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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thank You Comrade Putin

Members of the older generation still remember a poster with a picture of a joyful teenager and the words: "Thank you for a happy childhood, Comrade Stalin!"

Today I'd like to thank President Vladimir Putin. Not because I want to compare him with Stalin -- that would be unfair to all involved. And not because when I watch official television news reports I inevitably recall my own Soviet childhood. It's just that the current leadership has forced me to experience that same happiness on several occasions. For that, naturally, I am thankful.

So what exactly do I thank Putin for? Firstly, for the death-blow he has dealt to the ideology of Great Russian nationalism. During the Boris Yeltsin years, when the looting of Russia was taking place in the name of "returning to the bosom of European civilization," nationalist ideas came to look more and more attractive. Many perceived the social contradictions created by neo-liberal economics as the result of "Western influence." And the part of society most susceptible to this view was also most heartened by Putin's accession to power.

The past two years have shown, however, that no matter how many patriotic speeches are made, the contradictions in Russian society remain just as glaring as ever. Talk of "the rebirth of the army" produced only further decline. After the horror of Sept. 11, the "nationalist" Putin made concessions to the United States that would never have even occurred to the "Westernizer" Yeltsin. Nationalism today is as discredited as "zapadnichestvo," or Westernism. For that I'd like to thank Mr. Putin.

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The second achievement of the Putin era is the end of the "communist menace." The policies of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led since 1993 by Gennady Zyuganov, have obviously failed. These policies combined day-to-day appeasement with aggressive rhetoric. The party was relatively sure of itself so long as the Kremlin assigned it the dual role of "honorable opposition" and terrible scarecrow. Everyone knows that scarecrows don't scare the farmer, they scare off pesky birds and other bird-brained beings. It has to be said, however, that the game of "liberal government vs. communist opposition" worked exceedingly well throughout the Yeltsin years.

Only with Putin's arrival did the rules of the game change. The new Kremlin guard simply has no inkling of why an opposition might be necessary, and as a result they make less and less of an effort to maintain the irreconcilable opposition's image and material well-being.

The opposition, in turn, seems ready to resume a principled fight with the anti-popular regime, but has already forgotten how to go about it. Not to mention that its slogans, put to effective use over the past 10 years, no longer work. The ruling elite has co-opted the language of the nationalists and communists and put it to use to justify its neo-liberal line.

By undermining the Communist Party's position, Putin scored a third success: He eradicated popular anti-communism. The anti-communist mood once so widespread -- and not only among the intelligentsia in the two capitals -- enabled the new regime to justify all sorts of outrages by warning of a return to the past. Sure, stealing is a bad thing, education is in decline, science is in free fall and the living standards of most Russians have plummeted. You don't want to go back to the totalitarian past, do you? If not, then reconcile yourself to what's happening and have some patience. Hope for the best and sit tight.

The political cul-de-sac into which Putin led the Communist Party obviates all that. The "return of totalitarianism" turned out to be a myth. In hindsight it's obvious that no one voted for "the future of Russia" in 1996, because the election was a farce from the outset, and the result fixed well in advance.

As anti-communist fears subside, social discontent gains the capacity for greater expression. Society now has the chance to express its views about the present without looking back to the past. And to demand change. If this process precipitates a rise of the left, at least the nation's collective psyche will be much healthier.

It's clear to everyone by now that the threat of authoritarianism issues not from old women carrying portraits of Stalin, but from the energetic Kremlin functionaries who have received the full backing of their Western buddies for their "nationalist oriented" policies.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.