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Russia Report: January 28, 2002

28 January 2002, Volume 2, Number 4
Jeffrey Brooks is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is the author of "Thank You, Comrade Stalin" (Princeton: 2000) and "When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917" (Princeton, 1985). His most recent book, "Thank You, Comrade Stalin," is a study of the mass media during the Stalin era. "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly" spoke with him recently about the current period. (Julie A. Corwin)

RFE/RL: I would like to get your view, as a cultural historian, of sources of continuity and change from the Soviet period to Putin era. In particular, I am interested in the way the image of Putin is managed by the presidential administration, and how the Russian public perceives him. For example, you've mentioned earlier that you were struck by certain parallels from Soviet times when [former President Boris] Yeltsin "introduced" his successor, Putin, at the end of 1999.

JEFFREY BROOKS: The tradition that Russia confronts is what I called in my book "the economy of the gift," namely the presumption from Soviet times that the state and leader provide goods and services to the population as a gift. Of course, this was a false gift since citizens were perpetually indebted to the state, the party, the leader, or the people, depending on the formulation. In Stalin's time, they constantly had to say, thank you. Hence the slogan, "Thank You, Comrade Stalin, For a Happy Childhood!" Yeltsin invoked this tradition when he introduced Putin to the Russian public on television on 31 December [1999] with the New Year's tree in the background. Putin was Yeltsin's gift to the Russian people, and presumably Putin would provide the goods and services citizens lacked. Unfortunately, the economy of the gift presumes a passive citizenry, and that is the problem with Putin's image as someone who will solve all problems.

Of course, political handlers manage the images of political leaders in all the developed countries, so there is nothing surprising that it is happening in post-Soviet Russia. Nor is it remarkable that people would write to him or ask him to address local difficulties. It is reasonable for ordinary people to ask that he make sure that their towns are supplied with gas or oil, for example, since he can and probably will solve such problems on an individual basis if he promises to do so. Certainly, it would be better if citizens solved these problems themselves, but the circumstances are hardly favorable for them to do so.

RFE/RL: As you know, a number of journalists, mainly foreign correspondents, have seen evidence of an emerging cult of personality around Putin. Obviously, a lot has changed since the Stalin era, and it would be impossible to recreate such a cult -- even assuming its recreation is desired. But do you see any similarities between then and now? What are the chief differences?

BROOKS: I think that the Putin cult is more Gogolesque than Stalinesque. Fawning before the chief suggests Gogol's Inspector General more than Stalin. Moreover, such behavior is beginning to look ridiculous to outsiders and to insiders as well. That is probably the chief difference. Stalin had almost complete control over information. When people outdid themselves to glorify him, no laughter could be heard offstage. Within the Soviet Union, control over information was virtually complete, and almost nothing slipped in from outside. Now outside voices are heard, even if Putin and his government restrict dissent inside Russia. Moreover, Putin is too smart to allow himself to appear ludicrous before the outside world. Snickers can already be heard in Russia and certainly outside Russia. Both those who expect to gain from this kind of bootlicking and those who have apparently encouraged it will no doubt get the message. Otherwise, Putin will lose the credibility he needs among world leaders. Stalin could claim that the Soviet people were so simple in their love for him that they did silly things. Putin can obviously claim nothing of the sort. These are difficult times in Russia, and in difficult times ordinary people can easily glorify a successful and popular leader, but I would be surprised if the Putin cult goes much beyond this.

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate Putin's recent televised question-and-answer program with the Russian public?

BROOKS: I see nothing unusual in this. Politicians like to control these kinds of exchanges, and those who were allowed to ask their questions could be almost certain that their requests would be granted. One worrisome element, however, is the extent to which this kind of theatrical show reinforces the tradition of expecting solutions from above instead of citizens working actively together to solve their own problems. Another is the performance itself. Soviet public culture was such a charade that any evidence of a return to this style of public life is unsettling. Whether such a relapse is in fact taking place is yet unclear.

RFE/RL: Let's turn to the media. People talk a lot today about self-censorship among Russian journalists. For example, in the regions, I've met journalists who say that they steer clear of certain subjects because they simply don't want the hassle. And in Moscow, I heard recently about an editor of a well-known, well-respected independent newspaper who drastically cut a long story about official corruption because he said that it smacked "too much of teasing the goose" -- I think that was the expression. Do you see these kinds of responses or attitudes as part of a legacy from the Soviet period or is it just a natural response to perceived current dangers?

BROOKS: Self-censorship and intimidation is obviously an issue in the Russian media and in the publishing industry. I do not see this necessarily as an extension of Soviet practices, although people certainly learned to be cautious of what they said in print and orally in Soviet times. There is reason enough not to risk offending the Putin government, simply because it is unclear what reaction might follow. Until those in power have more fully revealed their intentions, it is rational for cautious people to be cautious. There is also the question of legal guarantees of free speech. Until these are more secure, relations between the press and the government will remain unclear. A government does not have to be communist in order to curtail public expression. On this we will have to wait and see what happens.

State Duma deputies approved a bill on nationalization in its first reading on 23 January, despite opposition to the version from the government and presidential administration, ITAR-TASS reported. The bill sponsored by Adrian Puzanovskii (People's Deputy) polled some 239 votes -- just 13 more than necessary. Puzanovskii told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau that even small enterprises could be nationalized under the legislation if they play an important role in a region's infrastructure. The Property Committee recommended that the Duma reject all versions of the bill, while the president and government suggested waiting until the government has finished preparing its version, which it plans to introduce to the Duma during the second quarter of 2002, reported. The government's envoy to the Duma, Andrei Loginov, said that if the bill is passed on second and third reading, it will be rejected both by the Federation Council and the president. JAC

IN: President Putin signed a decree on 22 January appointing Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov as the new commander in chief of Russia's Air Force, replacing Anatolii Kornukov who retired. Mikhailov had previously received the Hero of Russia star for his participation in the operation to eliminate Chechen leader Djokhar Dudaev.

IN: President Putin appointed former Northern Fleet Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak as first deputy presidential envoy to the Northwestern federal district on 23 January, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day.

OUT: Vasilii Volkovskii has been expelled from the Unity faction in the Duma as well as the Unity party for his alleged sabotage, in cooperation with Nikolai Troshkin, head of the Duma's apparatus, of some of Unity's initiatives, reported on 25 January. He also lost his post as chairman of the Duma's committee for organizing the work of the Duma. Replacing him at the helm of the committee will be another Unity faction member, Oleg Kovalev.

IN: Two new members have joined the Union of Rightist Forces' political committee, Leonid Gosman, head of administration for Unified Energy Systems and Nikolai Travkin, State Duma deputy, according to on 25 January. Laura Belin, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, considers Travkin a "walking symbol of the instability in Russia's political party landscape." He has been elected to the State Duma three times, each on a different party list. In 1993 he won a seat as the leader of the Democratic Party of Russia (more often known as "Travkin's Party" until he was deposed as party leader in late 1994). In 1995, while serving in the government as minister without portfolio, he ran for the Duma on the Our Home Is Russia ticket and made a stir during the campaign when he admitted he had not even read the election program of that year's "party of power." Travkin joined Yabloko's party list in 1999, when that party was running a strong third in opinion polls.

On 25 January, State Duma deputies conducted a new vote on the law on privatization as drafted by Puzanovskii and rejected it. The vote was 261 to reject, with 136 opposed, and no abstentions. Property Committee Chairman Viktor Pleskachevskii told reporters that deputies had reviewed four different versions of the nationalization law late in the day and many had gotten confused, ITAR-TASS reported. According to Pleskachevskii, the government is drafting its own version, which will be submitted to the Duma in late April or May. According to AP, the government had warned deputies that the bill, which was drafted back in 1997, would panic investors. In addition, it was said to contradict the federal constitution, Civil Code, and a number of other federal laws. On the same day, deputies voted to approve amendments to the law on military duty and service, overcoming a previous Federation Council veto. According to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, if the bill comes into force, up to 18,000 young men annually will be able to finish their secondary education without it being interrupted by the need to serve in the armed forces. JAC


Name of bill____________Date Approved__________# of reading

On nationalization_________23 January______________1st
______________________rejected 25 January

On military duty_________25 January____________overcame veto
and service

While the bulk of Russia's political institutions, such as the State Duma and the new Federation Council, appear to follow in lock-step to the Russian presidential administration's every signal, a few experts on Russia gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. on 25 January concluded that Vladimir Putin's control may not be as solid as it appears. "Politics in Moscow have become subterranean," Regina Smyth, an assistant professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, argued. "You can no longer watch the Duma to figure out what is happening." According to Smyth, there are a number of political actors who oppose either Putin or his policies, but they operate behind the scenes. Vladimir Orlov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies, agreed, noting that there is "an emerging silent opposition to Putin's pro-U.S. stance by certain circles in Russia's mid-level bureaucracy, notably in the General Staff [of the Armed Forces] and in counterintelligence." Both Smyth and Orlov are part of the Program on New Approaches to Russian Security (PONARS), a network of 55 scholars from the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine (

Smyth said she started to question the new conventional wisdom about Putin's unassailable control when she noted how quickly the West's perception of Putin had changed. At first, he was seen completely as a "puppet," and now less than two years later, he is pulling all of the strings. At the same time, his political future appears "secure." Smyth acknowledges that Putin's public opinion rating remains extremely high since he revived the central state, neutralized his rivals, and announced plans for far-reaching reforms, but she argues that his greatest challenges lie ahead of him. Putin has not yet tackled the most painful reforms. "Land privatization has not been extended to the battleground of agriculture," she writes in a PONARS policy memo. "The criminal justice system is up in arms over changes in procedures. Military reform is stalled and faces serious opposition within the armed forces. Regional governors remain in the trenches, fighting for their holdover levers of patronage. The Communist Party maintains significant popular support." In addition, pension reform promises to be controversial and could impose real pain on the population.

The real test for the Putin regime will likely lie with implementation of the reforms that it has pushed through the legislature. As Smyth argues, "implementation will provide important indications of whether or not Putin is building consensus versus moving toward increasingly coercive modes of governance."

Speaking at the same conference, Nikolai Petrov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Geographic Research, suggested that Putin is well prepared to opt for coercion rather than consensus-building. According to Petrov, Putin's federal reforms have created the institutional framework in the regions to impose his will. According to Petrov, under Putin, legal institutions, such as the Federation Council, have been weakened in favor of "new, opaque institutions with poorly defined powers," such as the State Council. Petrov also notes that the new presidential envoys to the seven federal districts and federal inspectors have replaced the former presidential envoys to the regions, while the Audit Chamber "functions as a kind of new powerful law enforcement agency." Petrov concluded in his PONARS memo that the emergence of "less legally legitimate" structures that parallel existing state bodies represents the construction of an entirely new political machine. This machine will work for a while in parallel with former President Boris Yeltsin's old one, but it will soon supplant it entirely, "suggesting a growing authoritarianism." According to Petrov, Putin's federal reforms have been "directed primarily at strengthening control by the police over society."

At first glance, Petrov and Smyth appear to be offering contradictory views of today's Russia, but the difference may be mostly one of emphasis. Petrov thinks of Putin's "glass" of power as half full, while Smyth sees it as half empty. Both believe that the Putin regime will face a series of critical tests in the near term. And the outcome of these may make it easier to answer the question of whether Russia is on its way to becoming a "managed democracy" or an authoritarian state. Both of their reports also suggest that it might be appropriate to focus future research efforts on the regions and away from Moscow. While those Defense and Foreign ministry officials suffer Putin's policies in silence, paralyzed by fear of doing something non-career-enhancing, thousands of kilometers away from the Kremlin, regional-level bureaucrats may feel that they have more leeway to challenge the Kremlin and to create obstacles to centrally issued diktats. But whether such opposition -- if and when it emerges -- is even registered back in Moscow will remain to be seen. (Julie A. Corwin)

26 January-7 February: A Russian delegation lead by Sergei Kirienko, presidential envoy to the Volga federal district and chairman of the State Commission for Chemical Disarmament, will visit the U.S., Canada, and Europe

28-29 January: Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to visit Russia

28-29 January: Deputy Foreign Minister Georgii Mamedov and U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton to hold consultations in Washington, D.C. on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons

29-30 January: International conference on "Globalization and the Trade Union movement in Russia in the 21st Century" will be held in Moscow

30 January: State Council to meet and discuss the role of physical education and sports in the formation of a healthy way of life for Russians

31 January: Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to arrive in Washington, D.C.

February: Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to visit India, according to India's Ambassador to Russia Krishnan Raghunath

First half of February: Foreign Minister Ivanov will visit Afghanistan, Interfax reported on 23 January citing diplomatic sources

1 February: Newly established committee for financial monitoring will begin work, according to First Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Ulyukaev on 21 January

1 February: Deadline by which government will have prepared its strategy for cooperation with the World Bank

1 February: Fast-track, three-day visas for entry into Russia for citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Britain, Switzerland, and Japan will become available, according to "The Moscow Times" on 19 December

1-2 February: Foreign Minister Ivanov to visit Japan

1-2 February: Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to visit Munich to attend international conference on security problems along with his U.S., German, and British counterparts, ITAR-TASS reported

4 February: Moscow court will reconvene in case against former Krasnoyarsk Aluminum head Anatolii Bykov who is accused of conspiracy to commit murder

6-9 February: Spain's Crown Prince Felipe to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg

8 February: Unity and Fatherland parties will each hold congresses

13 February: Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien will visit Moscow

13 February: Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref invited to address the State Duma on government economic policy and plans to join the WTO

15 February: Railway charges for cargo will rise by 16 percent

Middle of February: The third All-Buryat Congress will take place in Ulan-Ude

20 February: Prime Minister Kasyanov and Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov invited to address the Duma on homelessness among children

23 February: New state holiday honoring "Defenders of the Fatherland"

26 February: All-Russia conference on the Russian Regions and the WTO to be held in Moscow

6 March: Closing date to submit applications for tender for TV-6's television and radio frequencies

8 March: International Women's Day

15 March: Gas prices will be indexed by 20 percent

mid March: The first draft of a report on Russia's efforts to join the WTO by the task force devoted to this quest will be ready

17 March: Tuva Republic will hold presidential elections

24 March: By-elections to be held in single-mandate district in Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug for State Duma seat vacated by Aleksandr Ryazanov, who went to work for Gazprom

27 March: Tender for TV-6's broadcasting license

27-28 March: International conference on combating terrorism to be held in St. Petersburg, according to Interfax on 24 January

March-April: Russia will issue up to $2 billion in Eurobonds, according to Vneshekonombank head Andrei Kostin on 15 November

end of March: CIS Interparliamentary Assembly will hold its 19th plenary session

April: Unified party of Unity and Fatherland to officially register as a political party

April: The St. Petersburg Dialogue, a Russian-German forum, will hold its second conference in Weimar, Germany, according to ITAR-TASS

April: Gubernatorial elections in Penza Oblast

April: Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman will visit Russia, according to Foreign Minister Ivanov on 24 January

7 April: Presidential elections in Ingushetia

22 April: State Duma will hold a hearing on the buying and selling of agricultural land, according to Interfax on 17 January

late April: Summit of five Caspian states to be held in Ashgabat, according to First Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kaluzhnii on 24 January

May: Foreign ministers of NATO countries and Russia will meet in Reykjavik

19 May: By-elections to be held in Altai Republic for State Duma seat left vacant by newly elected Altai Republic President Mikhail Lapshin

19 May: Gubernatorial elections in Smolensk Oblast

28 May: Russia-EU summit to be held

31 May: CIS summit to be held in Chisinau, Moldova

June: Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit to take place in St. Petersburg, ITAR-TASS reported

June: Baltic State Council meeting to be held in St. Petersburg

June: Government will have drafted a federal program for putting Russia's armed forces on a professional basis, according to Prime Minister Kasyanov on 7 December

June: Russia and the U.S. will have drafted an agreement on radical cuts in strategic offensive weapons, according to Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 18 December

9 June: Repeat elections for legislature of Primorskii Krai

26-28 June: Group of Seven summit to be held in Canada

9-16 October: All-Russia census

26-27 October: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be held in Las Cabos, Mexico

7 November: Day of Reconciliation and Agreement.