The uniqueness of Putin’s regime in light of Russian history
It turns out that Russia is a remarkable experimental ground for the study of various authoritarian regimes. In fact, over its thousand year history, Russian society has been dominated either by an authoritarian state in a mostly centralized society (as happened in monarchist Russia from the 16th century until 1917, and then in Soviet Russia until 1991) or by a combination of authoritarianism and feudalism (as it was from the emergence of the Kiev state until Ivan the Terrible, and from 1993 (when Yeltsin installed his dictatorship) until the present). The third segment of society—the liberal one—only held a leading role for a few months in the aftermath of the February revolution in 1917, and for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991-1993).
There is an arsenal of means that an authoritarian state can use to keep subjects under control, and prevent the destruction of a given authoritarian regime. This includes physical repressions against real or potential enemies, control over the minds of the masses, material rewards for the people in the repressive apparatus (beginning with the political police and the army) and the stimulation of the intellectual elite—material or coercive—to engage them in ideological work. Authoritarian regimes mostly differ from each other, in the intensity of their repressive actions and in the role of single instruments used for coercion of their subjects.
The choice of repressive methods always depends on the leader of the regime. In fact, the head of an authoritarian regime is like a driver who could choose one exit or another on a highway, for good or bad, for himself or for the country—choosing one level of repression or another, choosing the physical extermination of opponents to the regime or “merely” firing them from their jobs or expelling them abroad. His attitude toward repressions depends on various factors. First of all, he and the people who have connected their fate with him have to make up their minds as to which is more dangerous to the survival of the regime and its leader, harsh repressions or a liberal policy? The leader also has to calculate the international and economic situation, as well as the power of the opposition and its potential for seizing power, in deciding about the repressions. The policy of the predecessor will also play an important role; the probability of more liberal policies is higher if the previous leader emphasized repressions and vice versa. Neither should the personality of the leader be overlooked. The personalities of Stalin, Brezhnev and Putin account for a lot of the repressive measures seen during their regimes.
Of course, the level of repressions is not the only criterion for distinguishing between authoritarian regimes. A comparison of the authoritarian regimes that existed in Russia before the October revolution of 1917 shows that the differences in the social and economic structures of the regimes were no less important, in some cases, than the character of the repressive mechanisms used. Indeed, the other two segments of society—feudal and liberal—had a great impact on the functioning of society. The regimes of Nikolas the First and Alexander the Second were quite different, not only because the level of the repressions was high in one case and relatively low in the other, but also because the role the liberal sector played was almost nil under Nikolas , while it became quite important by the end of the reign of his son.
The differences between some of the other authoritarian regimes in Russian history can be reduced almost exclusively to the level of coercion used, physical and ideological. Such is the case if we compare the regimes of Catherine the Great on one side, and the regime of Alexander the First, on another. There were no serious disparities in the political, economic and social structures of the two reigns, even if Alexander did make some attempts to liberalize society in the beginning of his rule, all of which were aborted. The level of repressions under his watch declined significantly, however, when compared with the previous regimes. A comparison of the next two regimes—Alexander the First and Nicolas the First—produces the same result: no disparity in the social, political and economic structures but an enormous disparity in the level of repressions. The real predecessor of the KGB—the notorious Third Section of the Chancellery, headed by the general Alexander Benkendorf, was created by Nikolas. Like the KGB, the new organization installed control over all Russians involved in any sort of public activity, while at the same time it created censure guaranteeing that no text even remotely critical of the monarchy could be printed.
The number of victims under the Third Section of the Chancellery was staggering for that time. It included about 600 arrested as participants of the Decembrist plot, as well as 40 members of the Petrashevsky revolutionary circle. Aside from the five executed Decembrists, in both cases, all those sentenced by the court were sent to Siberia. The new (liberal) regime of Alexander the Second freed them in 1856. (One hundred years later, Khrushchev’s liberal regime did the same with Stalin’s victims).
The differences between the various Soviet regimes, like the differences between the regimes of Alexander the First and Nikolas the First, were only in the level of repressions. In fact, the political, social and economic institutions, which were shaped in the first five years after the emergence of the Soviet order, did not change until Perestroika. Physical repressions reached a peak during Stalin’s reign, the harshest of all Soviet regimes. According to the official data of the KGB, roughly 3.8 million people were arrested and sentenced by non-judicial bodies (the notorious troika) to death, internal exile, or the Gulag. 786,000 people from this group were executed from the 1930s to the early 1950s. These figures, as the KGB data asserted, do not include the victims of dekulakization, starvation and deportation. In this time, not only the behavior but even the minds of all Russians were controlled by the state apparatus, which kept strict control over each printed word, and over the activities of each scholar, teacher, writer, painter, musician or movie and theatre director.
First and foremost, fear of the state and political police embraced all strata of the population, mostly because the informers were insiders, even in such small units as a college class or in a small provincial theatre. Fear in Stalin’s time was so overwhelming that it could wield enormous influence on the relations not only between colleagues and neighbors but also inside the family—between parents and children, and even between spouses.
The fears in Stalin’s time were so strong that even seven decades later, when Russia was supposedly a different country, it continued to linger in the mentality of many Russians, even among the younger generations. This continuity of fear, which can hardly be detected in the post Communist Baltic republics or in Poland, can only be ascribed to the fact that, from Stalin forward, Russians have not even had a single decade where they lived in a society that wasn’t dominated by authoritarian institutions and repressions.
The Soviet regimes that followed Stalin, up until Perestroika, only varied in the intensity of their physical repressions and their ideological control over the population, particularly over the so-called “creative intelligentsia.” The major institutions of an authoritarian (or, rather, totalitarian) regime remained the same in all of the Soviet regimes after the civil war. The political order was always deeply anti-democratic, with key roles played by the party and political police, as well as with its fake elections, and with the state monopoly on media, education, science and the arts. It is true that each Soviet regime tried to change something in the economic structure of society. Khrushchev, for example, tried to stimulate economic growth with some decentralization of economic decisions. The same can be said of his ideas to move agriculture ahead with such actions as the turning over of virgin land in Kazakhstan or the order to cultivate corn everywhere in the country. He was ousted from his position in 1964, when there were lines for bread in every city and a nation-wide shortage of almost all consumer goods. Although it tried to do it differently from Khrushchev, Brezhnev’s regime made the same attempts to decentralize the management of the economy (the so-called Kosygin’s reforms), or at least to improve it using computers and mathematical methods of planning. Brezhnev’s attempts failed as badly as Khrushchev’s, and none of the Soviet regimes could claim to have created their own economic order.
It is true that confrontations with the West diminished after Stalin’s death, but not radically. Until the collapse of the USSR, the militarization of society was practically the same as it had been in Stalin’s times. The Soviet state continued to participate in the weapons race without any respite. Khrushchev’s and, in particular, Brezhnev’s steps to soften the Soviet animosity toward the West from time to time did not change the atmosphere of the cold war in any essential way. After 1953, all of the subsequent regimes continued to consider the West as the enemy; the cold war determined the foreign policies of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, not to mention Andropov, who elevated international tension to the level that existed in the last years of Stalin’s reign, when the Korean War could have triggered a global conflict between the two superpowers. The USSR continued to protect its dominance in East Europe through brute force (the suppression of the Hungarian insurrection by Khrushchev, and of the Prague spring by Brezhnev), and the attempts to expand control over other countries continued after Stalin on a full scale; the intervention in Afghanistan under Brezhnev was the post-Stalin culmination of Soviet geopolitical efforts.
However, it was the level of repressions that truly formed the face of each post-Stalin Soviet regime. Khrushchev’s regime did not enter history as that which made the USSR a superpower (as suggested by Sergei Khrushchev in his book, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower) but as the softener of Stalin’s harsh political order. This regime practically declared Stalin a criminal, releasing hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Gulag, and giving a postmortem acquittal to legions of Stalin’s victims; it alleviated censorship; it allowed the emergence of new Soviet literature—all but making Solzhenitsyn, with his harsh critique of the Gulag atrocities, the hero of Soviet literature; empirical sociology and mathematical economics, which had previously been regarded as bourgeois sciences, were given new life under Khrushchev; many foreign authors were translated; and contacts with the West were increased. Fear declined somewhat throughout the country, and people became more open with each other.
Brezhnev’s regime entered history with signs of being the opposite of Khrushchev’s. On the whole, Brezhnev’s regime was a partial return to Stalin’s times, particularly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was this regime that started re-Stalinization in ideology; began the persecution of dissidents, carrying out trials against some of them; expelled Solzhenitsyn abroad and exiled Sakharov to the province; declared war on the intelligentsia; fired and even arrested some intellectuals who participated in protest actions; and persecuted liberal scholars. It also encouraged Russian chauvinism and increased the level of anti-Semitism. At the same time, Brezhnev’s regime made one very important move in its politics of repressions: it allowed Jewish emigration for one decade, for the sake of a temporal improvement of relations with the USA—an unprecedented act that greatly influenced future developments in Russia.
The differences between the Soviet regimes and post-Soviet regimes (Putin’s, first and foremost) are of a very different nature than the differences among the Soviet regimes. The core of the differences can be seen in the emergence of liberal and feudal segments that were only in an embryonic stage in Soviet times. The interactions of these three segments in post-Soviet times produced a very specific, even unique society with a very particular authoritarian power.
Among the elements of the liberal segment that became embedded in Russian life were several freedoms, like free movement inside and outside the country; the total openness of the country to the external world; freedom of speech in private and, to some degree, in the public sphere; and the freedom, though limited, to assemble. However, the most important element of liberalization was the legalization of big business in society, which had immense consequences for a society with strong feudal tendencies, including a weak state and low observance of the law. The emergence of big business as a crucial actor in Russian society led to the expansion of corruption to a level that would have been unbelievable in any of the Russian regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that also, consequently, led to the concentration of big money in the Kremlin. With the elimination of the financing of various pro-Soviet regimes abroad, and with the drastic reduction in military expenditures, a gigantic amount of money came to be at the personal disposal of the Kremlin’s master. The curtailment of expenditures on public goods—science, education, culture, and health services—only increased the resources at Putin’s disposal. Legislators’ decisive voice in how to use taxpayers’ money has always been the main instrument for controlling executive power in a truly democratic society. It is well known that the fight against absolutist monarchy has often begun with a demand from the elected parliament to control the budget. However, the Duma—the Russian parliament—had, in fact, no real impact on the use of the budget, or the enormous extra budgetary resources controlled by Putin’s regime. Of no less importance was the free access the Kremlin had to the resources of big corporations—state, private and mixed. The corporations whose very existence was at the mercy of the Kremlin (as was the case for many Russian fortunes) were ready to satisfy any of the Kremlin’s demands for money—whether to fulfill the personal needs of the rulers or for their pet projects, like the Olympic games.
It is obvious that without universal corruption and lawlessness—both of which are products of feudal tendencies—such a concentration of money in the Kremlin would have been impossible in the past. As a matter of fact, all of the previous Russian regimes always fought corruption as well as feudal tendencies, even if they had different results. The two post-Soviet regimes, Yeltsin’s and Putin’s, were the first in Russian history in which the government was not only not fighting corruption at the highest echelons of power but, in fact, encouraged it as the best way to ensure the loyalty of bureaucracy and big business to the regime. None of the previous leaders promoted or tolerated the feudal elements in the country that allowed officials at all levels of bureaucracy—such as those who were included in Magnitsky’s list—to use their offices as feudal fiefs for personal enrichment, with a guarantee of immunity against prosecution by law enforcement agencies.
None of the regimes before 1991 —and again, the parallels with the early Middle Ages are evident here—intentionally made the governors into real feudal barons like Alexander Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar region, who could do anything in their power in their provinces; they enriched themselves and the members of their family, and sustained ties with criminal structures. The only demands Putin’s regime made of the governors were for their population to vote in favor of the Kremlin, and to guarantee the absence of mass protests. None of the previous authoritarian leaders could make feudal servants out of their business bosses, as Putin did with Oleg Deripaska, who put his resources at the total disposal of the Kremlin, as well as offering like Mikhail Prokhorov his readiness to play the role in political shows as the Kremlin’s puppet, in exchange for various privileges.
Putin’s regime was so immersed in corruption that it did not even dare to fight it inside of law enforcement agencies. All the Russian regimes in the past considered the integrity of their political police to be a necessary condition for fulfilling its duty as their watchdog. This was not the case for Putin’s Kremlin, which saw the corruption inside the FSB, the heir of the KGB, as well as in the Minister of Internal affairs or the Investigative Committee, or inside other governmental structures, with clear equanimity. During the first two decades of post-Soviet history, not one high official or big business man was sued in court, and none went to trial. For instance, Yurii Luzhkov, former Moscow mayor, was not prosecuted, even though his corruption activity was divulged in several documentary movies in 2012.
In fact, different from every other regime in Russian history, Putin’s administration used corruption in order to tie not only the holders of various state offices to the regime, but also millions of ordinary people, like doctors and teachers, traffic officers and the inspectors of fire departments and sanitation units, who were bribed by citizens both to implement their legal rights and to skirt them.
It was the possibility of personally operating with immense resources, and mostly for their own benefit, that greatly changed the behavior of post-Soviet leaders in comparison with their predecessors. It looks as if the gigantic military machine controlled by Soviet leaders, and the ability—at least in post-Stalin times—to push the button for starting nuclear war did not make them as self-conceited and self-important as big money, with its control of resources (gas and oil), did to Putin. All Soviet leaders led an ascetic life by the standards in Putin’s times, and could not transfer any assets to their offspring. Almost none of the heads of the Russian state in the 19th-20th centuries, nor their ruling elites, were as absorbed with personal enrichment as Yeltsin and Putin. None of the previous leaders, even taking Nikita Khrushchev, who was known for his emotional outbursts, into account, and definitely not the highly educated Russian monarchs, used such vulgar language as Putin. Stalin—who sent a lot of people to their deaths with the wink of an eye—never allowed himself to behave like a redneck in public, as Putin does. None of the Russian leaders would have dared to perform circus stunts, as Putin does, to show the public what a macho man he is. It is simply not possible to imagine that one of the Russian (or foreign) leaders in history would have done the same (only Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze River at Wuhan in 1966 comes to mind). Putin’s public stunts include piloting a fighter jet; swimming in a Siberian river; scuba diving in the strait connecting the Black and Azov seas; shooting a polar bear to tranquilize him; shooting a whale with a crossbow; swimming with dolphins; participating in a car race; riding bare-chested on a horse through the Siberian wilderness; and co-piloting forest fire planes. Putin’s demonstration of machismo in September 2012 involved his piloting a hang-glider to lead cranes on a migratory route. Only an extraordinary level of self-confidence allowed him to disregard the reaction of the public—domestic and international—that openly mocked the extravaganzas put on by the Russian leader.
In fact, big money in the Kremlin deeply influenced not only Putin’s personality but his mechanisms of repression. The leaders in Putin’s regime protected themselves against enemies through the use of big money. Of course, Putin’s regime did not neglect the traditional means of repression either. A few murders of journalists and politicians, as well as jail terms for a few recalcitrant opposition figures ascribed to the regime by the public, were sufficient to spread enough fear among the critics of the Kremlin and local governors to prevent the most “brazen” among them from taking action. What is more, with the prominent feudal elements in society, the persecution of opponents to the regime ceased to be highly centralized, as it had been in Soviet times, and could be performed by various bodies, at the national and local levels, on their own initiative, even up to the thugs of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s feudal barons who was able to kill his enemies in the capital and abroad, appearing in Moscow.
Still, big money allowed Putin’s regime to considerably diminish the overall number of repressions, in comparison with the past. With big money, Putin reduced the size of the opposition to his regime, particularly among state employees and retired people, forcing them to refrain from protest actions, and to vote for him and his party. Instead of arresting or expelling intellectuals to Siberia or abroad, Putin enrolled many of them in the defense of his rule in the media, by awarding fabulous honoraria, and by financially supporting their theatres and orchestras. He was able to suggest that intellectuals become his special emissaries during the presidential election. Putin neutralized many real or potential activists of the opposition by luring them into his dark business with a considerable income and the permanent threat of investigation by law enforcement agencies; those who weren’t completely subdued were at least restrained from taking action that was too aggressive against the government. With the same money, Putin guaranteed the loyalty of the special riot police and the highest officers in the army, making them relatively wealthy people, and not preventing them from having assets abroad.
None of the previous leaders were so apathetic toward the long-term future of Russia. None of them were so unconcerned about the state of science and education in their country. What is more, none of them were so lukewarm about the military preparedness of the army, focusing their attention solely on the repressive apparatus.
None of the authoritarian leaders of pre-revolutionary Russia, nor, definitely, those in the Soviet past, would have subjugated the foreign policy of the country to the financial interests of corporations, because they were the source of wealth for leaders and their circles. None of them were ready to sacrifice relations with their natural allies, as Putin was, if these relations did not satisfy the financial expectations of the ruling elite. Unlike Putin, none of them indulged their whims or personal feelings toward the leaders of foreign countries when making important decisions on foreign affairs. None of them—prerevolutionary or Soviet leaders—insulted the heads of foreign countries unless they were at war with them. At the same time, none of the past leaders were as low in esteem or as weak in the international scene. None of the leaders were so degraded and mocked by domestic and international public opinion. None of them were as concerned about the legitimacy of their positions as the head of state as Putin, even though he was able to formally use the state apparatus to be elected in a factually phony, rigged election because he never permitted honest competition with his political rivals. At the same time, none of the Soviet leaders so cynically or openly articulated their determination to stay in power for an indefinite period of time, as Putin did, even if they hoped to do so.
Putin differed radically from the Soviet leaders in ideological matters. He did not, in fact, pay much attention to ideology, unlike all of the previous General Secretaries. The Soviet leaders operated with a relatively cohesive ideology. Lenin’s socialism and Russian nationalism combined well in the common glorification of the state and the dictatorship of the party. The big state apparatus was involved in the ideological indoctrination of the masses. At the same time, though, Putin was satisfied with his very eclectic ideology, which had to simultaneously justify the state, democratic procedures, and the dominant feudal elements in society, and which has the minimal impact on the mind of the Russians.
It is remarkable that none of the Soviet leaders was so indifferent to social equality in society, or so tolerant of the conspicuous consumption of the ruling elite. None of them (including, to some degree, the Russian tsars) tolerated the deep—in fact, treacherous and anti-national in nature—ties of this elite group with the West, which they considered to be the best place to keep their assets, educate and provide a permanent residence for their children, and, ultimately, to be a refuge for themselves, in case of turmoil.
The comparison of Putin’s regime with the Soviet, as well as the prerevolutionary, authoritarian regimes help us to better understand the nature of Russia in the first decade of the 21st century. However, in no way does the author claim to predict when Putin’s regime will collapse—not in the foreseeable future, or in one decade, or in three decades, or at any moment—as many pundits in Russia and outside have tried to do in 2010-2013.
On the eve of the anniversary of the Second (February) Russian Revolution, a Moscow journalist from the popular newspaper Argumenty i Fakty talked to a 96-year-old Russian noble, Baron Eduard Falzfei, who clearly remembered how the 300-year-old Romanov Empire dissipated before his eyes in a few days. As he recounted, even one week before the February Revolution, none of the Russian nobles in his family or around him had predicted such a catastrophic change in their lives. Of course, many mutually exclusive ideas about how to transform politics in Russia were circulating in Petrograd in 1916 (the most radical among them was the replacement of the tsar). Less than three weeks before the resignation of the emperor, during a meeting with Nikolas the Second, Mikhail Rodzianko, a liberal monarchist, demanded radical changes in the government and tried to scare the emperor with the prospect of revolution. The tsar, however, did not take this threat seriously. He treated it as merely one of the many gloomy prophesies that could be found in any society and in any time. Vasilii Shulgin, another monarchist (he was among those who attended the ceremony of Nikolas’s abdication), in his famous memoir Years, recounted that two days before the start of the revolution, the tsar still hated the State Duma and signed an edict that stopped its activity for an uncertain period of time. The committed enemies of the monarchy were no shrewder on this topic than the imperial court. In exile in Zurich, Vladimir Lenin bitterly lamented in 1916 that his generation would never see a revolution in Russia, the dream of the liberal intelligentsia.
However, on February 23rd, a demonstration by women in Petrograd, who demanded bread, was strong enough to trigger the events that brought about the abdication of Nikolas the Second in ten days. It meant the collapse of the Russian monarchy, along with its repressive apparatus, its loyal Orthodox Church, and the cult of the tsar. The velocity with which the Russian empire vanished amazed the Russians themselves as well as the rest of the world.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, many analysts supported Alexander Zinoviev’s vision of the Soviet Union, as described in his famous book The Yawning Heights (1973), as being a perfect society for ordinary people who were concerned only about stability and the satisfaction of their basic needs, and not freedom. A legion of postmortem prophets has advanced, with admirable conviction, dozens of causes of the empire’s instant death. None of them, however, were able to predict the demise of the USSR when it was alive. The memoirs of the many Soviet politicians, including people close to Gorbachev, then the leader of the USSR, showed that the collapse of the Soviet system in August 1991 was totally unexpected. Even Gorbachev himself ultimately recognized that he did not expect the collapse of the USSR, either in August or later. This was evident when Gorbachev made his first statement while at the airport, after returning from seclusion in Foros, in August 1991. It was clear that the Soviet president did not understand that he was coming back to a new country. He later acknowledged this fact himself. Alexander Bessmertny, the last Soviet foreign minister, insisted that “Gorbachev did not feel that the USSR was about to collapse.” He said that “I don’t think there was any Soviet Intelligence documents which mentioned this future collapse,” and that “I, like most of the Politburo, understood that the USSR was changing, but it never occurred to us that it could cease to exist.”
Western observers who were living in Moscow at the time were as surprised as the Soviet people. Jack Mattlock, who served as the American ambassador in Moscow for four years before the August events, and who had perfect knowledge of Russian language and history, wrote in 1995, “Other empires may have shattered under the pressure of war or revolution, but the Soviet Union expired quietly…Within minutes, while most Americans were opening presents or preparing Christmas dinner, Russia replaced the Soviet Union as a nuclear power…The enormity of what had happened soon sank in. I had expected the outcome, but I also realized that, with all my acquaintance with the society and its politicians and my own participation in some of these events, I could not explain with confidence just how it had happened…How could such a state simply have destroyed itself?”
Western intelligence services and politicians were no more successful than ambassador Matlock in their predictions of the Soviet future. David Arbel and Ran Edelist named several dozens politicians, intelligence officers and journalists in Washington who used the word “surprise” to characterize their reactions to the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those who described themselves as surprised were Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of State Lawrence Eagelburger and State Department official Robert McFarlane. Dozens of other journalists, intelligence officers and politicians in the United States and Europe also confessed their sense of surprise.
The author of this text was in Moscow in May 1991, and witnessed the drastic deterioration of the standard of living and the universal discontent. However, among the people with whom he talked (from outstanding social scientists to taxi drivers), many predicted (the author included) a strong counteroffensive by the Communists, not the fall of the USSR. Eduard Shevardnadze, then a member of the Politburo and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, predicted this event in December 1990 at a meeting of the Fourth Congress of People’s Deputies. Indeed, in August 1991, the Soviet ruling elite undertook a putsch, which, to everybody’s surprise (and to the relief of liberals), was dismantled in three days. The self-proclaimed junta did not dare order the army to shoot into the crowd and quickly capitulated. Neither the Communists nor the KGB resisted Yeltsin’s decision to bury the Soviet Union. There was not even one member of a party committee at any level (from the regional to the factory level) who publicly defended the regime, which served, supposedly, as the basis of their status and well being. For the Russian people, the fall of the regime was a total surprise—a moment of déjà vu for those who remembered February 1917.
The comparison of Putin’s regime with the Soviet regimes, if not a very effective instrument, is still helpful for evaluating its stability and its vulnerability with respect to domestic and international challenges. Putin’s regime had neither an effective party and state apparatus, nor a powerful KGB and strong ideology. But never in Russian history had such a big number of the Russians lived as well as under Putin. Never in history had the opposition lacked charismatic leaders as much as in Putin’s Russia. The most vulnerable spot in the stability of Putin’s regime were the prices of oil and gas. Their drastic decline would have had a tremendous impact on political life in Russia. However, in this case, the well-paid FSB, police and army may have had a good chance of coping with the mass protests of a pauperized population. Other unpredictable shocks, like big technological disasters, might also change a lot in domestic lives.
In any case, Putin’s regime, with Putin or without him, has a good chance of persisting for the next decade or two.