After police in Moscow brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protests last weekend — arresting more than 1,300 people and possibly poisoning one of its most prominent critics — Simon Tisdall made an insightful argument in The Guardian about its origin and meaning.
His point was captured best in the headline: “Putin’s treatment of protesters and rivals shows weakness, not strength.” He then proceeds to offer a litany of developments within Russia and recent moves by President Vladimir Putin that reflect his “growing political weakness” and “rising panic” in Moscow.
Tisdall’s analysis is consistent with a counter-intuitive understanding of the relationship between power and violence that was perhaps best articulated by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. In her classic study “On Violence,” she dismantles the conventional wisdom that violence and power are one in the same — that the greater the capacity for violence the more power one possesses.
To the contrary, Arendt boldly argues that power and violence have an inverse relationship. She writes that “it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” Thus, she continues, violence enters the picture only “where power is in jeopardy.”
It’s often argued that no one anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union, but Arendt may be one of the lone exceptions. As Jonathan Schell explained in “The Unconquerable World,” it was Arendt’s unique insights on violence that allowed her “to perceive that each time the Soviet Union used its tanks to crush a rebellion in Eastern Europe, it was diminishing its power, not increasing it, as most observers thought.”
This was Arendt’s takeaway when the Soviet Union violently put down the rebellion in Hungary in 1956 and then, 12 years later, sent half a million troops to thwart the Prague Spring — a creative, nonviolent movement to liberalize communism in Czechoslovakia.
“The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power in their pure states,” Arendt argued. And while it ultimately put down the challenge, the show of force revealed “the shrinking power of the Russian government.” It was, in effect, more a show of the loss of its influence and authority.
There is some evidence that this dynamic was not lost on Soviet leaders, even at the time. János Kádár, who the Soviet Union chose to lead Hungary after the 1956 revolution, cautioned Moscow against a military invasion. “The morale of the communists will be reduced to zero,” he warned, and “the authority of the socialist countries will be eroded.” This prediction proved prescient.
As Stefan Auer wrote on the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s uprising, the decades that followed “can be seen as being characterized by the ongoing, protracted crisis of legitimacy of the communist rule in central and eastern Europe.” The experiences in Hungary and Czechoslovakia also had a direct bearing on Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to not use the military in an attempt to reassert control when nonviolent movements erupted across Eastern Europe in 1989 — leading in short order to the disintegration of the entire Soviet Union.
“While the Soviet Union still had the military capacity to prevent these developments from happening,” Auer writes, “its leaders no longer shared the conviction of their predecessors that their power could be maintained by violence.”
This shift in thinking is clear in a 1988 memo to Gorbachev by Georgy Shakhnazarov, one of his closest aides, which said that “in the future, the prospect of ‘extinguishing’ crisis situations [in Eastern Europe] through military means must be completely ruled out.” In the end, Gorbachev agreed with this assessment, telling a Czech friend, “violence never provides a lasting solution.”
With the Russian opposition calling for another protest on Aug. 3, Putin would be wise to learn from this history and heed Arendt’s prophetic warning. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory,” she writes, “but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”
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