Hoping for direct contact with the American people, U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone made a documentary about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Asking “why Putin” makes just as much sense as asking why acclaimed Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev told a story about a family that does not love its child even though there are so many loving families around. Art explores equally those who are right and those who are wrong—Hellenes and Jews, enslaved and free people—often giving even more attention to those in the wrong. For Stone, Putin is someone who loves or tries to love.

For Putin, talking with Stone was a chance to present himself to ordinary Americans whom the elites have shielded from communication. Soviet-era mantras about capitalist world workers who wanted to be friends with the first-ever socialist state, but who were not allowed to do so by the bourgeoisie, have transformed into a present-day view that ordinary people in the West are much less hostile towards Russia than their ideologized elites. Both concepts are generally correct, yet they misjudge people’s attitude. In fact, people are not less hostile, but rather more indifferent, while intellectuals are divided, as they were in the past, into two camps represented by Oliver Stone and Morgan Freeman. 

A global crypto

Before making his film about Putin, Stone had interviewed Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva, and other left-wing opponents of the U.S. in Latin America who worship Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Europe considers this a passing fancy, even though likeminded people exist there too, such as British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Pragmatic Europe views them as irresponsible, anti-American populists with dictatorial ambitions, but in a broader context they are no different from Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa—fighters for democracy and national sovereignty against dictatorships imposed by a powerful neighbor.    

Russia’s struggle for naturalness (in the face of attempts by elites to violate people’s mentality and scrap their values) slightly resembles the agenda of left-wing environmentalists and feminists: Women must be what nature has created them to be, not painted perfumed dolls to please the masculine elites, and people should eat only natural foods. Russian Orthodox conservatives advocate the same principles, with both producers and consumers practicing the cult of organic food, and wives staying away from beauty spas (in striking contrast to women in Islamic monarchies). The rule of the horseshoe works here too, as Russia attracts both the far right and the far left, whose ideals come closely together in our country. A closer look at the opponents of the film Mathilde, who condemn it as blasphemous (although its blasphemy is clearly in the interpretations, not in any provocation on the part of the director who conceived it as a patriotic and romantic movie), will clearly show that they make religious, patriotic, and social demands in almost equal proportions, similarly to the far left who call for regulated food prices and state (public) ownership of large companies and natural resources. Orthodox conservatives claim that life was better in the Soviet Union (“Even believers remember the Soviet Union with admiration,” says the head of Christian State one of the newly-created radical organizations), and their public ideal can be described quite accurately as the Soviet Union with an Orthodox faith, instead of Marxist ideology—a far right one in terms of values, but far left in economic policy. Conservative fundamentalists are so worked up that they can present a real challenge to the Russian authorities who have made a conservative turn, but to the rest of the world the latter look no different from the former since they propose a similar social protection project and fight against the global “Mathilde” in much the same way.  

By placing Vladimir Putin in the category of winning dissidents, Stone gives him the kind of recognition he has long desired: You call me a dictator, but I am a dissident, a rebellious liberator; you just need to take a broader look and not turn your eyes away; the U.S. democracy is the real global dictatorship, liberal inside, but authoritative on the outside, which aggressively erodes values. Real propaganda does not come from Russia Today or Iran’s FARS (whoever reads it), but from all the English-language mass media; not from modest Russian funding, bits of which go to Russia’s foreign friends, but overpowering and endless American cash flows. Therefore, it is not surprising that under these circumstances the rebel has to use disguise, demand discipline in his ranks, punish traitors, and require respect for democratic centralism. For the same reason the rebel believes that he has every right to authorize clandestine operations, hacking, or liquidation, and disseminate propaganda—the tactic audacious revolutionaries use in their struggle against the omnipotent regime, the same at all times, regardless of whether the revolutionary is people or a whole country with its own omnipotent government.   

There is a rational basis for this view. The status of troublemaker and disturber of the world order is not bestowed upon countries that can hardly be called free, whose political systems are a far cry from the American one, and which are unable to maintain order and provide a minimally decent quality of life. On the first count, Arab monarchies and Asian (and previously Latin American) dictatorships friendly to the West obviously outdo their opponents; and most African countries and even India leave them behind on the second count. This status is ascribed to those who make important political decisions without consulting the West, who export ideologies other than those approved by the West, and especially to those who urge others to seek their advice, thus dangerously increasing the number of global decision-making centers.   

One’s own worst ememy

Rejected by the Western security system and not receiving the global respect he felt he deserved, Putin was gradually drawn into the revolt against the global establishment. Russia wanted to become an equal partner in global affairs with visa-free travel. Yet the West kept in place unspoken restrictions on Russian investment in the Western economy and did not drop plans to build anti-missile systems and enlarge NATO. As a result, Putin drifted towards Western anti-elitists as his natural allies in the struggle for justice. When Western anti-elitism forces began to rise and seek power, it looked as if they were doing so in alliance with Putin or even because of him.     

However, Putin himself has fallen victim to global anti-elitism. He is a revolutionary to the outside world, but in Russia he is a member of the elite against which his allies are revolting in other countries. While Western intellectuals see Putin at the forefront of the global struggle against the world establishment, at home he is experiencing as much pressure as Western elites are in their own countries. The rebel seeks the storm outside, but finds it inside his country. And so opposition leader Alexei Navalny starts a youth revolt against the elite, and young Occupy Wall Street protesters, so much lauded by RT as an example for their Russian peers to follow, fill Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street with virtually the same slogans. Radical Orthodox activists, who have been patiently raised by the Kremlin after the populist maneuver in 2011-2013 (when it fought with Moscow’s disloyal middle class and started to look for support among ordinary people) in order to have a counterbalance to liberals and stay at the center, are attacking, almost openly, system liberals appointed by Putin and testing his resistance to opportunism and commitment to the declared ideology.  

Putin’s main opponent in recent months is exemplary anti-elitist Alexei Navalny, who has been deftly avoiding, just like Putin himself, “right-left,” “internationalist-imperialist,” or “liberal-conservative” dual definitions. But the “corruption” and “corrupt officials” (undoubtedly quite real and numerous in Russia) he blasts are as synonymous with the elite and “the unfair system” as the one percent who control everything are for Occupy Wall Street protesters.

A hole from the future

Russia’s international dissidence is a fact. America is offering a monastic, cenobitic anti-utopia to the world: Give up your foreign policy ambitions, curb your will, obey your superior, and be happy. The problem is the subject-matter of the Russian revolt. Seemingly at its core are a draft and a void similar to the emptiness behind the façade of a palace erected on a theatrical stage with neither rooms, nor staircases, nor people inside.         

Revolting against being the subject of someone else’s benefaction and struggling for the right to have a choice is an old and praiseworthy story. But as is always the case with revolutions, there is a clear “against,” but there is no clarity about the “for”—the “image of the future” that the government has created entire new departments to build.  

To cut a long story short, Putin’s project, including that of the collective global Putin, is about stopping time. He wants to halt the entire movement at once—holding off a world of children from three parents, families of two or more people of any sex, Google glasses projecting images directly onto the retina, steaks grown from stem cells, female priests and rabbis, a satellite Wi-Fi connection stemming straight from the brain, socialized transparent state sovereignty, mutual Lancastrian education, and many other more or less fictional surprises the future has in store.

Revolution as conservation

In this respect, Putin’s project is indeed quite revolutionary and not contradictory. The future will bring new inequality, and while some are quick to adapt, others are not. When the economy, technology, politics, and culture outrun social constructs, revolutionaries arise. In responding to public concerns, revolutionaries promise to restrain the balky future to satisfy everyone and restore the comfortable state of justice and equality. It is necessary to either bring back the old or storm, seize, and process the new in order to take it under control rather than letting it control us.    

Practically any revolution combines progressive experiments with conservative results. The Bolshevik revolution restored communal land ownership and absolutism. The Maoist revolutions in China and Cambodia drove people to the countryside. The Mexican revolution of 1810 began with discontent over a ban on the Jesuits and their schools. The Hungarian revolution of 1848 broke out in response to the overly enlightened Habsburgs’ attempt to impose equality between the Hungarian nobility and other estates. The Polish Solidarity movement, just like the labor strike in Russia’s Novocherkassk, was the result of public protests against price rises in 1979. The left-wing Burmese officers decided that people would be happy in the countryside and delayed industrialization for decades. The Iranian Islamic revolution was a revolution of the bazaar against the supermarket. Soviet perestroika was underlain by nostalgia for the Silver Age, the Russia we had lost, and the emperor’s ride through Kostroma. The Arab Spring was fueled by religious concerns, Eastern Europe’s move towards the West was inspired by nationalist sentiments, and both were on the forefront of modernity. The latest revolutions include Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, Emmanuel Macron’s rapid rise outside the parties, the crusade against the film Mathilde, and Navalny’s nationwide appeal to young Russians.   

Russia’s problem is that the ruling bureaucracy has become detached from reality; it no longer effectively conveys signals up and down, and lives for itself. For many Americans, the estrangement of the ruling class from society means engagement in some kind of obscure global mission. If one reads what American intellectuals say in the press, he will certainly think that they have no more important concerns than maintaining the world order established a quarter of a century ago, while American voters with more narrow views have more concerns than they can handle.

We are living in a time when the vanguard of humanity has gone too far ahead and can be suspected of treason. There is tension between development leaders and all others, while politicians have appeared who volunteer to defuse this tension for the benefit of the majority. They claim that they will stop those who have gone too far ahead, hold them accountable, put everything the way it was, and the world will become clearer. The ethnically motivated incorporation of territories, which was the last drop in relations between the West and Russia, is also a return to European fundamentals, while banning it is a doubtful novelty. In fact, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia two hundred years ago was applauded, but why is it now considered a disgrace? The incorporation of Rome into Italy, Alsace into France, and Crete into Greece is still loudly acclaimed in the history of those countries. And so if Russia is criticized for what was a praiseworthy norm in the past (when all were angry but knew they would do the same), that norm allowing territorial expansion must be brought back. Furthermore, when this norm was in effect, Russia was among the world leaders. Was this not the reason for its leading positions?

The Russian rebellion is not unique. If we are not invited to join the current leaders, we will step aside and start bullying them. Iran and the Arab world have long been entertaining such sentiments. Now they have been joined by Turkey and India, Poland and Hungary, the U.S. and Britain, and each in its own way. Let there be old good England—brick factories and smoking chimneys, the yellow Thames as a symbol of economic power—the Europe of the nineteenth century, where sovereign great powers could work out an agreement among themselves. Let us go back to the old Europe without Muslims, Arabs, or Poles, and to old Russia with Kiev as the mother of Russian cities. Let us bring the elites back under people’s control in our own country.

Resistance and expansion

The reaction to Russia’s global revolt seems exaggerated. Russia has been blamed for engaging in subversive activities from the Philippines to the U.S. and having had a finger in all the bad things that happen in the world. This is really ludicrous as Russia does not have such resources. But what if it had them? What if it had the strongest army in the world, the biggest economy, the most advanced technologies, and half the world spoke its language and used its currency? Would Russia be acting in a more restrained manner than the U.S. is doing now? Would it demand equality and a multipolar world? Would it recognize other countries’ international legal personality? What conclusions can one draw from Russia’s current behavior, at least in its own vicinities? And what would Russia offer the world if it became super powerful?

These concerns are based on good intuition. What makes local projects to restore the past so dangerous is that they tend to grow into global ones fairly quickly. A government that is building socialism in a certain territory is well aware that it could benefit from a world revolution. If a world revolution is not possible, then let it happen in a critical number of countries. If it cannot occur all by itself, it must be helped. Otherwise, if this government is wrong, the rest of the world will outrun and crush it as it did before. This expands dissident projects, creates axes and internationals, and encourages the search for allies and weak spots in the global majority (Historically, the spread of democracy started as a self-defense of global dissidents among the first democracies against the global non-democratic majority.)

A conservative nationalist, a racialist, and an advocate of religious or class supremacy would like the principles upon which their states are built to spread to as many countries as possible. Those who want to bring back good old Germany with craftsmen instead of soulless industrial assembly lines, the sterling gold coin of the realm instead of bouncing market quotations, France with real border-marking poles or Russia with ambitious government-financed construction projects instead of doubtful private enterprises intuitively understand that once all that is back, they will start falling behind. So in order to keep up, they must win the rest of the world. This is why all revolutionaries are so inclined towards expansion. 

Any global dissident or revolutionary is always expansionist, especially in the early stages. In fact, if a revolutionary steps aside or botches an experiment in a remote territory, others will outrun him and his failure will be hard to hide. Even Russia’s current relatively peaceful revolt has led to attempts to create a conservative international. 

The opponents of our dissidence are confused not only by the revolt as such, but also by the inevitability of expansion (a revolutionary needs a revolutionary party). This has generated all kinds of bizarre speculations that Russia is the main enemy of the liberal world order and a threat worse than ISIS, banned as a terrorist organization, even though ISIS is an extreme form of rebellion, with the same propensity for internationalization. So how can there be anything worse?      

Our critics are right. As a dissident-expansionist, Russia, like any revolutionary, is prepared to face greater risks and inconveniencies than its opponents from the world establishment. Subsequently, this makes it stronger. But there is some pretense in these interpretations at this point because Putin might not have been the main threat to the liberal world order, but an embodiment of revolt. However now it is President Trump who is playing this role. 

The system was not prepared for such a stumble, when the country leading the present world order is led by an opponent of that order. This explains attempts to see Putin behind Trump, even though the Russian president’s practical dangerousness has always been limited by Russia’s modest possibilities. Now Putin’s role has been undermined by his long term in office and the looming transitional period.

A second hegemon

In his UN remarks, Trump lashed out at those who endanger sovereignty and said other things agreeable to Russia, but, partly blocked by his own political class at home, he spoke not so much for the entire Western world as its authorized representative as for himself. And yet, while protecting the idea of sovereignty and expounding the benefits of cooperation between governments, which prioritize national interests (the concept of cooperation between political nationalisms is almost identical to the Russian program), Trump has made it clear that Ukrainian sovereignty is no less important for him than Russian sovereignty.   

Problems with Russia’s membership in the elite club stem from the difference in understanding how this club is organized. To use an economic analogy, Russia understands the club as a global board of directors who act behind the backs of other countries or even openly in defiance of all conventions, to approve merges, acquisitions, or market delimitation plans. At a minimum Russia sees itself as the holder of a blocking stake (which matches its position in the UN). Russia is a member of the concert of powers, each of which enjoys full internal and external sovereignty impenetrable to others. Inside the country, each one exercises full authority and acts by the “what I do is nobody’s business” principle. In international relations each member of the concert of powers is independent and can freely create or break up groups with other partners on the basis of concrete interests rather than abstract values.    

This does not look like an orchestra where the numerous instruments obey the conductor, but more like a chamber ensemble—or better still a quintet or a quartet which is not playing by note, but is improvising and observing only very general rules. But while espousing old traditions, Russia is in actual fact dreaming of something like a jazz band.   

As it aspires to join the elite world club of equal sovereigns, Russia cannot but notice an important fact that no such club actually exists. The simple reason is that the club’s membership is conditioned on mutual transparency and permeability of sovereignties and correlation of sovereign actions with the values understood as the red lines in what one says and does, primarily inside member countries (outside national borders they may be less restrained due to the absence of global democratic institutions, but not completely free, and authoritative foreign policy activities will require liberal explanations). Even the biggest world powers like China cannot convert their power and splendor into membership in the classic world elite unless they agree to the permeability of their sovereignty (in the form of an external audit of their internal affairs). So the strongest are recognized as such, yet remain strangers.

While prior to Trump’s victory one could speak about the national sovereignties of other members of the world elite being made transparent to inspection by the U.S., which itself remained closed to others, preferring to trade its exclusive position for military protection (the world soldier has the right to military secrets), now this openness appears to be more mutual than before. The American intellectual and political class is ready to deny its own non-system and wrong president the right to be called the leader of the free world and, teaming up with other major market democracies, is trying to topple him and voluntarily ceding symbolic leadership to the EU and Angela Merkel’s Germany.  

Aspiring to join the club of world democracies, Russia with its completely obscure sovereignty is seeking to be more equal than its other members, actually the only equal one. Before Trump it looked like efforts to build a bipolar world and be a second equal power. But after the U.S. political class denied its own president the right to be the leader of the liberal world order, this looks like a claim for exclusiveness, which clearly no one will support. In fact, Russia makes its own sovereignty completely obscure and impenetrable to the outside world, while demanding openness from others. The Russian government cannot but see this contradiction and is trying to resolve it in two ways.

The first is to call powerful countries that have impenetrable sovereignty the real world elite and organize them into a new global board of directors, measured as a percentage of the world’s population or territory. BRICS or SCO countries account for such and such percentage of the world’s population, such and such territory, and such and such share in global output. The problem with this approach is that members of these new clubs are sovereign in the way Russia understands sovereignty (although Brazil does not seem ready to oppose the U.S. with complete impenetrability), but clearly do not hold the majority of voting shares to govern the world, while Western shareholders have not been invited to join the new clubs and are not actually eager to be there. 

The second way is to remind members of the Western club about bygone greatness and lost sovereignty (the Europe we have lost), bring back old senses, invite the West to go ahead into the past, and then disappear.

If Russia is not treated as equal because of its outdated understanding of sovereignty, then all the others have to be made outdated too, its own concept of sovereignty has to be extended to them, and the problem will be gone.  

Hopes are sustained by the fact that the process of total socialization of national sovereignties, just like the socialization of women and children in left-wing utopias of the twentieth century, has stopped and begun to turn around. Brexit, Trump, the various new right in Western Europe, and national conservative governments in Eastern Europe clearly indicate that millions are probably still ready to hobnob, but only above national barriers, not without them. The left and especially the right wing of the anti-globalization movement and the return of Western nationalisms have been read in Russia as a complete U-turn and unending nostalgia among the people for full national sovereignty. On this basis, Russia started building a national idea inside the country and a foreign policy doctrine outside it. 

Putin’s anti-elitism is neither right nor left, rather it is pro-nation. His only goal is not the substance but the form, not the result but the process. Putin is trying to make Russia’s sovereignty impenetrable, not in order to carry out radical left-wing anti-market reforms like the Bolsheviks or Hugo Chavez’s followers did, or build an ultra-conservative Orthodox Iran. His goal is to try to do what he deems right, what he thinks could be useful in the country or on its fringes regarded as the shelf of Russia’s sovereign space, without being accountable to anyone or even allowing the thought of an external audit, moreover, ruling out any accountability entirely. Inside this sovereign space he will make rightist or leftist statements, carry out market and dirigiste measures, nationalize and privatize, appoint conservative ideologists or liberal pragmatists to key positions, prosecute Westernizers and nationalists, and exercise unlimited and unchallenged sovereignty. Those who can do the same are equal. Those who cannot have given up their principles and need to be pitying and censuring, or maybe even ridiculing in the way Ivan the Terrible did when he wrote to Queen Elizabeth of England: What kind of queen are you if you need to ask your subjects?  

 In this scheme of things equality is understood not as some universal principle (all states are equal), but as a privilege available only to a handful of countries, which must be earned or seized. The fact that North Korea is seizing equality now for itself in line with Russia’s understanding, albeit against its will, does not seem to discourage it.

 The current situation, where, as Putin sees it, there are only a few countries in the world that have full sovereignty, will not change in the perfect future pictured by Russia, but Russia will be recognized by all others as one of the few equals, that is, one of the hegemons. According to Putin, there is only one country in the Western club that has full sovereignty and is more equal than others—the United States. All other fully sovereign states are not in the club. By insisting on relations with Western countries based on equality, understood as a privilege, and full sovereignty, Russia basically wants to become a second hegemon among them, a second America, a goal that is impossible to achieve.    

But historical memory fails Russia even here. At the time of the concert of equal powers, something Russia remembers with such deep nostalgia, foreign governments and newspapers often slammed it because of Polish and Jewish issues, language policy, serfdom, and the absence of freedoms and modern civil institutions, just as other members of the concert were criticized for their own sins like slavery, colonial policy, racial segregation, suppression of revolts in colonies, women’s rights, etc. The Old World also saw humanitarian interventions involving Russia (to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire) and regime change (Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe).  

The Westphalian system, where every ruler determined faith in his country, could never solve other issues and certainly will not do so now. 

At the main entrance

Oliver Stone said in an interview about his film that there was no other world leader who could match Putin in terms of experience. When asked how Putin looks at Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, or Boris Johnson, I often say: As an experienced master looks at a novice. But his long term of office is beginning to work against the rebellious president: our mutineer has been in power longer than any of the kings. A perpetual revolutionary, just like a perpetual student, is always a little bit funny. 

Putin’s revolutionism and Russia’s dissidence are nonsense. Donald Trump is a member of a closed prestigious club through his birth and citizenship, just as Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron are. Trump’s desire to shake up the indolent bunch, raise the dusty curtains, wash the windows, and kick out the managers is quite natural for him. But Russia, on the contrary, wants to join this club with its dusty curtains, bold livery-servants, and slow old manager. This is not about fighting for a new world order, but about joining the old one. And if there is less and less of the old order, it must be brought back so that the efforts to join it were not made in vain.  

Russia’s dissidence is more the form than the substance, a function of its relative weakness, just as the conservative revolt program announced by its leadership is not so much a deep conviction as something done to the contrary. If the global liberal were against collective farms, Putin could have protected them, just as protectionist China has suddenly become the guardian of the global economy after the U.S pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, and Xi Jinping goes to Davos as a key figure instead of Donald Trump.

The revolutionism of Putin and Russia is a shell, a mathematical operation negating the negation, the purpose of which is not to reject the establishment, but to become part of it. Yet Russia is trying to become part of what does not exist. Its attempts are accepted inside the country as the struggle for justice, but outside Russia they look like a senseless revolt. Russia’s only hope is that the West is growing weaker and will shield itself from increasingly strong outside winds. Judging by the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, the West has already started drifting away from the liberal economic order and might start insisting on impenetrable and unlimited national sovereignties, and the last will become first. But do not join in the queue now.

This article was originally published in the Russia in Global Affairs journal