Putin’s Rise To Power In a Post-Empire Society Has Been Seen Before

Prithvi Jagannath- 

“What Germany needs today is a strong man.”

Kurt von Schleicher, Berlin 1932

In the Atlanticist imagination, the Soviet collapse is the culmination of a triumphal and liberal narrative. But from a Russian perspective, it is fairly reasonable to see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as calamitous. Indeed, this is literally the view of Vladimir Putin, who remarked in 2005 that “…we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century…Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration affected Russia itself.” Some Western commentators assumed this was a lament for the USSR itself, along with its political and economic centralization, so ghastly in Western eyes. More nuanced observers realized that Putin was really mourning the effect this collapse had on the inhabitants of the former USSR and the concrete hardships they endured.
Living standards plummeted, while mortality skyrocketed. Male life expectancy, in particular, dropped dramatically. Millions of ethnic Russians were scattered outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation as Eastern Europe post-Soviet states shifted to a political order based on ethnic nationhood rather than “fraternal socialism”. Oligarchs rose from seemingly nowhere to exploit connections with corrupt or pliable officials and arbitrage the price differentials in the various sectors of the Russian economy caused by the grotesque distortions of Soviet central planning. Meanwhile, common citizens faced the prospect of stark impoverishment. While Russia inherited the USSR’s nuclear arsenal, its conventional military abilities crumbled. The West tore up its security promises to Gorbachev, and NATO advanced steadily eastward. Now, unimpeded by its former adversary, the United States was free to intervene militarily and economically around the world, much to the horror of its critics.

Bullet holes in a Truck’s window, Ukraine.   Reuters

Russia was not identical to the Soviet Union, but it was its essential core, and what happened to Russia from 1991 is not unprecedented in European history; it is not even unprecedented in 20th-century European history. Russia endured an enormous upheaval from 1917, but a rather better analogy to post-Soviet Russia lies in the form of Weimar Germany. The Bolsheviks tried and largely succeeded in wiping out the old order that preceded them; such attempts were only half-hearted in Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia, and radical transformation largely failed in both cases.
Their defeat in November 1918 really was a disaster for the Germans. Two million men, disproportionately young and fit, had been killed, while close to a million civilians perished from the combined effects of the Allied blockade and the colossal flu pandemic sweeping the globe. The Hohenzollern monarchy collapsed in ignominious disgrace as a Republic was hastily declared to the surprise of its own new leaders. Germany would go on to suffer major territorial losses to France, Denmark, and the new states of Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and Poland, while its overseas empire was seized by Britain, France, Belgium, and Japan. Millions of ethnic Germans were left outside the new republic’s frontiers, stranded not only by German territorial losses but also by the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As in Russia during the 1990’s, hyperinflation was rampant in the early Weimar era.
Journalist Thomas de Waal described the 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis and its violent, disillusioning conclusion as a loss of innocence. In a far cry from his image as a liberal reformer, Yeltsin turned to the Russian Army and intelligence services to crush his opponents by force, less than two years after the Soviet collapse. In Weimar, the corruption of the new republic was even more immediate. Faced with the prospect of a violent, far-left insurrection in the form of mutinous sailors, Spartacists, and workers’ councils, the nominally socialist chancellor of the new republic, Friederich Ebert (who claimed to hate social revolution like “sin“), turned to the army. Despising the new regime, the defeated army’s response was half-hearted and sullen. Nonetheless, Ebert’s deputy and fellow socialist, Gustav Noske, set about unleashing the Freikorps, paramilitaries composed of returning veterans, against the far-left opposition. They did so with much gleeful bloodshed, and with the army’s blessings, within a year after the armistice. “No enemies on the left” was revealed as vapid rhetoric.
The Bolsheviks successfully sought to destroy the old Czarist regime root and branch. The East German communists were made irrelevant and shunted aside as their country was swallowed by the BRD. While the latter’s fate was more benign than that of the Romanovs’, they were replaced no less completely. No such total transformation occurred in either the Weimar Republic or the Russian Federation. In each case, powerful elements of the ancien regime quickly made themselves indispensable to their masters, to the extent that they ceased to be accountable to them. In the Weimar Republic’s case, this was the Reichwehr, which flouted both civilian control as well as the Treaty of Versailles. In the new Russia, a nascent deep state formed around the “Organs”, the intelligence services inherited wholesale from the USSR.
In the truly one-sided relationship between the military and the Weimar Republic, Kurt von Schleicher became the Reichswehr’s main fixer. Indeed, Scheicher had been Ebert’s main contact in the army during the Spartacist crisis, and had conveyed the army’s terms of support to the Weimar president. Thanks to his patron Wilhelm Groener, and his cordial relationship with Noske, Schleicher rapidly ascended the ladder of the Weimar deep state. In this capacity, he aided General Hans von Seeckt in developing ties with the USSR, going so far as to set up shell corporations in order to invest in Soviet industry and set up factories to manufacture heavy armaments forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles for the Reichswehr.
His zeal to circumvent the hated peace treaty took von Schleicher into even darker corners. The Reichswehr organized violent vigilante actions under the so-called ‘Black Reichswehr‘. The Black Reichswehr murdered German civilians believed to be collaborating with the Allied Control Commission in order to prevent the Allies from discovering the extent to which the Reichswehr was attempting to rearm. Schleicher was well aware of such occasions and encouraged them, yet this did not stop him from denying the existence of the Black Reichswehr in court, let alone his direct association with them.
Kurt von Schleicher.   DPA

As with Putin decades later, Schleicher’s political worldview was shaped by an intense nationalism that had been dealt a severe shock by the loss of power, and greater weakness his country had been plunged into. A staunch militarist, Schleicher adhered to the idea of a Wehrstaat, an illiberal political order where all sectors of society would be fused under the leadership of Germany’s military establishment. It was a distinct political concept from the Nazi totalitarian model, in which the NDSAP and its Führer were at the apex of power. In the Wehrstaat, the control of the state would be in the hands of an institution, as opposed to the Third Reich’s Führerprinzip, where all executive, judicial, and legislative power stemmed from the will of a single individual. Rather, the Wehrstaat presages the Power Vertical of Putin’s Russia, with its extreme centralization of political power and the appointment of policymakers loyal to a tight cadre of elites. Putin is at the very top of the power vertical; nonetheless, his power is not absolute; he must pay heed to various factions, and involve himself in the attending of court politics and palace intrigues while maintaining a veneer of legality.
By the late 20’s, Schleicher felt a deep unease at the growing power of the Social Democrats, who threatened his militarist agenda as the largest party in the Reichstag. Through various political machinations, including his influence on President Paul von Hindenburg, Schleicher was able to undermine the SPD government of Hermann Müller, leading to its collapse in 1930. Simultaneously, Schleicher adopted the ideological framework of Carl Schnitt, an ultra-conservative German jurist and legal theorist. Just as Putin would later undermine and weaken liberal democratic institutions in Russia rather than repudiating them, Schleicher sought to indirectly attack the already fragile norms of Weimar democracy by restricting individual liberties and the powers of elected representatives by technically legal means. In this, he was greatly aided by Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenberg, who used Articles 25, 48, and 53 of the Weimar constitution to dissolve the Reichstag, sign emergency bills without the Reichstag, and appoint a Chancellor; it was the application of these articles at key moments during the late 20’s and early 30’s that ultimately doomed the republic.
The specific details of Vladimir Putin’s political career are beyond the scope of this writing; by 1998, thanks to his past services with the “Organs”, and ongoing contacts within them, he was appointed by Yeltsin as the head of the FSB, the primary intelligence service of the Russian Federation. The next year, Yeltsin appointed Putin as Prime Minister, then stepped down. The fresh-faced new leader won a convincing majority in the subsequent presidential election. Clearly, Schleicher had envisioned a similar path for himself in Germany. He had risen to General der Infanterie, and, by 1928, enjoyed the confidence of defense minister Wilhelm Groener as well as Reichspräsident, von Hindenberg. The rise of the NDSAP under Hitler did not escape Schleicher’s notice. Like the rest of the military elite, he viewed the Nazis as crude and boorish, while grudgingly respecting their own brand of militarism and fervent nationalism. Schleicher saw them as useful idiots, to be tamed and manipulated in order to sweep away the last remnants of democratic resistance to the realization of the Wehrstaat. At the same time, he had become an influential member in the cabinet of Heinrich Brüning, who served as chancellor from 1930-1932. This did not stop him intriguing against both the chancellor and his erstwhile patron Groener, who opposed Schleicher’s attempts to form an opportunistic alliance with the Nazis. Schleicher was rewarded for his manipulations when, in the spring of 1932, Hindenberg dismissed both Groener (whom Schleicher succeeded as defense minister) and Brüning, who was replaced with the pliable Fritz von Papen.
At this point, Schleicher was more or less in cooperation with the National Socialists. While deluding himself to the fact that they were essentially pliable in his hands, he also approved of their fanatical nationalism and militarism, useful components of the Wehrstaat, though certainly unfit to lead it. As defense minister, Schleicher covertly funneled arms to the Nazis and secretly encouraged their disposition to violence and mayhem. At the same time, in order to avert a general strike and undermine the SPD, Schleicher promised the major trade unions a favorable position within the future political order he envisioned. While staving off Hitler’s demand for the Chancellorship, Schleicher maneuvered himself against Papen.
A Nazi rally in Nuremberg.

By the end of 1932, he seemed to be in a very strong position. The Nazis had not done well in the November Reichstag elections, their party was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Schleicher was manipulating schisms within the NDSAP itself. The success of his efforts resulted in Hitler’s histrionic threat of suicide to the party leadership should Schleicher succeed in undermining him. On December 3rd, Papen resigned, and Schleicher became Chancellor. Then, very quickly, things went disastrously wrong. Ever a quick wit, Schleicher managed to alienate von Hindenberg by making the latter’s son a butt of a joke, a fatal error, which doomed the chancellor. Schleicher’s intrigues were successful in tearing down his rivals rather than building a base of support for himself. As his brief chancellorship was gripped by the usual political and economic turmoil that had confronted his predecessors, Schleicher’s enemies, many of them his former allies, turned on him. Hindenberg deposed Schleicher as chancellor, appointing Hitler in his stead on January 30th, 1933. Schleicher’s fate was sealed. Along with the other plausible alternatives to Hitler, such as Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser, Schleicher was killed on the Night of the Long Knives in the following year.
Why did Putin succeed where Schleicher so disastrously failed? Subjectively, one could argue that Putin is a less flamboyant figure with a sense of loyalty that Schleicher conspicuously lacked. Supposedly, when offered a position by a mentor’s rival, Putin declared, “It’s better to be hanged for loyalty than be rewarded for betrayal.” He repaid his advancement at the hands of Yeltsin by shielding his predecessor from potential prosecution. Certainly, this approach allowed Putin to make fewer enemies and keep more friends than Schleicher. But more reliably, the answer comes from examining larger events.
While radicals like Zhirinovsky did emerge, the Soviet collapse left an ideological void rather than stoking the embers of political extremism. Unlike in Weimar Germany or most other Western democracies, the communists in Russia represented an established status quo that had only recently ended. In this sense, like the Weimar monarchists, they were technically reactionaries against recent political developments. Rather than being firebrands or radicals, the post-Soviets communists were a mainstream political bloc that Putin could successfully negotiate with or outmaneuver in the manner Schleicher tried and failed to do with the NDSAP.
Active Neo-Nazi or similar ultra-right wing nationalist movements certainly arose in the new Russia, but it never matched a scale comparable to European fascist movements in the 1930s’, nor approached a viable political movement. The enormous cost of their country’s victory in World War II is a source of great pride and grief for the Russians, which stunted the appeal of any ideology resembling that of the hated wartime enemy. Organized religion was only starting to emerge from the shadows of state-enforced atheism. By the time the Orthodox Church was capable of political mobilization, it had already been co-opted by Putin. As for Islamic radicalism, it manifested as a separatist, rather than revolutionary, tendence in Russia.
Putin as acting president, 1999.   Kremlin

Furthermore, origins of the collapse and dismemberment of the Soviet Union were internal, as opposed to an external shock like the military defeats that overthrew the Hohenzollern and Romanov regimes. While the Russian people after 1991 had numerous, legitimate grievances, this meant their anger and discontents did not coalesce around clearly defined external enemies or ‘aliens‘ on a scale that an extremist movement could exploit.
Lastly, the chancellorships before Hitler struggled to cope with the Great Depression, which severely affected Germany; this allowed Schleicher to ruthlessly exploit their resulting fragility. Russia was at least politically stable enough from the end of Yeltsin’s administration to pass effective economic reforms while enjoying the windfalls of a sustained spike in energy prices. When Russia did face another major downturn in 2008, Putin was firmly ensconced in power.
Various historical events and organic cultural elements have made Russian political history very different than Germany’s; nonetheless, in Vladimir Putin, one can hear the echo of Kurt Schleicher, a surviving member of the previous order trying to rehabilitate, though not quite imitate, the way things use to be, during a time of domestic turmoil. And as a result of this instability, the two men developed a belief in centralized power in the hands of a tiny elite while maintaining the barest and most technical outward appearance of an elected, popularly representative government.
As Mark Twain observed, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Featured Image Credits: Niels Ackermann

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