Politics has been Simplified to the Extreme: You’re Either for the Special Operation and Against Democracy, or Vice Versa
February 23, 2024
  • Alexandr Shtefanov
  • Yevgeny Senshin
In an interview, historian and blogger Alexandr Shtefanov shares his thoughts about the impact of Navalny’s death on Russian politics, the similarities and differences between Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Soviet-Afghan War, and the consequences of the war for Russian society.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Flowers to commemorate Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg. Source: VK
Let’s start with the main political event at the moment: the death of Navalny. In your view, what are the repercussions?

Navalny’s death is unlikely to have any impact on international politics, and especially on the course of the special operation. It helps Democrats in the US a little to get funding and supplies of arms approved for Ukraine. But even this help will not radically change the situation. Meanwhile, the story itself will most likely fade in the near future.

But this is a serious event for Russia’s domestic politics. Some of Navalny’s supporters are likely to radicalize. At the same time, do not forget that all possibilities for peaceful protest have been suppressed. But probably sooner or later the steam will be released. Moreover, after the death of Vladimir Putin there will be a wide scope for protests.

Analysts and observers are wondering whether Navalny’s death could be some kind of signal to Russian society or some part of it. What do you think?

I do not think that this could be, for example, connected to some important events for the Kremlin. The fact that this happened in February 2024 is rather an accident. But Navalny’s death itself is the result of intentional actions.

I see it this way: the Kremlin and the jailers agreed on the tactic of slowly killing Alexei Navalny. He was systematically kept in conditions that did great harm to his health.
And it just so happened that Alexei Anatolyevich [Navalny] died in February at a not-so-favorable moment for the Kremlin. But, I stress, we have few facts; this event creates room for speculation.

In your view, what should those who disagree with the regime’s policies do in this situation? Should they leave before it’s too late, or be patient and maintain calm for the time being?

You should do what you think is right.
Of course, now the space for protest is very small: literally conversations in the kitchen.
But, as we saw, some people even decided to publicly express their grief for Navalny by laying flowers. And in Moscow this was even relatively safe. It was better for the Moscow police to “lead” this action and organize lines than to disperse people.
Such spaces for protest will appear from time to time. There’s no getting around it. Even in the most terrible dictatorships such spaces appeared.

I do not think there is an urgent need to drop everything and flee the country. But if, of course, someone is against Putin, collaborates with “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents,” or once worked at a Navalny headquarters, then he should think about his safety. However, if you do not agree with the Kremlin but are not taking any active actions, then you should just wait until the opportunity arises to influence events.

How do you assess how far the special services men in charge could go? Could the personalist dictatorship become classic totalitarianism – a system of omnipresent control?

Firstly, I do not agree with the term “totalitarianism” in relation to the Putin regime. On the contrary, this regime has done everything to insulate people from politics for years. That’s why a totalitarian state is called that… because it tries to involve people in all spheres of its activity while penetrating the personal space of everyone. However, the Putin regime acted differently: this is for you, this is for us; you get low taxes, but you do not ask where they are going. Yes, this scheme is now breaking down. But it does not mean that Russia has become totalitarian.

Secondly, regarding the chekists or special services men. Their legitimacy is still considerable. And will remain so as long as Vladimir Putin is alive.
There is a consensus within the political elite, from technocratic liberals to conservative siloviki: they are better off with Vladimir Putin alive.
But this consensus will crack for natural reasons – Putin is not immortal. And then the system’s legitimacy will be greatly depleted. But while Putin is alive, it is unclear what needs to be done to bring it down.

In one of your interviews, when asked about the beginning of the “special operation,” you said: “I did not believe it because I thought it was madness. It seemed to me that the Russian army could not quickly occupy the largest cities of Ukraine. I believed that starting a long war would bring about a conflict within the elites...” Two years have passed. How would you describe the current situation?

It is truly madness. I still think so. The experts correctly assessed the balance of resources and risks, but they underestimated the adventurism of the Russian leadership. And, as in any “short, victorious war” that turns out to be neither short nor victorious, there are two important factors: overestimating one’s own strength and underestimating the enemy. This is exactly what happened.

The Russian army, which had previously looked quite capable in local operations in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine in 2014, now finds itself embroiled in a long trench war. And this is not a surprise: it is a systematic extermination of people on both sides so that Vladimir Putin does not receive the peace that will become the first step into his political grave.

It has become commonplace among opponents of the war and Putinism to compare what is happening now in Russia with the history of the Third Reich. Especially after February 2022: the special operation is compared with Hitler’s attack on the USSR. In the same interview you said: “Nazism is something that we as a country can come to...” Recall that until 2014, Putin’s policies and the state of society were more often compared to the Brezhnev stagnation, but what if the special operation is more analogous to the Afghan War?

Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy after 2014 is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy in the late 1930s. Hitler justified war with the idea of protecting Germans, that the Germans after World War I had found themselves a divided people. He exaggerated the oppression of Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia. And he used all this to expand. This ultimately led to a terrible war.

If we listen to the rhetoric of Putin and his military propaganda, we will see obvious similarities: the defense of Russians and the Russian language, revenge for the lost Cold War, emphasis on an unfair outcome to the Cold War, the need to revise borders, hold plebiscites, and so on.

But based on this it is still impossible to conclude that the political regimes are alike.
The political regime of the Third Reich and that of Vladimir Putin are very different. These are different politicians with different worldviews and, most importantly, ideologies. Putin still does not suffer from anti-Semitism, racism or ethnic chauvinism.

The Third Reich’s war with the Allies ended in total defeat for Hitler’s Germany. Comparing Putin’s Russia and the Third Reich can give rise to false expectations. But the Afghan War became one of the drivers of perestroika, the need for radical political changes and the collapse of the USSR. And this, in my view, is a more realistic scenario for the end of Putinism.

Yes, there are parallels with the Afghan War.
But the USSR’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan was incomparably smaller than that of Russia in Ukraine.
A building in Kyiv on February 26, 2022, two days after the Russian invasion. Source: Wiki Commons
This will have a serious impact on the course of history.

Hitler and the Third Reich mean absolute evil. The upshot is that anything that took place in the Third Reich does not need to be analyzed or carefully studied, because everything is supposedly clear – it was absolute evil. Therefore, accusations of Nazism are a common propaganda technique on both sides.

After two years of fighting, many observers naturally have a question: what is all this for; who has an interest in it? One answer is ideology. In your view, does the current regime actually have an ideology?

Putin is clearly forced to rely on some ideological postulates of the people who support him. However, the regime remains largely pragmatic. In addition, the influence of the siloviki has risen, and these men are more ideological, in contrast to the technocratic Kremlin.

In practice, there is no collective Putin or even a united Russia. There are different interest groups where everyone wants something different. Perhaps this is what causes the lack of ideology.

Putin has a vision of the “Russian world,” “great Russia,” moderately conservative values, but a coherent ideology cannot be formulated from all that. And it’s convenient for the regime. Ideology is limiting. But Vladimir Putin does not want such constraints.
And one more thing: every conservatism has its “golden age.” For many of Putin’s conservatives, this is the Soviet Union. For Putin, the USSR is clearly not a “golden age,” however. And for Shoigu, for example, it is not either. They both have made that clear. The interesting thing about Putinism is that everyone sees what they want in it.

Anti-Westernism accounts for the lion’s share of the Kremlin’s rhetoric, propaganda and pseudo-ideology. And sometimes it seems that this is definitely their Faith – to hate the West with everything in them.

Vladimir Putin’s anti-Westernism is rather situational; it is not the cornerstone of his ideology. Of course, today it is there because of certain circumstances. The EU and the US are opposing Russia in a geopolitical confrontation. Therefore, propaganda has many reasons to be anti-Western.

There is a policy of the collective West that Putin does not like, and he is reacting to it extremely aggressively. He is strongly opposed to this collective West taking Ukraine out of his sphere of influence. But Putin has no ethical or ideological considerations that would prevent him from cooperating with the West. It’s just that the circumstances are different today. This again underscores why it is not beneficial for him to have an ideology at the state level.

In your view, when will the confrontation over Ukraine between Russia and the West end and how?

It can go on for a very long time. Putin’s Russia is more than stable enough to wage war. Look what Vladimir Putin is doing: he is isolating the population from the war.
Only once, when [in the autumn of 2022] the front collapsed, 200,000 men had to be mobilized and sent to Ukraine. But overall, replacements are being found in social strata where people are ready to fight, kill and die for RUB 200,000-300,000 per month. There is no particular violence or coercion.

In addition, note that when things were going bad in Kharkiv Region, Moscow was celebrating the opening of the largest Ferris wheel in Europe. Such a situation would be impossible in an ideologized, totalitarian society.

The Putin regime was able to create a situation in which it could wage this war without tension, comfortably. By the way, all sorts of Z-people do not like this very much. That, perhaps, would have yielded better results in the short term. But Vladimir Putin has over time structured this war not so as to achieve the best results at the front, but so that his regime would survive, so that freezing the conflict without radical political changes would be possible. Bringing society into the fight means raising the stakes. There are risks. Vladimir Putin already seriously raised the stakes on February 24.
Therefore, the collective Putin can wage this war for many years. Ukraine is less resilient than Russia.
Siege of Mariupol. Source: Wiki Commons
There are many factors involved, including the unreliability of Western supplies, economic issues and difficulties with mobilization.

But Ukraine’s resilience is still quite substantial. The most likely scenario is this: the war will end only when the Ukrainian leadership decides that enough is enough and raises the white flag. And this could happen in six months, or in 5-10 years. The range is awfully wide.

What happened to Russian society over these two years?

War always polarizes politics. Politics has been simplified to the extreme: you are either for the special operation and against democracy, or vice versa. This is where the watershed lies. And in such a situation, obviously, repression intensifies, people’s fears intensify and the space for political expression shrinks. But I think that as soon as the war ends, we will go back to where we left off: authoritarianism with screws, which, however, are not so tightened, a push-pull situation.

In March, the regime will again need citizens to participate in a well-known political ritual: the legitimation of the “national leader.” How do you see all this commotion around the “election” – first they allowed Boris Nadezhdin to come out with an anti-war agenda (see Russia Post on this), then they pushed him aside. What was that and why?

Look at the ballot. Instead of an election, we have a circus with sad clowns. This is in fact an indication of how much Vladimir Putin does not want political discussion and is afraid of it. Any political discussion at the federal level will only lead to a migration of votes [away from Putin] and a drop in Putin’s ratings.

But even if some others candidates were allowed to run, Nadezhdin, Bondarenko, Strelkov, Duntsov and so on, I do not think Vladimir Putin would lose the election; however, to legitimize his terrible actions, he needs an overwhelming majority of Russians to support them, he needs almost 100% of the vote.

But even if you talk to a sane Putinist about Putin’s last term, about the fact that there is a terrible war going on – even though it was promised that it would be a “short, victorious” special operation, where everything goes according to plan and on schedule, conscripts would not be sent, there would be no mobilization; discussion of all these issues could significantly weaken the Putin regime.

Therefore, the elections will be like this: three sad clowns and one magician. As Putin once said: “do you know what the trick is? The trick is that, according to the new Constitution, I have the right to run for another presidential term.”
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