“The…takeover of all levers of power meant the population had been alienated from the political process….they were content to let the [state] monopolize political and economic decision-making, as long as it didn’t intrude on their own lives.” – Masha Lipman, Russian political analyst
I just finished reading a book called Putin’s People, which was published in April of 2020. The author is Catherine Belton, a British journalist who has been following Vladimir Putin’s rise to power for the last 20 years. It was a real slog, since it has to do with financial crimes like money-laundering, off-shore accounts, and corrupt, tangled relationships too complicated for my linear mind to grasp. Here’s what I do get: the old KGB (the spy agency, later called the FSB, and now the SVR), Soviet-era oligarchs, and Russian mafia had a contentious but profitable relationship in creating a shadow economy before the collapse of the Soviet Union and were aware it was about to implode in the early ’90s. The KGB was already infiltrating corporations and banks in the West in the ’80s and ’90s, so it was easy to start funneling dark money offshore to protect their assets. Attempts to create democracy in Russia in the ’90s failed because there was no real framework for it. Boris Yeltsin believed in democracy and capitalism, but he was so entangled with the oligarchs, and Russian institutions were so corrupt, the economy fell apart.
Putin stepped into the power vacuum, claiming to believe in capitalism and democracy (as a KGB official, he’d lied for a living for years) and convincing Yeltsin to hand him the presidency. He already knew that Western capitalists are easily corruptible, and that because they’ve become so cozy with politicians throughout Europe and the US, this was the best path to weaken the European Union and NATO and allow him to gather the kind of power he needed to realize his dream of leading a new Russian empire. When a couple of his people discovered Donald Trump at one of his casinos in New Jersey in the mid-’90s, they could hardly believe their luck. He was already vain, greedy, and corrupt, and shady real estate deals were perfect for offshore money laundering. There are many dots to connect after that, including the proposed Moscow Trump Tower; Trump’s betrayal of American intelligence about Russian cyber-attacks, embracing Putin’s denials; attempted corruption of Vladimir Zelensky (for Putin, annexation of Ukraine is the key to empire); Brexit, and all Trump’s beefing with NATO. All these pieces and more were in place to realize Putin’s ambitions. Belton didn’t make predictions about the 2020 election, but my own take is that when Trump lost, Putin’s dreams of acquiring empire by grift and subversion dissolved, so there was no choice but to invade Ukraine.
But how do we know this isn’t just left-wing propaganda? We have dear Russian friends we’ve known since the late ’90s who alerted us back then that the “same thieves,” as one of them said, were still in charge in Russia. My husband had the pleasure of visiting them as part of a teacher-student exchange program and being wrapped in their uniquely Russian warmth. Their hearts are broken that their beloved country is now responsible for the devastation in Ukraine and the misery at home. They liken it to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Resources are dwindling; their children have fled the country with their families; thousands of young men are returning home in body bags; everything feels uncertain. Knowing their dictator as they do, his threats of nuclear warfare feel very immediate.
Why should Americans care about these things? Because Putin’s corrupt money didn’t evaporate when Trump lost the election. It’s here (and in off-shore accounts), funding American hate groups, corporatists, and useful idiots who are still playing a big role in our politics. Because everyone who has ever supported the Big Lie; who excuses, denies, or takes enjoyment from fascistic attacks like Jan. 6, the attempted kidnapping of a duly elected Governor, the attack on Speaker Pelosi’s husband, and the innumerable threats against public servants and elected officials at all levels, is playing by the dictators’ handbook. Everyone who supports “I alone can fix this” Trumpism, forsaking every value except blind loyalty to a single man, is playing into the hands of a career criminal.
Americans must recognize the characteristic of authoritarianism and reject anyone who has ever espoused, condoned, or denied the peril they pose. Those who blame the least powerful and most marginalized groups–immigrants, religious minorities, racial minorities, lower-income residents, the LGBTQ+ community–for economic and social ills are covering for the powerful kleptocrats who steal public money to enrich themselves. Those who deny or excuse politically motivated violence aren’t interested in our safety, but in the opportunity to seize more power. Those who say the answer to shortcomings in our common institutions is to abandon and gut them don’t love our Constitutional republic or the democratic processes it depends on.
Free Staters and their allies and enablers are OK with this. Some were even at the Capitol on 1/6/21. Don Bolduc was a vociferous purveyor of the Big Lie, and he has Governor Sununu’s endorsement. Sununu just laughs off Bolduc’s parroting of the latest outlandish transphobic conspiracy theories. He’s even brushed off the seriousness of the attack at the Pelosi home by echoing Trump’s appalling “both sides do it” answer to the hate-fueled, deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. No, Governor. No, they don’t. Most of us believe in the Constitution, the peaceful transfer of power, and doing the hard work required of democracy, instead of handing it all over to those with the most money, biggest guns, and fewest scruples. We mourn for Russia, and we can use their experience as a cautionary tale. We can reject lies, propaganda, corruption, and violence, and show the world that only democracy can preserve, protect, and defend democracy. Next Tuesday, November 8th, is Election Day. Let’s use it wisely.
[For more insight into the rise of Putin and his connections in the West, I recommend Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s 2012 book, “The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”]
Jean Lewandowski is a resident of Nashua.