Putin’s Drive To Make Russia The Opposite Of America

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Vladimir Putin’s determination to make Russia the opposite of America has not done Russian citizens any favors. Scholars can debate whether this drive has been out of self-interest or disdain for the West. Recent events, including Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and march toward Moscow, show Russia today is more unstable and less free than in many years.

The Opposite Of The Bill Of Rights

In most countries, globalization has meant choosing the best that other nations have to offer and incorporating it into their culture, society and economy. However, Vladimir Putin has seemed determined to prevent the best elements of America from taking hold in Russia, which the country’s human rights groups say has harmed its citizens.

Natan Sharansky, a prominent dissident imprisoned during Soviet times, believes the repression in Russia under Putin is worse than when Sharansky lived in the Soviet Union. “Nearly half a century later, with Moscow’s barbaric aggression against Ukraine, Russia has experienced a quick return to almost Stalinist-era levels of repression,” writes Sharansky, who now lives in Israel. “New laws have made it impossible for the free press and human rights organizations to operate.”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government to redress grievances. Other amendments guarantee the right to fair trials and against unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishments.

Russian news media cannot operate independently today without fear the government will close their outlets and arrest their journalists. That made gaining accurate information about Prigozhin’s recent actions more challenging for Russians and foreigners.

“Over the past year, Russia has charged 482 people under new wartime censorship laws rushed through in the days immediately after the invasion began in February 2022,” according to the Financial Times. “It has jailed 136 of them. The crackdown has essentially crushed dissent in Russia—defined under the law as anything deviating from the Kremlin’s official line—prompting hundreds of activists and independent journalists to flee the country.”

Criticizing the war or the government in meaningful ways has become impossible in Russia (Prigozhin excepted), as evidenced by the unusual punishments of Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza. In 2020, the Russian government poisoned Navalny, an outspoken critic of Putin and corruption among Putin-appointed officials. Upon returning to Russia after life-saving medical treatment, authorities arrested and imprisoned Navalny on questionable charges that could lead to life imprisonment. The Russian government convicted Kara-Murza, a columnist for Washington Post Opinions and a lawful permanent resident of the United States, of treason for delivering speeches that described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Analysts have noted the Russian government’s double standard. Syracuse University Prof. Brian D. Taylor pointed out Putin labeled Yevgeny Prigozhin’s actions “treason,” yet the Russian government announced the Wagner group leader would face no criminal charges. “Meanwhile, peacefully speaking out for democracy [in Russia] and against the war can get you 25 years,” said Taylor.

1984 Comes To Russia

Another way Vladimir Putin has returned Russia to the days of the Soviet Union is by encouraging citizens to inform on each other. “Parishioners have denounced Russian priests who advocated peace instead of victory in the war on Ukraine,” reports the Washington Post. “Teachers lost their jobs after children tattled that they opposed the war. Neighbors who bore some trivial grudge for years have snitched on longtime foes. Workers rat on one another to their bosses or directly to the police or the FSB, the Federal Security Service.

“This is the hostile, paranoid atmosphere of Russians at war with Ukraine and with one another. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime cracks down on critics of the war and other political dissenters, citizens are policing one another in an echo of the darkest years of Joseph Stalin’s repression, triggering investigations, criminal charges, prosecutions and dismissals from work.

“Private conversations in restaurants and rail cars are fair game for eavesdroppers, who call police to arrest ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies.’ Social media posts, and messages—even in private chat groups—become incriminating evidence that can lead to a knock on the door by FSB agents.”

In 2022, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was “the most popular fiction download,” according to the Russian online bookseller LitRes.

“I was born in 1975 and remember the repression that was in the Soviet Union,” said pianist Polina Osetinskaya, who has spoken out against the war, in an interview with the New York Times. “And I have a feeling like I’m back in this time. And that’s what makes me so sad. We have so many opportunities to grow, to be a part of a world community, and instead we’re still repeating our own story, and it’s not the best pages of our story. Right now, I’m playing private concerts in Moscow because big halls are closed for me. I truly hope that I won’t be put in jail for my views and opinions.”

While Russian officials have accused critics of “Russophobia,” many professors and others in the West have studied Russia and the language because they loved the culture, history and people. When they have criticized Putin or the Russian government’s actions, it’s because they wanted what is best for the Russian people and those living in countries near Russia: freedom, human rights and opportunity.

“I can separate Russia—my country, my homeland, the beautiful people who live there—from the government and from the people who are making decisions,” said Osetinskaya.

Russian Citizens And Dictatorship

Likely the most significant way in which Vladimir Putin has made Russia the opposite of the United States is by centralizing so much authority in his hands. Congress, the courts and the U.S. Constitution constrain an American president’s power. A U.S. president can be voted out of office, is limited to two terms and can be impeached and removed.

Since Boris Yeltsin handed Putin the reins of power in 1999, he has not relinquished it, despite a brief change in position from president to prime minister to president several years ago. Elections in Russia have been arranged to ensure Putin’s victories. The government eliminated viable opposition candidates through disqualification, imprisonment or other means.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s arrest in March 2023 is intertwined with two long-term trends in Russia, according to Catholic University Professor Michael Kimmage. “The first is Mr. Putin’s arrival at unmitigated dictatorship,” writes Kimmage. “Today, the Putinist social contract is clear: People in Russia will be left alone by the state only if they do not meaningfully contest the government’s good reputation or decision-making, which is what bona fide journalism does almost by definition. The second trend is the establishment of a lawless foreign policy, in which the autocrat can rewrite the rules of the international order with impunity.”

Russian expert Mark Galeotti, author of We Need To Talk About Putin, viewed the arrest of Evan Gershkovich as a turning point. He believes Russia “is tiptoeing closer to a kind of ‘North Koreanisation.’” Galeotti writes, “This is hardly the kind of country most Russians want for themselves, but the more Putinism becomes Juche-with-Russian-characteristics, to invoke North Korea’s ideology of isolation and self-reliance, the wider the gap may grow between Putin and his people, who will be able to do less and less about it.”

Commenting on Prigozhin’s mutiny and Putin’s failure to prevent it or punish the Wagner leader, Galeotti writes, “This was a devastating indictment of Putin’s system, and Putin himself.”

Vladimir Putin may be weakened, but he still wields power. Putin “has jettisoned any remnants of the rule of law” in Russia in an effort to achieve his aims in Ukraine, according to the Washington Post’s Catherine Belton and Robyn Dixon. Vladimir Putin may see making Russia the opposite of America as an achievement, but the results for Russian citizens have been an isolated country, an unnecessary war and less freedom.

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