Russia and the world were stunned by the assassination of Vladimir Putin as he walked out of a midnight mass at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on January 7, 2008." This line is not out of Brad Thor's spy thriller State of the Union or Robert Ludlum's historical dystopia The Tristan Betrayal. This fanciful scenario can be found in the Center for Strategic and International Studies' new report "Alternative Futures for Russia to 2017." More specifically, "A Shot in the Dark ... and True Dictatorship," the second of three "alternative scenarios" Kremlinologist Andrew Kuchins, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment, predicts for Russia over the next decade, a report which caused a minor shitstorm in Russia last week.
Predicting Russia, however, is more than just an academic venture. It is a genre in and of itself. A sort of "social science fiction" where the Socratic Method is employed to weave fanciful and farcical tales about the Great Bear. And like any literary genre it posits a narrative filled with heroes and villains, climax, and foreshadowed resolutions. All that is historically contingent is flattened. All that is seemingly unexpected is, by the plot's end, all too expected.
On the surface, "Alternative Futures" reads like any other treatise on Russia. It lays out the usual facts of Russia's fall, rise, and fall, its unshakable "authoritarian" past, its stable instability, its corrupt and ruthless leadership, and its lulled, weak, apathetic, yet at times revolutionary population. In the mind of Kuchins, Russia is always on a pendulum swinging between collapse and prosperity, darkness and light, "true" dictatorship and "mature" democracy. No matter how "hybrid" Russia is, no matter how "extraordinary nonlinear" its trajectory, and no matter the warnings of the "danger of [academics'] excessively linear thinking," Russia's "alterative futures" are merely the same two bad pop hits: a "True Dictatorship" and "Democracy Rises Again." (The third "Putinism without Putin" is merely a slow dance remix of the first). Once again Russia's future is merely reduced to an eschatological world of darkness and light, a mere reflection of our hopes and our fears.
In "A Shot in the Dark ... and True Dictatorship," Kuchins envisions Russia quickly descending into "true dictatorship" after Putin's sudden assassination on Christmas Day...which is to say, by the time you read this, it's already happened. The plot is simple as it is riddled with the amateurish dramatic guile buttressed by social scientific soothsaying. Putin's murder is a shock so severe that Prime Minister Zubkov flees into hiding, "apparently suffering a small heart attack, although many believe it was a nervous breakdown." The ensuing "atmosphere of chaos"--the stock market "plunges" and "strikes and demonstrations" breakout across the country--empowers the silovki Igor Sechin, Viktor Ivanov, and Nikolai Patrushev to seize power. With their rise, the "fairly smooth transition" to a post-Putin Russia where Sergei Naryshin becomes prez and "liberal" Dmitri Medvedev is PM is squashed. After all, Kuchins writes, "the siloviki were never happy with these plans, but with Putin around their efforts to stymie them had been fruitless."
What follows is a whirlwind of events that symbolize Russian authoritarianism par excellence. The siloviki prop up railroad magnate, pravoslavny chekist, and "real Russian strong man" Vladimir Yakunin. And his role as anti-democratic super villain deserves an Oscar. He uses a massacre of oil workers in Surgut to "disband the Duma and assume leadership of the newly reconstituted United Russia Party," now renamed Glory to Russia. Under its mantle, "fascist and nationalist sentiments" become the new opiate of the masses, evident with the slogan "Russia for Russians" appearing on "massive billboards in all of Russia's largest cities." They are so ubiquitous that they even displace the implicit consumer freedom brought by "cigarette, alcohol, and automobile ads."