Putin and the Accident of Private Life

Viktor Erofeyev has an interesting column running in the International Herald Tribune today about the unsaid, accidental theme of Putin’s presidency: the rise of private life.

Let the good times roll, for Russia’s sake By Viktor Erofeyev In a recent interview, Russia’s chief Communist, Gennadi Zyuganov, called the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, a liberal who, in Zyuganov’s opinion, reflected the sentiments of only 5 percent of the population. The rest of the people, the Communist leader said, continue to believe in the ideals of collectivism. This is profoundly wrong. An active process of internal modernization is underway in the Russian population. Medvedev’s cautious first steps reflect the new reality: He is apparently seeking to strengthen the middle class by freeing small and medium businesses from the tutelage of the state; he is battling the ever-more-tiresome corruption and the excessive influence of the siloviki, the powerful ministers.

He apparently is also considering neutralizing the political opposition by co-opting some of their ideas – and maybe some of them. Seeking a contrast between Medvedev and Putin at this stage is probably not entirely politically correct – it is probably more accurate to say that Medvedev is trying to build on what his predecessor did right. In this regard, the right of the Russians to a private life has become a principally important theme.What did Putin do right in his eight years in office? Right off the cuff, I’d say that under him Russians acquired the unprecedented possibility to live a free private life. I don’t think Putin had this as a conscious goal. Private life is like a chicken running from a farmer with a knife – it escaped from the rough gloves of the state and with a frightened cackle hid somewhere in the bushes.But the authorities didn’t just wave dismissively at private life; they didn’t just say “live as you like, just don’t bother me.” They sought to use the pleasures of private life that had opened up to the Russian not only to deflect him from politics, but as a stimulus for the development of the state. Deprived of clear ideological foundations, the multimillion-strong army of Putin bureaucrats served the state by developing in their own ranks – at home and at the dacha – ideas of hedonism and pleasure. Private life became their principle “bonus.”This would not have happened had the authorities themselves – the president first among them – not had an inclination, not fully admitted, for life of luxury. So the people, the bureaucracy and the power elite found themselves united in the common pursuit of private happiness.Given the modest material abundance of most of the population, it may be rash to speak of real prosperity. But the luxurious life of the business and political elite and of various celebrities became if not a national object of desire, then at least the subject of intense discussion, cursing and imitation. The population hates moguls, but if a poor daughter married a millionaire, her family somehow forgot their hatred. The compass of life gradually shifted from “national apathy” to “I also want to live better.”Private life was never an open theme of the Putin era. It was as if private life was not a social reality, and it was better not to go there because it was based to a large degree on dubiously acquired money. Yet it was, and is, omnipresent.Private life is the restaurants full to capacity across the country; it is the traffic jams, the suburban mansions that rival anything in Bavaria or California, the nightclubs and discotheques. These are but the external signs. The philosophy of private life throws itself at you from every billboard and advertisement. The Internet and television are saturated with it. The news and political programs have been rendered as tribute to the Kremlin, but the rest of television is a celebration of the joys of private life – in songs, soap operas, humor and other entertainment.The same can be said for the print media. The large majority of magazines are dedicated to style – a word Russians didn’t know 20 years ago. A huge amount of space, in glossy magazines and provincial leaflets alike, is devoted to fashion, sex, cars, food, the good life. Newspapers are not far behind: Their favorite theme is leisure – family, tourism, whatever you want. Like television, the print media are essentially loyal to the Kremlin, but where they touch on matters of private life, publications work more to please the reader than the Kremlin.We’ve obtained the secret freedom of an underground private life. We can teach our children almost anything, we can turn them into Christians or Buddhists. And we can travel, depending on our means, to Italy or to Easter Island. This, I suppose, is what “authoritarianism with a human face” means.But to what degree does this authoritarianism have a human face? If we judge by the political vector of recent years, the formula has little meaning. But if we take the monstrous political constant of Russian history, we can understand why the population reacted positively to Putin’s rule.Russian history through the middle of the 18th century had no room for private life. That began to change only on Feb. 18, 1762, when the otherwise insignificant Czar Peter III published his ukaz on the freedom of the nobility. From that day on the nobles had the right not to serve the state, to live off their estates and to travel freely abroad. This was the date on which private life began in Russia, and it became really free only after the revolution of 1905. It lasted for 20 years.In the USSR, the first signs of private life appeared after the death of Stalin. The real historic change came with perestroika – the collective “we” gradually gave way to the individual “I,” thereby stripping the lives of many former Soviet people of any meaning. Yeltsin brought fundamental economic reforms in the 1990s, but the inevitable chaos they produced – the strikes, unpaid wages, the 1998 default – hardly encouraged the developed of private life or the rise of a middle class.Putin succeeded in stabilizing the economy and strengthening the state, sacrificing Western-style freedoms in the process and leaving open the question of the strategic development of the country. The prerequisites for private life arose.But in the last two-three years of Putin’s rule, the state again turned to searching for an ideology that could unite Russians in a single spiritual purpose. The freedom of private life turned out to have been something of a temporary respite, similar to the NEP of the 1920s. The state again began to educate the youth, it drew close to the Orthodox Church and began to consider mandatory Orthodox training from the earliest classes.If Medvedev stops this assault on the freedoms of private life, he will secure the support of the population. Patriotism and Orthodoxy cannot create a state ideology; their allure will not suffice for all Russians. By contrast, in the absence of government controls, private life would become so entrenched in coming years that it would withstand any propagandistic bombs.The private life of Russia is its salvation. Through it, through the gradual development of family values, Russia can achieve enlightenment and modernization – and find itself in the community of democratic nations.Viktor Erofeyev is a Russian writer and television host. This article was translated from the Russian by the IHT.