By Ed Merta
In the age of Putin and Trump, the left is divided over what to think about reports of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the new U.S. President’s ties to the Kremlin. Are the reports credible? What do they mean for those who’ve always been skeptical of U.S. actions toward Russia?
Should the reports be dismissed, given the U.S. record of (among other things) sabotage in foreign elections, pervasive cyber-intrusions around the world, support for needlessly provocative NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and complicity in robber baron plunder of Russia after the collapse of Communism?
Understanding possible answers to these questions requires first looking at the history behind them. Learning from that history depends on an act of faith: believing in whatever truth emerges, even when it conflicts with what our faith has taught.
Russia has always been a problem for those who insist that another world is possible.
Their thinking, about Russia and much else, goes back a long way. Since the rise of modern technological societies around two hundred years ago, popular movements across the world have fought against abuses by concentrated power controlling the machinery of production and the state. These movements for social transformation have disagreed widely and bitterly with each other on the ends and means of resistance. They have also disagreed on matters, such as the extent to which the existing system should be reformed versus overthrown.
In one way or another, all of them stood for a different world than the one favored by the ruling authorities, more perfectly rooted in universal principles of democracy, equality, social justice, and peace. Impelled by such dreams, revolutions have erupted repeatedly against the established industrial and political order of modernity, assailing aristocracy, colonialism, patriarchy, industrial repression, militarism, and white supremacy, first in Europe and North America and since then around the world.
In 1917 these movements for human freedom witnessed what many believed to be their greatest victory: the revolutionary ascent to power of their brethren in the largest nation-state on Earth. Russia’s became the first government on the planet to embrace, apparently, doctrines of human liberation that had emerged over the previous hundred years. Such doctrines envisioned a just alternative to the industrial and geopolitical order that had enslaved much of the world and unleashed the apocalypse of what would later be known as the First World War.
For critics of Soviet rule, sympathy for Russian Communism meant blindness to crimes against humanity.
In time, the question of Moscow’s faithfulness to the doctrines of liberation helped tear the movements for liberation apart. As the Soviet regime consolidated and the Russian people suffered horrific slaughter during the war against Nazi Germany, many advocates for resistance against reigning Western modes of production and authority continued to see the regime of Joseph Stalin and his successors as an inspiration and a force for global social transformation. The harshness of Soviet rule, in this view, was a regrettable overreaction to Western hostility, outweighed by Soviet support for economic equality, racial justice, and Third World liberation from colonial rule.
Other believers in the possibility of an alternative global system disagreed, especially those embracing gradual social evolution within established democratic mechanisms such as elections, legislatures, and courts. In this view, the Soviet regime was a genocidal monstrosity that killed millions of its own citizens under Stalin and continued throughout the Cold War to impose a gray, submissive fog of conformity through propaganda, surveillance and the gulags. The realities of Soviet totalitarianism, from this perspective, made a mockery of the Communist Party’s stated devotion to equality, justice, and liberation.
The conflict between this perspective and that of the pro-Soviet liberation movements became a Cold War all its own. For critics of Soviet rule, sympathy for Russian Communism meant blindness to crimes against humanity. For those who supported Moscow, hostility to Communism signified complicity with an American-dominated system of global economic repression and military terror that slaughtered millions in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, enforced perpetual poverty on former colonial populations, and funded brutal right-wing dictatorships or corrupt pseudo-democracies that worked to make the world safe for Western corporations and military bases.
Today the Cold War is over and Communism is dead. But the confrontation about Russia and its role in the events of the twentieth century lives on. The same fault lines endure. Could the Soviet experiment in post-capitalist social engineering have ended in something other than horror? What sort of political response to that experiment was warranted at the time? Were Soviet or American actions primarily to blame for the Cold War? Did the alleged atrocities of one side exceed the other in the depth and extent of their evil?
The answers fall into the same two political camps, forever interrogating each other and the ghosts that history leaves as its voice. One camp has a dark vision of what Russia stood for. The other does not. In most cases, their debates can never be settled in any definitive way. The answers are found mainly in matters of faith and judgment rather than fact.
Some facts of Soviet totalitarian rule are beyond reasonable doubt. Millions, for example, were murdered under Stalin. The Gulags happened. But the meaning of such facts and their context will always be contested. And so common understanding and shared truth seem forever beyond reach.
The ghosts of history remain.
Today, amidst accusations of Kremlin interference in U.S. politics, the question of Russia still divides the community of believers collectively known as the left. For some of them, denunciation of Vladimir Putin’s regime betrays a naïve refusal to question the propaganda of Western media corporations loyal ultimately to a centuries old architecture of oppression, backed by state-sanctioned coercion and violence, manifested most obviously in the financial and military power of the United States.
Others, who also question the U.S.-dominated global order, take a different view. For them, Putin’s reign is a kind of living death, not because American corporate propaganda says it is but because the truth of human experience shows it to be so. In this view, the reality of America’s imperial failures and atrocities doesn’t diminish or deny the testimony of those who have endured Putin’s Russia.
The testimony is damning if true. Dissidents speak of a Russian president who deploys the state security apparatus to tame the nation’s industrial oligarchs, enlisting their far flung factories, refineries, data networks, broadcast centers, media productions, and finances for Putin’s own ends. By his control of state surveillance and security operations, Putin conditions the personal safety and property of the oligarchs on the fealty of private capital to the state. Consequently, doing business in Russia means paying bureaucrats for their continued favor and state intelligence services to look the other way.
The resulting loyalty of industry and finance to the regime ensures the obedience of media corporations, extinguishing freedom of expression and the press. Daily life is smothered in a suffocating electronic miasma of pro-Kremlin media saturation, an alternative universe in which Putin and state-aligned businesses are celebrated and political dissent depicted as treason, amidst endless streams of anesthetic escapism via television and the internet. This virtual reality construct of politics and life excludes meaningful dissent, and thus elections consistently produce a compliant legislature loyal to the Kremlin.
With racism ascendant in Russian society, members of America’s neo-Nazi and KKK fringe have worked with Kremlin-friendly political parties to organize speaking engagements and conferences. Far-right anti-immigrant populist parties have expressed support for Putin in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Greece.
The legislature passes laws subjecting public assemblies, political organizing, community nonprofits, media organizations, and internet content to a bewildering quagmire of government-mandated registration and controls, with penalties for noncompliance that effectively criminalize significant political opposition. Other legislation imposes social dogma of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close Putin ally, by reducing access to abortion, criminalizing insults to religious believers, prohibiting distribution of gay-friendly information to youth, and reducing criminal penalties for domestic violence.
Russian courts and police dutifully enforce the hyper-conservative laws emanating from the pro-Kremlin legislature. Arbitrary fines and prison sentences, often on seemingly fabricated charges, can unexpectedly descend on critics of the regime in apparent retaliation for dissent, including against uncooperative entrepreneurs, opposition politicians, LGBT activists, environmentalists, and even artists like the musical group Pussy Riot. Members of that band were imprisoned for alleged acts of “religious hatred” after performing feminist anti-regime songs inside a Russian Orthodox church. Besides such official legal sanctions, dissidents often finds themselves subjected to online harassment and physical assault by mysterious thugs. Over a hundred journalists have been murdered in Russia since Putin first became President in 2000. Nine prominent political critics of Putin have been assassinated.
Putin’s influence extends to forces far beyond Russian borders. His government has forged close ties to the Christian right in the United States, based on a common hostility to secularism, abortion, women’s rights, and LGBT equality. Kremlin surrogates cooperate with the World Congress of Families, an international alliance of right wing activists dedicated to preserving white Christian civilization and the patriarchal family against an onslaught by gays, feminists, secular humanism, and rapidly breeding masses of nonwhites.
With racism ascendant in Russian society, members of America’s neo-Nazi and KKK fringe have worked with Kremlin-friendly political parties to organize speaking engagements and conferences. Far-right anti-immigrant populist parties have expressed support for Putin in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Greece. Nationalist fervor with an authoritarian, anti-democratic cast now dominates the vision of Putin and his inner circle. They speak of a future Eurasian power bloc based on doctrines of Slavic manifest destiny and racial supremacy.
In that future, according to many Putin critics, the weak and decadent democracies outside the Slavic world will have no place. Just as dissent against Putin has no place in the present.
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The story of Putin’s rise and the nature of his regime offer a nightmare vision and a compelling narrative, with global implications. Not everyone believes the story is true or, if it is, that it matters. Are they right?
History and its ghosts offer lessons that might be helpful. We know that the meaning of Stalin’s atrocities and their legacy for the Cold War has always been contested and will remain so. But no reasonable student of history doubts anymore that those crimes against humanity happened, because the evidence from credible sources is simply too overwhelming. Anyone who doubts this can consult historical works like Harvest of Sorrow, by Robert Conquest, and Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder. These works and others amass the testimony of the ghosts. They tell of trains filled with slaves for Siberian mines and factories, round the clock mass executions in cities and forests, corpses littering a silent landscape stalked by cannibals amidst deliberate mass starvation.
Maybe we can never agree on the significance of these horrors, or the proper comparison and context in which to place them against the actions and crimes of the capitalist world. But their status as facts ought to be clear. They offer a portion, at least, of the essential foundation for the debates about meaning that will never have an end. Facts are a prerequisite for that inquiry, even when a common truth will remain forever beyond our reach.
What is the factual foundation for an understanding of the reign of Vladimir Putin?
Those moved to revulsion by the hypocrisy and horrors of American global hegemony might be tempted to dismiss the depictions of Putin’s terror as a fabrication, or a gross exaggeration, for no other reason than its endorsement by voices that include the U.S. national security establishment. But others testify to its truth as well.
Putin’s reign is a kind of living death, not because American corporate propaganda says it is but because the truth of human experience shows it to be so.
The darkness of Putin’s Russia, like that of Stalin’s, emerges from a mountain of factual evidence, found in sources not easily written off as subordinate to the U.S. government, its corporate sponsors, its military and intelligence apparatus, or allied governments. The witnesses include human rights advocates, humanitarian aid workers, mainstream news reporters, independent media activists, academic researchers, international organization officials, and above all anti-Putin dissidents inside Russia itself.
Particular individuals or organizations in this constellation of sources might be scorned as tainted by America’s money, or cultural hegemony, or global security and surveillance sphere. Corporate media and the national security state, after all, really do try to manufacture consent and invent realities to serve their interests. Putin doesn’t operate the only virtual reality, media-political complex on the planet.
But to ignore all of the witnesses to Putin’s darkness and their evidence, to dismiss all of them as dupes or tools of the American establishment for the sake of a crusade against American imperialism, is beyond reason. Useful and essential skepticism of American power can’t wipe away the testimony of thousands upon thousands of human beings. Putin’s reign emerges from their accounts as an empire undeserving of excuses from any movement claiming to stand for mercy, justice, and truth.
Saying this is not the same as endorsing or ignoring lies and crimes of American foreign policy. Recognizing what Putin’s Russia has become, or Stalin’s, doesn’t equal complicity in a new McCarthyism. It doesn’t automatically mean reflexively supporting militarization, a new Cold War, or a slide toward nuclear annihilation. Political thinking rooted in universal values of human liberation and visions of a more just human society should be better than that.
Such thinking can acknowledge that transnational structures of hatred and repression originate from regimes other than that of the United States. Such regimes can oppose the imperial designs and international capital of the West while still perpetrating the same evils historically resisted by Western advocates of social transformation, who fought for generations against the oppression of workers, women, minorities, dissenters of every kind, the helpless and the voiceless and the weak. These are the people at risk in Russia today, trying to tell their story.
They deserve a hearing. It’s too easy to believe that just because a U.S. official or mainstream media organization says something, then it must by definition be a lie, and therefore nation-states opposed to U.S. imperialism must of necessity represent potential allies and sources of truth. The world is more complicated than that. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. Sometimes it’s simply the enemy by any other name.
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Listed below is a small sampling of voices from what is often called “the left,” which is really just a shorthand for the hope of making more gentle the life of this world.
Part of that hope, the writers below maintain, rests on bearing witness to what’s happening in Russia and what it could mean for everyone on Earth.
Tim Callahan, “An Interview with Russian State Duma Member Ilya Ponomarev,” Balkanist, April 10, 2016.
Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova, “Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein,” Russian Reader, September 8, 2016.
Vincent Emanuele, “Why Do the Left and Right Love Putin?” Telesur, January 6, 2016.
Guardian editorial staff, “The Guardian view on Putin’s Europe: the new fellow travellers,” The Guardian, January 18, 2017.
Owen Jones, “Putin is a human rights abusing oligarch. The British left must speak out,” The Guardian, January 26, 2016.
Daria Litvinova, “TV Witch Hunt Drives Human Rights Activist Out of Russia,” Moscow Times, October 15, 2015.
Max B. Sawicky, “Russia to our Right,” The Baffler, January 11, 2017.
Stephen R. Shalom, “Russia and the Left,” New Politics, January 9, 2017.
Christopher Stroop, “Russian Social Conservatism, The U.S.-Based WCF, & the Global Culture Wars in Historical Context,” The Public Eye, Winter 2016.
Ed Merta has not nor has he ever been a deep cover asset of the CIA for 21 years. Rather, he is a New Mexico based environmental attorney and local government employee (the views he expresses are entirely his own, not those of any other person or organization). He has a master’s degree from Harvard University in history, focusing on U.S. politics, government, and international relations.