By Paul Goble
Russia has entered the third post-Stalin succession struggle, Andrey Piontkovsky says, and just like the two earlier ones, the struggle has begun even though the man to be replaced has not physically departed the scene and even though he like his predecessors has the resources to remain in place for some time to come.
“Stalin ruled 31 years; Brezhnev, 18; and Putin, already almost 17 if one counts from the day of his appointment as Russian prime minister and Yeltsin’s successor,” the commentator says. And these three transitions – Piontkovsky calls them “deaths” – form a single triptych reflecting post-1917 Russia” (svoboda.org/content/article/27695695.html).
First, he writes, there was “the tragedy of communism,” then “its farce,” and finally “its post-modernist absurdity, one that involves “the last generation” of people tracing their roots to the October Revolution and “the inevitable result of the evolution of ‘the new class’” who “do not have and cannot have a project for the future” except personal survival.
“In the immediately coming years and perhaps months, already after the political death of the third avatar which has taken place,” Piontkovsky argues, “we will find out whether this hole has swallowed Russia forever or whether it still has a chance to break out of this by a desperate effort.”
But one thing is already clear: “Every time, in 1953, 1982, and 2016, the approaching death of the sacred pharaoh was first preceded by the awakening of the entourage of the departing who sought to seize power,” the commentator continues.
Piontkovsky points out that “the winter of 1952 was one of the most dramatic periods in Russian and perhaps world history.” Stalin “have descended into madness thought about conducting a holocaust through the USSR as well as a new pitiless purge of the nomenklatura and the beginning of a third world war.”
But because of his age, he suggests, the dictator had lost control over his own special services; and they may even have hastened his end.
In 1982, as Brezhnev lay dying, various groups in the Soviet elite and the apparatus of KGB chief Yury Andropov in the first instance began conspiring not just to change the direction of the country but to take power for themselves.
Now, much the same thing is happening in Moscow, Piontkovsky argues. “The political end of the third avatar began on February 27, 2015,” when Boris Nemtsov was killed “not far from Red Square” – “not because this was the first such serious crime” by Putin “but because it signaled the first serious reaction against him by a significant part of the special services.”
The security services arrested the Kadyrov militants because “they decided to make use of this murder for the unleashing of an attack against Putin’s ‘Kadyrov Project,’” something they had long disliked and saw a chance to end. Unlike ordinary Russians, the security services recognized that Putin had already suffered “a political death.” And so they decided to act.
“Authoritarian personalist regimes can do a lot,” Piontkovsky says, “but a dictatorship cannot survive an obvious foreign policy defeat” because that “automatically desacralizes the leader and destroys the structure-forming myth about the infallibility of the leader and his project as a whole.”
In this as in other ways, he argues, the Russian elite around Putin is like a group of criminal clans. When the top one loses, it is by definition no longer on top and will be challenged.
Putin could perhaps have gone on as he had before 2014 if he had not been caught up in what Piontkovsky calls “his Ukrainian catastrophe.” This became “fatal,” he says, not when the Kremlin leader seized Crimea: that action had a limited and pragmatic goal of keeping Ukraine from moving toward Europe.
Instead, it occurred on March 18, 2014, when Putin spoke about his plans to achieve his “neo-imperial conception of ‘the Russian world’” and become the latest Russian ruler to engage in the “in-gathering” of what he supposes are Russian lands. What made this fatal, Piontkovsky says, is that it requires constant forward momentum, something Moscow couldn’t achieve.
Ethnic Russians in Ukraine “in their majority rejected the ideas of ‘Novorossiya’ and ‘the Russian world,’ supporting instead the anti-criminal revolution and showing themselves to be patriots of the Ukrainian state.” That meant that Putin was forced to stop, and stopping in this situation was a signal that he had failed and that he could be attacked.
“In such situations,” Piontkovsky writes, “the force clans shift in a standard way from the struggle for influence on the leader to the struggle for positions of power after him.” And that is exactly what happened last month when the security services forced Putin to back down on both Viktor Zolotov and Ramzan Kadyrov, reducing the influence of the former after boosting him and stripping the latter of his own military force and then publicly criticizing him.
And the commentator concludes: “Now it is understandable why the chekists so sharply threw challenges in February 2015 and so sharply raised the stakes in February 2016. They have levers of pressure, and they have demonstrated that they can effectively make use of them.” But what especially matters is that they now they have “nowhere to run.”