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The apocalyptic vision behind Putin’s ‘golden billion’ argument

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For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a two-word phrase sums up the current state of world geopolitics: “golden billion.” Speaking this week in Moscow, Putin declared that the “model of total domination of the so-called golden billion is unfair. Why should this golden billion of all the population on the globe dominate over everyone and impose its own rules of behavior?”

The golden billion “divides the world into first- and second-class people and is therefore essentially racist and neocolonial,” Putin continued Wednesday, adding that “the underlying globalist and pseudo-liberal ideology is becoming increasingly more like totalitarianism and is restraining creative endeavor and free historical creation.”

For most readers in the United States or Europe, a “golden billion” probably means nothing. But in Russia, this phrase has been around for decades as a doom-saying shorthand to describe a future battle for resources between a global elite and Russians. And since February, the Russian government has been deploying the theory to argue that Russia’s isolation after its invasion of Ukraine was not because of its actions — but because of an inevitable global conspiracy against it.

These complaints about inequality may seem rich coming from a man who has led an invasion that could help partially restore an empire, who has clung to power for decades while banishing his biggest opponent to prison and whose personal wealth was once estimated to be $200 billion. But at least some members of the Russian government seem to sincerely believe in the ethos behind these theories. And it may not just be Russians who find the idea persuasive.

Putin makes his imperial pretensions clear

Putin’s vague allusions to a golden billion over recent months obscure a far more conspiratorial history. The phrase comes from an apocalyptic book published in 1990, just as the Soviet era came to a crashing halt. Titled “The Plot of World Government: Russia and the Golden Billion,” the book was written by a Russian publicist named Anatoly Tsikunov under the pen name A. Kuzmich.

Tsikunov described an end-times conspiracy against Russia, with the wealthy Western elite realizing that ecological change and global disaster would see further competition for world resources, ultimately rendering the world uninhabitable for all but a billion of them. This elite realize Russia, with its natural resources, immense mass and northern location, needs to be brought under their control by any means necessary for their own survival.

This thesis was a twist on the widely disputed fears about global overpopulation developed by British cleric Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 18th century. However, it’s been given a modern, Russocentric update. In his 2019 book “Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism,” New York University scholar Eliot Borenstein writes that the idea fits into a broader, paranoid history.

The golden billion “gathers together many of the most important tropes of benighted, post-Soviet Russia (the need to defend the country’s natural resources from a rapacious West, the West’s demoralization of Russia’s youth, destruction of Russia’s economy, and destruction of public health) into one compelling narrative, a story combining historical touchstones (the Great Patriotic War) with science and pseudoscience,” Borenstein wrote.

Tsikunov died in unclear circumstances a year after his book was published, only adding to the mystique. But his idea was soon popularized by the anti-liberal Russian intellectual Sergey Kara-Murza, who stripped away its stranger edges and wrote in the later 1990s that the golden billion meant the population of higher-income democracies like those in the OECD or G-7 who consume an unfair proportion of the world’s resources.

How Russia is laying the groundwork for its annexation of Ukraine

More than two decades later, the theory is everywhere in the Russian government. Despite its conspiratorial beginnings, high-ranking Russian officials like former president Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have repeated it in public settings since the Feb. 24 invasion.

“You can proclaim yourself a golden billion as much as you like, but the population on the globe is many times larger, and metals are much more expensive than gold,” Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said on March 19. That no one would actually refer to themselves as the golden billion seems to be beside the point.

More worrying to some experts is the talk from Nikolai Patrushev, the lesser known but powerful Security Council secretary who is viewed by some as, remarkably, a potential successor of Putin. In an interview with the state-owned newspaper Argumenty i Fakty published in May, Patrushev said the West may talk about “human rights, freedom and democracy,” but secretly it was working toward the doctrine of the golden billion.

Patrushev suggested the coronavirus pandemic could have been orchestrated for the cause and warned that a global economic crisis was being created for “a handful of magnates in the City of London and Wall Street.”

“I fear this smart and driven man actually believes … his analysis of current global events,” Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter about the interview.

The man who has Putin’s ear — and may want his job

Even wild theories can have tactical uses. When Putin speaks about a golden billion, he uses it to tie Western exploitation of Africa and Asia recently with the backlash to the conflict in Ukraine. Though Putin has long presented himself as a voice of global conservatism, the righteous anger of anti-colonialism is no doubt a more potent force globally.

“Of course, this golden billion became golden for a reason. It has achieved a lot. But it not only took such positions thanks to some implemented ideas, to a large extent it took its positions by robbing other peoples: in Asia, and in Africa,” Putin said Wednesday. “Indeed, it was like that. Look at how India has been plundered.”

In South Asia, Africa and Latin America, stories of anger against domination and colonialism find a receptive audience. And these are three regions where countries have so far failed to rally behind Western efforts to isolate Moscow.

But the contradictions in Putin’s logic could undermine his story. Another tale of colonialism and domination is playing out now in Ukraine, which Putin has suggested is rightfully Russian land. As The Post’s Robyn Dixon reports, Putin is moving rapidly to annex and absorb the parts of Ukraine it currently holds, “casting himself as a new version of the early-18th-century czar Peter the Great recovering lost territory.”

Many analysts view the root cause of the war not even as Putin’s desires for Russians, but as Putin’s desire for continuing domestic legitimacy. “The war allowed Putin to return to the fore of Russian politics as the person in charge who is irreplaceable,” historian Yakov Feygin wrote this week.

Can this imperial, great man style of politics coexist with apocalyptic, anti-colonial fears of the golden billion? For now, the Kremlin hopes so.

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