The Russian history of destruction

From Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin and back again

Leonid Gozman, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Photo: EPA

Each one of us can compile a long list of what Vladimir Putin has destroyed over the long years of his rule. Democratic institutions, freedom of press, morality, international relations — you name it. But what has he built?

If we listen to him, it seems as if he has built an entire world from the ground up, like God himself. A new world order that arose from the chaos. Is that actually true, though?

He didn’t succeed with the new world order — no one recognises Putin as the leader of the anti-American world. Some thought that he had built an efficient army. But judging by the speed of Russia’s looming shameful defeat in the war with Ukraine, the president has failed to create a good army, just like he has failed many other things.

However, he does have some achievements. And their nature reminds us not of Peter the Great, whom Putin likes to compare himself to, but of Ivan the Terrible, whom he also respects, to be fair.

Vladimir Putin has created a new state, just like Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible did before him. Ivan’s oprichnina (a state policy of mass repressions against the boyars, Russian aristocrats, in 1565-1572 — translator’s note) wasn’t just part of his madness. The tsar was not satisfied with the way the state and its decision-making mechanism worked, and so, Ivan the Terrible tried to build a new state, free of the weaknesses and shortcomings of the old one. To the best of his ability.

Peter did not like the state he inherited either. He gradually built a new one, at times leaving the old institutions to die out on their own, transferring their powers to the newly formed government bodies. He did not have oprichniki, officers of state oppression, like Ivan the Terrible did, but he had his guard, which wasn’t just a military organisation. Guard officers and even sergeants could be appointed to high-ranking civilian posts, which gave them more power than statesmen used to have before.

For his part, Vladimir Putin really disliked the state he had inherited from Boris Yeltsin. But while he was building a new state, he did not close any of the old institutions: the Federal Assembly, the Constitutional Court, and many others, still technically function. But they do not actually work or influence anything, just like it happened under Peter the Great. The parliament isn’t just an imitation of one — no one even believes in this farce — it is simply decorative. It has no more to do with state governance than the Tsar Cannon has to do with the Russian Armed Forces. The Constitutional Court only exists because they forgot about it or thought shutting it down was unnecessary: it’s not really in the way, and it doesn’t cost that much. The same approach was taken when it comes to other institutions. Even the government ceased to play a political role, only retaining technical functions.

On the other hand, the Security Council, a murky institute with unclear functions, has grown like a mushroom cloud after the rain. It is unclear whether it has any real power:

judging by the “open session” we were shown in the run-up to the war, it is full of buffoons cowering before their boss. But at least, it seems that they do, in fact, discuss important matters there. There are no other institutions that can be considered bodies of state power in Putin’s Russia. Perhaps, there is some kind of “private club”, but we don’t know who is part of it, how often its members change, and whether there are any figments of Vladimir Putin’s imagination there, like one of his favourite historical figures, maybe, or God himself?

Putin did not move the capital to another place, like Peter the Great did: he chose a simpler path. Putin simply kicked everyone who was in his way out of Moscow. Some were banished, some were sent into unannounced exile: people just weren’t seen anymore, as if they were exiled to a far-away estate. The Moscow officials of today are not the same at all as they used to be when Putin came into power. They are of different backgrounds and education.

The president also has his own guard. The Federal Security Service (FSB) has forged scores of Putin’s government officials. It is hard to find a recently appointed governor or minister under Putin who had not graduated from the FSB academy.

Nevertheless, Putin seems to stray away from Peter the Great and approach Ivan the Terrible instead. He did not kill his son, as he doesn’t have one, but he already has his own oprichniki who want to be recognised as part of the state structure. Ramzan Kadyrov essentially fired Colonel General Alexander Lapin: at the very least, his dismissal followed Kadyrov’s statements on the general’s incompetence. Kadyrov’s behaviour does not seem like that of a concerned citizen. He was outraged by the fact that he had been unable to contact Lapin for three days straight. I do not want to defend General Lapin, but why would one of the highest-ranking generals in Russia contact the head of the region that is so far away from the combat zone? The answer is simple: Kadyrov isn’t just a governor. In Putin’s Russia, he occupies a very high, albeit formally unannounced, rank. This allows him to wage his own war at the same time as the state, as the leader of his own feudal army. After several dozen of his fighters were killed in Ukraine, Kadyrov announced a “revenge operation”. That is, he announced military activity unrelated to the plans of the Russian higher command.

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Another Putin’s oprichnik, Yevgeny Prigozhin, behaves in the same way. His “private military company” is outside of Russia’s legal framework, but this does not deter him from acting as head of the PMC, in particular, establishing an official PMC Wanger Centre in St. Petersburg. He also demanded that YouTube be blocked and Google be recognised as an undesired organisation. We don’t know whose orders Prigozhin’s army follows but his own. Would they obey Putin? Or no one else except their boss?

Of course, obvious historical parallels do not imply that that these figures are one and the same. Although judging by the damage inflicted upon his country, Putin seems closer to Ivan the Terrible and not Peter the Great, he did succeed at many things.

And yet, after Putin, the country will be left in ruins, held in disdain by the entire world. The state that Putin has created is only fit for him, and it will disappear together with Putin. And we will have to rebuild it from scratch.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.
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