Vladimir Putin began his political career claiming to champion democracy. That was how he persuaded Yeltsin to appoint him his successor. Putin saw himself as the only person who could fill the position of the purely innocent redeemer. Putin started off by discrediting democracy and its institutions. As timothy Snyder said,
“In discrediting democratic elections in 2011 and 2012, Vladimir Putin took on the mantle of the heroic redeemer and placed his country on the horns of Ilyin’s dilemma. No one can change Russia for the better so long as he lives, and no one in Russia knows what will happen when he dies.”
The Soviet Union started out as a world revolution that failed. After the collapse of Communism Russia, established a constitutional republic, legitimated by democracy. It would have a parliament with free elections. All of that was on paper. But in Russia paper rarely matters.
Ivan Ilyin had thought that when the Soviet Union collapsed it would be replaced by a fascist dictatorship. What else would a Christian fascist propose? Although his ideas did nothing after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the oligarchs thought his ideas might be useful. Ilyin had thought a pure redeemer would emerge from a realm of fiction and act from a spirit of totality—i.e. the totality of Russia. The pure redeemer for the pure nation. That miracle never happened, yet, as Timothy Snyder explained,
“Yet a feat of scenography by skilled propagandists (or, in the Russian phrase, “political technologists” might create the appearance of such an earthly miracle. The myth of a redeemer would have to be founded on lies so enormous that they could not be doubted, because doubting them would mean doubting everything.”
This is the fundamental insight of the autocrat. It was endorsed by Hitler then Putin and later Trump. A big lie could usher in big power. As Snyder said,
“It was not so much elections as fictions that allowed a transition of power a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Then Ilyin and Putin rose together, the philosopher and the politician of fiction.“
Sadly, democracy never took hold in Russia. Power never changed hands after an election. This is exactly what Trump tried in 2020, but he failed, because the US had enough democratic institutions with enough believers in democracy to thwart his grab for power, but this apparent stability seems more illusory than real.
Ivan Ilyin did not foresee one development of the transfer of power in Russia, namely, that the extremely wealthy would choose Russia’s redeemer. Snyder described that scramble for power this way:
“The wealthy few around Yeltsin, christened the “oligarchs” wished to manage democracy in his favor and theirs. The end of Soviet economic planning created a violent rush for profitable industries and resources and inspired arbitrage schemes, quickly creating a new class of wealthy men. Wild privatization was not all the same thing as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood. Markets require the rule of law, which was the most demanding aspect of the post-Soviet transformation. Americans, taking the rule of law for granted, could fantasize that markets would create the necessary institutions. This was an error. It mattered whether newly independent states established the rule of law, and above all whether they managed a legal transition of power through free elections.”
The western countries, led by the GeorgeH.W. Bush regime was incredibly naïve about this. Putin was not. The redeemer was far from innocent. And as a result everyone was left with a mess. And now we are all paying a hefty price for that.