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Updated: 2018.9.27 05:17
 
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Russia's Imitation Game
[ Issue 161 Page 6 ] Wednesday, April 11, 2018, 14:24:47 Duman Kuandyk Head of International Division duman@kaist.ac.kr

Last month, Vladimir Putin, as expected, won the elections in Russia. The runner-up in the presidential rally was Pavel Grudinin — a communist candidate. Before the elections, he was not widely known. But once he announced his presidential campaign, Grudinin started gaining public support, surprising everyone, including the Kremlin. The elections showed that even 27 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the communist narrative still stays significant. How is this possible?

Even the most corrupt government still needs a display of “public support”; the Russian government certainly has such support. Taking a look at the demographics of modern Russia, we see that the average person is a 42-year-old ethnically Russian woman who lives with her husband and two children in a two-room apartment within an industrial city somewhere in the European part of Russia. She works in retail, considers herself a patriot, likes Putin but dislikes the government, and thinks that the US is the enemy of Russia.

Due to her personal experiences, she prefers stability to reforms. She witnessed the collapse of the USSR when she was 15 years old. She attended university during Likhiye Devyanostyye — a troublesome period for Russia in the 1990s when people went through massive unemployment, lack of basic consumer goods, incredibly high inflation, war in Chechnya and teracts that followed it, and — most importantly — the rise of organized crime. It was a time when she would get her payment in kind and the mafia would offer “protection” for her husband’s small shop in exchange for half of the business’s income. She clearly remembers the year of 1998, when the economy defaulted and she lost her already tiny savings. She, as did millions of other Russians, lost any faith in the “democratic” reforms promised by Yeltsin and his liberal government.

Unsurprisingly, by 1996, Yeltsin’s approval rating was only 3%. Everyone expected a communist revanche in the elections. Only with American assistance did Yeltsin manage to get enough votes to stay in power. When the results were announced, TIME magazine published a cover depicting him holding the Stars and Stripes flag, with the title “Yanks to the rescue: The secret story of how American advisers helped Yeltsin win”.

Even though communists lost the presidential election, they kept a tight grip on Duma, the Russian parliament. By controlling the parliament, communists aggressively resisted any attempts at decommunizing Russia: the lustration bill, proposing the ban of former communists from the civil service, was denied twice. To this day, many of the Russian ministers, directors of intelligence agencies, chief prosecutors, and even the supreme court judges had contributed to the Soviet bureaucracy. The Soviet Union collapsed 27 years ago, but its people are still there and even rule the country.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the Russian Federation is USSR 2.0: modern Russia has a rather retro-style cover on the product, showing people that it is still “good”, just like in the old days. With Vladimir Putin taking the presidential seat in the Kremlin, the government stopped the decade-long conflict with the communists and met them halfway. The Kremlin gave the communists and their sympathizers a certain degree of freedom, allowing them to organize marches commemorating the October revolution and build new monuments celebrating Stalin and Lenin. Sometimes, the Kremlin took the initiative before the communists, as it did with the Victory Day parade, turning it into a showcase of Russia’s massive, intimidating firepower.

To the average Russian, the modern rhetoric of the new Cold War reminds her of the good old Soviet days: Russia blocking America’s attempts at bringing “democracy” to the Middle East and Western countries imposing sanctions on her Motherland. There is also the Russian imperial legacy — the “Good Tsar, Bad Boyars” principle, which is reflected in Russians who are trying to reach out to Putin and hoping his intervention would solve their problems.

There is no doubt that the Russian government carries out such actions to divert the ordinary people’s attention from domestic policies to foreign ones. Russians understand as such, yet they raise no objections. “Do not bother each other” is the profound idea that defines the relationship between a typical Russian and the government. To the Kremlin, giving the communists what they want is easier than succumbing to the demands of the pro-democratic forces. Because yet another march celebrating the century-old victory of the working class does no harm to those in power, unlike how fair and transparent elections do.

Duman Kuandyk Head of International Division Archives  
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