STOLYPIN: The Russian patriot’s dilemma

STOLYPIN: The Russian patriot’s dilemma
Aleksei Kudrin has accepted a position as deputy head of the Presidential Economic Council. / Photo by CC
By Mark Galeotti of New York University May 9, 2016

For Russia, May 9 is Den Pobedy, “Victory Day”, perhaps the holiest event in the nationalist calendar. It is a day for parades and speeches, St George’s ribbons and medals, for World War II music and for handing flowers to veterans. On one level, it is a powerful collective act of remembering what was, indeed, an extraordinary and hard-won triumph. On another, though, it is an artfully constructed exercise in myth-making, in imposing an image of common endeavour and peerless leadership onto a far messier and more ambiguous history.

Does the true patriot accept the myth in the name of national unity and purpose? Sometimes, after all, isn’t it better to subsume oneself and one’s personal qualms into the collective? Or does he or she insist on challenging its half-truths and untruths, to be true to the real experiences of those who lived through the war? Not only is this not betraying their memories, it may also help ensure very real blunders – such as the concentration on edinonachalie, “one-man management”, that left the Red Army helpless when Stalin had a virtual nervous breakdown – are never repeated.

Or does the patriot seek to find some compromise, trying to inject nuance and experience into the zeitgeist without making the struggle against the myths an end in itself? Is it better to have a small chance of doing some small good than no chance of doing a lot of good?

Kudrin and Pamfilova

This is, one might suggest, the kind of dilemma that Aleksei Kudrin and Ella Pamfilova have recently faced. Kudrin, whose 11 years as finance minister have given him almost mythic status within and outside Russia as a symbol of responsible, sober, if also neo-liberal economic management. He clashed with Dmitry Medvedev and left the government in 2011, and since then has been an often-sharp critic of government policy (especially over defence spending), but has managed to retain a relationship, however attenuated, with Vladimir Putin.

Suggestions that he would return to government have always foundered on his evident disdain for Medvedev and his alleged determination that he would have to have the power to introduce serious, tough controversial measures. Now, though, he has accepted a position as deputy head of the Presidential Economic Council, and charged with developing a new economic strategy for the country for after the 2018 presidential elections.

Much can happen between now and then, but it is hard to see how any grand designs from Kudrin can or would be applied. After all, any meaningful reform will – as has been argued here – depend on addressing issues such as corruption, property rights, and spending priorities that will run directly counter to the interests of Putin’s closest allies and will also undermine his very system of rule. No wonder people are criticising Kudrin for having allowed himself to be used by the Kremlin to give the appearance of a serious commitment to change, in return for an empty title and a futile charge.

Likewise, eyebrows were raised when Ella Pamfilova, a human rights campaigner of impeccable credentials, agreed to become the chief election monitor. Like Kudrin, she has resigned from a government position – head of the president's Council on Human Rights and Civil Society – because she felt she neither had the support of the government, nor the capacity to further her agenda. Now, though, four years since her departure, she has become the head of the Central Electoral Commission.

Her predecessor, Vladimir Churov, became known as “the magician” for his ability to concoct or conceal apparent electoral fraud to the Kremlin’s great benefit. Infamous for his admission in an interview that his “first law” was that “Putin is always right”, he seems to have created a dubious precedent for Pamfilova. Although she has insisted that she will resign if the September elections to the State Duma are not free and fair, her apparent willingness at first to turn a blind eye to fraud in council elections in Moscow’s Barvikha suburb have liberal critics already turning on her.

Is Worse Better?

There will be no general cleansing of the Russian economy, no massive decrease in the arms budget. Kudrin will not be able to break the power of the hydrocarbons barons, or end a culture of institutionalised embezzlement and clientelism. The Duma elections will be rigged, not least to manufacture the level of turnout the Kremlin needs as part of its legitimating ritual, as it packs another tame legislature with United Russia and other hand-picked hacks.

But this does not mean that Kudrin and Pamfilova are doomed to complete uselessness, or else that they have decided simply to sell themselves for office. After all, either could find lucrative, respected positions or sinecures abroad, should they so choose. Instead, they have chosen to re-immerse themselves in the piranha tank which is Russian politics, in the hope that they can make at least some difference there. If nothing else, if – or perhaps when – they resign again, that will be a blow to the Kremlin’s credibility both at home and abroad. At least they have that weapon. Before then, though, they may well be unable to win the big battles, but they will inevitably be able to carry the odd skirmish.

Kudrin now has more of a platform from which to support the efforts of technocrats like Central Bank of Russia chair Nabiullina and Finance Minister Siluanov. Pamfilova can at least try to limit the more egregious frauds, even simply by filling a position that otherwise might go to a second Churov. Their decisions may lack heroic grandeur, but they demonstrate that there are still liberal, reformist Russians willing to remain in the fray, however unequal the odds, rather than head for Western boardrooms and endowed professorships. Most Russians, after all, do not have the same options, and it is heartening that they are not being abandoned to the kleptocrats, aspiring secret policemen and men-who-would-be-tsar who otherwise dominate the country’s political scene.

Leon Trotsky, the apostle of revolution, once memorable affirmed “the worse, the better”. In other words, that revolution is most likely when things are as bad as can be. Poetic, but the truth of the matter is that revolutions fail when the state is strong and ready, and when they do it is the ordinary people who suffer. Given that the Kremlin is digging in as it builds its National Guard and imposes new controls on the media, Russians may well want to be grateful to those who hope to bring small, incremental changes instead of abandoning the country or gambling all on some dramatic act of defiance. Putinism is already moribund; the true patriots should want to ease it on its way without provoking some last, dying spasm.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows ( and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.