Words by Brad Griffin
In 1917, Imperialist Russia was swept away by two cataclysmic revolutions in February and October (March and November, depending on which calendar you’re using). The old, practically feudal system had seen much reform in the early years of the 20th century, but it was still backward and overwhelmingly saw the peasants and workers of Russia working most of their lives simply to enrich those who virtually enslaved them. By 1923, the Bolsheviks had cemented their rule over Russia and most of the former Imperial holdings including Ukraine, though some rebellions would last into the 1930s. Though promising equality and freedom for all, by the time Stalin had consolidated his power in 1929, all promises of individual freedoms and liberties had been stripped away, and the ignorant, selfish Romanov Dynasty and its ruling class had been replaced by something far more sinister.
But you’ve read Animal Farm, so you already know that some animals are more equal than others. Well, if stories of Vladimir Putin wrestling bears and hunting tigers are anything to be believed, then some animals truly are ‘more equal’ than others. However Putin’s presumed ascendency over other living creatures does not stop at his lust for animal trophy heads. Putin is, for all intents and purposes, the dictator of over 140 million people. Many Russians respect and revere Putin for the amazing growth rates achieved since the beginning of his presidency in 1999. The eventual success of market reforms begun under Yeltsin and the tapping of Russia’s enormous mineral wealth once again made Russia a major economic and diplomatic world leader in under a decade. Russians have a long memory, and the despondency and depression that characterized the 1990s, which saw poverty rates of over 30% are alive and well. Russians saw what capitalist democracy was like, and for the time being, they seem to have re-embraced a cult of personality fervor for their leader – the exact kind of thing Kruschev’s ‘Secret (but come on really not so secret) Speech’ in the aftermath of Stalin’s death tried to stamp out.
Putin’s has been President of Russia for twelve of the last sixteen years, ever since Yeltsin’s resignation and endorsement of him. He was elected in his own right in 2000 and again in 2004, and gracefully stepped down in 2008 due to the Russian Constitution’s ban on third consecutive terms. The West heaved a sigh of relief in 2008, thinking ‘gosh, that could have gone a bit awry’. However, Putin clung to power by endorsing Dimitry Medvedev as a 2008 Presidential election candidate. After winning, Medvedev promptly appointed Putin Prime Minister. It was at this point the West said ‘well, I guess we actually should have seen that coming’. When Medvedev increased the Presidential term from four to six years, starting in 2012, political commentators in the West became suspicious, and by the time Putin declared his intent to run in 2012 and then won, few in the West were surprised. So far, all of this has occurred, in the strictest sense, democratically and according to the Constitution.
So if the people love him, and the law supports him, what’s the fuss? Doesn’t that just make Putin a popular, as well as successful leader? Does he not have the moral ascendancy over the democracy-loving leaders of the West?
Putin does not govern for all Russians. If you are LGBTQI, he doesn’t want to know you. He wants a bag on your head and a number on your cell. If you dare speak out against his violent repression of Chechnya, he does not want your vote. If you are bold enough to stand against him and form political parties that draw voters away from him, you will be shot. Recently, the leader of the Republican Party of Russia, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead by an assassin a stone’s throw away from Red Square. Does this sound like the kind of thing that would occur in a peaceful, stable, democratic country? Would the members of Pussy Riot have been locked up for simply singing in a church in a liberal society? Australia may not have legalized gay marriage yet, but at least the government does not openly encourage gangs to beat gay youths on the street.
Russia has gone from despot to despot, riding whatever highs and lows they bring. In 1917, the people rose and declared that enough was enough. In 1991, the crumbling Soviet Empire saw the writing on the wall. It is highly unlikely that Putin’s tenure as Russian Supreme Overlord will come to an end through democratic process. So what will it take? Western sanctions against his actions in Ukraine have merely incensed the public against the West, and not the enemy right in front of them.