About Russian Neo-Imperialism
For BORIS ROMANCHENKO (1)
THERE HAS RARELY been such an embarrassment of leftist positions: Russia’s war of aggression against independent Ukraine has made absurd the assessment expressed shortly before by many (and some prominent “campist” or pacifist) leftists that, despite the military saber-rattling on Ukraine’s borders, no threat of war emanated from Russia.
The most important players in the German peace movement have publicly acknowledged their error, so a fair discussion with them is possible. But there has been little discussion about what the reasons were for this fundamental misjudgment. Probably one of the most important causes for the misjudgment is the lack of preoccupation with the aggressive character of Russian contemporary capitalism.
This preoccupation is necessary, not only because of the current war against Ukraine and the danger of nuclear war that has once again become apparent. The previous crushing of the political opposition in Russia, and the increasing repression of the Putin regime during the war, poses the danger that the regime will develop from authoritarian presidential rule into an openly totalitarian-fascist regime, as the Russian sociologist Greg Yudin recently noted. (2)
For example, it was almost completely lost in the flood of war news that shortly after the war began, security forces for hours occupied the premises of the Memorial human rights organization in Moscow, which was banned at the end of 2021, and confiscated numerous documents and computers.
In view of the war in Ukraine and the numerous crimes against Russian civil society, this incident seems almost harmless. However, like the banning of Memorial itself, the raid makes clear that this is an attack on every precondition of social self-organization: on the discussion of independent narratives of history and society, in favor of a totalitarian ruling ideology.
Yet the virtually hopeless economic situation into which the invasion of Ukraine has brought Russian capitalism poses a considerable danger not only for the Russian opposition. Radicalization and increasing violence on the part of the Putin regime, both internally and externally, are to be feared. At the same time, Russia’s foreign policy goals, which have already been proclaimed, are threatening enough for its neighbors and for Europe as a whole.
The Putin regime today not only openly embodies the arch-reactionary ideology of the global New Right in cultural and domestic politics, but the brutal reality of authoritarian-repressive and neoliberal Wild East capitalism with all its ugliness that’s likewise clearly before everyone’s eyes.
Russia’s internal constitution should make deception about the character of Russian foreign policy impossible — “should,” were it not for the fact that many on the left look the other way. So the German left hardly discusses the character of Russian wild-east capitalism, whose brutality differs little from that of wild-west capitalism in the emerging countries of the South.
The standard of living of wage earners is far lower and rural infrastructures far less developed than in the West, showing that Russia is still a Second World country. Moreover, it is a country with an extreme contrast of poverty and wealth, with that small layer of the one percent super-rich facing a huge mass of poor people.
The so-called middle class, on the other hand, comprises a maximum of 10% of the population. One of the first measures after Putin took office as president was the introduction of a neoliberal flat tax of only 13% on incomes and the implementation of various deregulation and privatization measures.
The daily struggle for existence in the big cities with their masses of precarious jobs, which like the country’s construction sites are filled by migrant low-wage workers from Russia’s backyard in Central Asia, constantly increases the pressure on militant trade unions by the phalanx of state and capital.
The western left has shown little interest in this dramatic situation of the working classes in Russia, which is similar to the situation in other emerging countries. Likewise, it has shown little interest in land grabbing and the overexploitation of nature on a huge scale, accompanied by violent actions and death threats against eco-activists and resisting small farmers. There is even a small trade union or NGO, “Alternative,” whose goal is the liberation of people from private slavery.
There exists a vast force field of corruption affecting virtually every aspect of political power, the police, the judiciary and capital. The resulting open exploitation of people and the overexploitation of nature not only makes clear the kleptocratic character of the connection between the authoritarian state apparatus and real wild-east capitalism. It also explains the many murders of investigative journalists.
State protection laws for people and nature, if they exist, are usually only a polished accessory for the often overtly violent enforcement of capital’s interests.
Western multinationals such as Coca Cola and Volkswagen (VW) behave no differently in Russia than they do, for example, in Mexico.
The Example of Volkswagen
In 2019 VW management presented a wage settlement below the rate of inflation in negotiations with two company unions. When one of the two unions, MPRA, part of the independent Confederation of Labor (KTR) (3), which represented 38% of the workforce in the collective bargaining committee, began collecting signatures from the workforce to solicit their opinions, VW management banned it from the plant floor.
Because the collection of signatures continued outside the plant gate, VW accused the unionists of “terrorism” and called the police. The regional labor ministry, in collusion with the governor, then banned the signature gathering, clearly contravening existing legal rights of the unions.(4) We have long known this practice of cronyism of the German flagship corporation with authoritarian regimes, Brazil or apartheid South Africa being prominent examples.
This incident became a prelude to a major attack by the Russian state and capital on the rights of dependent employees and trade unions in general in the following year. On May 23, 2020 the State Duma decided to abolish the previous Labor Code, which had enshrined the autonomous negotiation of labor relations by companies and trade unions.
It has now been replaced by a law “unique in the world,” as Oleg Shein, vice chairman of the KTR, wrote. In this new version, labor relations are now “regulated by state regulations,” and in the event of a “conflict between the Labour Code and government decisions,” the government’s decision now “takes precedence.”(5) Militant trade unionists engaged in internationalist solidarity activities are also increasingly threatened by the “foreign agents” law, also used against Memorial and other human rights groups.(6)
To understand the Putin regime’s actions, it is important to recall the genesis of today’s Russian capitalism and its emergence from the despotic former ruling “communist” nomenklatura (the privileged Soviet-era party bureaucracy — ed.).
After the failed coup of the Soviet security apparatuses in August 1991, President Boris Yeltsin initiated a shock strategy of liberalization and the ultra-fast privatization of Soviet state property. The stated goal was the rapid creation of a private “ownership class” in order to ensure the irreversibility of the capitalist path in Russia.
The result of this policy was a dramatic deepening of the already existing social and economic crisis, with disastrous consequences for the lives of most of Russia’s citizens. The average life expectancy of men fell to under 58 years, pensioners in Moscow rummaged through garbage cans for food, people made homeless by privatization camped out in Red Square, wages went unpaid for months, and miners went on strike for a bar of soap.
Privatization of state property was largely carried out through criminal channels. Through trickery, fraud, corruption and violence, companies and banks very quickly “got into the pockets” of former “red directors” and other members of the “communist” nomenklatura.
In a very short time, billions of dollars in assets were created during these “founding years” of oligarch power. Mafiosi helped just as diligently as dismissed KGB, army and police members. Thus, a corrupt and criminal network of former directors, security guards and mafiosi emerged, who had no hesitation to use violent methods to further redistribute former state property in the 1990s.
The 1990s in Russia resembled the mafia confrontations in 1930s Chicago, as can be read from many examples, such as the books of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. An apt term for the system that emerged was quickly found: “nomenklatura capitalism,” a capitalism that had emerged from the division of previous state property among the former “communist” nomenklatura.(7)
Czars, Stalin, Putin
It is quite amazing when “campist” leftists see Vladimir Putin, admired by the global far right, as a poor victim of the West — that Putin who, according to Steve Bannon and his rightwing U.S. co-thinkers, is not “woke” and “has the balls” to mess with the decadent West. Apparently, Putin-defending leftists are prisoners of their own symbolic politics, as the Putin regime uses Soviet symbols of victory over Hitler’s Germany, or denazification, especially now in the war against Ukraine.
This seems to fit into these leftists’ worldview. But it overlooks the fact that the flags of the Soviet navy also flutter on the masts of Russian billionaires’ yachts, and that the Putin regime uses not only Soviet symbols but also those of tsarism, both proclaiming the “greatness of Russia.”
In this construct, the Soviet Union is openly and circumstantially regarded as what it had become under Stalin: a specific variant of the Greater Russian Empire. This is precisely why Putin so resolutely hates Lenin, who saw the Soviet Union not as a continuation of the Russian Empire, but as a union of Soviet republics based on the right of peoples to self-determination.
But how does the use of Soviet symbolism go together with the reactionary-nationalist practice of the present?
Since 2012, and especially since the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in 2017, the regime has managed to create a historical ideology centered on the narrative of the positive nature of a Great Russian authoritarian state. In it, a development from the tsars to Stalin to Putin is constructed. Lenin has been largely erased from memory, unless he has to be held up as the culprit in the downfall of the Soviet Russian state from 1989 to 1991.
The times of the so called “Great Russian Revolution” are seen as periods of turmoil, in which Reds and Whites both wanted the best for Russia, and which eventually produced the rise of the strong Stalinist state in succession to the Tsarist Empire. Here Russia had reached its greatest expansion and its standing as a world power.
In this nationalistic way, symbols and cults of the Soviet state handed down among large groups of the people, as recollections of victory in “the Great Patriotic War” (World War II) can be mixed with the symbols of tsarism to create a reactionary melange of Russia’s greatness. In this nationalistic sense, the term “reconciliation” became the central domestic political slogan regarding the history of the 20th century.
Therefore, the holiday of May 9 today stands not so much as a symbol of remembrance of Russia’s sacrifices in defeating Hitler’s Germany and for “Never again war!,” but emphasizes Russia’s strength today and the possibility of repeating the “march to Berlin” in the struggle against the West.
No wonder that the censorship authorities have now recognized even a Youtube-Video with the famous poet Yevtushenko’s lyrics “Do you think the Russians want war?” as a statement likely to endanger the state, and they have thus banned the video clip.(8)
Contrary to some reactionary demands, out of consideration for the “conservatism” of the masses, statues of Lenin are allowed to remain standing for the time being. Yet official ideology, taking up ideas of a “Russian Eurasia” and other arch-reactionary beliefs, is profoundly “anti-Western” and “anti-liberal” and ethically conservative. It means “Russia, but normal,” to borrow an election slogan of the Alternative for Germany.(9)
This ideology is coupled with a belief in Russia’s “anti-decadent” mission and a desire for revenge for the demise of the former Russian world power called the Soviet Union. Putin’s face, distorted with rage, when he spoke of the “drug addicts in the Ukrainian government” was as genuine an expression of this ideology as was the proclamation by the Patriarch of Moscow, Cyril, that Russia’s struggle in Ukraine was justified because it was directed against the rule of homosexuals that supposedly existed there.
The Telling Beginning of Putin’s Career
Only those who disregard the criminal-capitalist turn of the authoritarian “communist” nomenklatura, which already produced dictatorial features at the beginning of the capitalist transformation of ex-Soviet state property, can be puzzled by this reactionary ideology.
At the end of 1993, when Russia’s path to capitalism seemed politically secured by Yeltsin’s deployment of tanks against Russia’s elected Congress of People’s Deputies, a delegation of leading German managers went to Russia to sound out investment conditions. During a meeting with Vladimir Putin, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg at the time, who was responsible for looking after foreign investors, a remarkable conversation took place, which not only says something about the rulers in Russia at the time, about Putin’s way of thinking even at the beginning of his political career, but also about the German managers.
When the camera present at the meeting was turned off, a German general manager asked Mr. Putin whether a Chilean-style military dictatorship was being considered in Russia, not only in military circles. Mr. Putin answered very unequivocally, “If you ask like that … I favor a Pinochet dictatorship in Russia.”
At the end of 1993, the newspaper Neues Deutschland, on the basis of a documentary by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) radio network a few days later, supplemented the deputy mayor’s remarks as follows:
“In this context, Mr. Putin distinguished between ‘necessary’ and ‘criminal’ violence. He said that political violence is criminal if it is aimed at eliminating market-economy conditions, and ‘necessary’ if it promotes or protects private capital investments.
“He, Putin, expressly approved of possible preparations by Yeltsin and the military to bring about a Pinochet-style dictatorship in view of the difficult economic path to privatization. Putin’s remarks were received with friendly applause by both the German company representatives and the deputy German consul general who was present.” (10)
The answer seems to have pleased the German gentlemen, because they all came and invested in Russia — Siemens, VW, Daimler, the chemical industry, and many more.
Putin and the Oligarchy
As deputy mayor, Putin was quite successful in organizing corruption-based deals between old “red” business cadres, Western managers or mafiosi with politicians, and a “successful” lunch with Mayor Sobchak could cost over $100,000. In any case, the economic situation in St. Petersburg was much more favorable than in the rest of the country, which is why Putin was brought to Moscow by Yeltsin’s staff and, after an interlude as FSB chief, soon became Russia’s prime minister.
The oligarchs, to whose election campaign Yeltsin owed his own reelection and a second term in 1996, unabashedly determined Kremlin policy. To secure their power and fortunes, they also organized the transfer of presidential power when Yeltsin had to step down after two terms in 2000. Thus Yeltsin handed over his office to Putin, who was considered a “reformer” and a man of the oligarchs, even before the end of the election period.
Immediately, the systematic staging of Putin as a bear-riding, dragon-killing superhero began. Putin used a terrorist attack (apartment bombings — ed.) in Moscow, presumably orchestrated by the secret services, to launch the second Chechen war. Through this, he demonstrated new strength and the restoration of Russia’s “honour,” which won him great approval in the 2000 presidential election.
He received equally strong popular support when Putin took on those who had brought him to power: the oligarchs. He guaranteed them the assets they had stolen, but only if they did not interfere in politics.
This was exemplified by the ousting and punishment of the richest man in Russia at the time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After he clashed with the president in front of running television cameras over corruption in the state apparatus and went into opposition to the president, he was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2005.
The charge was aggravated fraud and tax evasion with damages to the Russian state of more than one billion U.S. dollars. His oil company Yukos was divided among state-owned companies. But in the background of this dispute there was also an economic-political conflict, because Putin intended to bring the oil and gas industry back into state ownership or control as an economically and politically strategically important branch for Russia.
In addition to limiting the reach of the oligarchy rooted in the criminal privatization of the 1990s, the authoritarian presidential system created by Putin produced another phenomenon. Now the cadres of the former KGB took control of the oligarchy, and furthermore now produced their own oligarchs from their ranks. Often, it was the president’s old associates and confidants who owed their new wealth to him.
Thus, Putin effectively created a new “state oligarchy” alongside and above Yeltsin’s “private oligarchy.” They occupy the most important positions in the state apparatus and state corporations as well as exercising economic control, forming a tight network of politics and strategically important economic sectors. Through their functions, their members also have the opportunity to line their own pockets. For this reason, the members of this “state oligarchy” remain all the more loyal to “the Putin system.”
Modernization of the Economy Fails
The way in which authoritarian politics and the economy are closely intertwined has consequences not only for democracy in Russia, but also for long-term economic development. The problem is the political entrenchment of two dominant economic blocs in a common political power bloc dominated by secret service agents, with the president at its center.
On one hand there is the oil and gas industry, which surpasses all other civilian economic sectors in size and the high degree of monopolization; on the other hand, the industry that develops and exports coal. In addition, there is the military-industrial complex (MIC).
The monopolistic capital strength of both economic power blocs almost regularly leads to innovative companies emerging alongside them either being bought up or forced out of the market. The subordination of Russia’s great intellectual potential, for example in the IT sector, to the needs of the military and intelligence services is another eloquent example of the resulting longterm weakening of civilian sectors, perpetuating the paradoxical situation of this giant country remaining absent from the world market.
The modernization of the fossil industry and the MIK, at the expense of the modernization of the rest of the civilian economic sphere, is the power-structure-related fatal flaw permanently impeding economic development in Russia. The Putin regime’s power structure, based on economic rents resulting from kleptocratically consumed fossil fuel rents, is therefore itself the best guarantee of Russia’s longterm economic lag behind its imperialist competitors.
The contradiction between Russia as a nuclear superpower and its economic status at the level of Brazil, which Vladimir Putin and his entourage certainly recognized as a problem, had led to the president’s declared goal of Russia becoming one of the world’s five largest economic powers by 2024.
Tacitly, however, this goal had to be put on hold. More recent forecasts before the attack on Ukraine said that Russia’s economy would stagnate in the long term and remain at about the same place in 2035 as it is today. But by that time, the fossil fuel consumption of the key countries in Europe, the main consumers of such forms of energy, will have declined dramatically.(11)
Violence Instead of Modernization
Vladimir Putin has understood the importance of the time factor in the competition between empires. In his speech and his contributions to the discussion at the Russian Valdai Discussion Club in 2021, he declared that the next few years will decide who will be the center and who will be the periphery in the world.(12)
His policies in recent years make it clear that he and his entourage must have realized that this battle cannot be won on the economic field. With his brutal suppression of any opposition at home, massive aid to the suppression of the revolts in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and his statement in January 2022 that Russia would not tolerate any revolution in the post-Soviet space, Putin had clearly expressed his willingness to escalate violence both internally and externally.
Whether Russia’s longterm economic weakness, for which the character of the regime itself is mainly responsible, formed the final, decisive trigger for the war of aggression on Ukraine against the background of the time factor cannot be answered definitively. However, it can be assumed with some degree of certainty that it was at least one of the main factors behind the decision to go to war.
If Russia cannot become a major economic power in the long run, then violence is the only means left to be a major power. The longterm economic weakness on the one hand, and Russia’s claim to great world power status on the other, explain the increasing aggressiveness of the Putin regime’s policies.
But not alone! The belief in a historical mission of a great Russian empire vis-à-vis the “decadent West,” which is deeply rooted in Russia’s ruling class and in Putin himself, always includes Ukraine. This is not only for pseudo-historical reasons, but also because, as is well known according to Zbigniew Brzezi?ski, Russia without Ukraine is a great country but not an empire.
However, the imperial dream is far greater yet. Putin’s assertion that the forcible annexation and colonization of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact took place in accordance with valid international law does not bode well for all the other peoples of the Russian-Soviet prison-house of nations who became independent from Russia in 1991, such as Moldova (the Romanian-speaking Bessarabia looted by the Tsarists and Stalin) or Georgia.(13) Moreover, Putin’s junior assistant Dmitry Medvedev had announced when he was president that Russia had the right to intervene wherever ethnic Russians lived. And that applies to all former Soviet republics, including those that are now members of the EU and NATO.
The draft treaties submitted by Russia to the United States and NATO in December 2021, which called for the reversal of NATO in Eastern Europe, indicate more than clearly that Russia also seeks renewed control over former Warsaw Treaty countries in Eastern Europe.
The revanchist ambitions of Russian neo-imperialism thus clearly have the potential for further wars. But they are also reasons for the fear-driven flight of these countries under the supposedly protective wings of the United States and the West. The limited possibilities for the Putin regime to achieve its political goals in the “near abroad” and in Eastern Europe through economic or even cultural hegemony, and its fear of mass movements, are what makes this regime so aggressive and dangerous.
It is high time for leftists in the West to finally take note of the deeply reactionary and aggressive development of the Putin regime. There can be no neutrality for the left against this regime, which should of course not mean knocking on NATO’s door. Above all, a socialist left must once again become an independent political force with its own design for a new world order.
1. Boris Romanchenko died at the end of March 2022 at the age of 96 in a Russian artillery attack on Kharkiv in his apartment. He was a Ukrainian forced laborer in Nazi Germany and survived four fascist concentration camps. As vice chairman of the Buchenwald-Dora International Committee, he actively campaigned for the memory of Nazi crimes until his old age.
2. Cf. David Ernesto Garcia Doell: “A Fascist Regime Looms in Russia” Interview with Greg Yudin; https://www.akweb.de/politik/greg-yudin-in-russland-droht-ein-faschistisches-regime/
3. The independent unions of the Confederation of Labor (KTR) formed independently of the state after 1989, while the successor to the Soviet “state unions” continues today to pursue a policy of co-management with capital that is loyal to the regime. Although the KTR unions have far fewer members than the state unions, most labor disputes are led by the KTR unions or small independent trade unions.
4. Cf. Doro Zinke: “Russia — Free Trade Unions under Pressure,” DGB, https://www.dgb.de/themen/++co++26a99e66-a7ca-11e9-a475-52540088cada [Accessed_12.01. 2022].
6. Cf. Bernd Gehrke, “In memoriam Memorial?” in express. Zeitung für sozialistische Betriebs — und Gewerkschaftsarbeit; Frankfurt/Main, No. 2-3/2022, 7-8.
7. See also the article by Slave Cubela in express 4/2022: “A Neoliberal Monster in Moscow” on Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine, 8-9.
9. The “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) is the largest party of the New Right in Germany. Its campaign slogan in the last federal election was “Germany, but normal!” It was directed against the “left-green filthy hippie republic” in favor of an authoritarian-conservative restructuring of society [accessed 25.03.2022].
10. Cf. Vice Mayor of St. Petersburg Vladimir Putin for military dictatorship in Russia along Chilean lines, In: Neues Deutschland, 31.12.1993 [accessed 25.03.2022]. The conversation at that time was recently shown again in a new ZDF documentary, which is available in the ZDF-Mediathek. Cf. ZDF:Zeit, Putin’s Truth: The Five Mistakes of the West, documentary by Florian Huber, broadcast March 24, 2022, min. 13:43 -16:11; https://www.zdf.de/dokumentation/zdfzeit/zdfzeit-putins-wahrheit-100.html [accessed 25.03.2022].
11. Both the West’s tightened sanctions against strategic technologies since February 24, 2022, and the mass emigration of intellectual potential from Russia mean a real disaster for the country’s modernization in the long term. Not only Western, even Chinese companies are now withdrawing from the country, despite all of Beijing’s political promises of alliance. [B. G., 7/1/2022]
12. Cf. Vladimir Putin took part in a plenary session of the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, October 21, 2021; http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/by-date/21.10.2021 [accessed 25.03.2022].
13. So far, the Russian Federation has never confirmed the Soviet decree on the independence of the Baltic states. Just a few weeks ago, an ultranationalist Duma deputy from Putin’s United Russia party introduced a bill declaring the Soviet decree illegal. For now, the bill has been put on hold, but no one knows for how long. Meanwhile, Putin himself has openly placed himself in the tradition of Tsar Peter I’s western conquest of the Baltics and talked about “bringing Russian soil home.
[Bernd Gehrke is a historian and publicist and lives in Berlin.]