During self-inflicted catastrophes of this kind, a certain kind of man always finds a way to blame a woman. In Vladimir Putin’s case, that woman was Hillary Clinton.
If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: the United States. On December 8, 2011, three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: “she gave the signal.” On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics. The point was to choose the enemy that best suited a leader’s needs, not one that actually threatened the country. Indeed, it was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses and suggest the fallibility of aspiring dictators. When Ilyin wrote that the art of politics was “identifying and neutralizing the enemy,” he did not mean that statesmen should ascertain which foreign power actually posed a threat. He meant that politics began with a leader’s decision about which foreign enmity will consolidate a dictatorship. Russia’s real geopolitical problem was China. But precisely because Chinese power was real and proximate, considering Russia’s actual geopolitics might lead to depressing conclusions.
The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia. Unlike China, the EU had no army and no long border with Russia. The United States did have an army, but had withdrawn the vast majority of its troops from the European continent: from about 300,000 in 1991 to about 60,000 in 2012. NATO still existed and had admitted former communist countries of eastern Europe. But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American planes to fly through Russian airspace to supply American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a “reset” of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public or media was paying attention to Moscow. Russia did not even figure in American public opinion polls about global threats and challenges.
The European Union and the United States were presented as threats because Russian elections were faked. In winter 2011 and spring 2012, Russian television channels and newspapers generated the narrative that all who protested electoral fraud were paid by Western institutions. The effort began on December 8, 2011, with the reporting of Putin’s claim that Clinton had initiated the protests. Under the headline “Putin proposes tougher punishment for Western stooges,” Noviie Izvestiia reported his professed belief that “the Russian opposition forces began mass protests after the ‘go-ahead’ given by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.” The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a “documentary,” which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners.
Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that “it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,” he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia.
From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.
In 2012, Putin made it clear that he understood democracy as ritualized support for his person. It meant, as he informed the Russian parliament in his annual address for that year, “compliance with and respect for laws, rules, and regulations.” Individual Russians had no right to protest against the anti-democratic actions of their government, on Putin’s logic, since democracy required them to align their souls with laws that banned such protests. Putin was repeating Ilyin’s understanding of both elections and law. Thus “freedom” meant subordination to the words of an arbitrary leader. Indeed, after Putin’s return to the office of president in May 2012, the Russian state was transformed in ways that corresponded to Ilyin’s proposals. Every important measure brought to life an element of Ilyin’s constitutional texts.
Libel was made a criminal offense. A law that banned insults to religious sensitivities made the police the enforcer of an Orthodox public sphere. It became a crime to publish cartoons of Jesus or to play Pokémon Go in a church. The authority and budget of the FSB were increased, and its officers granted broad authority to shoot without warning. A new FSB unit was named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka (predecessor of the GRU, NKVD, KGB, and FSB). The definition of treason was expanded to include the provision of information to nongovernmental organizations beyond Russia, which made telling the truth over email a high crime. Undefined “extremism” was outlawed. Nongovernmental organizations deemed to work “against Russia’s interests” were banned. Those that had received funding from abroad—a very general notion that included any form of international cooperation, such as holding a conference—were required to register themselves as “foreign agents.”
On the morning that the “foreign agent” law went into effect, graffiti appeared across Moscow on the headquarters of nongovernmental organizations reading FOREIGN AGENT USA. One target was Memorial, a storehouse of materials on the history of Russia in the twentieth century. Russia’s own past became a foreign threat. Memorial had documented the suffering of Soviet citizens, including Russians, during the Stalinist period. Of course, if all of Russia’s problems came from the outside, there was little sense in dwelling on such matters. The politics of eternity destroys history.
In the politics of eternity, the past provides a trove of symbols of innocence exploited by rulers to illustrate the harmony of the homeland and the discord of the rest of the world. Putin’s third response to the protests of 2011 and 2012 was to explicitly endorse and propagate Ilyin’s version of the politics of eternity, to imagine Russia as a virginal organism troubled only by the threat of foreign penetration.
On December 15, 2011, ten days after the protests against electoral fraud began, and two decades after the dissolution of the USSR, Putin imagined a Russia where historical conflicts were literary problems. Sitting in a radio studio with the fascist writer Alexander Prokhanov, Putin mused about a Russia that would honor Soviet monuments to the terror against Soviet citizens, specifically to the Cheka and its founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky. If something had gone wrong in Russian history, said Putin, it was the end of the Soviet Union. A historical event in which Putin’s patron Yeltsin had been the central figure, and which had enabled Putin’s own career, was now a mysterious passage to national malaise. What Russia needed, proposed Putin, was a different sense of the word revolution: a cycle that returned over and over, to the same place.