The story goes that in the 1990s the Russian people finally tried to give up their deep-seated cultural (perhaps, as the story would have it, even biological) need to submit to an autarch and embraced capitalism and democracy. But it didn’t take: according to this narrative, Russian hardware simply could not run the software of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham. Instead of democracy, Russia embraced Putin; instead of equality, Russia embraced oligarchy; instead of property, Russia embraced State Owned Enterprises; and instead of Bentham, it embraced Aleksandr Dugin (eventually).
This tale conceals the fact that the situation we are in today is precisely the consequence of the post-Soviet contradiction of liberalism. Russia was meant to embrace both democracy and market reforms. Where the former came into conflict with the latter, it was met with tanks. Putin did not shell the Russian parliament in 1993. Boris Yeltsin did, with enthusiastic cheers from the western powers. Putin did not break from the politics of the Yeltsin period. He preserved, maintained, and expanded them. The situation was made palatable by high energy prices on the world market combined with effective scapegoating of Muslim terrorists, Jewish oligarchs, and ominous gay pride parades. The lauded State Owned Enterprises were not nationalizations of the commanding heights of the economy but rather, run-of-the-mill public-private neoliberal reforms common to most oil- and gas-rich states.
It was not a deep-seated flaw in the Russian soul that brought this about; it was the Russian ruling class who, with support from the Western powers, drowned in blood the democratic dreams of the Russian masses. In 2001, the ever-eloquent literary master Thomas Friedman exhorted readers in the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin” and extolled Putin’s “meek” acceptance of a series of slaps to Moscow’s face. This list included NATO expansion, the lack of debt relief, and a refusal to continue the process of mutual nuclear disarmament. Thus, the writers and readers of the paper of record for the U.S. ruling class seemed perfectly aware that Washington was engaging in an abusive relationship with its former rival, but remained confident that enough McDonald’s franchises could be opened to make the cruelties of authoritarian capitalism palatable. Young Russians, Friedman insisted, “wanted to get rich the Chinese way, by making things, not the old Russian way, by taking things….”