Putin and the 'Italians of the North'

  • 2000-01-13
  • By Gwynne Dyer
Society wants the restoration of the guiding and regulatory role of
the state in accordance with national traditions,"wrote Russia's
interim president, Vladimir Putin, in a personal manifesto published
last week.

"A strong state for Russia is not an anomaly_ but the source and
guarantor of order, the initiator and driving force of all change."

Typical authoritarian cant from a man whose ideas were shaped by long
service in the KGB, said most of the analysts, but they're only half
right. It's true that Putin believes in a strong Russian state, but
then, so do most Russians - just as long as it doesn't get in their

There's nothing alarming about the fact that Putin worked for the
KGB, which was the one state institution that had access to all the
data and was free to think 'outside the box' in Soviet times. Some of
the most intelligent and pragmatic reformers produced by the old
Soviet system, including both Yuri Andropov, the first Soviet leader
to try to make radical reforms, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to
power a year after Andropov's early death and carried many of the
reforms through, also had strong KGB links.

Nor is the manner of Putin's rise to power totally shocking, though
he has obviously been chosen as the successor most likely to protect
outgoing president Boris Yeltsin's clan from legal pursuit. In that
respect, he can be seen as the Russian Gerald Ford, though the
amnesty Putin declared on taking office was much more sweeping than
the one that Ford gave to Richard Nixon. It gives not only Yeltsin
and his family, but Putin and all future presidents and their
families, immunity from prosecution for corruption or any other crime.

Of course, Putin's amnesty will only hold if he wins a five-year term
in the forthcoming election, for it is merely a presidential decree
that could easily be reversed by a different president. But even in
leaving, Yeltsin's timing has been flawless: the whole point of his
early resignation is to guarantee Putin's victory by bringing the
presidential election date forward three months, from late June to
March 26.

Putin's meteoric rise in public esteem has been almost entirely due
to his tough line on Chechnya. The war is very popular right now, but
in six months' time it will almost certainly have gone sour, so the
election needs to be over before then if Putin is to win it.

Once Putin is safely in office for a full five-year term, he will
probably have the sense to turn down the military heat in Chechnya
and live with a festering stalemate there. But if we are now looking
at a relatively stable and long-lasting regime in Moscow, what should
we make of his rhetoric about a strong central state and ancient
Russian national traditions. Are we about to see the resurgence of
the kind of authoritarian Russia that we knew under the tsars and the
commissars? Probably not.

This Russian belief in a powerful state has a certain historical
basis: people who have always lived on a vast plain with no
defensible natural frontiers are bound to see military strength and
political unity as the keys to survival. But what people miss about
the Russians is that they also believe in the need for a strong,
centralized state because they think that they are a nation of

You can argue that most Russians are really rather timid anarchists,
who only defy the state when it isn't looking. But even a nation of
cautious anarchists (like Italy, say) is a very different place from
a country of instinctive conformists (like Germany) - and the truth
is that Russians secretly believe they are Italians.

I have lost count of the number of vodka-soaked conversations in
which Russians have ponderously confided that their fellow-countrymen
are really the 'Italians of the North': a passionate, anarchic people
who will never achieve anything unless they are ruled with a firm
hand. And rather than argue about which half of this half-truth is
true, I have always replied: look at Italy.

The united Italian state came into existence only in 1870, and it has
never overcome the natural Italian distrust of authority. The
apparatus of the Italian state formally claims huge power over
people's lives, but its people completely ignore it much of the time,
cheat it whenever possible - and prosper despite all that. The
Italians now live just as well as the English, whose state is
powerful, efficient, and almost a thousand years old.

There is considerable hope for Russia in this. A weak state is very
dangerous if barbarians are waiting at the frontiers, but these days
they aren't: not on Italy's borders, and not on Russia's either. So
Russia, like Italy, can build a prosperous and reasonably safe
society even if it lacks an efficient, honest and powerful government.

This is just as well, because Russia is clearly not going to get that
kind of government any time soon. The charade of state power will be
maintained as meticulously in Moscow as it has been in Rome, but
behind that facade, contemporary Russia will probably continue to be
as corrupt and badly run as late 20th-century Italy. Putin cannot
fundamentally change that, because it is an arrangement that suits
too many Russians.

The good news is that this may matter less than it seems. All that
Russia really needs to begin its recovery is a reasonably stable and
predictable regime. Even corruption is manageable, if it is

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.