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Friday, 21 February 2014

Kicking The Kremlin

A review of Kicking The Kremlin by Marc Bennetts, published by Oneworld; sub-titled Russia's New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin, the book covers the grass roots anti-Putin movement (if it can be called such a thing) from around 2000 to 2013.

Situated in the centre of Moscow with walls up to six metres thick and 19m high, the Kremlin is a potent symbol of Russia's totalitarian rule.

It was the seat of power for Russia's leaders until the early 1700s when Peter the Great, affecting a more European outlook, moved his capital to the newly-constructed city of St Petersburg, before reverting back to its original status in 1918 when the bolsheviks, fighting for the survival of their revolution and the new Russian state, decided to hunker down.

Russia - the largest country in the world, spanning nine time zones - has always had authoritarian rulers, due to a combination of history and geography. A vast, flat country with long borders and a land empire acquired very quickly, it is at almost constant risk of attack or disintegration; Ukraine was for centuries more a province than a separate country, yet in 1991ceded from the then Soviet Union and became an independent nation - a fact many Russians have still not yet fully accepted.

In the early 1200s, a horseback warrior, Genghis Khan, struck out from Mongolia and conquered Russia almost overnight-  there followed nearly four centuries of eastern rule. Instead of experiencing the Renaissance, Russia was enslaved under the despotic Mongol Yoke.

Authoritarianism is not, therefore, something new in Russia - it is, rather, the normal state of things. Given a political education by the Mongols, Russia's tsars named themselves after the militaristic absolute rulers of ancient Rome, the caesars.

Russia is also heir to the original Christian church - the centre of orthodoxy moved from Rome to Moscow via Byzantium and Kiev.

Vast yet physically vulnerable and with a great spiritual heritage, Russia is a battered and wary, yet proud country. Three-fifths Asian, it did not leave the feudal era until 1861 and has not developed democratic structures and principles in the interim - a civil war, two world wars and the collapse of two empires have resulted in a focus on survival at all costs during difficult times and a tendency to stagnate at others.

The greatest threat to a totalitarian regime is a propserous, comfortable and well-educated middle class that dares to aspire to greater freedoms and can communicate that desire openly. Russia's rulers have always understood this and state censorship has long been standard practice.

Under the communists, anything that might allow the free exchange of ideas was tightly controlled - exit visas, border controls and closed cities restricted freedom of movement, whilst state industries focused more on armaments than on anything that might facilitate communication, such as personal transport, telephony or any consumer electronic devices.

The watershed moment came with glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachyov's policy of "openness" and freedom of communication. His attempts to restructure the economy ("perestroika") floundered and paved the way for the economic chaos of the Yeltsin years, but the free speech genii was out of the bottle.

The Putin years have witnessed a crude-but-effective re-taking of control over all television broadcasting  - add to this endemic corruption and weak democratic structures and the country is once more totalitarian in all but name.

For his book Kicking The Kremlin, Marc Bennets records the tales of various anti-Putin protesters - from eco-activist Yevgenia Chirikova to evangelical-yet-nationalistic lawyer Aleksei Navalny by way of punk band Pussy Riot.

The way Bennetts tells it, they are united by little more than a dislike of Putin. A fragmented and divided opposition facing an authoritarian crackdown is hardly a fair fight and the image of kicking against the bricks of the Kremlin walls is an appropriate metaphor for the futility of such protests.

The focus on personality is also a weakness - whilst it is easy to cast the ex-KGB officer, sometime Prime Minister and now President (again) as a hate-figure, totalitarianism and corruption in Russia is about more than one person, even if he is the long-term ruler of the country.

The building blocks of democracy are free and fair elections, an independent press, freedom of speech and the rule of law. It should come as little surprise to learn that Russia does not score - has never scored - highly for any of these.

Calls for the removal of one person from power - even if successful - do nothing to solve the underlying issues of an undemocratic country and merely risk the replacement of one despot with another - as evidenced by the Russian revolution.

Where both the anti-Putin protesters and Bennets' book seem to miss the point is in making their protests personal rather than structural - an undemocratic removal of Putin would do nothing to advance the cause of democracy in Russia.

But, with free and fair elections, an independent press and the rule of law in place, there would be the potential for opposition figures to emerge, cut their political teeth and stand for democratic election.

It is not as rousing a slogan as "Rossiya bez Putina" ("Russia without Putin"), but has the potential to be far more effective.

The book ends, however, on a half-optimistic note; a younger generation, wealthier, savvier and more comfortable generally, are increasingly finding Putin an absurd irrelevance, a faintly ridiculous, diminutive old man who takes his shirt off for the cameras.

As current events in Kyiv show, a peaceful and controlled hand-over of power is infinitely preferable to the alternative.

Book provided for review.

Bibliographic details:
ISBN: 9781780743486
Publication Date: 6 February 2014
Extent: 288 pages
Dimensions: 146mm× 225mm
Subjects: Current Affairs / Politics

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