Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World used to be seen as mutually exclusive dystopias. In 1984, however, while Neil Postman was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death, Aldous Huxley’s biographer Sybille Bedford came to a different conclusion, describing the choice as a false binary: “We have entered the age of mixed tyrannies.” By this she meant that the modern power-seeker would assemble whatever combination of coercion, seduction and distraction proved most effective.
Effectiveness is one of the watchwords of Vladimir Putin’s mixed tyranny, or “managed democracy.” Since first becoming Russia’s president in 2000, buoyed by a craving for strength and stability after the nerve-grinding upheavals of the post-communist 90s, the former KGB officer has gradually brought back such features of the old regime as leader-worship, martial parades, mass arrests, show trials, political prisoners, territorial aggression, the one-party state, censorship, Newspeak and endemic paranoia. In 2012, Putin declared his dream of building a Russian-led replacement for the European Union, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” unbound by such bothersome concepts as human rights and free and fair elections. Inspired by the fascist thinker Aleksandr Dugin, he called it Eurasia. In 2014, Stalin’s posthumous approval rating in Russia reached a new peak of 52 percent, proving beyond doubt that Homo Sovieticus had outlived the Soviet Union.
Putin’s justification is, of course, different from Stalin’s—nationalism and cultural conservatism rather than Marxist ideology—and his execution less brutish, retaining the pretense of freedom of speech and political opposition. The aim of his brand of authoritarianism is not total control but effective control. In his last substantial interview before his death in 2005, the great reformer Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev called Russia’s weakness for strong leaders a “disease” and bemoaned its backsliding towards a centralized state at the expense of a healthy society. “If the state so wishes, the society will be civil, or semicivil, or nothing but a herd,” he said. “Look to Orwell for a good description of this.” Yes, but look to Huxley, too.