Russia and Putin: A dysfunctional family
In one of the most famous opening lines in literature, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What he meant by that was it is possible to fail in many ways, but there is only one way to succeed. The interesting thing about Russia’s ongoing failure, in contrast to its most famous writer’s wisdom, is that it is unrelenting in its uniformity. Nothing happening in Russia today is a surprise. It looks exactly like Russia’s entire painstaking history played out year after year, decade after decade. Russian history, which is full of unique and different historical events, always seems to arrive back at the same place.
And so it continues today. Russians continue to survive as they always have. They survive the sanctions, they build roads and stadiums for the World Cup, the do their best to fight corruption. But in reality, nothing comes out of it. The process is the product. The fundamental goal of all of Russia’s striving seems just to be to keep the big country busy. Because it is this constant drive that gives Russians the feeling that life goes on and gives them a sense of purpose and importance. But if anyone ever questions what the results of this striving are, or offers a different strategy focused on the result and not the process itself, well, we are sorry, thank you for the offer, but we know better. We do not need your advice. This is the Russian way of life. Accept it.
In this sense, what is happening in Russia reminds me of the typical stereotype of the Russian rural family – a dysfunctional family: tragic, hopeless, and broke. In Russia, we have the stereotype of the dysfunctional family with the head of household an alcoholic, and his wife, a lonely low-wage worker who does her best to keep the family together. In this scenario, the Kremlin is the alcoholic father, a clueless man who lives his life in peace and pleasure. He spends all his family’s money on alcohol, secretly sells household items to make money to buy more booze, steals and goes into debt, never paying the money back. He is rude to everyone. He lies. Most of all, he lies to himself. Whoever has the courage to comment on his behaviour, he beats up. And, like any alcoholic, he manipulates, he engages in criminal acts, he shifts the blame, and becomes abusive. There are fleeting moments when he acknowledges that something is not right and he needs to change, but the full sobering never happens. The change is too painful, too scary, and just too much work. The inner voice is hushed and he picks up his next drink.
The Russian democratic opposition is the typical wife of this alcoholic, a friendly country woman. She works at a minimum wage, dead-end job. She is a good and hard worker, but she does not know much about the real world. One day she met her husband and got married, probably out of hopelessness or lack of options. She is continually trying to nurture her husband to be a better person. She protests occasionally, because she does not want to live like this. She is embarrassed. She wants a change. In the depths of her soul, she honestly does not understand what kind of a person she married. His world is far-away and strange to her.
The Russian people, who are neither Kremlin nor the opposition, are the offspring of this tragic family. They have the hardest life. They live between two poles and feel lost. The kids are used as pawns by both parents, they are often the scapegoats, they are shouted at or ignored. On occasion, each side tries to win them over in their ongoing confrontation.
That is how they live, this typical dysfunctional family. For years. No one knows how to end the vicious cycle. No one knows when this incredibly tenacious relationship will end. The Kremlin is living in the here and now. He is partying and drinking, selling everything and stealing everything. He does not think about the future. He does not care about the future. As long as he has the money for a flask today, he is happy.
The opposition is living in the here and now, too. They do not have any particular agenda, just hope. Their only goal is to fight the alcoholism, to somehow convince the alcoholic husband to become a kind and intelligent man, a man who will take care of the family. But how? The wife is doing the best she can, but mostly all she can do is complain to the neighbours about her husband. They nod their heads sympathetically, but they cannot really help with anything. And what about the children? They are trying to somehow adapt to this life and the stand-off between mom and dad.
This is the dilemma of protest movements in today’s Russia. Going to the protests makes sense when there is a goal, when there is a plan of action. So far this understanding does not exist yet in Russia. The conception of the protest movement so far is only asserting: we must all march, we must all go on the streets, we all have to do something and somehow save the family. What will be next is secondary and is a mystery. The process is the product. And this unhappy family continues to be unhappy in the same way. Nothing changes and history repeats itself.
It is only when the protests in Russia focus on an outcome – an outcome with real change as its product – that the vicious cycle will end. Until all Russians, not just those in the big cities, rise up and refuse to accept the alcoholic behaviour anymore, there will be no lasting change. Like the long-downtrodden wife who finally decides to leave and not come back, Russians must refuse to accept the damage the Kremlin has done to them. Instead of continuing to adapt to new crises, accepting low oil prices, inflation, sanctions, they need to create a social pressure on the Kremlin so strong that the bad behaviour can no longer continue. Those who are only emotionally moved by protests because they ruin a holiday with the police activity in Red Square must find the strength to join their brothers and sisters in the streets. Because when everyone starts caring, stops going to restaurants, goes on the street instead to demand change and real elections, stops simply surviving and decides to thrive instead, the Kremlin can no longer raise the hand to hit. Because the hand would be easily broken. And this is the only way to succeed and become a happy family.
Vitali Shkiliarov is a Belarus-born political adviser, commentator and campaign manager working for liberal candidates in opposition to President Vladimir Putin. He had previously worked in American politics for Senator Bernie Sanders, on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, and for several other successful Democratic campaigns.