The entirely brilliant Complete History Of The Soviet Union, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris by Pig With The Face Of A Boy, encapsulates what we could call Russia’s long century – from the start of the twentieth century to the present – with the tale of “the man who arranges the blocks that descend upon [him] from up above.” The protagonist’s journey from hopeful revolutionary to dispirited victim leads to a revanchist coda: “But now that Putin’s put the boot in, who’ll get in our way? So we reject free enterprise, and once again the left will rise. Prepare the flags to be unfurled for we’re seceding from the world: we shall regain the Georgian soil, we shall obtain the Arctic oil.”
The triumphalism of the Putin era is represented as a stark contrast to the shabby decay of the Soviet idea; even the singer and tune is different. But I can’t help wondering whether these days Vladimir Vladimirovich might actually feel more in common with the “man who arranges the blocks”:
I work so hard in arranging the blocks
But each night I go home to my wife in tears –
What’s the point of it all, when you’re building a wall
And in front of your eyes it disappears?
Nowadays, I find myself thinking of Putin when I hear that verse. Many observers of Vladimir Putin’s, especially in the West, like to think of him as a consummate strategist, the cool grandmaster of the Kremlin chessboard who gets what he wants by thinking three moves further ahead than anyone else. Obviously Putin’s boosters like this image, especially as it combines well with those other tropes, of Putin the man of action and Putin the decider. (Indeed, Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy’s excellent forthcoming book Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, revolves around this very multiplicity of identities.) Likewise, for many of Putin’s critics, they are also glad to portray him as the nefarious mastermind, to dip into Bond analogues a modern answer to From Russia With Love’s Kronsteen or, better yet, a Blofeld sitting in some extinct volcano somewhere. (Though, as we know, Putin is more a dog than a white-pussycat-on-the-lap kind of fellow.)
My own take on Putin is quite the opposite, that he is often a fine tactician, albeit a surprisingly risk-averse one who prefers to wait until he is pretty sure of his likely success, but not a strategist at all. This might help explain the current confusion in Russia, where on the one hand there is a definite drive towards ratcheting up the pressure on current and potential opposition. This includes everything from specific cases, from the smearing and indictment of Sergei Udaltsov and the seeming “rendition with extreme prejudice” of Leonid Razvozzhaev – abducted in Kiev, bundled back to Russia and tortured to produce a laughable confession – through to big picture preparation, such as a draconican new law on treason. With a tough police general now in charge of the Interior Ministry’s infamous Main Directorate for Combating Extremism and the Investigations Committee’s even more hard-line chief Alexander Bastrykin seemingly on the rise, the legal and practical foundations for a general crackdown are in place.
But before we start anticipating the Bastrykinshchina and echo the – frankly rather foolish – voices comparing today’s Russia with Stalin’s, we also need to note the countervailing forces. Considering what the Kremlin could do, it has in some ways been relatively cautious. Bastrykin’s rise looks as if it will be tempered by efforts to keep him in check, perhaps subordinating him to long-time Putin ally and trusted fixer, Dmitry Kozak. Meanwhile, the Federal Security Service – the liberals’ former bêtes noires – have been relatively quiet and actually advocating more constructive approach, while Interior Minister Kolokoltsev does everything he can to prevent having to send his boys-in-blue (or rather boys-in-black-riot-armor) out to crack skulls on the street.
There are those within the inner “deep state” who have their own strategy of tension, hoping to cow or isolate opposition forces. But I honestly don’t think Putin is one of them, or at least not yet. Because he has no rival plan or no one has convinced him of one, he is willing to give the Bastrykins some leeway; think of the present situation as their proof of concept. If it works, Putin is the beneficiary; if it goes badly, he has his scapegoats ready. But this is an unstable way of governing, letting the loudest-voiced and sharpest-elbowed apparatchiki have their way in the absence of a coherent policy. Putin’s recent performance at the Valdai gathering of pundits, journalists and academics demonstrated no false modesty (governance? “I’m good at it.” Public opinion? “satisfied with your humble servant”). Nonetheless, although these days he is to an extent isolated in a Brezhnevian bubble of complacency and yes-mannery, his dependence on set-piece stunts and lack of clear direction demonstrates some awareness of the crisis gripping Putinism.
It is, at present, a slow, deep one; there is no likelihood of imminent explosion. But those seemingly rock-solid certainties that applied at the end of Putin’s previous stint as president, even that seemed valid when he announced his return, all seem crumbling. The economy is doing OK but no longer as bounteous as before, when every problem could be sluiced away with a stream of hydrocarbon dollars. Being sober and self-propelled – in other words, not Boris Yeltsin – is no longer enough. There is a pension crisis looming, which speaks to a wider issue of social benefits. An educated, metropolitan class – the beneficiaries of Putin 1.0 and the future of the country – are disenchanted. Corruption persists as the potential issue which could give the opposition real traction in the heartlands.
As we prepare for the forthcoming NYU Jordan Center/Center for Global Affairs discussion of “the next revolution,” I do wonder whether Vladimir Vladimirovich fears that his wall of blocks will disappear before his eyes. And does he know that, however good you are at Tetris, eventually you lose?