Inside Story

Russia’s war with the future

Underlying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are existential fears of democracy, diversity, sustainability and the decline of patriarchy

Jon Richardson Books 4 July 2023 2911 words

Unholy alliance: an Easter 2023 photo of Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral issued by the Moscow and All Russia Patriarch Press Service. Oleg Varov via AP

What links Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutinous March on Moscow, climate denialism, the Nord Stream pipeline and vaccine scepticism with the jailing of Aleksei Navalny, the Russian Orthodox patriarch’s rants against “gay parades,” domestic violence and declining life expectancy in Russia?

In his provocative new book, Russia Against Modernity, Alexander Etkind argues that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of a single, broad historical pattern. It is the last gasp of a failing, kleptocratic petrostate for which external aggression is a natural move. Rather than the Ukraine war itself, Etkind is interested in the conditions within Russia that have culminated so calamitously.

In what is more a pamphlet than a treatise, Etkind combines brevity and playfulness with a degree of erudition that other works covering the Russia–Ukraine conflict seldom manage, melding political economy, history, demography, social theory and social psychology. That range reflects Etkind’s eclectic polymathy: a native of St Petersburg (then Leningrad), he grew up in the Soviet Union, completed two degrees in psychology at Leningrad State University before earning a PhD in Slavonic cultural history in Helsinki, and has variously taught and researched — in faculties of sociology, political science, languages, history and international relations — in St Petersburg, New York, Cambridge, Florence and Vienna.

This smorgasbord of disciplines is reflected in his previous books: an analysis of Russia’s practice of imperialism and internal colonisation; a history of psychoanalysis in Russia; memory studies of the Soviet gulag and the second world war; and Nature’s Evil: A Cultural History of Natural Resources. The latter, which foreshadows a central theme of Russia Against Modernity, argues that the drive to accumulate resources has long had a corrosive effect on societies, and on the planet.

Etkind’s big-picture approach means this is not a book to read for a detailed narrative or analysis of the events that led up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022. Nor will you find much discussion of Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden, NATO, Russia–Ukraine relations or Ukrainian history, or of the course of the war itself.

Most explanations of the Ukraine war tend to give primacy to either external or internal factors. The “externalists,” for want of a better word, include those who claim the war is a natural outcome of unwise/reckless NATO expansion. Going further, some even buy the Kremlin line — despite all evidence to the contrary — that the West’s fundamental, if unstated, goal is to weaken or destroy Russia.

At the other end of the externalist spectrum are those, including many Ukrainians and East Europeans, who believe an inherent imperialism is demonstrated by Russia’s aggression towards former territories. Some attribute this to the size of the country, its innate political culture, the “Russian psyche” or, in its crudest renderings, a kind of Russian DNA.

“Internalists” emphasise the domestic drivers of the war — notably an authoritarian state’s need to legitimise itself through nationalist and revanchist propaganda. In this view, the Ukraine war and other militaristic posturing or adventures are cynically deployed to further the interests of the elite. For some, Ukraine presented a threat to the Kremlin because it offered a democratic alternative. A handful on the left claim that the war’s roots lie in the ambitions of Russian oligarchs vying to capture Ukraine’s valuable natural and other resources.

Some analysts, of course, combine or reconcile internal and external elements in explaining the war, but Etkind is rare in drawing together multiple threads and focusing on general trends. It isn’t always clear whether he wants us to take the picture he presents as Constable-like realism, an Impressionist canvas or even a satirical cartoon. In parts, the book feels like a Dali-style exploration of deeper, unconscious truths, leaving the reader feeling that Etkind is getting at something without being clear quite what.

Etkind’s main idea is that the Russian state and society is an exemplar of “paleomodernity,” following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in championing “grand designs, unlimited social engineering, huge and bulky technology, total transformation of nature.” For Etkind, Putin’s war is not only a “special operation” against the Ukrainian people, their statehood and culture; it is also “a broader operation against the modern world of climate awareness, energy transition and digital labor.”

If paleomodernity — a conglomeration of steel, oil and gunpowder — reached its apotheosis in the twentieth century, then its twenty-first-century antithesis is “gaiamodernity,” a higher form of civilisation where small, sustainable, democratic and feminine are beautiful, and racial, sexual and intellectual diversity are cherished. Etkind seems to see this nightmarish scenario for Tucker Carlson or Sky After Dark’s pundits as both a utopia to be dreamed of and a kind of immanent social order, destined to emerge, echoing Hegel’s and Marx’s systems of thought.

Etkind’s key take is that the “oiligarchs” and bureaucrats running Russia saw this “advance of history” as an existential threat to its oil and gas exports, which make up a third of Russia’s GDP, two-thirds of its exports and half the state budget. The money was crucial to the stability of Russia’s currency, crucial for its military spending and crucial for maintaining the elite’s luxurious lifestyle. It was also the chief driver of corruption, inequality and declining social and demographic indicators. All of this fed popular disillusionment, growing authoritarianism and elite paranoia and the ideologies supporting aggression.

As an archetypal petrostate, Etkind argues, Russia is afflicted by the resource curse, whereby an economy as a whole underperforms because a single commodity is so dominant. Initially, in the 2000s, rising oil prices underpinned Putin’s success in restoring economic growth. The populace gained a welcome sense of stability after the economic and political turmoil of the “wild nineties,” leading many to accept the gradual erosion of civil liberties.

By the 2010s, however, not only were Russian incomes falling but so were a range of social and economic metrics. By 2021, life expectancy had fallen to 105th globally, per-capita health spending to 104th and education spending to 125th. Russia had the fourth-highest carbon emissions globally and among the highest rates of suicides, abortions, road deaths and industrial accidents.

Thanks largely to embezzlement, post-Soviet Russia witnessed the fastest rise in inequality ever recorded. Its income inequality was among the world’s highest and by 2021 it led all major countries in inequality of wealth: 58 per cent of national wealth belonging to the top 1 per cent, well above Brazil (49 per cent) and the United States (35 per cent). More than a fifth of Russia’s citizens, meanwhile, lived on less than US$10 a day, and the middle class had been hollowed out.

In excess of three trillion dollars had been stolen and squirrelled away abroad — more than the total financial assets legally owned by Russian households. “Economists from Harvard and Moscow alike believed that economic growth would be the source of all good in Russia, that accumulated wealth would trickle down to the poor, that the rising tide would lift all boats,” writes Etkind. “In fact, it lifted only the yachts of the rich. The boats of the poor leaked, and they drowned in the tide.”

The wealth gained from being the world’s biggest exporter of energy funded an enormous state machine, particularly a military, security and law-enforcement apparatus accounting for fully one-third of the budget. Russian military spending increased by a factor of seven between 2000 and 2020, compared with a factor of two in Germany and 2.5 in the United States. In the end, though, corruption has hobbled the Russian war effort in Ukraine and sanctions have stranded assets held abroad, including the mind-boggling superyachts of Putin, his top officials and Russia’s tycoons.

Etkind doesn’t really explain why the military–security sector became so bloated, beyond its being a very big trough for corrupt snouts. Most observers would point to Putin’s own reliance on and favouritism towards cronies from the sector — the so-called siloviki, or people of force — on top of his belief in restoring Russian greatness and the need for a strong repressive apparatus to quash dissent.

Etkind treats war as more or less a natural outcome of Russia’s political economy. The more a “parasitic state” relies on natural resources, the less it invests in human capital. The lower the human capital, the greater the state’s dependence on resource extraction. It accumulates gold, limits internal consumption, pursues domestic oppression and, sooner or later, launches a war of aggression. Yet this is only part of the picture, and doesn’t hold true for Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Qatar or other petrostates.

Some of Etkind’s most interesting, albeit speculative, chapters deal with the interplay between Russia’s political economy, its demographic decline and issues like gender inequality and homophobia. The latter have become a common theme of state-sponsored propaganda: TV pundits talk about fighting a degenerate West where genders proliferate; patriarchs and priests equate the war on Ukraine with fighting those Satanic “gay parades.”

Partly because of very high divorce rates, children are raised by only one parent, usually the mother, in one in three Russian families. Etkind pushes the envelope when he posits the growth of “fatherlessness” as a cause of authoritarian tendencies, as some postwar German theorists did in the case of Nazi Germany. High rates of domestic violence — which was actually decriminalised in 2017 in a nod to patriarchal opinion — have been another symptom of social dysfunction.

Etkind also highlights “granny power” as another bulwark against modernity: the heightened role of babushki (grandmothers) in many three-generation households, he says, imbues children with backward-looking and authoritarian ideas and attitudes. The three-generation household, with overburdened mothers and absent fathers, is a product of the inadequate incomes, housing, childcare and pensions generated by the parasitic petrostate, as well as men’s much lower life expectancy (sixty-five years, compared with women’s seventy-seven).

Etkind points to other elements of Russia’s demographic catastrophe — world-leading abortion rates, high rates of emigration among the young and educated — as signs of lack of trust and faith in a future governed by a corrupt and authoritarian state. “The birth rate,” he writes, “was the ultimate manifestation of public opinion.” A lot of these demographic problems were also present in the Soviet years, serving as a kind of canary in the mine presaging the Soviet Union’s decline.

Perhaps more telling, and more of a blow to male egos among the Russian elite, is Etkind’s suggestion that the homophobia prevalent in officially sponsored propaganda stems from the practice of bullying (dedovshchina, or the grandfather rule), often involving rape, in the military. And these super-wealthy grandfathers in the Kremlin, who Etkind notes are a generation older than Zelensky’s leadership circle in Ukraine, are natural allies of the impoverished grandmothers of the Russian suburbs, sharing the inherent conservatism of the three-generation family.

Etkind coins the term “stopmodernism” to describe Russia’s “special operation” against gaiamodernity. The war in Ukraine is just one weapon in its arsenal, alongside climate denial, election interference and others. Decarbonisation represents a huge challenge to Russia’s interests, and although Putin’s regime has played along at times with moves towards curbing emissions, it has also played a spoiler role. The biggest “gaiamodern” threat to the wealth of Russia’s elite have been the moves towards zero emissions by the European Union, its chief market for gas and oil, including the Transborder Carbon Tax announced in 2021.

Etkind also suggests that the 2009 Climategate hacks of emails, which purported to show climate change to be a conspiracy among scientists, was of a piece with Russia’s more recent hacking and online-disinformation efforts (including via Prigozhin’s infamous troll factories) to support right-wing politicians in the United States and Europe.

Etkind’s brushwork becomes a bit Dali-like in drawing lines between the petrostate’s political economy and motivations for the war, yet he makes some plausible points. He argues that rampant inequality led the elite to create fables to explain its privileged position and place blame elsewhere. He says that the kind of mystical nationalism encountered more and more frequently among the elite, including Putin, is a reworking of the idea of a chosen people to explain the fateful chance that endows some countries with an abundance of natural wealth.

The idea that Russia has a special, even divine, historical role is far from new — it featured in tsarist and Soviet times — but Etkind would no doubt argue that current conditions have given it greater appeal and currency.

For Etkind, conspiracy theories are a key part of the myth-making. He seems convinced they are a psychopathology and not just the cynical outpourings of a well-funded propaganda machine. Whatever its cause, the propaganda and media machine have become increasingly anti-American, Eurosceptic and homophobic, with “stopmodernism” encrypted into news channels, reality shows, sporting events and beauty contests. The very same people you might meet on a weekend in a posh Mediterranean hotel spend their working hours cursing “gay Europe” in Moscow TV studios.

Etkind paints Putin’s speech justifying the February 2022 invasion not just as an apotheosis of myth-making and conspiracy peddling, but also as a deadly rationale for genocide. For Putin, he writes,

Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same, but some Ukrainians are Nazis and therefore different. The Americans had turned [Russia’s] Ukrainian friends into Nazis, the opposite of the Russians, who defeated Nazism and disliked the Americans… Putin was effectively declaring war against the US and its allies, not against Ukraine. Ukraine was not even a proxy: it did not exist, it was a terra nullius.

Ultimately, however, despite all these systemic factors, Etkind comes close to surrendering to a different kind of analysis by putting the onus on the personal: namely, Putin got bored and started a war. “A wiser tyrant would have deferred his inevitable end for another few years, even a decade. Impatient and bored, Putin was the unexpected nemesis of Putinism.”

A richer canvas might also have coloured in links between the authoritarian and corrupt Putinist system and his hubristic miscalculations about Ukrainian strength and resolve, Western unity and Russian military strength. This broader account might also help explain why a petrostate that in 2021 sent three-quarters of its gas exports and two-thirds of its oil exports to the European Union decided to risk all with the invasion.

Russia Against Modernity ends with a picture of the future: Russia will inevitably lose the war and begin a process of defederation. Its constituent national minorities, indigenous peoples and diverse regions will at last — after a long but hopefully not bloody transition period — gain real autonomy and democracy and move towards a gaiamodern world, leaving behind the petrostate that has exploited them. One can’t help feeling that this is more utopian dream than sober analysis, however much we might hope elements of it come true.

Sceptics may ask whether Russia is really so different from some or many developed capitalist societies in terms of the evils and dysfunctions Etkind outlines. I suspect he would say that they/we all cling to elements of paleomodernity to differing degrees, exemplified in different political and social forces competing with the gaiamodern. He would add that, as a petrostate, Russia is a more extreme and different kind of polity in terms of its interest in thwarting gaiamodernity.

Russia Against Modernity is a useful corrective for some on the left (and far right) who are instinctively suspicious of American actions and see merit in claims that Ukraine is a “proxy war” by NATO against Russia. Systemic factors in Russia are more than enough to explain the war, without having to disentangle the history of NATO enlargement or the contribution of Western blundering in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. As I have argued elsewhere, while we can debate the wisdom or morality of these actions, none represented a serious threat to Russia. And Etkind is right to see Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers and other internal issues as more of a “fetish” among the Russian elite, as he puts it, rather than a serious factor.

Etkind’s work is also valuable because he is a Russian with an intimate understanding of the country and broad international experience who brings to bear serious intellectual firepower. In one section, “The Unbearable Lightness of Western Pundits,” he beautifully skewers so-called experts like Niall Ferguson and Adam Tooze who pointed to Ukrainian weaknesses and the inevitability of Russian victory just before the 2022 invasion. Another target is international relations guru John Mearsheimer, who more or less justified the invasion by saying that, if Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would suffer “existentially.” Russia now has both Sweden and Finland rushing to join NATO, while Ukraine, of course, had no near-term prospect of membership.

One thing common to these generalist historians, economists and foreign policy wonks is a lack of real expertise in Russian or Ukrainian history and politics. That’s why it is vital to listen to independent Russian (and Ukrainian!) voices on the war, as well as real Western specialists. Only a few of the latter make excuses for Putin’s regime and many would see merit in the broad thrust of Etkind’s argument.

Likewise, the Russian democratic opposition almost unanimously sees the war as generated by systemic internal problems. They would agree with Aleksei Navalny, whom Etkind lauds as the champion of exposing corruption, in blaming the war on Russia’s “endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism.” •

Russia Against Modernity
By Alexander Etkind | Polity Press | $30.95 | 176 pages