To Hell and Back and Hell Again

Macleans magazine gives a fair amount of coverage to the disturbing increase in authoritarian rule inside Russia. It chronicles Putin’s reduction of democratic freedoms and the country’s belligerence to any former Soviet Union ally, like Ukraine, daring to chart an independent course. But, as is increasingly usual for this magazine which has abandoned its stodgy-but-balanced copy for an increasingly tabloid-like grab at the market, they entitled the story, Russia Goes to Hell.

Russia Goes to Hell? Where do you think they’ve been for the past decade and a half?

Don’t get me wrong; Putin’s increasing dictatorial tendencies and the country’s strong-arm tactics on the Ukraine (not to mention its backing of the looney dictatorship of Belarus) are all matters of concern, but they shouldn’t be matters of surprise. Since throwing off the shackles of communism, the country has been through times so rough that the life-expectancy of the average Russian has dropped. The population of the country is going down, and they’ve had an economic collapse reminiscent of Germany and Hungary after the first world war.

Back in the early 1990s when Russia’s inflation was in quadruple digits and the value of the ruble was collapsing, a few people drew parallels between these events and the events which preceded the rise of the fascist regimes in central Europe during the 1930s. It helped, and hurt, to have Vladimir Zhirinovskii stand up and talk about Zionist conspirators and suggesting that Russia invade Alaska. It helped because it made the comparisons explicit. It hurt because Zhirinovskii was a cartoon too easy to laugh off.

You can’t laugh off Vladimir Putin. He used to control the KGB, and while he is consolidating his hold on the reins of power in Russia, he is showing himself to average Russians as somebody who gets things done — who makes the trains run on time, if you will. He is dangerous because he is competent, and he has a fair amount of support from within Russia because he can credibly promise to rescue them from the Great Depression of the 1990s, when the value of pensions collapsed and people nearly starved.

Russia is an extreme case, but it still highlights why the capitalist system must be managed, so as to save it from itself. Capitalism may be the greatest generator of wealth in the history of human civilization, but those who fail in an unregulated system tend to be seen as not worthy of notice. Russia’s desire to throw off all the shackles of communism may have only contributed to the country’s economic collapse, but the neo-conservative cheerleaders who said Russia should make its economy as free as possible were rewarded with bad times that have tarnished the image of capitalism for at least a generation.

The only future for Russia that I can see is through democracy and the free market, and to achieve this, capitalism should not have been allowed to fail as it did during the mid 1990s. Having lived through disaster, a sizable number of Russians see little benefit in democracies and free market, and competent wanna-be dictators like Putin become very dangerous men indeed.

So, Macleans is a little late to the game; and I sense that they are giving the underlying reasons of Russia’s increasing authoritarianism scant examination.

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