Retro-Authoritarianism in Russia

I’m reposting this here due to the interest in Russian and Soviet affairs among my CB co-bloggers:

TIME magazine, as most are no doubt aware, named Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2007 “Man of the Year. The editors explained their choice in a way that also attempted to articulate Putin’s stabilitarian “siloviki ideology”:

“But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin’s hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain-of freedom for security-appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes’ promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin’s popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. “He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

Putin’s global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia’s former Soviet neighbors. What he’s given up is Yeltsin’s calculation that Russia’s future requires broad acceptance on the West’s terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, “sometimes Russia will be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler.”

Putin’s rule can (and typically has been) analyzed from the perspective of Sovietology and Russian history. Articles feature the usual, superficial, observations that Russians like a strong vozhd (supreme leader) in the tradition of Stalin, Alexander III, Nicholas I, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible; that Putin’s regime is a Cheka-KGB front (actually, KGB veterans are among the most competent and least ideological technocrats of the Soviet era officials – who would YOU hire? The guys who ran Soviet agriculture?); that Russians yearn for a return to the Cold War and so on. While there is some truth to these statements regarding the Russian national character and unhappy history, to use them as a fundamental explanation of Russia’s current political system is mostly rubbish. The truth is that Russia’s liberal and democratic parties self-destructed and discredited themselves among Russian voters in the waning years of Yeltsin’s tenure and that Putin enacted a moderately nationalist and anti-oligarchical agenda that catered to the tastes of the vast majority of his countrymen. When Putin centralized power in his hands as a quasi-dictator, he did so in a political vacuum.

This pattern is hardly uniquely Russian. We have seen populist, plebiscitary yet police-state regimes long before Vladimir Putin’s New Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte was the modern innovator, abolishing the decrepit Directorate and constructing a regime that offered a little something for everybody who wanted a glorious France; his cabinet included Jacobin Terrorists, Monarchists, Girondins, aristocracy, bourgeoisie and the chameleon-like Talleyrand. Napleon made use of “new men” and flattered the old nobility even as he created a broad class of “notables” and answered the desire of the French for both greatness and order. Propaganda was used liberally but so too were the police-spies of Fouche to cadge Napoleon’s impressive plebescitary majorities out of the electorate. How different, functionally speaking, is Vladimir Putin? Or for that matter, Hugo Chavez?

We could go back still further to the Caesars – Julius and his canny heir Augustus. Both men understood well that truly revolutionary changes in a political system were most placidly accepted when cloaked in the guise of adhering to old forms and restoring order and normality (it must be said though, that Octavian understood this better than his martial Uncle). After periods of disorder, want or uncertainty there have always been many people who are all too willing to trade liberty for economic security.

Whenever authoritarianism has the added attraction of marshaling competence and cultural values behind its standard, democrats should beware.


Thomas P.M. Barnett – “Putin Positions himself as Russia’s Lee Kwan Yew

The Guardian – “Putin, the Kremlin power struggle and the $40 bn fortune

The Russia Blog – “Why Russia Loves Putin

Michael Barone – “Putin: Odd Choice for Person of the Year

Cross-posted at Zenpundit

11 thoughts on “Retro-Authoritarianism in Russia”

  1. Barone is correct, overall the selection says more about Time and the American elites than it does about Putin and the Russians.

    With the unfortunate failure of each country to sustain its move to democracy we have greater occasion to be thankful for the great fortune of ours being created by George Washington and the truly greatest generation he led. He demonstrated that individual players do have an influence over the course of history. The course of history demonstrates that it is too infrequently for the better.

  2. Good stuff. “Both men understood well that truly revolutionary changes in a political system were most placidly accepted when cloaked in the guise of adhering to old forms and restoring order and normality …” — could also refer to, say, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Which means that the character of the “old forms” is as important as the character of the revolutionaries.

  3. I find the discussion of Putin to be interesting, and a lot of the comparisons to be misleading.

    Certainly Russia has no democratic history nor institutions capable of standing up to the state. The Russian Orthodox church was smashed under Communism until resurrected by Stalin during WW2 for morale reasons during his desperate struggle with Hitler, and even today it remains pretty much “captured” by the Kremlin.

    Russia as a historical power is unprecedented in that it fell apart almost completely in the late 80’s and early 90’s without a war. It went from part of a vast “Warsaw Pact” empire to less than the “classic” Russia (losing Ukraine, for example) without a shot being fired.

    In parallel, their economic system melted down and was parceled out to various gangsters who cheated / bought out the employees of their shares and did their best to discredit any form of participatory capitalism. These robber barrons were completely unpopular and when they went up against Putin they were smacked down with little outcry; in retrospect they were insane to push their luck this far.

    Commodity prices melted down and Russia’s initial economic gains were lost amongst poor advice from the IMF. Infrastructure investment was notoriously low in Russia given their vast spaces and immense needs; everything just melted down further.

    The Napoleon analogy does have merit in that France was a powerful country in the past and Napoleon revived their military grandeur; Russia too had a long and semi-glorious history as a military power which was viewed as an intrinsic element of their character.

    Given the lack of democratic or non-state institutions and the difficult financial state that Russia found itself in during the 80’s and 90’s, Putin was able to rise up on oil price gains, reining in the robber barons, and implementing some fiscal discipline (including a flat tax). I think the people of Russia want some level of stability and don’t expect much from the state in terms of truth, democratic opportunities, or even economic improvements. After all, the population struggled on with little or nothing from the end of WW2 through the fall of Communism without rising up.

    Putin was also able to put the war in Chechnya into somewhat of a “victory” relative to the army’s prior abysmal performance. Much of this was done with tactics so brutal that Americans would revolt and through completely suppressing the press, but at least the war either has a lid on or it isn’t spilling out in a method visible through the state-run press.

    Putin isn’t seen as personally profiting from the system and in this way he is a contrast to the robber barons that looted the country and moved to London. This is a stark difference and one that also explains a lot of his appeal.

    Thus I think the Putin equation is:

    – low expectations for democracy
    – plus rising oil prices
    – points for putting the oligarchs in their place
    – put a lid on the Chechnya war (or at least suppressed any bad news)
    – not viewed as personally corrupt

    Whether it is in Russia’s interests to re-visit the cold war is a different question. I personally think that a long term alliance with Russia against China seems like a possibility; their low population and restive border states makes conflict seem inevitable. A shared “faux” history of communism doesn’t seem like a strong foundation for their relationship in the face of border and trade challenges for dominance.

    Just my opinion, but an interesting guy nonetheless.

  4. Here is some info from

    Predicting a Majority-Muslim Russia
    August 6, 2005

    “Russia’s Turning Muslim, Says Mufti” is the startling headline in the Times of London today. Ravil Gaynutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, announced that Russia’s population of 144 million contains 23 million ethnic Muslims – and not, as the census indicates, 14.5 million

    And more: while the Orthodox population is in demographic decline, the Muslim population is surging. Although the total Russian population dropped by 400,000 in the first half of 2005, it increased in 15 regions, such as the Muslim republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. The birth rate is 1.8 children per woman in Dagestan, versus 1.3 for Russia as a whole. Male life expectancy is 68 in Dagestan, versus 58 for Russia.

    Within most of our lifetimes the Russian Federation, assuming it stays within current borders, will be a Muslim country. That is it will have a Muslim majority and even before that the growing number of people of Muslim background in Russia will have a profound impact on Russian foreign policy. The assumption in Western Europe or the United States that Moscow is part of the European concert of powers is no longer valid. … The Muslim growth rate, since 1989, is between 40 and 50 percent, depending on ethnic groups. Most of that is in the Caucuses or from immigration from Central Asia or Azerbaijan.

    The number of Russians going on the hajj each year, has jumped from 40 in 1991 to 13,500 in 2005. He quotes a Russian commentator predicting that within the next several decades there will be a mosque on Red Square.

    Nov. 19, 2006 update: Goble makes an even more dramatic statement to Michael Mainville of the San Francisco Chronicle: “Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Mainville updates some statistics in “Russia has a Muslim dilemma: Ethnic Russians hostile to Muslims”

    Russia’s overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians. The country’s 2002 census shows that the national fertility rate is 1.5 children per woman, far below the 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain the country’s population of about 143 million. The rate in Moscow is even lower, at 1.1 children per woman.

    But Russia’s Muslims are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow, for example, is six children per woman, Goble said, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. And hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been flocking to Russia in search of work. Since 1989, Russia’s Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s conscript army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population. “If nothing changes, in 30 years people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians,” Goble said.

    The political implications of this shift are, of course, far-reaching: “For many ethnic Russians, the prospect of becoming a minority in their country is unthinkable, and nationalist sentiments are on the rise.… Attacks on mosques have been increasing.”


    Sorry it was so long… i did leave a lot out

  5. I am certain that the Russians will all teach us lessons in tolerance and integration… not. They do have one good lesson – Stalin was a Georgian and he spared no Georgian his wrath. Maybe the Russians can find a muslim who will wreak havoc on their own people with great vigor. They are off to a great integration start with Chechnya.

    (sick) humor aside, I have heard that Moscow is one of the largest muslim cities in the world in terms of population.

    Their multi-ethnic army was always a known weakness as the US prepared for a showdown with the Warsaw pact. Officers often could barely even communicate with large numbers of their own soldiers because of language barriers. Internally, however, having different ethnicities was useful because they were less reticent to use extreme force on other ethnicities within the USSR who may have considered revolting against the regieme

  6. I’m fascinated by how the world’s order is dissolving and breaking down right in front of us.. and so many people have no clue what is happening

  7. Thank you very much Jay, you wrote:

    “— could also refer to, say, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Which means that the character of the “old forms” is as important as the character of the revolutionaries.”

    I think you are very much on the money, with Madison in particular given his laborious preparation for writing the Constitution.

    Hi Vince,

    I’m very much skeptical of an Islamicized Russia coming to pass. Ethnic Russians tend to refer to Transcaucasians and Central Asians in derogatory terms and view them as outsiders. Limiting further immigration from the near abroad or deporting Muslims, even thoroughly Russified and Russian-born ones would be popular on the Russian Nationalist Right and Russia has a history of forcible removal of entire peoples.

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