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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 28 New Delhi July 2, 2016

Putin and Socialism are like Oil and Water: Don’t Mix Them

Friday 1 July 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

This article brings out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s views on what happened in the past. In that sense it carries considerable value. The author’s own analyses of Putin and his views are of secondary importance. 

Many of India’s Communists and fellow- travellers remain touchingly devoted to the Russian Federation on the mistaken notion that it is the land of socialism. They are plainly nostaligic. But viewing contemporary world politics in bipolar terms can only provide a myopic vision. Vladimir Putin is actually a Russian nationalist first and last. This under-standing is vital to put Russia’s foreign policies in a correct perspective as fundamentally borne out of the preoccupation with its national interests.

The unpleasant truth is that Putin and socialism do not mix. This is apparent from the stunning remarks he made about his personal beliefs, Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik Revolution, New Economic Policy, Nationality Question, Joseph Stalin, communism, et al during a public interaction in Stavropol on Monday (January 26, 2016). The relevant extracts are here:

“You know that like millions of Soviet citizens —over 20 million — I used to be a member of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and not just a regular member: for almost 20 years I worked for the organisation called the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union [KGB]. This organisation derives from the Cheka, which was then called the armed unit of the Party. If for some reason a person left the Communist Party, they were immediately fired from the KGB. I did not join the party simply because I had to, though I cannot say I was such a dedicated Communist, but I treated this with great care. As opposed to numerous party functionaries, I was not one of them; I was a rank-and-file member. As opposed to many functionaries, I did not trash my membership card, I did not burn it... The Communist Party of the Soviet Union fell apart; my membership card is still out there somewhere.

“I have always liked communist and socialist ideas. If we consider the Code of the Builder of Communism that was widely published in the Soviet Union, it strongly resembles the Bible. This is not a joke; it was actually an excerpt from the Bible. It spoke of good things: equality, fraternity, happiness. However, the practical implementation of these ideals in this country had little in common with what the utopian socialists Saint-Simon or Owen spoke about. This country had little resemblance to their Sun City.

“Everyone accused the tsarist regime of repressions. However, what did Soviet power begin with? With mass repressions. I will not speak of the scale, but will simply give the most outstanding example: the execution of the Tsar’s family together with their children. There could have been some ideological grounds to destroy possible heirs, I suppose. But why did they have to kill Doctor Botkin? Why kill the servants — people of a proletarian background? What for? To cover up the crime.

“You see, we never gave this a thought before. Fine, we fought with people who resisted Soviet power with arms in hands, but why kill priests? In 1918 alone 3,000 priests were shot, 10,000 over a period of 10 years. Hundreds were drowned under the ice of the Don River. When you think about it, and when you get new data, you tend to see things in a different light.

“In one of his letters, to Molotov I believe, Vladimir Lenin wrote that ‘the more represen-tatives of the bourgeoisie and the clergy we shoot — the better’; I do not remember the exact words now. You know, this approach does not go very well with some of the ideas we used to have about the very nature of power.

“We also know of the role the Bolshevik Communist Party played in the collapse of the World War I frontlines. The fact that we lost to a losing nation — several months later Germany capitulated, and were losing the war to a losing nation — was a situation unique in history. Why was this done? To gain power. Knowing this, how should we assess this situation now, with the huge, colossal losses the country had to bear?

“Then, there is the economy. They had to adopt the New Economic Policy because even the surplus appropriation system did not work. It became impossible to supply major cities with food. That was why they had to shift to a market economy, to the New Economic Policy, but then they quickly did away with it.

“You know, what I am saying now is my personal analysis of the situation, the conclusions I have come to. A planned economy has certain advantages, making it possible to concentrate national resources on the most important tasks. This was how they resolved the issue of healthcare, which was an obvious achievement of the Party in those times. This was how they resolved the situation with education — also an obvious achievement of the Communist Party. This was how they dealt with the industriali-sation of the defence industry.

“I believe that if it were not for the concentration of national resources, the Soviet Union would not have been able to prepare for the war with Nazi Germany. The chances of being defeated in this war would have been great, with catastrophic consequences for our statehood, for the Russian people and for all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Therefore, those are all obvious achievements. However, in the final count, the inability to embrace change, to embrace technical revolutions and new technology led to a collapse of that economy.

Finally, the main reason why I was saying that we need to take a fresh look at the ideas the former leader of the Soviet state Vladimir Lenin formulated. What were we talking about? I was saying that a bomb was planted at the foundation of our statehood. What did I mean by that? I will give you the details now. I was referring to the discussion between Stalin and Lenin regarding the creation of the new state, the Soviet Union.

“If you are a historian, you should know that back then Stalin came up with the idea of the autonomisation of the future Soviet Union. Pursuant to this idea, all the different subjects of the future state were to join the USSR as autonomies with broad authority. Lenin criti-cised Stalin’s views, saying it was an untimely and wrong idea. Moreover, he promoted the idea of uniting the future entities, and there were four then—Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and, as a matter of fact, the south of Russia, the North Caucasus Federation, as it was called.

“So, Lenin said the state, the Soviet Union should be formed on the basis of full equality with the possibility of seceding from the Union — I may have gotten the exact words wrong, but that was the idea. That was the time bomb that was planted under the structure of our statehood. Not only did they set the borders for ethnic groups of a multinational, essentially unitarian state; the borders were also established arbitrarily, without much reason. Thus, why did they make Donbass part of Ukraine? The reason was to raise the share of the proletariat there to ensure greater social support. Pure nonsense, as you may see. And this is not the only example, there are many others.

“Say, cultural autonomy is one thing, an autonomy with broad state authority is another, while the right to secede is something else altogether. Eventually, this, along with an inefficient economic and social policy, led to the collapse of the state. This was the time bomb.

What was it if not a time bomb? That is exactly what it was. We simply need to carefully analyse what happened in the past using the opportunities we have today. However, we cannot paint everything in the past black, or present a rosy picture of everything that is happening now. We need to make a careful objective analysis to avoid the mistakes that were made and develop our statehood, our economy and social sphere in a way that would only make the state stronger. We have such an opportunity, and the Russian Popular Front has a part to play here as well.”

Who indeed is the real Putin? Frankly, he appears as someone who is devoid of beliefs. First, his association with the CPSU. Putin held the membership of the CPSU like any time-server in order to advance his career and savour the perks that went with it in the Soviet system. Period. He admits he doesn’t care how his association with the CPSU finally ended. But we know how it ended—when the Party ceased to be of any use to him. Quintessentially, it is the predicament of a man without beliefs. Second, the ideals and practice of socialism.

Putin codifies the socialist ideals as of “equality, fraternity, happiness” and mocks at them. He has a point here. The Soviet system progressively degraded in the post-World War II period as a regime of kleptomaniacs and plain degenerates and cynics and time-servers. Although Putin will be loathe to admit it, Joseph Stalin was the man principally responsible for it. In a terror state, there was no more need of accountability.

But then, to be fair to Stalin, Russia has always been a highly exploitative, brutal, corrupt society. Shades of Rasputin! This continues to be so even in Putin’s Russia. Yet, funnily enough, one of the clutch of good things Putin sees in the Soviet system was the “concentration of resources” in the hands of the dictator.

Putin pulls up Lenin for ordering Russia’s exit from World War I. Here he sounds like Gen. William Westmoreland who was convinced the Vietnamese Communists could be destroyed by fighting a war of attrition that would render the Vietnam People’s Army unable to fight anymore. Putin doesn’t get the point that there are far more important things in life than fighting wars, that in Lenin’s eyes winning a war in which Russia wasn’t really a stakeholder, was no big deal.

True, Lenin literally bought peace. He told Leon Trotsky to wear petticoats, if necessary, to get the Kaiser to agree to the peace deal. Why? Because, Bolsheviks had far better things to do than continue with a war that already cost Russia heavily in human lives and treasure. Lenin was a humanist and pragmatist.

The peace with Germany, the murder of the Czar and his family members, the New Economic Policy, the Nationality Question, etc. are topics that historians have pondered over at great length. Suffice it to say, they cannot be detached from the historical context in which the Bolsheviks were compelled to operate. Hardly had the Bolsheviks moved in, Russia was invaded by a concert of Western powers who wanted to kill the revolution before its perni-cious ideology might spread to Europe. Surely, Putin would have heard about the crisis in Europe in the twenties (which ultimately led to the rise of fascism).

Again, Lenin and the National Question. The point is, Russia has been all along an expan-sionist power, which incessantly conquered foreign lands and annexed them as part of its territories, and a greater logic was needed to be found to rule them as one country—the USSR. It was a Bolshevik brainwave to create the illusion of having resolved the national question while in reality establishing Russian dominance over the countless sub-nationalities. Russia does have a controversial history. By the way, who were the Crimean Tatars, the Basmachi movement or the Armenians? Some of them—such as Uzbeks and Tajiks—had a proud history much older than Russia’s. Were they Slavs belonging to the Orthodox Church? Kokand in Ferghana Valley was annexed just a couple of generations before the Bolshevik Revolution.

True, regaining Donbass, a part of Ukraine, may pose a headache for Putin today. But then, vast tracts of Siberia and the Russian Far East continue to belong to Russia. Something comes from somewhere, something goes away some-where else—that is the history of all imperial powers, which do not have permanent borders.

Now, there can be many versions possible regarding the New Economic Policy—who conceived it, who opposed it, why and how it failed and came to be summarily abandoned (when Russia had no more use of the market since it faced an embargo from the world market itself.) Ironically, Putin is an intelligent man and would know the agony of a far milder Western embargo. And that too, Russia’s globalisation notwithstanding, which was a luxury com-pletely denied to Lenin.

The big question is why Putin said all these maverick ideas. Since the remarks have been solemnised on the Kremlin website and splashed all over the state media, they must be serving some calculated purpose in the power play. This is one thing.

Putin differentiated himself here as a staunch non-communist and a votary of market economy, who abhors “repression”, is a devoted Christian and simply cannot forgive Lenin for killing all those pious priests (even if they had ganged up with the kulaks and undermined communism.) Does all this really help Putin look ‘Western’? That is another thing.

To my mind, history remains its best judge. And Lenin remains a man of history. China’s leader Xi Jinping is wise to train thoughts on ‘China Dream’ instead of deriding to his countrymen the Great Helmsman or the Great Leap Forward.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He also served in the Indian mission in Moscow for several years.

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