U.S. politicians and mainstream press are demonizing Russia with a ferocity not seen since the Cold War. Democrats blame their 2016 electoral loss on Russian hackers. Putin’s regime is vilified for throwing its military might against Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and backing Assad in Syria, while ratcheting up repression at home.
In sharp contrast, some leftists see the country as part of a “heroic axis of resistance” against U.S. imperialism. Where does the truth lie?
Putin’s rise from chaos. Key to unlocking Russia’s nature today is understanding the cataclysms caused by the collapse of the Stalinized workers’ state 26 years ago.
The Soviet economy had been stagnant for years, weakened largely by the actions of a hostile U.S. Then world oil prices took a devastating nosedive in the 1980s. At the same time, the ruling bureaucracy was being pressed by demands for democracy and a longing for Western material goods throughout the Soviet bloc, as well as by demands for self-determination among suppressed minority nations within the USSR.
Besieged on multiple fronts, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the profound economic and political changes of perestroika and glasnost. These failed to save the status quo, and in 1991 the USSR fragmented into 15 countries.
With the fall of the workers’ state, Russia was plunged into the icy waters of neoliberal shock therapy.
State-owned property was sold at 5 percent or less of its value, or simply stolen, mostly by former Communist Party officials. Many factories were stripped of inventory and scrapped. Others suddenly found their suppliers and customers divided among different countries. Central planning was abandoned. Production fell by 40-60 percent in post-Soviet states, with vital goods in short supply.
Huge numbers of people lost their jobs or worked for months unpaid. Living standards fell by 50 percent in the first year.
Hundreds of thousands of working people protested, to no avail. The vast majority wanted to fix the degenerated Soviet system, but not junk it. In the words of Elena Yurievna S., a former apparatchik quoted in the revelatory book Secondhand Time, “No one had told them there would be capitalism. … Everyone wanted freedom, and what did they get? Yeltsin’s gangster revolution.”
Ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000 on the promise of stabilizing the economy after the calamitous Yeltsin years. Riding a rising tide of oil prices, Putin was able to meet some of the most dire social needs and fund the growth of a middle class. He curbed the most powerful oligarchs and began to subordinate the corporate billionaires to the governmental bureaucracy of his United Russia party. At the same time, he outlawed all strikes as part of a crackdown on the workers’ and democracy movements.
Subject to a limit of two consecutive terms as president, Putin in 2008 essentially handed the office to Dmitri Medvedev — who then appointed Putin prime minister.
Growing repression and war. Stabilization crashed to a halt in 2008 with the double whammy of world recession and plummeting oil prices, wiping out government’s biggest source of income. Wages and GDP dropped again. Wealth inequality widened; Russia’s is now the most extreme of any industrialized nation. Wildcat strikes and labor protests began to appear.
The administration’s gloves came off, especially after Putin resumed the presidency in 2012. Political opponents were slapped with trumped-up criminal charges, even assassinated. Hundreds of protesters became “prisoners of conscience,” like the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot in 2012 and Alexei Navalny and other anti-corruption activists this year.
Having lost oil profits as a means to smooth troubled waters, Putin increasingly resorted to an alternate kind of social glue: nationalist fervor and xenophobia. Putin set about creating “enemies” to draw the fire of an unhappy populace.
Muslims and Russia’s myriad national minorities, who have suffered repression for centuries, are among Putin’s targets. During the recent world recession, immigrants from the Northern Caucasus and from Central Asian republics that were formerly part of the USSR began flooding into urban areas in Russia looking for work. They were initially welcomed because declining population growth meant the need for labor was acute. But now they are being scapegoated for unemployment, slandered as possible terrorists, and even hijacked to perform forced labor in remote districts.
Simultaneously, LGBTQ people have been increasingly singled out for legal suppression and violence. The rights of women have been pushed back, and domestic violence decriminalized.
High on the enemy list is “the West”: Europe and the United States. Putin has capitalized on people’s longing for the lost prestige that the Soviet Union had as the world’s second most powerful nation. This has translated into a political policy that asserts Russia’s right to insist that the countries of its “near abroad” align with its interests and policies.
The drive to become a regional power and grab a spot on the imperialist battleground has been escalating since the 1990s. First came the suppression of demands for autonomy from oppressed nations within Russia’s borders, notably Chechnya. Then came the war with the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. Putin’s assertion of Russia’s right to control the destiny of its neighbors reached a new height in 2014, fueling civil war in Ukraine and annexing the Crimean peninsula, which Ukraine still claims as its own.
The backing of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is key to realizing Putin’s ambitions for Russia as an expansionist power. Historically an ally of the USSR, Syria remains Russia’s toehold in the Middle East, host to Moscow’s military bases and access to the Mediterranean.
Redefining Russian allies. So is Russia friend or foe? Demon or champion? The answer depends on your class perspective, and on which “Russia” you are talking about — its ruling capitalist lootocracy, or its working people.
Make no mistake: Putin’s regime does not embody resistance to imperialism. Just the opposite. Imperialism is an international system in which the most powerful countries vie to divide up the world into spheres of corporate exploitation. The Russian government is part of this setup, maneuvering for a bigger piece of the pie. Putin and Trump are linked in a sort of elite imperialist club in which all the members are in deadly competition. Thus, the two can admire each other as strongmen while simultaneously tossing bombs at each other. (On other countries’ soil!)
So is there a “Russia” for U.S. working and oppressed people to ally with? Yes. The workers who have defied the anti-strike law across Siberia, in the Urals, and in one-factory towns; protesting laborers who link their wage demands to calls for democracy and a workers’ party; the thousands of students who marched on March 26 against corruption; and the political dissidents, queers, women and immigrants who must and are fighting back. This is where the lasting alliance between “West” and “East” will be built.
Send feedback to Susan Williams, a co-founder of Doctors Council Local 10MD, SEIU, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Russian Revolution commemorative article