Russian Politics Through the Looking Glass
Several days into my trip, I had a meeting with Vladmir Zhirinovsky, one of the most famous, infamous Russian politicians of the past twenty years. In 1990 he founded the Liberal Democrat Party (LDPR), the first real independent political opposition to the Communists. In the 1993 parliamentary elections, the LDPR gained about 23% of the vote. Zhirinovsky had positioned himself as a kind of Huey Long of Russian politics, with a comic touch. He once promised to give out free vodka to one and all if he were elected president.
He is an unapologetic nationalist who wants to remake Russia into an independent superpower. In 1994, he ran for President against Boris Yeltsin. The powers that be were frightened enough of him to orchestrate a powerful advertising campaign against him and the Communists who were Yeltsin’s main rivals. Zhirinovsky lost and has since seen his power and popularity dwindle, although he and his party continue to garner a big enough share of the vote to remain a force in the Duma (the Russian parliament).
Zhirinovsky is a walking contradiction. He is half Jewish, but often spouts anti-Semitic remarks. He is quite intelligent, very well-educated (his knowledge of literature and history far exceeds that of your average American politician), yet his nationalism often rings crude and demagogic. He was good friends with Saddam Hussein and he is proud of this.
He is an aspiring actor and musician (he recently recorded some hip hop songs he wrote), and he happily engages in public fights with other politicians, sometimes coming to blows with them (on one famous occasion throwing orange juice in the face of a rival). Some see him as a buffoon, many see him as quite lovable and embodying something very Russian. He happens to admire my books, and so a meeting was set up at his offices in the Duma.
In person, he was as I had imagined. Larger than life (physically and personality-wise), he struck me as the kind of politician you might have met in 19th century America. As soon as the “meeting” began, he launched into a two-hour monologue, broken up only by the constant puffs on his cigars that he chain-smoked, the breakneck translations of my interpreter who tried to keep up with him, and my own occasional comments. His politics veered left and right. At one moment he sounded like Noam Chomsky as he dissected American foreign policy; at another moment he sounded like Pat Buchanan (with whom he is friends), as he railed against the immigrants he thinks are ruining Russia.
He wore his emotions on his sleeve. In America, political appeals to emotions tend to be rather subtle and expressed through codes. Karl Rove likes to find emotional hot-buttons embedded in certain words, like the often used “liberal”–associated with words such as “taxes”–or around issues like abortion. Using these coded words protects the politician from seeming too obvious in his demagoguery; he can have plausible deniability: “Well, I never meant it that way.” These forms of manipulation are insidious and exist on the left and right. They’re used by the politically correct on both sides.
Zhirinovsky is a relic of an era when demagoguery was more open, more obvious and quite theatrical. It reveals to me how primitive Russian politics can seem, although this primitiveness is charming and appealing. It comes from a leader who wants to infect you with his own emotions, rather than heat you up with veiled language and codes. On the charming side, it brings to mind a kind of latter-day Andrew Jackson; on the dark side, it can veer into something Hitlerian.
Zhirinovsky had many interesting things to say about the state of Russia. He was frank in his analysis of the power politics going on, much of which was not very complimentary to President Putin and his team. Although it must be said that Zhirinovsky painted everyone with the same dark brush stroke.
Communism never went away, he explained. The same nomenklatura runs things now. Communism as it had evolved by the 1980s was no longer communism, but a crude form of power, all of which was based on personal connections. In a country without elections, without quantifiable standards of judging a politician, pure politics reigned. What mattered were your connections, your skills as a courtier, as an intriguer. With the fall of the Soviet empire, this was merely transferred to the new order. It is an interconnected system of relationships, like extended families. “Like the Mafia,” I interjected. He agreed with this.
Instead of focusing on the electorate, a politician focuses on these connections and works them as best he can. When it comes time for elections, everything is thrown into massive PR campaigns that are very emotional and crude. In such a system, there is a disconnect between the politicians and the people, and this gap is filled in with marketing and seduction.
Everyone in Russia is tainted by the past. This would include the political opposition led by Garry Kasparov and the Other Russia. This would include the famous Russian exiles in London. They are all clamoring for power and don’t think for one moment about the future of the country.
What struck me in all this was not so much the content, which was startling enough, but who was saying it. This is a man who regularly lauds President Putin in public–even went so far as to propose, in the Duma, that the constitution should be altered so Putin could run for a third term. He could not possibly exclude himself from the characters he was criticizing, and I don’t think he would. Later on, his analysis of American foreign policy was equally insightful and biting, mixed in with some errant nonsense, such as the idiotic notion that 9/11 was an inside job.
What we are dealing with here is a vast cultural difference. We are so used to the style of politicking in our country that we can only see others through this lens. But Russia is an alien culture. Its attempt at democracy is very new and very rough. Its institutions are not grounded yet in the reality of the country. And so what seeps through it all is the Russian character–somewhat emotional, realistic, distrustful, and not afraid of contradiction.
Russians are born realists. It comes from the harshness of their environment and their equally harsh history. (It also accounts for the popularity of my books.) They are used to analyzing everything through the prism of power. The American tendency to see everything through the lens of morality strikes them as naïve and disingenuous, particularly coming from the one remaining superpower on the globe. How can America lecture the world about morality, when it clearly thinks first of its own interests? When it is not afraid to use its military to protect these interests? Could this moral lecturing actually be a cover for power maneuvers?
We watch Russia, and see what is going on as a deliberate attempt to circumvent democracy, to assert its power. Your average Russian politician would not deny this, but he sees the hypocrisy in it. Hasn’t self-interest and power been the primary concern of most countries, one that determines its foreign policy, for instance?
The American media essentially ignores Russia. Russian culture has little connection to our own, and very few of us read the language. When the media addresses Russia, it is to emphasize the dark menace that the country now seems to represent. It fills the role of the convenient enemy. It seems to be returning to the Soviet model, and the Cold War might be returning. Human rights are not respected. It is the land of Machiavelli, Slavic style. There is a grain of truth to this, but also much distortion. Hundreds of years of history are ignored, as are the many nuances that can be read in the actions of its politicians and its people, nuances I could see after a few weeks in the country, and which I will reveal in the next two blogs.
Russia is not returning to the Soviet era; a lot has changed. And in the next few years, the changes that are boiling beneath the surface will break open and confound our preconceptions. Look at how our ignorance of Iraq’s history has impacted our policy and strategy–for the worse. The same could be said for our relations with Russia, which are counterproductive and dangerous.
As the meeting with Zhirinovsky came to an end, I could not really understand why it had happened. What did he hope to get out of this? Did he think I had the power to help him? Was I being used for some nefarious purpose? Maybe it was a dull week for him and I was an afternoon diversion, an American curiosity.
When it was over, he seemed quite happy, relieved. No American had ever been allowed to talk to him for so long, to give him that respect. He was used to being ridiculed by the Western press. I told him I did not agree with half of what he said, but I would defend to the death his right to say it. And I had learned a lot from listening to him. We shook hands, then hugged. (No Borat kissing.) He then showered me with gifts: Zhirinovksy vodka, tea, playing cards, and a blue folder. Inside the blue folder was the intelligence dossier on the writer Robert Greene (see below, army props are my own) given out to those in the Duma. It was mine to have, he said with a glint in his eye, as if it contained something I would be surprised to read (it is in Russian).
ReadPart 4 of the Russia essays.
…Will Russia be an empire once more?? Discuss Robert’s post, find more info on Robert’s trip, and analyze the topic through the lens of the 48 Laws of Power. Visit the Power, Seduction and War Room to hear from others and more from Robert Greene…