Back to Soviet Russia (that never left)

Vladimir Putin Sergei Shoigu

Neither democracy, nor free trade, nor human rights, the New Russia was a mere simulacrum, starkly revealed in Operation Ukraine.

Those who saw the old pre-Gorbachev Russia understood perfectly well why the Berlin Wall fell suddenly: what was on the other side was a mere façade of a dictatorial, corrupt regime incapable of generating economic development for the population. Nobody brought down the Soviet Union. It collapsed on its own because of its solemn ineffectiveness. At the end of the 20th century, Moscow's streets were lit up by bedroom bulbs, the population lived in poverty and fear, and only the leaders of the Communist Party and the army enjoyed caviar in the capital's decrepit hotels. Visitors had to go to the underground tunnels near Red Square to exchange their black market dollars for old paper rubles that crumbled in their hands. 

I attended the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Moscow that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, which is now returning in all its rawness. Gorbi also travelled to Washington and New York to consecrate the thaw. Russian integration with the West and its principles seemed possible. But Putin's terrifying move on Ukraine has brought us back to the beginning of reality. Nothing changed in Russia. Under Yeltsin and his successor the Soviet system went back to where it was: dictatorship, oligarchic economics and the use of force as a method of maintaining the regime.

Vladimir Putin's successive unlimited elections as the country's leader have made it increasingly clear that the model of free elections was baseless. The dominant group - anchored in the old Party bureaucracy and KGB services - imposed its leader within a system based on elite corruption. Yeltsin took it upon himself to oust Gorbachev, but his instability and progressively poor image made him yield to the shadow of the secret service operative, placing Putin as his successor. His good work as bodyguard to the mayor of St. Petersburg served as Putin's calling card. The power elite could trust him. Discreet, effective, ruthless. No one would dare enter the elite sanhedrin that was beginning to shape the model of the oligarchs. No free market. Mere usufruct of state assets by the people who already dominated the system in order to transform it into a market economy, but without losing one iota of control.

The 'Group of Seven' underwent a slight change with Putin's arrival and consolidation. Mikhail Khodorkovky was imprisoned and then exiled. Two others, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusisnky were forced to settle outside Russia. The latter parked himself on the Costa del Sol. It was none other than the KGB, the hidden structure of the Soviet regime, of which Putin became the apex and with whose members he formed his network of power. The Armed Forces are not part of it, although he placed a (non-military) stalwart at its head as Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, who was ultimately responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. 

The dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the seed of patriotism are the ideological basis of the movement of KGB officers who saw their status endangered by the fall of the communist regime and who acted in solidarity to regain power and maintain the duality so typical of the secret services. To give the regime a new air of openness and modernisation, but to maintain its firm grip on politics and the economy at all costs. Neither open democracy nor market freedom. Behind closed doors, it gambled with the United States and Europe for an exchange of goods that would allow the Russian economy to grow, but always under the control of the "hidden state", made up of the Sanhedrin of the oligarchs.

The group that, with Putin, leads the new Soviet Russia is made up of the aforementioned Defence Minister Shoigu, the Secretary of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, former head of internal intelligence, and the former Deputy Prime Minister and current president of the oil company Igor Sechin. This is the hard core, which does not include other oligarchs who might have liberal leanings or doubts about an operation as complex and risky as the one launched in Ukraine.  Putin must now be looking with some suspicion at some of the economic elite, such as Roman Abramovich, who sees Chelsea and his assets in the United States slipping away. Mikhail Fridman, who controls the DIA food group and is chairman of the Alfa group, is one of the oligarchs who came from the Putin period and who has called for an end to the invasion. The same applies to the aluminium king Oleg Deripaska, who has called for an end to the war as soon as possible. Undoubtedly much more realistic than Putin, being in charge of businesses that are going to suffer heavily, his doubts or his opposition will hardly win Putin's ear, anchored in an exacerbated nationalism to justify the "recovery of Great Russia".

Locked in with his small circle of loyalists, Putin will not budge, accelerating the risk of an economic collapse of the new Russia that will return us to the scenes of black market rouble-swapping and poverty that the communist regime degenerated into. In the words of Anatol Lieven, author of the book 'Ukraine and Russia, a fraternal rivalry', the combination of ultra-nationalism and the tight economic control of the elites portends a battle to the finish. 

Versions that it will be members of the economic elite who will bring Putin to his knees in the face of the economic collapse of the system fail to solidify for a number of reasons. The main one is the regime's blackmail of the oligarchs themselves, who will only keep their assets if they are willing to toe the Putin line. Otherwise confiscation, exile or even poisoning awaits.  The other key is the growing thinking in favour of the Chinese model to ensure the survival and development of a successful communist model. If Beijing has succeeded, why not Russia. It really is the path pursued in the shadows by the post-Gorbachev regime, which has been playing the West without making any internal reforms or changing its ideology. Russia seeks to regain its lost empire, conquer the Ukrainian breadbasket and efficient Ukrainian factories, and then try to plunder Hungary, Poland, the Baltics... and the rest of the countries that the Yalta agreement left under the dictatorship and economic inefficiency of the soviets. 

The shadowy game of domination and expansionism was never fully concealed, but the democratic countries, especially Germany, bet on a path of rapprochement, trusting in Moscow's democratic consolidation, which was only a façade and never materialised. Now the Sanhedrin of the oligarchs has gambled on gaining territory. Putin is only their most visible head. Where will their ambition lead them? For now to war. Tomorrow we will know whether it was a madman's strategy or whether they have eaten the world.