27 May 2004
This year's state of the nation address was composed of two intertwined parts, one rather uneventful and the other nothing short of momentous.
The first part consisted of President Vladimir Putin's disavowal of the policies of the 1990s. From the outset Putin declared that external forces would no longer control the fate of the new, politically and economically independent Russia. The country now works for itself, not for a club of overseas creditors who have little affection for a strong, independent Russia and therefore spread all sorts of idiotic lies about the Kremlin's assault on democracy.
Putin roundly criticized all of the major political parties of the 1990s as well as the misuse of power and privilege by the elite. He made clear his intention to alter the dreary political landscape, filled with people who haven't figured out that the fairytale Yeltsin years are ancient history.
The president stated in no uncertain terms that the civic organizations created by the oligarchs to advance their own agendas cannot serve as the building blocks of civil society in Russia. Such organizations are nothing more than the pawns of big business in their their battle against civil society and the state.
But the main thrust of Putin's address amounted to an unexpected answer to that age-old question: Who is Mr. Putin? From this day forward there can be no doubt that Mr. Putin will do anything but follow an uncompromising, liberal course.
Putin all but declared the Kremlin's renunciation of the doctrine of paternalism that dominated this land from the founding of Kievan Rus to the economic shock therapy of the early 1990s. No longer will the state be both father and mother to its citizens.
On the contrary, the state will now reduce its responsibility for the welfare of the people to a minimum. It will retain just enough property to maintain a handful of bureaucrats and nothing more. Putin effectively announced that paid education and health care, housing sector reform and replacement of the privileges enjoyed by pensioners and others with cash payments are now a reality, not policy goals that the government would never have the courage to implement (as many left-wing economists believe).
In an otherwise dull and seemingly routine speech, Putin issued a challenge to the 1,000-year-old Russian tradition of the kind tsar who watches over his subjects and is repaid with devotion, humility and meekness. Consciously or unconsciously Putin let his audience know that he possesses a mandate to cast off the weight of Russian history. In this sense, the speech positioned Putin as a fierce anti-conservative -- and consequently as a radical liberal to the core.
Issuing this challenge is a risk, of course. After all, the image of the "kind sovereign" is the sacred foundation of Putin's own presidential power.
Two-thirds of his support in March came from the ill-defined political center, along with those who normally support the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and Rodina. These are people who still believe that Putin succeeded the devil-may-care Yeltsin like a tsar destined to make short work of the evil boyars and restore justice in the land. They see him as the leader who will slay the Hydra of capitalism and care for the weak of the world.
On Wednesday, Putin told his electorate to abandon all hope. That he is not the man they thought he was. He is not the champion of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and the National Principle," but the opposite: "the good Chubais." A politician who thinks like Chubais, talks like Chubais, dresses like Chubais, and acts like Chubais. And for all that he is not Chubais, the widely despised CEO of Unified Energy Systems, but the legitimate ruler of Russia.
The centerpiece of the address was Putin's ideal of the new Russians of the 21st century -- "free people in a free country," as he called them. At the same time Putin emphasized that by "free" he meant economically self-sufficient. The time has come to put paid to Russia's eternal anti-bourgeois bias, the president said in essence. The spiritual and mystical aspects of freedom, traditionally prized in the Russian consciousness, were left to rot by the side of the road of history. Not Alyosha Karamazov or Platon Karatayev, but Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin from Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" was decreed to be the Hero of Our Time.
Luzhin will be cleaned up, of course, equipped with a mobile phone and dressed in an Armani suit. And he will play the role of national ideal out of principle, not out of fear.
Putin is a careful man who looks long and hard before he leaps. Today he declared himself to be a revolutionary. Not everyone got the message, however, because this year's state of the nation address was a classic of postmodernist political literature. The speech exemplified the much ballyhooed death of the author. Everyone will find in this dense text exactly what he or she is looking for, regardless of what Putin may have intended to say. And until real liberal reform overwhelms them, the victims of reform will hail the revolutionary tsar who seemed at least to devote particular attention to the social welfare of the population.
Putin's address was also packed with strange details, from the plan for a Northern European gas pipeline to VAT rates. This makes perfect sense. The aides and advisors who put the speech together (Igor Shuvalov, Andrei Illarionov, Dzhokhan Pollyeva and others) have a good handle on all these minutiae and even consider them especially valuable. They don't want to think about the nation, empire, religion and culture. They regard our history as the subject of a soap opera, and the Russian Orthodox Church as the branch of an ethnographical museum. The death of Putin becomes particularly vivid against the background of these advisors, whose ideas are woven through the speech.
The president's willingness to get bogged down in inessential details that are incomprehensible to most people serves a single end: to further the desanctification of supreme power in Russia.
On Wednesday Putin adopted the role of the leader of some sort of virtual "union of right forces," the party of the post-Soviet bourgeoisie that fell flat in the parliamentary elections last December but emerged victorious in the March presidential election.
The good Chubais has at last dragged himself to the shores of Russia. Thank you, one and all. You are dismissed.