happened, when Crimea was annexed and – what is entirely inexcusable – when Putin recently launched his criminal war against Ukraine.

This “immaturity” (apart from the group’s corporate interests) can be attributed to several circumstances:

(1) A lack of understanding about the “agency” of social transformations. Connected with this is the implicit idea that the transplanting of market and democratic institutions (“like those in the West”) would mean the full-fledged replacement of the centrally planned economy and the one-party political system, which in turn would create and increase the influence of the “middle class” as the base for democracy, freedom and the protection of human rights The Russian “middle class,” as it were, did indeed emerge, but in contrast to its Western analogues and Western patterns of stratification, this “class” emerged essentially from a corrupt state bureaucracy and businesses affiliated with it, with interests that were in no way associated with the values of democracy, freedom and human dignity. After the redistribution of state property, the social and political instincts of this “class” led it to push for a halt to the reforms and to conserve the system (in line with Putin’s emphasis on stability);

"The Russian 'middle class', as it were, did indeed emerge, but in contrast to its Western analogues and Western patterns of stratification, this “class” emerged essentially from a corrupt state bureaucracy and businesses affiliated with it."
(2) A misunderstanding of the inertia or – more accurately – the mechanisms by which the social institutions shaping the nature of Russian political and civic culture, as well as the norms of everyday behavior and practical orientations for ordinary people, are reproduced. (These features of the persisting “socialist thinking” are often called state paternalism, but it would be more correct to speak of the inertia of totalitarian culture.) For 20 years, liberals have indulged in talk about “weak”, “defective” and “sleeping” institutions, as well as “fair elections”, without realizing that nothing has been done by them to protect these new institutions. The idea of lustration was almost immediately rejected, and a trial of the Soviet Communist Party failed, meaning that no understanding was reached that a fundamentally different approach to filling public positions was needed, including both purging former functionaries as a defense against a restoration and preparing a new bureaucracy with a different way of thinking and morality, and an awareness about their duty to society, etc. In this, the situation in Russia fundamentally differed from how the reformers and democratic politicians approached the issue in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.
Action "Student landing 2021". Source: VK
Unlike the democrats, the weakened but not destroyed institutions of the totalitarian system (first and foremost, its security and repressive structures, as well as the judicial and law enforcement system) retained their mechanisms for reproduction – namely, closed corporate educational institutions not under civilian control (academies and military universities for the army, the Internal Affairs Ministry, the KGB-FSB, the Procuracy; the training of judges, etc.). Meanwhile, the ideological control over mass (standard) and higher education was significantly intensified such that now its main goal is less and less frequently seen as enlightenment, but rather the inculcation of “patriotism,” meaning the reproduction of the core standards and principles of Soviet state socialization, alongside all the myths and stereotypes about Russia’s “special path,” the historical mission of the Russian people, the traditions of a great power and the heroic past of the empire and its military glory.
Thus, to understand the reasons for the failure of democracy in Russia, a fundamentally different methodology than the transition-centered approach – which has dominated the Russian social sciences – is required, one that allows us to see the interconnectedness of various phenomena, including:

  • The systemic nature of how institutions of different levels function (state organizations, education, the police, courts, the media, etc.);
  • The genesis of these institutions (their reproduction over time);
  • The features of the social structure (of one-dimensional social stratification) that determine how power is legitimated and how the Soviet past is perceived, including the Stalinist terror, the Great Patriotic War, the October Revolution of 1917 and the Brezhnev stagnation.
Kremlin outside, 2022. Source: VK
Without taking these points into account, the nature of mass political culture in Russia – which retains all the habits related to mass passive adaptation to the repressive state, e.g. a culture of violence, social immorality and a lack of social trust – remains inaccessible for understanding.

The only scientific paradigm that allows for both a structural analysis of the institutional system and its genesis (historical changes) is that of “totalitarianism.” It represents a set of concepts and theories for describing and studying from a comparative-typological perspective the processes of Soviet totalitarianism, its collapse and its current partial regeneration. “Totalitarianism,” as the concept originally arose in the 1920-1930s, is associated with an unprecedented expansion of the state into areas of society that were not previously the subject of state activities, as well as the emergence of fundamentally new practices in terms of regulation, control and coercion with the aim of submission.

Totalitarian regimes sought to abolish the autonomy and independence (relative to the state) of social spheres of society, including the economy, education and raising younger generations, culture, art and literature, private and everyday life, religion, civil society, science, sport, leisure, etc. Terror and repression stemmed from the philosophy and practice of total control, which seeks to dictate all areas of public life. While the scope and forms of terror vary greatly from one country to another, key is that any ideas, civic organizations, forms of solidarity or social interests outside the “interests of the state” should be considered brought in from elsewhere, foreign, the result of a conspiracy of enemies, agents or subversive forces, or representing backward, undeveloped, unconscious or perverted attitudes and beliefs. The “whole” in such social systems is set solely based on the logic of establishing a hierarchical social order, topped by a chief – a national leader, a “sovereign” (to use Carl Schmitt’s term) – who has the power to invoke a state of emergency that rescinds previous laws and norms of behavior and interaction and establish law and order as he sees fit.

In my book Recurrent Totalitarianism, I consider three sets of ideas. The first, the “Technology of Mass Conservative Mobilization”, relates to the regime’s policies prior to the annexation of Crimea and the nationalist euphoria of 2014 – the mechanisms for galvanizing the masses and the subsequent decline in support for the regime.

"Mass negative mobilization and the consolidation of society around the regime have been conditioned on the activation of Russian resentment nationalism."
This refers to the trauma of the Soviet collapse and the attendant crisis of collective identity, the exploitation by propaganda of complexes about grievance, victimhood and being surrounded by “enemies” as a fact of life, and consequently the rising importance of anti-Americanism and a deliberate anti-Ukrainian policy.

The second area, “Institutional and Cultural Resources for the Regeneration of a Repressive Social Order”, represents an analysis of the symbolic resources of the Putin regime and the mechanisms for the authoritarian regression of mass culture that give rise to public passivity. This includes an analysis of conceptions about the “history” and culture of Soviet and post-Soviet society, as well as the trends with, and function of, myths about the revolution, Stalin and other ideological concepts that embody “collective values” and symbolize national greatness. Meanwhile, the regime claims as a monopoly and political priority the right to represent and protect “collective” symbols and values.
"The regime claims as a monopoly and political priority the right to represent and protect “collective” symbols and values."
Thus, the importance of privacy, the dignity of the individual and his freedom and autonomy is reduced to nothing. The violence shown by the state in suppressing any protest against this policy has given rise to various forms of adaptation to the regime, which has become “sovereign” in relation to society. Among the forms of adaptation are hypocrisy, corruption, doublethink and demonstrative loyalty toward the authorities. This is also the reason for the extreme alienation from politics in Russia, with people refusing to participate in politics or in the activities of civil society organizations (such “escapism” is justified by implicit disrespect or contempt for the existing regime).

The flip side of this adaptation to the repressive state is the lack of trust across society, both between people and toward institutions. Cross-country surveys by the ISSP (International Social Survey Programme), to which the Levada Center, along with 30-40 other organizations, regularly contributes, show that Russia ranks near the bottom of indexes measuring the degree of solidarity and trust in society. Meanwhile, starting in the mid-2000s government statistics have shown a general decline in indicators of anomie and social disorganization (e.g. crime, suicide and alcoholism). However, this does not mean falling incidence of real violence in society. Rather, the decentralized violence of the 1990s has transformed into the violence of a centralized yet corrupt state, which guards the interests of the highest authorities, ruling clans and bureaucracy alongside complete lawlessness in relation to ordinary people.

The absence of any possibility for society to defend its rights, together with the disbelief in fair and impartial courts and the realization by the people of their own disempowerment – especially in the face of the cruelty and lawlessness of the police – reproduces a culture of mass apathy, cynicism and immorality, which characterize the self-perception of the individual in the totalitarian and post-totalitarian state. The interaction of society with the institutions of violence gives rise to “learned helplessness” and submissiveness.

In the book, I pay special attention to causal relationships between the social structure of Russian society and its limited sense of social and intellectual responsibility, and hence its low competence and passivity in the civic and political space.

The “power vertical” under construction meant the stillbirth of the declared yet unrealized institutions of Russian democracy – the social mechanisms and opportunities for channeling public interests. This refers to the ban on regional parties, the denial of registration for and pressure on opposition political parties, and the suppression of civil society organizations.

In the book, I pay special attention to causal relationships between the social structure of Russian society and its limited sense of social and intellectual responsibility, and hence its low competence and passivity in the civic and political space.
The «power vertical» under construction meant the stillbirth of the declared yet unrealized institutions of Russian democracy – the social mechanisms and opportunities for channeling public interests. This refers to the ban on regional parties, the denial of registration for and pressure on opposition political parties, and the suppression of civil society organizations.

"The building of Putin’s centralized regime has entailed the destruction of the conditions and basis for grassroots self-government and intergroup interaction – core principles of democracy."
Russian propaganda in foreign publications, 2022. Source: VK
These conditions made local communities irresponsible and dependent on the center, its mercy and whim, leading to the corruption of grassroots officials and business and encouraging loyalty toward higherups. Media censorship, ideologically motivated intervention in education and culture, and the repression of religious groups, as well as other forms by which the diversity of group interests is destroyed, has driven the development of a totalist (unified) system of governance and administrative, extra-legal oversight of the economy. 

As the mechanisms for the reproduction of the political system have been suppressed, the circulation of elites has ground to a halt. Elections have become decoration or fiction, replaced by the practices of co-optation, which are characteristic of totalitarianism and which ensure the stability and conservation of the current regime. The “vertical” – in its semantics and logic – has no way of justifying itself and gaining recognition besides appealing to a fictitious past – the greatness of the whole and the symbols of the “state,” which stand above the values of private and everyday life and other institutions, depriving them of their independence and raison d’être. The appeal to the archaic is intended to devalue or sterilize the values of the individual and human dignity, the freedom of the individual and his rights, thereby elevating the ruler of the state – the keeper of the spiritual traditions and the repository of the vitality of the “people” – in the eyes of his subjects; the focus on the archaic promotes a “symphony [harmony] of power and people” and creates the space for a reconceptualization of the state as a kind of church or quasi-theocratic entity.

Changes in legislation have increased the weight of the FSB, generals, Procuracy, Investigative Committee and other totalitarian and security institutions in political decision-making, and thus their influence on the atmosphere in society at large. It is these structures of the political and criminal police, as well as the Internal Affairs Ministry, Rosgvardiya, the army – designed primarily to carry out punitive and expansionist tasks – that have seen minimal reforms since the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming an ideological breeding ground for the most reactionary, traditionalist, imperialist and anti-liberal ideas. They played a critical role in mobilizing anti-Western and imperialist sentiments in society during the annexation of Crimea, spurring on in no small way the resurrection of Soviet (Stalinist) stereotypes. 
"From on high, human qualities and virtues characteristic of totalitarian societies are being imposed and endorsed as the norm, including aggressiveness and the hatred of others – in turn triggering fear, generalized anxiety, distrust, paranoia and the conviction that base motives drive the behavior of others."
These qualities are regarded as natural or organic. At the same time, the idea is being promoted that only people integrated in the state and subordinate to it (United Russia; “united, we are invincible”) can gain peace of mind and confidence in themselves and others, as well as protection from enemies and guarantees of personal well-being, since only the state (as a totalist coercive apparatus) is able to restrain the natural evil in man.

The third set of ideas put forward in the book, entitled “Possibilities of Diagnosis,” is devoted to the theoretical issues of the totalitarian relapse in Russia and the difficulties of understanding this process and its consequences, as well as Yuri Levada’s concept of the “Soviet man” as a prerequisite for the reproduction of the coercive state. The intellectual decline across the humanities and social sciences in Russia reflects the general devaluing and primitivizing of social relations, which are under pressure from a state striving to be total. The outlook for sociology in Russia depends on whether researchers can escape the control of the state. However, this alone will not be enough – the advancement of the social sciences implies an expansion of ideas about the anthropological types undergirding social processes and interactions, meaning that more interdisciplinary research is needed, especially in those areas that are taboo in the public consciousness today.
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