Perry Anderson, prominent left wing social critic and historian at UCLA, has written an insightful analysis of Putin’s Russia for the London Review of Books. I recently translated an interview Anderson gave to Kommersant, and in the LRB piece he elaborates on some of the ideas he presented there. I highly recommend reading it. It’s quite lucid and thick. Not to mention the guy can just flat out write. Here is an opening excerpt:
Under lowering skies, a thin line of mourners stretched silently outside the funeral hall. Barring the entrance, hulking riot police kept them waiting until assorted dignitaries – Anatoly Chubais, Nato envoys, an impotent ombudsman – had paid their respects. Eventually they were let in to view the corpse of the murdered woman, her forehead wrapped in the white ribbon of the Orthodox rite, her body, slight enough anyway, diminished by the flower-encrusted bier. Around the edges of the mortuary chamber, garlands from the media that attacked her while she was alive stood thick alongside wreaths from her children and friends, the satisfied leaf to leaf with the bereaved. Filing past them and out into the cemetery beyond, virtually no one spoke. Some were in tears. People dispersed in the drizzle as quietly as they came.
The authorities had gone to some lengths to divert Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral from the obvious venue of the Vagankovskoe, where Sakharov is buried, to a dreary precinct on the outskirts that few Muscovites can locate on a map. But how necessary was the precaution? The number of mourners who got to the Troekurovskoe was not large, perhaps a thousand or so, and the mood of the occasion was more sadness than anger. A middle-aged woman, bringing groceries home from the supermarket, shot at point-blank range in an elevator, Politkovskaya was killed for her courage in reporting the continuing butchery in Chechnya. An attempt to poison her had narrowly failed two years earlier. She had another article in press on the atrocities of the Kadyrov clan that now runs the country for the Kremlin, as she was eliminated. She lived and died a fighter. But of any powerful protest at her death, it is difficult to speak. She was buried with resignation, not fury or revolt.
In Ukraine, the discovery of the decapitated body of a journalist who had investigated official corruption, Georgi Gongadze, was sufficient outrage to shake the regime, which was brought down soon afterwards. Politkovskaya was a figure of another magnitude. A better historical comparison might be with the murder of Matteotti by Mussolini in 1924. In Russian circumstances, her moral stature as an opponent of arbitrary power was scarcely less than that of the Socialist deputy. But there the resemblance ends. The Matteotti Affair caused an outcry that nearly toppled Mussolini. Politkovskaya was killed with scarcely a ripple in public opinion. Her death, the official media explained, was either an unfathomable mystery, or the work of enemies of the government vainly attempting to discredit it. The president remarked she was a nobody whose death was the only news value in her life.
It is tempting, but would be a mistake, to see in that casual dismissal no more than the ordinary arrogance of power. All governments deny their crimes, and most are understanding of each other’s lies about them. Bush and Blair, with still more blood on their hands – in all probability, that of over half a million Iraqis – observe these precepts as automatically as Putin. But there is a difference that sets Putin apart from his fellow rulers in the G8, indeed from virtually any government in the world. On the evidence of comparative opinion polls, he is the most popular national leader alive today. Since he came to power six years ago, he has enjoyed the continuous support of over 70 per cent of his people, a record no other contemporary politician begins to approach. For comparison, Chirac now has an approval rating of 38 per cent, Bush of 36 per cent, Blair of 30 per cent.