the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Mar 22, 2022
Translated from an article by Lutte Ouvrière, a French Trotskyist organization, appearing in the Lutte de Classe, issue #223, April 2022.
The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s army on February 24 struck people with amazement and horror. How many Russians, how many Ukrainians could have imagined—let’s not talk about the massacres of civilians—even just the possibility of war between them? Despite the border that has separated them for three decades, they still, for the most part, considered themselves as the same people.
But their perception of things could change radically and permanently with the war and, above all, the nationalist fury on which each camp seeks to get “its” population drunk.
For months, American leaders had been warning about an “imminent” Russian attack. A prediction? In any case, it was a tool of international propaganda. Before turning into an open confrontation, the showdown between the two camps gave rise to a succession of major military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border by the Russian army, and in the Black Sea and in the Baltic countries on Russia’s border by NATO forces. The arguments that diplomats and leaders from both sides exchanged rested on the clanking of weapons. The main subject of their discussions was the possibility that Ukraine might be brought into NATO.
Russia could not have accepted this. It would have meant that a country with which it shares a long common past, the same language and countless family, cultural and other ties would have passed over into the opposite camp. Ukrainian membership in NATO would have completed the military encirclement of Russia by NATO, whose troops and missiles would now be in direct contact with Russian borders. NATO, a military bloc created against the Soviet Union in 1949 by the United States and its allies, did not disappear with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The existence of the USSR—depicted as super-powerful and threatening—served as justification for NATO during the Cold War. But while the pretext disappeared at the end of 1991, NATO not only continued, it expanded and reinforced itself for three decades, almost exclusively to the detriment of Russia.
Months of international discussions about the aims of NATO in Ukraine led to nothing. Putin decided, on February 21, to recognize the independence of the republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, secessionist regions of the Ukrainian Donbass. Adopting the stance of Great Russian nationalism associated with Tsarism, Putin refused to recognize any legitimacy for a Ukrainian state. He called “modern Ukraine a creation of Bolshevik Russia.” He even proposed to rename it “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” During the 1917 revolution, it was Lenin who recognized the Ukrainian nation’s right to self-determination—a right the Bolsheviks recognized for all the national minorities that Tsarism had oppressed, confident they could rely on the mobilization and the class consciousness of the proletarians and the exploited among the Russians, Ukrainians and others. This right, bragged Putin, had been nullified by Stalin, holding all of the USSR in his iron fist. A self-declared enemy of Bolshevism and of the rights of peoples, a self-declared supporter of national oppression in its Tsarist and Stalinist variants: this is what characterizes Putin, the current head of the reactionary, chauvinistic and anti-working class Russian bureaucracy.
It is not the first time that Ukraine found itself in the middle of a confrontation between the imperialist camp and that of the Russian bureaucracy. The “Orange Revolution” of 2004 brought Ukrainian politicians who claimed to be pro-Western to power for a time. But the “Maidan events,” which occurred ten years later in the center of Kyiv, marked a turning point. After repression failed to put down the demonstrations, President Yanukovych had to flee. He was hated by the population who associated him with the oligarchs and bureaucrats who had looted the country. For years he had wavered between West and East. But in 2014, Washington wanted to prevent Moscow from giving Ukraine the means to deal with pressure from Western financial institutions. The U.S. piloted his overthrow by the street—in fact by the ultra-nationalist extreme right, against a backdrop of strong popular discontent.
The Kremlin responded to this coup with another. Russia annexed Crimea, a territory of Soviet Russia that Khrushchev had ceded to Ukraine in 1954, and instigated the secession of Donbass in the east of the country. Lacking the strength to retake Crimea, Kyiv launched its army into the Donbass, an important mining and industrial region, in which Russian speakers dominated. The Ukrainian government received the more or less discreet support of NATO, which sent in military advisers and modern armaments; it was also openly supported by extreme-right paramilitary groups—those who had came out in the open in 2014 and who, today, provide the framework for Zelensky’s Territorial Defense. For the last eight years, the imperialist camp has been clashing with Russia in the Donbass through each of their allies: the troops of successive Ukrainian governments versus the pro-Russian forces in Lugansk and Donetsk. The conflict was hardly limited, causing destruction on both sides of the front line and devastation among the population: 15,000 dead and two million displaced.
In the month since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army has ravaged big cities, caused thousands of deaths among their inhabitants, and pushed a quarter of the population onto the roads of exodus. Putin bombed Ukrainian civilians as ruthlessly as NATO bombed Serbian civilians in Belgrade in 1999; he shows himself ready to raze Ukrainian towns as he had razed Grozny, capital of “Russian” Chechnya, in 1999; but the rapid victory he had expected is marking time.
We will not discuss here the course of the military operations, nor the Kremlin’s allegations of shortcomings in the military and political intelligence provided by the all-powerful FSB (Federal Security Service). The arrest of two generals, accused of having delivered strategic information more in line with the Kremlin’s expectations than with reality, may help to “explain” the failures of Putin’s “special military operation,” and especially to exonerate Putin from any blame. But it also underlines the costs of an ultra-authoritarian power: while Putin relied on his in-house political police and intelligence agency (“the organs”), no one in his “vertical power” wants to contradict the chief at its summit.
Although no one knows when and how the war may end, the contempt that Putin exhibited for the plight of the peoples has succeeded where years of unrest by Ukrainian nationalists have failed: he has welded the population, whether Ukrainian or Russian-speaking, behind “its” state, “its” rapacious oligarchs, and their “defense of the homeland.”
In December 2020—one example among many others—iron and uranium miners from the Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking regions went on strike in common for their wages, against the private owners of the mines and against the Zelensky government. Fifteen months later, the warlike nationalism of the Russian state has changed the situation. It has, as a result of the invasion, reinforced the nationalism of the Ukrainian state and, above all, bound “its” workers in the snare of Ukrainian patriotism. The Ukrainian power entrusts to the extreme-right nationalist groups the task of enlisting, instructing and sending into combat members of the Territorial Defense, whether volunteer or conscripted against their will.
Claiming that the defense of Ukraine is based on the population mobilized within the Territorial Defense smacks not of reality, but of propaganda. Before possibly thinking about going to fight, the majority of the population seeks to survive, to protect themselves from bombardment, to obtain food when the stores are empty or destroyed, to find a bus or a train for a province away from combat zones or for abroad.
But it is a fact that Russian soldiers were seen everywhere as invaders. Given that the Kremlin led them to believe they would be welcomed as liberators, this may explain why some Russian units, seeing unarmed civilians in front of them, hearing what they were shouting at them in Russian, stopped their column of tanks; why other units showed very little eagerness to fight. In contrast, the Ukrainian soldiers, galvanized by the power of national feelings the invasion has aroused, are convinced they defend their family, their city, their country.
Of course, and even if the Western media hid it at first, the resistance encountered by the Russian army owes a lot to the military and human support that NATO has been providing for years to Kyiv: sending instructors and conventional weapons, setting up training camps, carrying out joint maneuvers, transmitting military information, equipping airports for large carriers bringing in state-of-the-art weapons. With the war underway, the United States and the European Union just doubled their respective budgets for military aid to the Ukrainian power. To put it another way: the imperialist states increased the money they give to their own arms manufacturers to cover the costs of new Ukrainian orders. The reputations of these war goods producers are even burnished a bit by the incessant speeches about the moral necessity of helping an attacked people to defend themselves! Speeches which also seek to weld, on the ground of war, Western public opinion behind their own rulers.
All these speeches trying to get Western populations behind their own rulers are like a dress rehearsal, carried out in times when tensions are exacerbated everywhere, against the backdrop of a worsening global crisis and intensifying noise of war.
War is the continuation of policy by other means. The fact that the ruling classes resort to this extreme means highlights the internal and external tensions they are unable or no longer able to resolve by the usual methods of government. At the same time that this crisis situation reveals the contradiction, it amplifies and exacerbates certain of its manifestations.
The accumulation of unresolved social, economic, political and strategic problems, or those that arose since the USSR disappeared, is at the root of this war in which are opposed the two main States resulting from the disintegration of the USSR.
Commentators present Putin as a dangerous madman—as if focusing on the personality of such and such a leader exhausted the question! But for those who push this idea, it has a big advantage: it avoids the real causes of the war, not only on the Russian side, but on the side of the imperialist states.
It’s hard to overlook the roles played by the Russian and Ukrainian leaders. The Russian bureaucracy that Putin has embodied for two decades is expressed in a sinister way in this war: warmongering in Ukraine and ever more repressive inside Russia. By contrast, Zelensky steps forward as an heroic actor-businessman, brought in by oligarch godfathers to head a Ukrainian state plagued by corruption and the far right. Zelensky is turned into an icon of democracy by his Western supporters. But beyond the respective roles played by Putin and Zelensky, their actions are part of a framework where a bundle of forces that go beyond them are entangled. We cannot understand the interplay and the nature of these forces, at work for years, if we do not link them to their source: to the processes that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
The partition of the USSR into fifteen states, each of them often threatened with break-up, resulted from the determination of millions of bureaucrats and to free their predatory activity from all hindrance.
The Soviet bureaucracy was a social stratum of administrators, managers, big and small leaders who came to power just a few years after the victorious workers’ revolution of October 1917. What allowed it to escape the control that the working class and its party, the Bolshevik Party, had exercised until then over its own managerial and administrative apparatus, was the physical, moral and political exhaustion of the Russian working class. That class had carried out a victorious revolution, won the civil war and then began to build its own state—all of this against the background of the ebb of the revolutionary wave which had been raised everywhere in Europe by the thirst of the oppressed to sweep away the system which had led humanity to the butchery of the First World War.
Stalin represented the interests of the bureaucracy at the top of the state and the party. Having liquidated the determined opposition organized by supporters of Lenin and Trotsky, the bureaucracy was able to establish its privileges through a growing parasitism on the state-controlled and planned economy. The social position of each bureaucrat, and the privileges relating thereto, depended on his place in the ruling apparatus, and on the fact that the power did not call into question his right to profit from the collective parasitism of the bureaucrats.
What led the USSR to the grave was precisely the desire of a privileged and increasingly bloated social stratum to no longer accept any central control over its parasitic bleeding of the economy. This control had been established by Stalin in the 1920s to prevent the rapacity and irresponsibility of bureaucrats from jeopardizing their own system. To make the bureaucrats toe the line, he had to resort to drastic measures, and the members of the privileged caste did not escape the bloody terror of their own regime.
After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the power softened its control over the bureaucracy—enough so that their levies on the economy, their thefts and their social parasitism proliferated. This plunged the Soviet economy into a growing slump. Central control was lifted to some extent, but not enough so that the parasitism of the bureaucrats, their legal and illegal revenues, and the advantages it procured for them could be recognized in law as their right. The parasitism of the bureaucrats could still be questioned or threatened by the system itself, this system which protected the collective interests of the bureaucrats against the population. Such a guarantee of their status and their individual incomes could only have come to them from social relations of an entirely different nature—social relations that could have been built based only on the private ownership of the means of production and exchange, the race for individual profit as the engine of the economy. There would have had to have been in the Soviet Union the image of what forms the basis of societies in Western Europe and North America, the mode of class domination specific to the bourgeoisie: property relations of the capitalist type, recognized and legitimized by society and protected by the law, the state, and its forces of repression.
At the turn of the 1980s, in a few months, age and death got the better of the team that had ruled the USSR since Khrushchev, if not Stalin. Struggles for succession broke out at the top of the single party and of the state, weakening, then neutralizing the means at the disposal of the central power to impose collective discipline on the leading caste. This situation led the top caste to envision the possibility of eliminating the ultimately unstable situation on which its income was based, exchanging that for the right to be owners recognized by law, in the image of the foundation of class domination in the developed capitalist countries.
Under Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985 under the circumstances we have described, the appetites of millions of bureaucrats, once freed, would, within a few years, call in question the existence of a unified Soviet state. This was accompanied by a desire, at the top as well as at all levels of the state apparatus, to put an end to state ownership: the time had come to carve up the economy, like everything that could have value, each bureaucrat wanting “his” share, like a swarm of mafiosos and scheming upstarts of all stripes who were on the hunt. As for the planned economy which, even bureaucratized and thereby deprived of a large part of its effectiveness, still stood as an obstacle in their path. It was about to disappear in the storm.
In August 1990, pretending to save the USSR from the crisis into which their system had plunged it, certain leaders of the bureaucracy proposed a plan for a “return to the market.” They promised that once state ownership had been liquidated, the bulk of the economy had been privatized and the economy pegged to the world market, the country would land on the shores of a capitalist Eldorado—all this “in 500 days,” the title of the plan. In their demagogic one-upmanship, Gorbachev and Yeltsin both took it up.
500 days—it took just about that long for the USSR, not to transform itself into a paradise for bureaucrats dreaming of becoming bourgeois, but for the USSR to cease to exist, torn to pieces. It was delivered to packs of predators, while its inhabitants, its economy, in fact all of society was plunged into terrible chaos.
America tried to avoid a total collapse of the Soviet state. Not out of sheer goodness of its soul, but because it saw the threat of an unmanageable destabilization of a good part of the world looming in such a collapse. On August 1, 1991, the former head of the CIA who became President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, even came to Kyiv to address the deputies of the Rada and through them the Soviet leaders, warning them against a “suicidal nationalism” and advising them to stay in the renewed Soviet state promised by Gorbachev. There is nothing paradoxical in that, even if Biden is today the champion of the rupture between Kyiv and Moscow. In fact, American leaders had had ample time to verify that not only had the USSR, from Stalin to Gorbachev, not threatened the domination of imperialism, but that it was a pillar of the world order.
Despite endorsement by Bush and support by more than 60% of those who voted on the referendum that Gorbachev had organized on the question, the goal of maintaining a unified Soviet state was not enough to outweigh the enormous mass of bureaucrats, profiteers of all kinds, and petty bourgeois eager to break up this framework in order to become true bourgeois.
Everything seemed to smile on them: more and more of their leaders extolled the prospect of breaking up the Soviet state. The West applauded while its ideologues, celebrating the end of “communism,” announced the definitive victory of capitalism and, without laughing, the end of history. According to a scenario that had been practiced in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, American academics and bankers posing as experts in the transition to the market flocked to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kyiv to advise the authorities there. “Shock therapies” were implemented on the scale of the whole USSR: privatization of whole sections of the economy, housing, health, education, freeing of prices, tearing down of social guarantees, bankruptcy of thousands of companies, massive layoffs, unpaid wages, brutal melt-down of pensions, inflation blazing up to 2,000%! Society was plunged into chaos and tens of millions of people into bottomless misery.
At the end of the USSR and shortly after, the imperialist leaders promised Gorbachev, then Yeltsin, that they would establish a “new world order” (Bush) and a “partnership for peace” (Clinton). In order to get Gorbachev’s support for letting Germany reunite, Bush, German Chancellor Kohl and British Prime Minister Thatcher promised him that NATO “wouldn’t take advantage of it.” The following year, Gorbachev let the Soviet Baltic republics become independent: to reassure him, the American Secretary of State James Baker promised that NATO “would not advance ... not one inch to the east.”
Integrations into NATO did not begin until 1999: at first only Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. But others were to follow: the Baltic countries in 2002; Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Bulgaria in 2004; Croatia and Albania in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; North Macedonia in 2020.
But as early as 1992, just after the USSR had disappeared, the White House was devising plans to go in this direction, as appears from various texts and official reports of the time. Thus, Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz affirmed in his Guide to a Defense Organization: “Our policy must now focus on how to prevent the re-emergence of any potential global rival” while stressing that “Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia.” The security and foreign policy advisers of several American presidents, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, pushed in the same direction. In 1997, Brzezinski insisted, in his book The Grand Chessboard, on the fact that in the “black hole” left by the disappearance of the USSR, the “geopolitical pivot” of the situation had become Ukraine: cutting it off from Russia would permanently weaken the latter, he said, and a NATO-integrated Ukraine would be a “dagger pointed” at Moscow.
During the decade following the end of the USSR, the imperialist West seemed to show itself well disposed toward a Russia swearing only by the market and above all very weakened. But even when Putin, who had just taken over from Yeltsin, said he was contemplating having Russia join NATO, it is clear that the imperialist states continued to sharpen their claws. They were not against participating in the feeding frenzy over the remnants of the Soviet economy, seizing companies, concluding contracts in which their capitalists risked little. But there was no possibility they would make room for Russia, and even less for Ukraine (or other former Soviet republics) in their concert of nations—except as States entirely dominated economically and politically, having neither the means nor the inclination to overshadow the domination of imperialism over the globe.
Trotsky, shortly before his assassination by an agent of Stalin, expressed the idea that, if the bourgeoisie of the late 1930s still had had the dynamism of its youth, it would have been able to reintegrate the USSR of the bureaucrats, and make them capitalists like the others. This is what capitalism did, for example, at the end of the 19th century, when it integrated into its world system newly industrialized countries like Japan and Germany, in which a whole section of society, of its functioning and of its institutions remained marked by feudalism.
A century later, when the USSR disappeared, capitalism had long since entered into senescence. Moreover, the capitalist world found itself once again plunged into a systemic crisis which has only been getting worse ever since. In this case, as we said then and we verify it today, the capitalist system could not offer a future to the Soviet Union and its peoples other than multifaceted regression.
In 1936, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky, discussing the nature of the Stalinist USSR, wrote: “The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power would thus mean a return to capitalist relations, with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture.”
The disaster in all areas was immediate, and no one knows if and when the former USSR could recover. As for the return to capitalism—of which Trotsky had no intention of predicting the rhythms and modalities because his problem was to do everything so that it did not happen—half a century later, it remains still only ... announced. Indeed, if state ownership and the plan have been liquidated, like most of the conquests of October, and if private ownership of the means of production has been voted and enshrined in law, capitalism is not yet truly restored in Russia.
In any case, not as it was in the former People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. Nor in the forms envisaged by the scenarios for the reintroduction of the market concocted by the Russian and Western “doctors” claiming to cure the ex-USSR of the collectivist evil.
With a hindsight of 30 years, this observation is obvious. At the time, however, some, even on the extreme left—who confused words with deeds and who thought that the proclaimed intentions had been or even were worth carrying out—hastened to conclude that the former USSR had returned to the fold of capitalism. To some extent, that is accurate. But this in no way means that the bureaucracy had been transformed, nor that it was soon going to be transformed into a bourgeoisie in the capitalist sense of the term.
The bureaucracy itself took some time to realize this. For millions of ex-Soviet bureaucrats, losing their illusions was a painful process on a grand scale.
The destruction of the Soviet economy in 1991–1992–1993 rang the starting bell for the ultra-rapid enrichment of individuals whose personal situation, their relations with members of the ruling apparatus, their links with mafia clans and a lot of luck put them in a position to become these “new Russians” as they were called then, and oligarchs for those who got richer than most. Coming from the ancient Greek word for government by a small minority, the term “oligarch” corresponded to the fact that only a few wheeler-dealers were still afloat, having survived the bullets of their rivals and prospered to the point of being able to lay hands on entire sectors of the economy in oil, the media, banking. Having accumulated in record time so much money and so much power, they prided themselves on holding power, if not being the power. Berezovsky, for example, boasted of having engineered the re-election of President Yeltsin, who therefore could refuse nothing to him or his cronies. This is how he and six vultures of his ilk, including Gusinsky, Potanin and Khodorkovsky, were able to snatch up the bulk of the industrial enterprises that Yeltsin, at the head of a penniless Russia, privatized. The “loans for shares” operation consisted in the fact that they “lent” money to the Kremlin they had stolen from a Russian state too weak to prevent it, thus acquiring the shares of large groups that had remained public up until then!
At the time, those oligarchs were sometimes compared to the “robber barons” of America when it was industrializing in the 1870s. By their methods and their rapacity, no doubt. But the comparison ends there. In America, there had not been, as there were a hundred and twenty years later in Russia, millions of candidates in position to compete for this quick enrichment, but who risked losing everything in the deal: social status, privileges, even their life sometimes. In the USSR, there had been no bourgeoisie for decades: the revolution and the civil war had ripped up its very roots. As a result, the only privileged social stratum had been that of the bureaucrats. They drew their privileges from the position they occupied in the apparatus of the single party or the Soviet institutions, not from owning a company or shares in it, or even from owning a share in the capital of the whole of society. They owed their status and their income to the State, which was the collective holder of wealth, the surplus labor stolen from the workers. It was the state which distributed that wealth among the bureaucrats.
Admittedly, there was nothing in common in terms of privileges between a director, for example, of the giant Uralmash machine-building plant in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), capital of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and a petty official responsible for distributing vouchers to the workers for a stay in vacation centers dependent on this factory. But both, in their own way, were part of the bureaucracy, had a position which allowed them to “render services,” admittedly at very different levels of importance, but always for various advantages. With its 30,000 workers in 1990, Uralmash directly supported hundreds of bureaucrats, young and old, in the factory itself (management, official unions, social works, housing, polyclinic, party authorities, etc.), and many more in the city and region. While as early as 1990, the sons of directors may have privatized the computer services of Uralmash for their own account; while mafia groups linked to the regional authorities disputed over ownership of the factory, its machines, its stocks, its warehouses and innumerable buildings, industrial and otherwise, as well as its production—there were only a few dozen individuals who benefitted from this struggle. They were the few who could show a title deed and rely on strong protection in high places. But counterposed to them, there were at the very least a thousand other bureaucrats of all ranks, who had had a position and guaranteed advantages in the previous system, but now were losing everything with the disappearance of state ownership of this huge factory.
We can imagine the rage of a crowd of officers who, in the early 1990s, were forced to live in dilapidated barracks with wages eaten away by inflation. They had been members of one of the great bodies of the bureaucracy, formerly the darlings of the regime, with an envied status and access to well-stocked special stores. What did those naval officers think, cramming themselves with their families on board warships “requisitioned” in the port of Vladivostok because they had nowhere else to stay? During this time, “their” minister, the very corrupt Pavel Gratchev, close to the no less corrupt President Yeltsin, consorted in business with the oligarchs, embezzled money from the sales of equipment, to buy, among other things, luxury cars, hence his nickname, Pasha Mercedes! [Pasha is the diminutive of Pavel.]
We could endlessly multiply the examples through which a crowd of bureaucrats ended up convincing themselves that if this is what capitalism is, they had nothing to gain from it, and everything to lose.
At the end of the 1990s, this awareness, which millions of bureaucratic outcasts had ended up acquiring, was expressed by Vladimir Putin, the head of the FSB under Yeltsin, and about to succeed Yeltsin in the presidency. Putin’s strength rested on this newly gained consciousness by millions of bureaucrats. Ex-KGB men like him were in a good position to know that the oligarchs, products of the market, were accumulating their riches by literally emptying Russia of its wealth. If this was not stopped, Russia would be on its knees, and millions of formerly privileged people with it. To end this disaster, Putin, the men of the FSB and those of the “clan of Saint Petersburg”, who had certainly enriched themselves in the looting of the 1990s, had to subdue the oligarchs.
The authorities told the oligarchs not to meddle in politics, to pay taxes, to return “their” most important companies to the state. This would allow the Russian state to create or consolidate huge quasi-public trusts in energy, armaments, space, foreign trade, often with a single enterprise across the country. Such companies, the best example of which is the world hydrocarbon giant Gazprom, took up in their own way the Soviet tradition of concentrating economic means in the hands of the State and inside one structure. These single state companies have been and still are, without a doubt, a powerful tool for the authorities, enabling them to react quickly and deal with the developments and repercussions of the global crisis—with more efficiency than, for example, in the United States where the hydrocarbons sector is dispersed among half a dozen large companies, which each have their own shareholders, and therefore their own strategy, according to their shareholders’ interests.
Faced with the takeover of the economy by the State starting in the 2000s, some oligarchs balked. The recalcitrant ones landed in prison, lost part of the companies they controlled, or were given the right to go abroad to take advantage of what they had left. Having tasted the “arguments” of the FSB, some complied. Others lost their lives. Still others, after being appointed governors of a deprived region, were summoned to finance its large infrastructure expenditures out of what they had stolen. Abramovich, who found himself in this situation, preferred to be a British resident and owner of the Chelsea Football Club instead of the forced benefactor of a region. His friend Alicher Usmanov, a close friend of Putin, set his sights on the Arsenal Football Club.
The most famous fallen oligarch is Khodorkovsky. Top fortune of the country, CEO of the oil company Yukos, he was arrested in 2003 for large-scale fraud and tax evasion—in fact because he tried to sell Yukos to the American Chevron and Exxon-Mobil without having the green light from the Kremlin. His company and other assets were confiscated and he was not released from prison for ten years. He now lives in London, near the City which, with its specialists in tax havens, attracts a number of tycoons, some in difficulties with the regime, some not, but judging it safer to operate in the West of big capital than in their Far East birthplace.
By taking in hand the helm of the State on behalf of the bureaucracy—what he called restoring the “vertical of power”—Putin forced the oligarchs to submit or to emigrate. But not all have disappeared. They are still there, and even more numerous (a few hundreds) and richer than under Yeltsin. There are those from the quasi-public sector, such as Alexey Miller, from Putin’s close clan, boss of Gazprom and of a media empire; or Igor Setchine, who heads the big oil group Rosneft. There are some from private groups, sometimes survivors of the first period: Aven (5.3 billion dollars in oil, banking and telecom), Potanin (27 billion in mining and metallurgy), Fridman (15.5 billion in energy, banking) or even Oleg Deripaska, the king of aluminum (3.8 billion).
Beyond their differences in size, wealth, sector of activity, capital links with foreign firms—links which have been strengthened and which mean that the West has the means to selectively impose effective sanctions—these Russian-style “big bosses” have seen their situation and status evolve. Barring exceptions, we are no longer at the time when disputes between them are settled with Kalashnikovs. And while the dispensing of justice remains very dependent on the dictates of political power, and on the appetites of this or that clan of high bureaucrats having nothing to do with the business world, the “right of property” is considered to be somewhat stabilized in the world of the oligarchy. But in the area of small and medium-sized enterprises, racketeering by bureaucratic bodies (tax authorities, police, civil security, municipal and regional authorities, etc.) remains frequent. That fuels the petty bourgeoisie’s support for a politician like Navalny, who accuses the bureaucracy and its regime of stifling any possibility for the development of what he calls “an honest capitalism.”
During the 20 years that Putin has been in charge, the Berezovsky-Khodorkovsky lesson seemed to have borne fruit. He is able to publicly bully them, playing his role as the good Tsar flying to the aid of the people against the wicked boyars. The oligarchs take care to appear loyal to him: an all-risk insurance for the health of their business.
However, no sooner had the current war broken out than discordant voices were heard in the Russian business world. Putin may have called for a solid front behind him as he directs his “special operation” in Ukraine, but on February 28, the very prominent Deripaska tweeted about “the need to put an end to state capitalism” and about “the crisis that calls for real managers.” As the West extended its sanctions to hundreds of oligarchs and Kremlin insiders—freezing their foreign accounts, confiscating their assets, banning travel to the West—tycoons reacted. One let it be known that he did not consider himself an oligarch, another claimed that he had never set foot in the Kremlin. Even if they were discreet, these were still gestures of defiance toward the master of the Kremlin. Especially since he had wanted the cream of the business world to make a public show of support because one of the objectives of the sanctions is obviously to make the magnates dissociate themselves from power. Those sanctions, which hinder their jet-set lifestyle and also hinder the operation of their businesses, have been increasing ever since 2014.
By slowing down the global economy, the pandemic has certainly affected the Russian economy, which is based on the export of raw materials. But that’s not enough to explain why in 2021, as the fortunes of billionaires in developed countries soared despite or because of the crisis, their Russian counterparts saw theirs fall by an estimated 57 billion dollars, according to Forbes.
On March 18, Putin visited Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Referring to the situation in Ukraine, he quoted a military leader of the past who said that “the trials which threaten it are the glory of Russia.” But it is not certain that trials work the same way with people who resemble the big bourgeois.
Some have shown this in recent weeks by hastily leaving Russia. This provoked Putin’s fury, which spilled out in a speech aimed at those people who consider themselves “an upper caste” because they have a “villa in Miami or on the French Riviera” where they lead a high life, being ready to “sell the motherland” provided they can continue to eat “oysters and foie gras”—the height of luxury for Russians.
When Putin rails against “these traitors,” counterposing them to the “true patriots” who support him and who are the majority, according to him, or when he calls for the country to be “purged” of this “fifth column,” above all, he wants to unite behind him the population, already beginning to suffer from the effects of the war at a time the Kremlin could not even boast about any success on the ground.
But his speech can also sound like a warning addressed to the oligarchs who might be tempted to take some distance from the regime.
Berezovsky and Gusinsky in their time, later Khodorkovsky, had already challenged the authority that the bureaucracy and its summits continue to exercise over the business world. But even if property relations have strengthened and no longer depend as much as before on the exclusive favor of power—or rather precisely for this reason—there could be a more marked, even growing dissociation between the bureaucracy and the oligarchy that developed under its wing. The oligarchy is a monstrous by-product of what the history of the Stalinist regime, itself monstrous, had produced: the working class permanently excluded from the leadership of the state that it had built; the world bourgeoisie incapable of absorbing this regime despite all that the regime had in it that was profoundly reactionary, counter-revolutionary and anti-worker; and this runt of history that is the bureaucracy, a parasitic caste with no past and no future either, with nothing to offer Soviet society but to return to capitalism!
That the Ukrainian conflict highlights the impasse into which the Soviet, then Russian bureaucracy has led post-Soviet society is not surprising. It is one of the monstrous manifestations of this impasse.
For reasons concerning the regime’s survival, Putin obviously could not allow the oligarchs to call for a break with “state capitalism,” a call which they aim against a form of government and organization of society in which capitalism is restrained by the state and its leadership, that is, by the bureaucracy and its power.
How, when will Putin react? It would probably take much more, even if the regime is battered by the global crisis, than the possible revolt of certain oligarchs to destabilize it. But we cannot exclude, especially if this war drags on and has increasingly disastrous consequences for the regime, that the bureaucracy, despite all that it owes to Putin, will make him pay for embarking on this “special operation,” especially if he seems weakened by it. After all, the bureaucracy never signed him to a permanent contract. If he were to forget this, the example of Khrushchev, overthrown in 1964 for having misled the Kremlin in the Cuban missile crisis, would be there to remind him.
But for the moment, what we see him fearing, in addition to the Ukrainian population which is resisting him despite a deluge of bombs, is that his own population will contest him and his war, him and all his wealthy associates. And this is shown by the repression he has intensified against all those who challenge him, especially in the streets, since the start of the war.
If there is a chance of getting the former USSR out of the bloody ruts and dead ends into which the bureaucrats, the forces of imperialism, the oligarchs and nationalists of all kinds have driven it, each in their own way, it lies in a re-connection with what had been the revolutionary, internationalist, socialist and communist policy of the Bolsheviks. It resides in the gaining of consciousness by the Russian, Ukrainian and other proletarians that they are not only brothers by their origins, their language and their past, but class brothers, who have the same fundamental interests and the same enemies: those who oppress them, as well as those who pretend to rule them in the name of the fatherland, but really rule in the name of their exploiters, the oligarchs, the bureaucrats, the capitalists, whether they are from Russia or from the great imperialist powers.