August 26, 2010

The Kremlinologist Catechism

There is a Catechism that dominates American discourse on Russia today. Just flip through The Washington Post’s editorials, peruse American political science journals or listen (cringe) to a Joe Biden interview. It goes something like this:

In the past decade, Putin’s Russia has forsaken Western values and returned to its authoritarian past. Ordinary Russians, bribed by the Kremlim’s oil largesse and misled by its controlled media, expressed only apathy at this development. Granted, the regime may enjoy superficial support (given Putin’s strangely stratospheric approval ratings), but the accelerating population decline proves that Russians are discounting the nation’s future with their loins. And so should we, for what’s the point of taking a “Potemkin country” ruled by a “kleptocratic thugocracy” seriously?

There’s only one problem – many of the underlying assumptions of this Catechism are unsupported by any facts, figures or statistics.

A major cornerstone of the Catechism is that electoral manipulation under Putin has become so egregious that the regime has lost the political legitimacy that many Westerners believe only stems from democracy. But opinion polls from the Levada Center strongly belie these concerns. In the 2008 Presidential elections, Medvedev’s 71% mandate was exactly the same as the percentage of voters who later recalled casting a ballot for him (and significantly lower than the 80% who intended to vote for him three weeks prior). [see poll 12] Obviously, this is not the Soviet-scale fraud of Kremlinologist fantasy.

There are two main rejoinders to this argument. First, doesn’t the Kremlin make ample use of its “administrative resources” – unfair media access, illicit campaign financing, etc. – to skew election results to its liking? True. As a “plebiscitary regime,” it not only relies on but revels in popular approval. But it’s genuine approval for all that – because if it weren’t, one would expect most Putinistas to be old, sour-mouthed “sovoks” who are fed news from state TV, right? But that’s not the case. Though pro-Kremlin, West-skeptical views are prevalent across all major social groups, they run highest among young, university-educated Muscovites – the very Russians most exposed to the West through the internet and foreign travel.

But that’s heresy! Don’t these inconvenient results imply that the Kremlin has coopted the polling agencies? Sorry, false cause fallacy. Furthermore, Lev Gudkov, the current director of the Levada Center, writes stuff like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion... hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a raging, pro-Kremlin fanatic, does he?!

A second major theme of the Catechism is that Russia’s plethora of economic and social ills – best manifested in its demographic “free-fall,” “death spiral” (insert your own appropriately apocalyptic term here), etc. – doom it to decline and eventual irrelevance. Yet according to the state statistics service, Rosstat, the population stopped falling in 2009, as part of an ongoing recovery from the “lowest-low” fertility and “hyper” mortality rates of the post-Soviet transition period. True, its long-term sustainability is uncertain, and Russia’s demography is still nothing to write home about; for instance, death rates for today’s middle-aged men are unchanged from those of late tsarism (also according to Rosstat). That said, considering today’s Russia has an above-European average fertility rate and a stabilized population, there is no point in flogging this “death of a nation” meme any further.

Locked within their larger Meta-Catechism of Western universalism, the Commissars of Kremlinology are oceans separated from the lives of ordinary Russians, who by and large like their country, consider Putinism a fair balance between order and freedom, and are relatively optimistic about Russia’s future. One does not have to be a useful idiot, Kremlin stooge or “whataboutist” apologist for “Chekist dictatorship” to point this out – all it takes is a few minutes and a few mouse-clicks online.

So, until the Western commentariat can provide evidence that the claws of the Kremlin extend to Rosstat and Levada – as opposed to relying on generalized claims, hearsay and tea leaves – its Catechism of a secret police dictatorship leading brainwashed Russians to a national pyre is best appreciated as dystopian fantasy.

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