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Between two worlds
by Kai Ehlers
Putin is our new tsar, quite simply. I call him an authoritarian modernizer who stands in the balancing act between neoliberalism and monarchist tradition and wants to reorganize the country from this position.
Between two worlds
Russia represents the intersection of European individualism and Asian collectivism - Putin's policies take this particular geography into account.
By Kai Ehlers
[This article published on June 2, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

"The Middle Kingdom" - it is actually Russia, as the giant empire borders equally on Central Europe, China and Alaska. In keeping with that, Russia has often chosen a middle path, serving as a nexus between West and East. Russia can appear authoritarian and chaotic at the same time, soulful and strategically coldly calculating, sometimes more inclined toward the community, sometimes more toward the individual. For many Europeans, this still seems too "foreign". They want to adopt the country partly for their own "values," partly to lock it out of Europe, and in the worst case to eliminate it altogether as a potent global competitor. The profound lack of understanding of Russia's special nature and geographic situation is also reflected in some blatant misjudgments of Vladimir Putin's policies. His government's actions are neither "post-Soviet" nor do they conform to Western ideas. It strives for the rule of law at home and demands self-determination and respect abroad. Kai Ehlers' analysis contributes decisively to a better understanding of the current political situation in relation to Russia and avoids demonization as well as one-sided idealization.

Dear friends. In order to be able to correctly classify Putin's role in the power structure, in Russia's politics, it is not enough to talk him down as a "KGB chik", nor to belittle him as a democratically elected president, and even less to demonize him as a fascist, as is currently happening in our media, which portray Vladimir Putin as someone who is leading Russia into fascism and must be replaced by regime change.

Nevertheless, one must somehow approach these questions and try to find criteria of who Putin is, who he was and who he could be. What is necessary, therefore, is first to take a brief look at Russian history to see what place Putin now occupies in it. Of course, in the brevity of this lecture, these can only be key words. With this in mind, the following will now be sketched very briefly.
Elements of the Russian reality

First: Russia is not Europe. Contrary to everything that is written about it, Russia is not Europe. But Russia is not Asia either.

Russia is the area between Europe and Asia - geographically, historically, culturally and politically. It is the space between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism.

This fact reveals the common thread that runs through the whole of Russian history, in which Putin also stands: Russia as a hybrid between West and East, between Western and Eastern conceptions of the state, as an intermediate space in its own right.

Secondly, Russia, this vast area between Vladivostok and Europe, is almost self-sufficient. Russia has natural riches, oil, gas, forest, vast arable land, and so on and so forth, on which it could live without outside supplies. Russia has a multi-ethnic culture in which not only individuals have intermingled with each other, but entire cultures, entire peoples have intermingled with each other throughout history to form a whole. And Russia has a community tradition which, due to its structures of self-organization, its dachas, its own gardens, the tradition of collective self-sufficiency under the natural and historical conditions that have developed in this way, has developed the ability to survive in crises even at the lowest level, which is again playing a major role in the current sanctions war against Russia.

Furthermore, contrary to what is written again and again, including now, Russia is not a unitary, certainly not a nationalistic, even ethnically unitary nation-state. Russia is a multi-ethnic organism, consisting of different peoples who have interconnected themselves - different cultures, different languages up to different religions. The essential organizing principle of this community of peoples, if one wants to speak of principles at all and not simply of living processes, is integration, that is, not domination from above, from extra-state territories, but the merging of different peoples and cultures in the course of history as an internal process.

Thus, there is a double patriotism in Russia. To give an example, when I ask my Chuvash friends on the Volga what their patriotism is based in, they answer: I am a patriotic Russian and at the same time I am a Chuvash patriot. They live together, not always harmoniously, but they live together.

The Eurasian cartwheel

All that I am describing here can be put into a picture. The image that I myself have chosen for it in my descriptions of Russia is a large wagon wheel, the old wagon wheel with the hub in the center and the spokes on all sides: The center that has emerged there, from which the development has started, is Moscow. The spokes lead to the peripheries, north to the Baltic Sea, east to Vladivostok, south to the Caucasus and also west. This is the picture I ask you to keep in mind in everything else I will say here about Russia: Tsar and village form a polarity in which the poles support each other, Tsar as self-rule, village in principle as self-government, even self-sufficiency. These are polar opposites, but they are connected in inseparable dependence on each other. One cannot exist without the other.

One can also say: Centralism in Moscow and elements remote from power in the country, autocracy and oligarchy, these are these traditional opposites. They are not connected by constitutional organs, but in a personal structure, I emphasize: in a personal structure! When you travel in Russia, you hear: Good Natshalnik, i.e. good boss, good conditions; bad Natshalnik, bad conditions. Good president, good company; bad president, bad times.

Good tsar, good times; bad tsar, bad times. This is something that runs deep in the blood of the people of Russia, this personal understanding of their society.

This understanding, to say it right away, was not abolished by the Soviet Union either, but was adopted exactly in these structures. The Soviet Union developed further on this basis: Party center and sovkhozes/colkhozes, the whole collective organization of working life, of everyday life in the country. This is the same polarity as in the centuries before, only transposed into the modern, into the Bolshevik. This must be realized in order to understand where this country is now moving backwards or forwards in connection with this double, this twice-broken tradition.

The capitalism that has developed in this country, already in the tsarist era and, of course, even more so now, is also a hybrid one. That is, we don't have purely capitalist, monopoly capitalist conditions that have developed in Russia, purely foreign supply. We have a resource-based economy, to a certain extent even resource management, up to forms of individual and collective self-sufficiency in individual farms, villages and so on on the one hand, but on the other hand developed monopoly capitals, which are very much in the international context of monopoly capitalism, and supermarkets. Here again, I emphasize this, this hybrid basic structure of Russian society, of this Russian social organism, becomes apparent.

"Confused times" - and their ever new overcoming.

And now let's look at the whole thing again in the historical sequence. There is a Russian term which is very important to understand for understanding what is happening in Russia at present. The term is called "smuta." Smuta, that is the great, confused time. There was a smuta after the death of Ivan IV at the end of the 15th century, more precisely from his death in 1584 until 1613, when a young man, Michael of the House of Romanov, seventeen years old, was chosen by the individual princes, the boyars, to take over the inheritance of the chariot wheel, the spokes of which had broken up into separate principalities since the death of Ivan IV. So the boyars thought that they had found a young boy whom they could control, with whom they could do whatever they wanted, in order to pursue their separate interests.

But then it turned out that this young fellow was able to build up a dynasty, precisely that of the Romanovs, which not only restored this chariot wheel, but moreover strengthened and further expanded it. This dynasty ruled until the February Revolution or October Revolution of 1917, until which time it constantly extended the wheel of the Russian tsardom, always in the same formation that I have just described. Regional unrest in the meantime did nothing to change this. Well, they were bloody, but they did not change the structure of the wagon wheel, the polarity of autocracy and village.

The second great smuta that Russia experienced extended from the 1905 revolution, which brought an initial weakening of the tsar, through the February Revolution, then the October Revolution of 1917, the ensuing civil war, to the stabilization of the Soviet Union in 1920/22. What happened there? What emerged was a repetition of the same thing on a new level: the country had sunk back into chaos, and the Bolsheviks, Lenin, then Stalin brought the spokes of the wheel back together under party rule. Nothing had changed in essence. Something had changed in the ideology, but not in the structure of the country.

After the end of the Soviet Union, a third smuta occurred in this metropolitan area, which Putin has not unjustly called one of the greatest catastrophes of the previous century, namely the disintegration of the Soviet empire, which once again left behind a chaotic space extending to the borders of Europe.

All of this must be understood if one is to grasp who Putin is today and why he can be the way he is. He has stepped into that legacy.
Mister Nobody takes over the legacy

That is important to look at before talking about whether Putin was hiding something when he started, whether he has deceived the world, whether he has changed, whether he has gone crazy, whether he is a dictator like Hitler or Stalin or the like, as is currently going through the media in the Western world. And whether he can be removed from the center of power and replaced as easily as some Western smarties think.

To all these questions one can say, also this for the sake of brevity only in keywords and quite simply: Putin has started, just like Michael Romanov in his time, as Mister Nobody. That is how he was perceived by the public. He was an unknown up-and-comer. The oligarchs who held the social reins under Boris Yeltsin believed at the time that they could do whatever they wanted with this nobody.

In fact, this Putin did not formulate a great program in just a few sentences, but he made his intentions very clear, namely: First, I want to introduce a dictatorship of the law.

This means that I want to end the chaos that Yeltsin's time left behind in the country, in which all solidarity structures, all reliable social structures in general, party structures anyway, have disintegrated and the mafia rules. In plain language, he said, I want taxes to be paid again, wages to be paid again, social conditions to be re-established, insurance policies to be built up, in short, rules to prevail in the country again, our own rules, not foreign rules.

That was his first announcement. His second announcement was: I want Russia to resume the function that corresponds to its historical role, namely that of an integration node in Eurasia. These were the two announcements Putin made, short messages only, no elaborated program, just the declared will to rebuild a strong Russia.

If you look back from today, you can see that these ideas of Putin even then referred to conservative thinkers, namely to those who considered the traditional organizational forms of Russia optimal, an Ivan Ilyin, who considered the monarchical structures optimal to be able to govern Eurasia, also an Anton Denikin, Belarusian general who fought the Bolshevik revolution. As president, Putin had the remains of both brought back to the country for reburial. These two historical figures undoubtedly represent political ideas that live in Putin today. Putin, as I said before, is not just a KGB man, but his ideas about the recovery of Russia reach far back into the tsarist era.

But it is also important to know: Putin is not a Stalinist, nor is he a Leninist; on the contrary, he is an anti-communist, and at the same time he is a neoliberal, i.e., as a result, a modernizer who draws on tsarist traditions. This is only a brief assessment of Putin's personal political background. One could call him a modern electoral monarch or, as it is heard half-jokingly, half-sarcastically in Russia: Putin is our new tsar, quite simply. I myself call him an authoritarian modernizer who stands in the balancing act between neoliberalism and monarchist tradition and wants to reorganize the country from this position.

Putin's measures

In accordance with this program with which he started, Putin's first action was to establish a seven-beam supervision over the regions of Russia, which he thus placed under the direct control of the Kremlin, himself. This control ran at cross-purposes with the federal and regional, at cross-purposes with the evolved organic structures of the country.

The second step in securing this newly inaugurated structure was the Chechen war; it was the second after Yeltsin had to withdraw from the first. The second Chechen war was very brutal. It was directed against Chechen Islamist separatism. But the brutality did not come only from Putin, but was also given by what had built up earlier in that war, namely a lawlessness that spread throughout the Russian Federation. I experienced this myself at the time when I was in Kazan and the Tatar Republic for research. From there, volunteers moved into Chechnya to join the fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state of God. The fighting was supported from the outside by Saudi Arabia and, not least, by Zbigniew Brzeziński. The became active there again, having already contributed to the Soviet Union's stumbling over Afghanistan.

Chechnya at the time was a black hole where one could no longer travel without risking being taken hostage, sold, or even killed. Grozny, the capital of the region, lay in ruins after the war. The images are now being dug up again to prove Putin's general willingness to engage in expansive aggression. But the comparison with the current war in Ukraine makes no sense. It was a different process that took place in Chechnya at that time: It was the defense of the internal situation, not least against external intervention, and not an external attack.

The second action, not in time but in order of importance, was that Putin made sure that Russia paid off the Soviet Union's old debts to the World Bank and cancelled further acceptance of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had reached astronomical heights under Yeltsin.

This was a clear announcement: We will not let you drive us into the debt trap. We want to go our own independent way.

The third element in securing Putin's rule was the inclusion of the oligarchs - that is, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gussinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others - who during Yeltsin's time had appropriated the collective property of society as private owners and made state policy as private owners. Putin succeeded, without my being able to go into detail now about how he succeeded, in integrating these private oligarchic corporations into a new responsibility, in making them pay taxes again, wages again, feel responsible for social structures again, and so on. The private character of the oligarchic property that emerged under Yeltsin remained, but was supplemented by the introduction of state overseers into these corporations. These overseers were not infrequently representatives of the Russian domestic intelligence service, the FSB. In this way, a nexus between private capital and the state emerged. This link is an essential element of Putin's rule.

Another step that still needs to be named is Putin's external appearance, with which he carried the stability he had created internally to the outside world. I would like to remind you briefly of Putin's appearance at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, which was followed by his activities abroad, in which he opposed U.S. militarism as a critic, to his work as a crisis manager in Syria and so on. I mention this here only in the brevity required by the time constraints.

With this agenda, it should be made clear here in conclusion, Putin was the right man in the right place at the right time, both in terms of domestic policy and foreign policy.

The "Putin system" - securing consensus

All of what I have said about Putin's rule is summarized by Western sociologists under the keyword "Politburo 2.0," around which a number of "selectorates" are grouped, in which Putin acts as an "arbiter." The "selectorates" refer to very different organs of society, i.e. the various executive organs, the "siloviki," i.e. the organs of power, the secret services, the military, the judiciary, then the oligarchs, the federal forces, the churches, human rights organizations and finally also such organs as the "Isborski Club," an association of moderate conservatives like Alexander Prokhanov to extreme right-wingers like the notorious power mystic Alexander Dugin. Also directly subordinate to the president are various task forces: the presidential guard, the federal guard service, the FSB, i.e. the secret service, and since 2016 also the National Guard.

So, this is a form of rule that is secured, it is also federal and constitutionally subdivided. Nevertheless, it is hardly possible to describe this structure exactly according to federal-democratic principles.

Putin is simply supreme warlord. He determines the guidelines of policy. In practically all cases, he has the power to intervene in the lower bodies that are attached to this "Politburo 2.0." As the supreme authority, he guarantees the consensus of conflicting interests.

The definition Western sociologists use to describe this form of rule is: Bonapartism. That's not bad. You can say it that way. Bonapartism is, after all, a form of rule of princely, authoritarian centralization with simultaneous freedom for the bourgeois forces and bearers of capital to develop on their own responsibility, as far as they keep in agreement, in consensus with the state goals.

There remains only one difference from classical Bonapartism, namely that Putin must constantly secure this consensus anew. And the last question remains, and this brings me to my conclusion: With this abundance of power that he has, has Putin gambled with the war that is now being waged in his name against Ukraine? Has he made a move that could break the consensus? Is he threatened with resistance from within the country that could force him to abandon his role as "arbiter"?

Is the consensus at risk?

I would say, currently, no. About 80 percent of the population is not in favor of this war, but they are not against it either. Perhaps 20 to 25 percent of those polled protest against this war, as they do against war in general. The numbers of the polls are not very reliable under the current pressure of the war. But to describe the whole situation in the way the German media are currently doing, namely that Putin is leading the country into fascism, is simply superficial, superficial, Western wishful thinking. It misses the real conditions in Russia, because it measures all these structures that I pointed out in my lecture according to criteria that we know from Western societies. According to them, one can speak of fascism when the mass of the population is oppressed with parts of the population from above.

But this kind of notion can be discarded. This is not what is currently happening in Russia. The current war in Ukraine ultimately finds a tolerated consent on the part of the majority of the population. And if the West believes that Putin can be replaced in a regime change, that is also a big mistake. Putin's entourage, the "Politburo 2.0" and its environment are not prepared to do so, at least not as long as the war is still going on. The fear of a new Smuta is too deep-seated not only in the Russian population in general, but also in the ruling circles.

Even if it were possible to replace Putin under the given circumstances by a regime change, the result would most likely be quite a chaos, which no Russian politician, not even a possible successor to Putin, can wish for. The hub of which Putin represents in the new centralism would be endangered and shattered. Restoring it would hardly be possible in wartime, and if it were, then only by force. Incidentally, this is known not only in Russia, but also by the U.S. Americans, at least by some wiser heads who are now warning against the destruction of Russia, as one could hear recently from Henry Kissinger, for example.

These Americans do want Russia to crawl on its belly and open itself up again to Western, American colonization, as it did under Yeltsin, but they don't want to simply shoot Putin down, they don't want to simply "destroy" Russia, because they know how dangerous the chaos that would result would be. German and European policymakers apparently lack such insights, and it will take some time for the more cautious American messages to be parroted here.

Let us conclude:

What is to be desired, whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, no matter from which side its outcome is viewed, is the avoidance of a new Smuta, a chaotic Eurasia, which ultimately means not only Russia, but Russia and Europe.

That means talking to Russia, talking to Ukraine, initiating ceasefire negotiations immediately, developing goals for pacifying Ukraine, and and and. All forces on all sides must work towards this. I cannot go into the individual steps that could lead in this direction here in this short space of time. This will require more than just a lecture.

Editorial note: This lecture was given as one of four at the Marx Engels Foundation's conference "Russia's War in Ukraine" in Kassel on May 14, 2022. Three other presentations addressed the goals of the war, the positions of the Russian left on the war, and finally the impact the war is having on the everyday lives of the Russian people. The event was conducted as a face-to-face event with digital participants. The time per presentation was limited to twenty-five minutes.

All four presentations are documented under the link
documented in the attached video.

Sources and Notes:

For further consideration of the topic I refer to my website, there in particular to the texts:

"Who wants what peace? On the Question of Goals in the Ukrainian War" from May 23, 2022 and.
"New Security Architecture? Why only for Europe? Why only now? Why not now?" dated April 27, 2022.

For a deeper understanding of Russia I also refer to my book: "Russia - Heartbeat of a World Power", to order at

Kai Ehlers is an independent publicist, researcher and book author. His work focuses on developments in the states of the former Soviet sphere of influence and their local and global consequences. In Germany, he is involved in the debate on social alternatives. For more information, visit
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