Death Under the Tsar

You used to be able to view Russia optimistically as an emerging democracy with a lot of rough edges. Now it seems to be all rough edges and no democracy to speak of. It is disconcerting to find how accurate a guide Mussolini’s “Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” can offer to the mood of the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin:

The Fascist State organises the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone.

It is scarcely possible, of course, for Russia to acknowledge fascism as even a distant influence. Russia has defined itself as the world’s preeminent anti-fascist power since its victory over Hitler, at terrible cost, sixty years ago. Last year the Kremlin tried out the term “sovereign democracy” as an alias for Putinism. This choice of words was credited to Vladislav Surkov, a former public-relations man who defected from private industry to emerge as the Kremlin’s chief political fixer. Surkov has attributed the original coinage to Che Guevara. Whatever its pedigree, sovereign democracy seems to be much more about sovereignty—meaning, here, state power—than it is about democracy. As Anna Politkovskaya writes in A Russian Diary, her brilliant and now posthumously published portrayal of Russian life during the middle years of Putin’s rule:

Our people have been exhausted by having political and economic experiments conducted on them. They want very much to live better lives, but do not want to have to fight for that. They expect everything to come down to them from above, and if what comes down from above is repression, they resign themselves to it.

The precise nature of the darkening of Russian politics under President Putin has been too little noticed in the West, and too little understood. The West has worried too little, in part because the Russian economy has been doing so well thanks to high oil prices. The assumption has been that rising living standards and foreign investment will encourage a more liberal political order, though there is no sign of this yet. The West has also had other things to worry about—such as the Iraq war and the rest of the Middle East, global warming, and the rise of China. Its governments hesitate to speak badly of Russian policy when they need Russia’s cooperation in the “war on terror,” as an ally against nuclear proliferation, and as an exporter of energy. And, crucially, there have been few domestic critics of Putin equipped with the authenticity and charisma needed to hold the world’s attention. One of that small number was Anna Politkovskaya, an American-born journalist who was a special correspondent for an independent Russian newspaper called Novaya Gazeta. She was a dogged critic of Putin and of the antiliberal political system he favored. And she was shot dead in …

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