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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
4 June 2023: It takes a Potemkin village, plus texts and tunes
I swear this is a weekly newsletter. Really.
It’s just that last week was Memorial Day here in the US, and the Spring Bank Holiday back in Britain, and, in all seriousness, did you really want to read about Russia on your long weekend?
What I’m thinking about
Potemkin is back in the news.
Google the word, and the first result — at least on my browser — is the Wikipedia article for “Potemkin village”, a concept so familiar to readers in just about any language that I don’t even need to explain what it means. The Wikipedia article for Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin comes in second.
The reason Potemkin’s on my mind this week is that his name — in its pejorative usage — has begun to attach itself to all things Russian. Russia’s gains in Bakhmut, we’re told, are a “Potemkin victory.” More broadly, Tony Barber writes in the FT, Putin is presiding over a “Potemkin economy”, a false façade of modest GDP growth erected to mask an increasingly impoverished and dysfunctional reality.
Barber is, in many ways, correct. The statistics we have on the Russian economy have grown sparse and threadbare, and the picture that emerges is one on which it is difficult to rely. Yes, as we’ve known for a while, a degree of war Keynesianism is keeping GDP afloat. But as Barber points out, there is evidence of collapsing retail sales and consumption and of spiking hidden unemployment. And all of that is in addition to what we know about falling revenues from hydrocarbon exports, scarcity of high-tech imports (including for industry), and so on.
On some level, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Putin is putting a brave face on the economy and telling people that everything is under control. I mean, what’s the alternative? He’s no longer hiding from people the fact that this war is going to cost Russia — and ordinary Russians — money. Perhaps to his own surprise, a great many ordinary Russians have proven themselves winning to make this sacrifice, even if they aren’t entirely sure what they’re being asked to sacrifice for. But at no point is he ever going to say, “you know what, folks, this is catastrophic, an unmitigated disaster, let’s stop.”
To call all of this a “Potemkin economy”, however, is to suggest either that Putin is putting up a façade for the Russian public and foreign observers, or that Russian officials are seeking to mislead Putin himself about the state of affairs (or both, I suppose). In truth, I see little evidence that either of these things is occurring. Russians do not, by and large, appear to be unduly optimistic about the Russian economy as a whole or their own particular fortunes. While Western observers sometimes fret that sanctions aren’t biting as hard as they could be, I see no one seriously suggesting that the Russian economy is thrumming along — Putin included. If the object is to fool anyone, it’s not working.
That’s not to say, however, that there’s no truth to the metaphor — it’s just not quite the truth that many people might assume. Leaving aside the fact that there is very little actual evidence that Prince Potemkin actually erected fake villages for the benefit of the tsar, the story itself is instructive. In 1787, Empress Catherine II made a trip to what is now southern and eastern Ukraine, territories that had been added to the empire only four years earlier, and of which Potemkin had been made governor. One version of the story goes that, in order to impress the empress, Potemkin set up set-piece villages full of smiling ethnically Russian settlers, and then dismantled and reassembled them as the tour rolled on. That version, historians suggest, is almost certainly wrong.
A somewhat more plausible version is that Catherine II and her trusted (in many respects) subordinate colluded in a subterfuge aimed at the foreign dignitaries who accompanied the empress on her tour, in order to send the message to the world that Russia’s imperial march was both successful and unstoppable, encouraging Russia’s allies and dismaying its opponents. Whether those dignitaries would have been taken in — diplomats are famously an incredulous profession — is another question, but it seems plausible that Russia’s rulers would have tried.
For my money, however, the most plausible interpretation of the “Potemkin village” story comes down to the power of information. As governor of ‘New Russia’, Potemkin has an advantage: he is the only one who knows the real state of affairs on the ground in Russia’s recently conquered territories. Anything that Catherine II and her advisers know, they know either because he has told them, or because he has allowed them to find out via other means. That puts him in an extraordinarily advantageous position, allowing him to control more or less the entirety of the conversation about what kind of resources and authority should be put at his disposal. The empress’s visit, then, is simultaneously an opportunity to bolster his own political standing, and a threat to his informational advantages.
Catherine II, meanwhile, also has a balancing act to play. While she might be interested in peaking behind Potemkin’s curtain, her more pressing need is to prepare for the next war — and that means maximizing her own informational advantages vis-à-vis the other European monarchies represented in her court. From this perspective, it’s less important that she convince them of any particular mistruths, than that she prevents them from ascertaining any reliable truths. Indeed, Potemkin’s interests vis-à-vis Catherine are more or less the same.
From one Russian imperialist war in Ukraine to another, then, we see a pattern repeating itself: officials on every rung in the latter whose clearest incentives are to hoard information. Lower level officials are interested in making sure that their activities are opaque to their superiors. And while the person at the top — whether Catherine II or Putin — may find that opacity problematic, geopolitical conflict turns that opacity into a strategic asset. As a result, everyone in the system is content to fly half-blind, so long as they believe their opponents are blinder still.
What I really want to know, though, is this: how do you pronounce Potemkin? In Russian, Потёмкин is pronounced puh-TYOM-kin, not the po-TEM-kin you usually hear in English, and certainly not put-TEMP-kin. It’s not that I’m trying to be pretentious about it; it’s just that every time I say it wrong — and I know I’m saying it wrong! — I can hear my old Russian pronunciation teacher snapping her pencil.
What I’m reading
The problem with taking a week off from the newsletter, of course, is that the readings pile up. I’ll try to be brief, but I may fail.
Let’s start with two thoughtful and thought-provoking essays on the role of ideas and ideology in Russia today. The first, published 27 May in Post-Soviet Affairs by Martin Kragh and Andreas Umland, explores the political rhetoric of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Foreign Intelligence Chief Sergei Naryshkin — two of Russia’s most outspoken hawks — for clues about the depth and consistency of the ideas that appear to be underpinning Russia’s wartime politics. At issue, among other things, is whether Russian politics is guided by a loose mindset, which may be malleable across a range of circumstances, or whether something approaching a genuine ideology has taken shape, in which case we might expect that ideology to hold structural sway over Russian politics beyond Putin himself. Martin and Andreas come down fairly clearly in the latter camp. They write:
Putin’s regime had, by 2020, become less logocratic and more ideocratic, i.e. less determined by the latest utterances of the leader than by a stable worldview uniting the leadership. … Putinism, if one accepts the term, is anti-Western not in a geographical, but normative sense. Unlike pan-Slavism and Eurasianism, Putinism does not … discard West European and American ideas per se. Instead, Putinism rejects their cosmopolitan as well as anthropocentric permutations, and approves of civilizational as well as ethnocentric interpretations of Western ideas, as illustrated by Patrushev’s attacks on universalism.
The second, published 23 May by Maxim Trudolyubov in Meduza, delves into the role of the concept of katechon, referring to a force that withholds or prevents social life from descending into chaos, in contemporary Russian political philosophy, and in ultra-conservative philosophy more broadly. Referring to the writings of the German jurist, philosopher and Nazi party member Carl Schmitt, Maxim explores the roots and consequences of the conviction that “rational human activity is only possible due to this ‘withholding’, because otherwise the fear of chaos would force people to give up and surrender.” He writes:
It’s not particularly important whether Russia’s current leaders share this dark, mystical view of political reality, but they are giving it life through their actions. The role of a ‘shining past’ is played in their rhetoric sometimes by the Russian Empire, at other times by the Soviet Union, depending on the audience. And the ‘dark future’ is the threat of crisis, the disintegration of the country, or its capture by its enemies.
The idea that Putin and his regime — indeed, like many ultra-conservative movements around the world — see themselves as the only force holding the world back from a descent into chaos is both a tempting and a scary one: tempting because it might seem to explain so much that feels otherwise unexplainable, and scary because it can be used to justify actions that seem even more unexplainable than the ones they’ve taken so far. It is useful, then, that Maxim leaves room for cynicism, and thus the idea that, at the end of the day, Putin and his ilk may pull back from the brink of creating the chaos they profess to abhor. Maxim’s deeper suggestion, however, is that they may not be fully in control of the ideas they have unleashed.
Indeed, the ideas invoked in both essays find at least some reflection in the pro-war sentiment that Jade McGlynn explores in her book Russia’s War (see the 21 May TL;DRussia), and in a recent compendium of responses Meduza received when it asked readers to explain why they support — or at least don’t oppose — the war. To take one shining example:
I don’t support the war, but I don’t want Russia to be defeated. If that happens, it will be worse for everyone, and the world we were accustomed to will collapse for sure and we will face even greater darkness. The war was a mistake, but a defeat cannot be allowed.
Sticking with the ideological front, a few more noteworthy recent texts:
On 18 May, Verstka reported in depth on draft legislation to criminalize “russophobia” in Russia, opening up yet another avenue of attack against dissidents;
On 22 May, Meduza published a profile of Andrei Polosin, a one-time campaign consultant — political technologist, to use the term of art — who has now been tasked with instilling patriotism in Russia’s youth. Old habits, including the cynicism of trying to engineer public opinion, die hard. Or perhaps no one is actually trying to kill them off; and
Because the Kremlin does not have a monopoly on odious ideologies, take a look at Sota’s 4 June report on the rhetoric of the Russian Volunteer Corps that has been conducting cross-border raids from Ukraine into Russia.
Also worth reading:
Adam Samson’s exploration in the FT on 27 May of the patronage networks that keep Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power. The parallels with Russia, at an earlier point on the trajectory, are striking; and
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s 2 June address in Helsinki, in which he laid out the case for an outright Ukrainian victory more clearly and methodically than I’ve heard any US official do to date.
What I’m listening to
It’s been a long time since I’ve listened attentively to a band from Brooklyn — and I mean a Cyndi-Lauper-wanna-have-fun long time. Most of the ones I’ve come across in more recent years, even if they’ve got chops, have been, if not outright boring, a bad mix of earnest and derivative. (Lone Bellow, anyone?)
Enter Water From Your Eyes, whose debut I missed and haven’t yet listened to. I’ll be honest, while my left-wing bona fides are there for all to see, seeing “anti-capitalist” in an album review doesn’t usually pique my interest (Leyla McCalla notwithstanding). Sticking with the honesty, the lyrics may be the least interesting part of their new album, Everyone’s Crushed, though they’re not half bad. The rest of the show, though, is sonically and musically a bolt from the blue.