|My collage, based on the original frontispiece of |
Hobbs' Leviathan and Putin's official portrait.
Foreign engagements aside, Russia has been, for the most part, fighting an endless war with itself. In the 16th century Ivan the Terrible pretty much exterminated the Russian high nobility, laying waste to the whole country. Following Peter's Reforms, the Russian educated elite fought, mostly with the pen and printing press but sometimes violently, against the autocratic state, until it revolted again and overthrew it in the 1917 Revolution. What happened next was a shattering civil war of 1918-21. A decade later, before the wounds had the time to heal, Russians resumed their "civil war" during the Stalin collectivization of agriculture and later in the Great Terror with devastating consequences for the nation. Whatever the exact math, the numbers of victims of Bolshevism and the Nazi Wehmacht appear to be comparable (see,. e.g., The Black Book of Communism). But Stalinism's effect on the nations morale, its talent pool, its dignity would last for generations.
Fast-forward to August 1991, the Russians, it seemed, won against their Communist party-state, the machine that Stalin had built. Yet, with the fits and starts under Yeltsin, the silent civil war proceeded apace, at times spilling into violence, as in the anti-Yeltsin revolt in 1993 or the well-publicized government raids on misbehaving oligarchs. Today, it is increasingly clear that the party-state - now morphed into the state-church Leviathan (pace Hobbs and Andrey Zvyagintsev's brilliant film) - has gained the upper hand over the opposition in Russia's educated society. This "Leviathan" state, flaunting the quasi-divine sanction granted it by the Russian Orthodox Church, now refers to its internal opposition as the "Fifth column" (Vladimir Putin's March 18, 2014, "Crimea Speech"). Resorting to this archetype of war-time rhetoric, President Putin held an explicit threat over the heads of the dissenting professional classes, in effect, promising to unleash the "people's wrath" against them, should they continue questioning the legitimacy of what is by all accounts a monumentally corrupt, even worse, incompetent state.
The war between the Russian state and its own Russian elite goes unabated, while the "silent majority," whose brain is wired to the state-controlled Channel 1, continues to support the new tsar, grumbling under its breath at the "national traitors" (национал-предатели - Putin's own coinage from the same March 18 "Crimea" speech). How long this "civil war" will last and how it will end –– time will tell. In the meantime, dissenting voices continue to be heard, even as Putin's trick war with Ukraine has unleashed forces so dark that the Russian Leviathan, puffed up as it is, may be too unstable to handle.