Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has made manifest the fragility of civil society in Russia and the strength of civil society in Ukraine. It has also once again focused an intense spotlight on our own civil society.
After his second election as president of Russia in 2012, Putin made a dramatic turn from the appearances of a liberal society to the realities of a tyrannical dictatorship. Since the resignation of Boris Yeltsin in December 1999, Putin balanced a neoliberal economic program that enabled the systematic robbing of Russia's Soviet wealth by corrupt nominally free-market capitalists with the civil policies of relatively free elections, free press, consumerism and private enterprise. This balance collapsed when Putin could not tolerate the civil protests surrounding his re-election as president in 2012.
When Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 to seize the Crimea and to establish independent republics in the Donbas region, the facade of civility crumbled totally and the entire apparatus of Soviet KGB government came roaring back to take control of all segments of civil societyfrom the poisoning of dissenters and the murdering of independent investigative journalists to the manipulating of all media outlets, the controlling of education and the repression of civic organizations.
In Ukraine, Putin's invasion and occupation of its territories, had a totally opposite effectthe precarious balance between robbing the wealth of the nation and the developing of a civil society made a dramatic swing against corruption and for civil liberty. This Revolution of Dignityalso called the Maidan Revolutionseriously frightened Putin: It took down his puppet president and sent him back to Moscow, set the state on an anti-corruption course, opened society to civil liberties and civil organizations and eventually elected Volodymyr Zelenskyy president.
Putin simply could not tolerate the probability of a free, prosperous Ukraine thriving in the bright sun of liberty next to a Crimea and a Donbas declining in productivity and wealth. Worse yet: Putin could not survive a "West Germany" Ukraine next door to his "East Germany" Russia: He was losing his best and brightest; he had almost no up-to-date manufacturing base; and he was making Russia a Third World nation that survives only through selling oil, gas, coal and minerals.
Putin's war against Ukraine is a war against civil society. He is a master of this type of warfare. He uses religion, culture, media, money, sex, cyber weapons, assassination, armed conflict. He orchestrates these powers in a most effective play for global support as well as domestic support.
In this adroit orchestration, Putin played the queer card: In February 2012, the feminist, pro-gay punk-rock group Pussy Riot entered the Moscow Cathedral to petition the Virgin for her help against corruption in Russia and to protest Putin's rigging of the Russian Constitution so he could run again for president. Putinthe brave, bare-chested, bareback-riding savior of the family, the Christian religion, western civilization, conventional sexuality and masculinitycharged to the rescue of the imperiled Russian nation by imprisoning the Pussy Riot members, endearing himself to Patriarch Kirill (the Russian Orthodox bishop) and marketing himself as the slayer of the dragon of decadent liberalism making Russia weak.
In September 2012, Putin had the non-binary trans activist Masha Gessenthe chief editor of Russia's oldest journal, a travel and science magazine called Vokrug Svetafired because she would not send a reporter to cover Putin gliding with Siberian cranes, who are on the endangered species list, "to help them find their migratory routes." [See the video: Putin sits in the front seat while the pilot of the motorized glider does all the work: The Guardian, September 6, 2012.]
In her two critically acclaimed studies of Vladimir PutinThe Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed RussiaGessen shows how Putin was able to systematically take over all the elements of Russian society in his quest for absolute power. In so doing, Gessen also reveals Putin's game plan for sabotaging U.S. civil society.
Putin's game plan: 1) Sow doubt on the legitimacy of American elections and democratic systems; 2) sow doubt on the veracity of U.S. mainstream media, especially investigative journalism; 3) sow discord among and between racial groups, religious groups, sex-gender groups; 4) foment cultural wars; 5) compromise U.S. politicians and officials; and 6) use social media to fragment and splinter the U.S. body politic.
It is, of course, no surprise that Putin seeks to humiliate the United States, aggrandize himself and make Russia a great superpower/empire again. What is surprising is how much support Putin gets from so many U.S. influencers and politicians who wittingly or unwittingly echo his tropes against our society about stolen elections, voter fraud, elimination of the white race through abortion and birth control, destruction of the family through gender confusion, and social conspiracy memes. Fear of the queeranyone who does not fit into their neat categoriesis an essential weapon in their autocratic toolbox.
Putin's invasion of Ukraine has surfaced many faults in our civil society. This evil, unnecessary use of power to dominate people gives us the opportunity to focus our attention on what really matters to us in our society and in our world.
The health of our civil society and our civic institutions is our best defense against lies and against those who hate our freedoms.
Our freedoms as individuals depend upon the ways in which we cooperate with our fellow citizens to create and keep open civic spaces in which we converse with one another, work with one another, and protect one another in a generous spirit of respect and kindness for the welfare of all.
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