Mobilization As A Method Of Government
Updated: Apr 19
By Victor Erofeyev
The Kremlin, Moscow. Vladimir Putin and former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The young Chekhov wrote a humorous tale about a Frenchman who, in a Moscow inn, sees
Russian merchants plastering mountains of blini with black caviar. He thinks they have
either gone mad or intend to take their own lives by gorging themselves on intestines - but
no, they were simply used to dining like this.
The same is happening right now in the Western analysis of Putin's Russia. From the
perspective of the West, Putin is in fact destroying the Russian state. Especially since the
beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. He is destroying all the foundations on which a modern
civilized state can exist. He is breaking all laws of war and peace, he is leading his government
out of the rule of law. He has made fun of European leaders, lied to their faces, made a fool of
them on the phone, and now he brushes aside all accusations of being responsible for the
murder of peaceful Ukrainian citizens and the targeted destruction of cities in the neighboring
country. Ignorant of Russian historical tradition, the West indignantly concludes that he is a
madman, a war fanatic, when in reality - like the merchants in Chekhov's story - he is simply
satisfying his appetite in this way, in this case the appetite of the Russian autocratic state
Believe it or not, Putin has set about implementing his own perestroika in Russia, and he has
done so quite radically, one might almost say with rational German consistency.
If one wants to understand the background and goals of Putin's perestroika, one should face
the terrible thought that Putin is ready for anything in his urge to return Russia to its roots
and make it an anti-Western superpower again. He has his sights set on victory by any
means, and the one thing he is decidedly not prepared to do - that is defeat. He will rather
destroy the whole world with his nuclear arsenal than admit defeat.
What actually happens to the Russian state entity in times of war?
We all know Gorbachev's perestroika - the desperate attempt at democratic change in the
Soviet Union, which nurtured hopes among the Russian intelligentsia and the entire Western
world. These hopes played a wicked game with their protagonists. They believed that the past
could not be brought back, that the fall of the Soviet Union was good news for everyone and
that a beautiful future lay ahead of them; all that was needed was to carry out reforms. For all
its naiveté and heavy-handedness, perestroika really did turn Russia around; the traces of
this upheaval in the form of the market economy and the rejection of communist utopias are
still visible today. But they are only traces. In fact, the past has returned, it has established
itself, and Putin's new perestroika toward the old Russian tradition is proceeding with
increasing speed. In terms of its global impact, it surpasses its Gorbachevian predecessor,
indeed much of Russian history, in shifting state boundaries and threatening in turn anyone
who disagrees with it. But what the road back to archaic times means can be seen in
analogous anti-reforms of Alexander III or the clandestine return to Stalinism under
While Gorbachev moved in the direction of building a European state with the corresponding
legal norms, in this sense nolens volens weakening the Soviet power structures and preparing
the disintegration of the Soviet state, we are now dealing with the opposite phenomenon.
Putin has been dealing with the restoration of the autocratic power structure, which is as
close to tsarist Russia as it is to Stalinism, since the beginning of his reign. Autocracy - this is
not only the supreme ruler on the real or imaginary throne, this is the whole pyramid of
power, built on an autocratic servile principle. In the bureaucratic system every bureaucrat is
a little autocrat and tsar servant. The autocratic state power has stifled every political
initiative of the population. For this very reason, Putin's perestroika has been extremely
successful in exactly the opposite direction, that is, the mirror image of Gorbachev's.
While Gorbachev's perestroika was accompanied by glasnost and led to the abolition of state
censorship, in Putin's empire everything is shrouded in secrecy, reinterpreted, twisted,
permeated with threats, fears, conspiracies, and even the protracted war is under secrecy
and, as it should be in the world of the KGB, not called war.
For a return to the home port of autocracy, the rejection of Western civilization is
imperative. True, even in Western civilization military or semi-military dictatorships arose
here and there - in Italy and Germany, in Spain and Portugal. But the difference between all
these terrible dictatorships and the Russian autocracy is that in Europe dictatorship deprives
people of the freedom of choice, while in Russia the people have no idea at all what freedom
is. That is why political manipulation with the help of propaganda has such great and lasting
success in Russia.
Putin in a state of complete indecision
Gorbachev's perestroika was shipwrecked because the people of Russia found no place for
themselves in it; they were despondent, as if paralyzed. Moreover, there was not enough
liberal potential within the intelligentsia, which would have been important. The Russian
intelligentsia dreamed of liberation from communist insanity, but was politically incapable of
formulating the goals of a post-communist Russia. Our reformers in the government hastily
wanted to imitate the reforms of Eastern Europe freed from communism without adapting
them to the elementary peculiarities of the Russian mentality. The result was that Russia
almost turned into a failed state in the 1990s under Yeltsin.
Many are asking whether the young President Putin wanted to follow the European path in the
first years of his reign. He was probably more in a state of complete indecision. He must have
been confused - he had been installed as a potential liberal, a protégé of Sobchak, the St.
Petersburg mayor friendly to Gorbachev. But he was by nature anything but a liberal, and
acting against his past as a KGBer could not last long.
After looking around a bit, he set about dismantling the democratic model of state power. He
was loathe to follow the directives of his predecessor, Yeltsin, and send Great Russia off to
catch up with Portugal's modest standard of living, and besides, he could not have done it at
all. The people, deprived of democratic motivations, not having become a nation of free
citizens, displayed complete political ignorance and were only too happy to give absolute
power into Putin's hands. The people posed no threat to Putin and still do not. It has
incredible historical patience, its needs are reduced to a few simple things: hunting, fishing,
vodka, banya, broads. And this: Work is always perceived as unfree and alienating, according
to the saying from Soviet folklore: "You can hammer and sickle all you want, but in the end
you always get the butt card."
Putin began the dismantling of European attempts at Russian statehood by attacking the free
mass media. The fight against them dragged on, but the complete dismantling or ousting
from the country was completed with the beginning of the war against Ukraine. The war
finally gave Putin a completely free hand.
Market Economy and Western Cutting of the Media
Already in Putin's first years in power, the rejection of the theme of universal human values,
the theme that was so important to Gorbachev, was evident. Values were divided into "ours"
and "not ours," and Russian culture was ordered to conform to traditional Russian values,
which was an obvious feint, since for the Kremlin these were reduced by their political
content to loyalty to the autocracy.
According to the mass media, Putin took on the oligarchs, dividing them into "ours" and "ours".
"strangers," some he imprisoned, others he courted, gaining a monopoly in deciding the
most important economic and financial issues.
The market economy in Russia has remained more or less intact, oriented to Western
standards, and the mass media, which have lost their political independence, by and large
offer Western-style information related to everyday life and entertainment, regardless of the
war. Russia will never be able to move toward China, toward Asia at all - it stubbornly follows,
especially in the big cities, what is going on in the world of the "golden billion," as Putin's
propagandists call the Western world. In more than twenty years, Putin has not succeeded in
developing a reasonably convincing ideology that would have the country's future in mind.
Patriotism will not get you far in the long run, nor will today's servile orthodoxy. The theme
remains, "We are better than everyone else." This grandiloquent imperial self-praise cannot
be held on to, however; even loyal Putin supporters find it slipping through their fingers.
The war against Ukraine - this is a kind of czar's whim of Putin, who understood that the
mobilization forges the country together better than Western modernization. He was given
false forecasts, the war dragged on, the motives of the imperial government became clear.
I do what I want
The decorations of state power, such as the pseudo-multi-party parliament and the
supposedly independent judiciary, remained, but even before the war began, their most
important role became clear: to preserve the power of Putin, who is equated with Russia in
the Duma. By the start of the war, the opposition, which had always been a nuisance to the
regent and monopolist, was finally crushed. The oldest opposition institutions, such legendary
ones as Memorial and the Sakharov Center, ceased to exist. A normal modern state needs an
opposition. If there is none, within the political elites an opposition will degenerate into a
covert power struggle, such secret disputes will lead to the destruction of the state. Of course,
Western analysts were shocked by the release of prisoners for the war against Ukraine, which
defied any conception of justice. But this step has its own logic in the system of autocracy: I do
what I want - so a standing Russian phrase. The war has turned many human problems into
state secrets, even funerals, which, as employees of funeral homes complain, have been
treated more as a disposal since the Corona period and now as a result of military secrecy.
The destruction of the remnants of the civilized state that Gorbachev dreamed of confronts
not only Russia but the whole world with the question of what our country should look like in
the future. Will Russia be, ideologically speaking, "scorched earth" after the war? On what
principles will it be possible to correct the destructive work that has been going on for more
than twenty years? The question of Russia's future is open. The long-suffering of the people,
regardless of all international sanctions, remains unshakable in our country, where, as the
recent mobilization showed, the population fears the authorities more than death. The
democratic opposition, scattered in prisons and in many countries, will hardly muster the
strength and possibility to take power this way or that. The West will direct all efforts to the
reconstruction of Ukraine, but not, understandably, to help Russia.
Most likely, the war will become a frozen conflict, neither side will achieve victory. Putin's
perestroika has ensured that the state will subordinate itself to the monarch and will separate
from him only after his defeat, which is unlikely. Will Russia continue to disintegrate or find a
civilized form of statehood acceptable to the world? The twenty to thirty years or so after the
war will be agonizing in every respect. But at some point Putin's perestroika, which stops at
nothing in its inhumanity, will end. In accordance with the unwritten laws of Russian history,
a thaw will then begin - temporary as usual or forever as never before? That is the question.
Victor Erofeev is an internationally acclaimed Russian writer who struggled with the Soviet System during the 70s and was asked to leave the powerful Writers Union, but reinstated in the 80s. He is the author of several fiction and non-fiction works including Russian Beauty, that has been published in over ten languages including English. Mr. Erofeyev edited The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, an important collection of contemporary literature. A three-volume collection of his works, including his novel The Last Judgment, was recently published in Russia. He has been a contributor to The New Yorker magazine and has hosted Television and radio programs throughout Russia.