Putin’s No Saint, But He Didn’t Emerge Out of a Clear Blue Sky. Rather, His Rise Took Place in a Context Engineered by the West

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

It has now been over a month since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military forces to invade Ukraine. In this short amount of time, a tidal wave of sentimental gush has emerged from Western countries that has glossed over even the most modest criticism of the Ukrainian government while vilifying Putin and his country to an extent that is increasingly trespassing into the realm of the absurd. This narrative, disseminated by Washington, its allies, and its minions in the corporate-owned media, has been so predictable as to be bordering on self-parody, with some going so far as to draw parallels between Putin and Adolf Hitler. In the wake of this flagrantly one-sided presentation of the conflict, Russia has been subjected to sanctions from the US and its allies, the withdrawal of multiple major corporations from Russian soil, and a series of boycotts by a cornucopia of universities, NGOS and social media companies.

It has been left to independent media, therefore, to provide some modicum of balance and nuance in the face of this growing tide of Russophobia and willful distortion. Thankfully, many others have addressed issues such as: president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s integration of a neo-Nazi paramilitary group into Ukraine’s national armed forces; NATO encroachment onto Russia’s borders; the West’s failure to honor agreements that Ukraine would not join NATO in the post-Cold War era; the fact that Putin’s actions are supported by (overwhelmingly Russian-speaking) secessionist movements in Ukraine’s eastern provinces due to the Kiev government’s failure to honor the Minsk Agreements; and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible hypocrisy of US sanctions policy given Washington’s not just passive ignoring but active enabling of similar wars waged by its allies such as Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, not to mention its own disastrous debacles in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia.

But one aspect of the situation that has seemingly received little attention is the background of how and why a man like Putin could have become Russia’s leader in the first place. My intention is not to defend Putin nor to discount the many criticisms one might have of him and his actions in Ukraine. But there is nonetheless a historical context that created the conditions that led to his rise to power. In order to understand this context, we must travel back much further in time than those pushing the Western narrative dare go. We must examine the formation of the present Russian state, which took shape in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic conditions that prevailed in its wake.

The story begins in November 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall was heralded as the end of the Cold War and a victory for the West. The triumphalism on the part of Washington and its allies culminated in the famous essay by political scientist Francis Fukuyama that declared “the end of history.” Fukuyama essentially argued that the debate over what economic system and political structures nation states should adopt had ended, with capitalism and liberal democracy emerging as the pinnacle to which all countries ought to aspire.

Central to this narrative was the notion that the socialist system of the USSR and allied Soviet republics had ultimately proven to be a failure. We’re told that the people of these countries had struggled to overthrow this system and break the “chains of oppression” to which they had been subjected to by the “tyrannical regimes” under which they lived. Images of East Germans celebrating as they literally tore down the Berlin Wall adorned television screens as part of a steady stream of self-congratulatory bromides. The message was loud and clear: the political and economic systems in these countries created a living hell that never should be repeated.

The leaders of these “pro-freedom, pro-democracy” movements, meanwhile, were beatified in Western political and intellectual circles – a message that was dutifully repeated by the corporate media scribes of the time. Figures like Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa were hailed as champions of their people and to this day receive gushing hagiographies in the media and the literature of prominent NGOs. We’re told that former Soviet bloc countries have transitioned swimmingly to capitalist liberal democracies just like ours and now enjoy the freedoms, prosperity, and civil and political rights that we and our forebears have taken for granted. At the same time, we’re told that Putin is an aberration, some kind of 21st century Stalin who has defiled a budding capitalist democracy and turned it into a neo-Soviet hellscape.

All of the above seems so plausible when placed in the context of the post-Cold War narrative we’ve been fed in the more than three decades since 1989. The reality, however, is that this entire narrative is not just a whole-cloth, unalloyed fabrication but also obscures the true reasons for Putin’s rise to power. The truth is that the imposition of capitalism and liberal democratic political frameworks onto the former Soviet states has been an unmitigated disaster that’s left many of these countries impoverished basket cases with declining living standards, unstable economies, and extensive corruption of their political institutions. And Russia is perhaps the paradigmatic example of how this sad story has played out.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition to so-called “free” markets was not remotely the exercise in energetic entrepreneurialism driven forward by enterprising Eastern Europeans that the Western narrative claims. Rather, the transition was largely a free-for-all in which Western corporations aggressively swooped in and wrapped their tentacles around the local economies of these nations in what became perhaps the biggest fire sale in human history. As Kristen Ghodsee, a specialist in Russian and Eastern European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in a 2012 essay for Dissent magazine: “Across the region, German, American, French, or British investors purchased entire industries with the sole intention of shutting them down in order to create new markets for their own goods. In other cases, factories, airlines, or entire resorts were purchased, broken up, and sold off for parts.”

Predictably, domestic industry atrophied because it simply couldn’t compete with the new class of buccaneer capitalists. Whatever protective measures that were implemented in the hope of preventing the buy-out/shut-down model, meanwhile, were easily skirted. As Ghodsee explains: “In almost all cases, privatization contracts had stipulated that [privatized] enterprises should continue operation for at least two years. But with renationalization as the only punitive measure, it was politically impossible to prevent the abrogation of these contracts. Any government attempts to regulate the market, even in cases of blatant fraud, were coded as “communist.””

Running parallel to this mass privatization of former Soviet bloc economies was a gutting of the state welfare systems that had been implemented by the ousted socialist governments. Ghodsee points out that, at the time of the collapse of the USSR and allied Soviet republics, East Germans “wanted to keep some of the social supports of socialism in place: guaranteed employment, free education and health care, state-supported maternity leave, and kindergartens that allowed women to better combine work and family life.”

Together, these two factors have led to declining living standards for the vast majority of people in these countries. Yet in Western discourse it is usually taken as given that everyone prefers the new dispensation. The reality, however, is that there has always been a diversity of views about the socialist system both before, during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, running from strong opposition to strong support along with all kinds of positions in between. This nuance gets obscured by the elevation of those most opposed to this system in the Western media along with a deliberate exclusion of every other point of view.

As Zsuzsanna Clark, who grew up in socialist Hungary, put it in a 2009 essay, “the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.” Conversely, Clark explains: “Our voice – the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism – is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.” Clark points out that many were neither in favor of the demise of the old system nor enthusiastic about the introduction of the new. She recalls: “When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people – me and my family included – did not take part in the protests.”

Russia has proven to be a particularly egregious case of the twin disasters of rapid privatization and the stripping down of the social safety net. In the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, the country’s economy was essentially sold off to whoever could buy it up. There were admittedly some schemes to try to “spread the wealth around” such as a voucher system in which the government dispensed “privatization checks” to large swathes of the population, which could then be used to purchase shares of former state-owned companies at public auctions. But the system was easily abused by an emerging class of conniving businessmen who amassed huge quantities of the vouchers by tricking people into selling them to them or exchanging them for mundane consumer goods. This process culminated in the emergence Russia’s “oligarchs” who now own and control many of the country’s major industries.

The consequence has been Russia’s degeneration into a highly unequal society plagued by rampant poverty. In addition to its contribution to this situation, the rise of the oligarchs has also given lie to Fukuyama’s naïve view that liberal democracy always yields the best results in terms of stability, good governance, and the rule of law. On the contrary, the oligarchs’ power has meant a comprehensive corruption of Russia’s political system, which itself has been a significant factor in Putin’s rise and consolidation of power. This fits within a broader trend of capitalist liberal democracies’ tendency to end up with a form of state capture in which political institutions are manipulated by private interests to such an extent that elected leaders govern to the benefit of these interests more than to the benefit of their voters.

As a result of the above factors, recent survey evidence shows that many Russians now believe that they were better off before the fall of the Berlin Wall. An opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in 2020, for example, found that 75 percent of Russians feel that the “greatest time in the country’s history” was during the Soviet era. Another Levada Center poll taken the previous year found that 59 percent of Russians believe that the USSR government “took care of ordinary people.” Polls in other former Soviet bloc countries tend to yield similar results. There is even evidence that a reformed model of socialism was exactly what most people in these countries wanted in the first place. A 1989 opinion poll in East Germany found that 89 percent of the country’s residents wished for a transition toward a “better, reformed socialism” while just 5 percent said they would prefer a “capitalist path.”

Indeed, there is also evidence to suggest that most Russians also would have preferred a continuation of socialism even before the degeneration of Russia into today’s quagmire. Many forget that in the year before the 1996 presidential elections, the US-backed Boris Yeltsin was polling at below three percent, well behind Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin’s unpopularity stemmed in large part from his role in overseeing the imposition of neoliberal capitalism that had by then already led to the demise of domestic industry, crumbling infrastructure and falling living standards.

Zyuganov was on course to victory. But Washington, fearing a reversal of Yeltsin’s neoliberal policies and a return to socialism, intervened to make sure its favored candidate won. In addition to assisting Yeltsin’s political campaign, the Clinton administration instructed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to issue his government with what was then the second-largest loan in its history. This allowed Yeltsin to pay wage arrears to public sector workers as well as splash on a series of vote-courting spending sprees, which gave him a sudden surge in the polls. With the playing field so severely tilted, Zyuganov ultimately couldn’t close the gap and Yeltsin won the election with just over 50 percent of the vote.

With a second term in office secured, he then proceeded to oversee the completion of the West’s plan to “liberalize” Russia’s economy. As his second term in office came to an end, the damage was so great that male life expectancy in Russia had fallen to 58 years. As a result, to this day Yeltsin remains a widely despised figure amongst ordinary Russians. In 1999 Putin began his first campaign for the Russian presidency in this context of foreign intervention, economic chaos and increasing social insecurity.

This entire episode, of course, demonstrates just how dishonest and self-serving the Western narrative about the Soviet system was and continues to be, whether it be with respect to Russian people’s views about that system or their views about what should replace it. But in addition, it also exposes that Washington’s purported motive of wanting to “liberate” them and bestow them with a “democratic system” was a complete lie. Clearly, Washington was never interested in whether Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries became democratic or not, but rather they whether or not they were compliant in opening up their markets to Western corporate interests.

And ironically, though Washington characterized the prospect of a Zyuganov victory as a regression to (largely fictitious) breadlines and empty shelves, his policy platform was not even proposing an all-out return to the Soviet era but rather a more moderate, decentralized, and democratized form of socialism. Moreover, the Russian Communist Party had actually already been undergoing a process of reform and moderation even before the collapse of the USSR. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party had begun moving toward a model of socialism based on the concepts of “Perestroika” and “Glasnost.”

Of course, we never got to see how these reformist trends would have panned out given that they were stopped in their tracks just as they were getting off the ground. But in any case, evidently the Soviet system was far more popular than is generally understood in the West and, whatever its faults, the imposition of unfettered capitalism has patently been much worse.

Though still reeling from its defeat in the 1996 election and subsequent failures to win back power, the Communist Party remains both the largest opposition party in the Russian Duma (parliament) and the second largest party overall in terms of seats after Putin’s own United Russia party. It is also the only party other than United Russia that has experience in government at the national level. The most likely alternative to Putin, therefore, is a Communist Party-led government that would both threaten the interests of Western corporations and, worst still from Washington’s perspective, risk the reemergence of a system that provides an alternative to the Western model of unfettered globalized capitalism.

Given the above facts, Putin’s rise to power makes perfect sense. His voters can hardly be blamed for wanting a strongman as their leader who can at least impose some kind of order onto the chaotic situation that Russia has found itself in in the decades following the collapse of the USSR. Having created this situation and the corresponding rise of the oligarchs (who have a vested interest in continuation of the status quo), the West has only itself to blame for Putin’s rise. And in a stunning irony, as much as Washington and its allies say they despise him, it’s all but certain that they would like the alternative even less.