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By Sean — 11 years ago
I was going through Russia’s Great Reforms, 1855-1881 the other day looking for information on Alexander II’s judicial reforms of 1864. I was particularly interested in the creation of jury trials in local courts. The book is a wonderful collection of articles in its own right. Sadly, its one of the few that has been published in English since 1991 that has tried to rethink what the reforms meant or didn’t mean for Tsarist Russia.
While going through the book, I had a chance to reaquaint myself with Alfred Rieber’s fascinating essay “Interest-Group Politics in the Era of the Great Reforms”. Rieber is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. I saw him give a paper in London last year that was just delightful. He flayed his arms about as he spoke, sometimes grabbing the podium to thrust his body back and forth. The man turned dry academic discourse into a fiery historical diatribe. I don’t even remember what his paper was about. But I remember the performance.
Given the recent news about the Kremlin clans taking their feud public and Putin’s recent intervention to mediate, even subdue them, made Rieber’s essay take on a whole new relevance. He essentially argues that Alexander II was a “managerial Tsar” who had to balance noble factions. Dispensing with the typical historical labels like liberal and conservative to describe the various positions of royal insiders, Rieber instead sees them in terms of group interest. From this he identifies four main factions: the Economists, the Engineers, the Military and the Shuvalov Faction (this group was centered around Count Piotr Shuvalov which opposed the terms of emancipation). All four of these groups, Rieber writes,
“Still part of the ruling class, interest groups were associations of individuals from the upper and middle strata of society who acted in concert to defend and advance public policies that met their ideological aspirations and material needs. They were either occupational or opinion groups, formally or informally organized. The occupational groups clustered around specific ministries; indeed, at times it was difficult to distinguish between the traditional type of faction with a powerful minister as patron and his ministerial subordinates as clients and the new form of an interest group.”
Rieber argues that Alexander had to balance all these factions and though he had his loyalties, especially to the Economic and Military factions, he nonetheless served more as arbiter than partisan. Nor did Alexander’s role as “manager” quell noble infighting. On the contrary, “the political struggle continued,” Rieber concludes, “with the tsar favoring one or another interest at different times. But he found himself in the position of regulating rather than eliminating the bureaucratic conflicts.” As Russia’s reforms rolled on the interests and infighting only increased. The result of Alexander’s arbitration ended up being its own contradiction. The Tsar’s personal intervention essentially prevented the development of an “institutional framework” for the him to resolved conflicts without his personal intervention. The end result was “following the Great Reforms the autocrat steadily lost control over the governing process, but the competing interest groups were too fragmented to take it over.”
Sounds like a good allegory for today’s Russia.
By Sean — 11 years ago
“Democracy” enjoys the support of only 36 percent of Russians according to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s report “Life in Transition: A Survey of People’s Experiences and Attitudes.” Moreover, 40 percent of Russians prefer a planned economy over a market one. These statistics made Kommersant declare that “1/3 of Russians Prefer Authoritarian Rule” and Vedomosti write of a “Planned Satisfaction.”
But why the glass half full assessment? Clearly there is another 64 percent and 60 percent of respondents think otherwise. A clear majority. Yet given these two articles, one would assume that Russian’s are ready to return to the halcyon days of Brezhnev, or one might even dare say, Stalin. But this is not the case.
I think it is important to note that in regard to the 36 percent of Russians favoring “authoritarianism” (whatever that means) is a bit misleading. Respondents were given the following answers for questions about democracy: 1) “For people like me, it does not matter;” 2) “Under some circumstances, an authoritarian government may be preferable to a democratic one;” 3) “Democracy is preferable to any other form of political system.” About 20 percent of responds from the CIS plus Mongolia chose the second answer. But what does “under some circumstances” and “may be preferable” mean? What kind of circumstances? On this the report does say.
While about 55 percent of respondents chose “Democracy is preferable to any other form of political system”, it is interesting almost 30 percent don’t care either way. This means that either they don’t feel the effects of “authoritarianism” or “democracy” on their daily lives, or don’t really see the difference between the two. I think this ambivalence deserves far more investigation.
Respondents’ attitudes toward the market are similar. Again, the survey provided similar answers: 1) “For people like me, it does not matter;” 2) “Under some circumstances, a planned economy may be preferable to a market economy;” 3) “A market economy is preferable to any other form of economic system.” Again, “under some circumstances” isn’t defined. A bit over 40 percent of respondents from the CIS plus Mongolia said that the market economy is preferable. Almost 30 percent chose “under some circumstances” a planned economy may be better. And like with democracy, a good 30 percent didn’t care either way. Again, if Kommersant and Vedomosti would have had headlines like “1/3 of Russians are ambivalent toward democracy, authoritarianism, planned economy, and market economy” a whole different light would have been cast on “Life in Transition.” Namely, that despite what ideologues think at least a third of the population, if not more, will go along and cope with whatever system they’re given.
These statistics break down in interesting ways when you combine authoritarianism and democracy with planned economy and market economy. 19 percent of Russians favored “democracy and market economy”, 12 percent “democracy and planned economy”; 5 percent “authoritarianism and market economy” and 23 percent “authoritarianism and planned economy.” One might immediately point out that the last choice scored higher than the other three. However, it becomes less significant when you see that 21 percent of respondents said that “neither matters” and 20 percent favored “all other combinations”. As to what those “other combinations” are the report doesn’t say. But the point I want to emphasize is that as many people are ambivalent about their political economic system as those who care.
The survey gives other charts that chop these results up further according to age, gender, and income. It is no surprise that the young and wealthy have more positive attitudes toward “democracy” and the “market” than the old and the poor. After all, the lives of the young and the wealthy have had an easier time in the “transition.” Such tends to be the case anywhere.
The survey also records attitudes toward corruption, “trust in society,” and “trust in public institutions.” The vast majority of Russians despite age and income level feel that corruption is about the same as it was before 1989. Trust in society, however, has fallen sharply. Before the collapse of communism, trust in people hovered between 70 and 60 percent. Now its fallen to between 30 and 40 percent. One can include a bit of nostalgia to explain the pre-1989 numbers. But it is important that regardless of age and income most people perceive that people can’t be trusted.
Statistics about how people feel about public institutions are also interesting. Over 50 percent of respondents said that they had “complete plus some trust” in the Presidency, surely a boost for the effort to make Putin a “National Leader.” About 10 percent were ambivalent toward the president and about 30 percent didn’t trust him at all. The public trust hierarchy went as follows: the military (40 percent), the Government (30 percent), the Banks and Financial System (30 percent), the Courts (28 percent), the Parliament (22 percent), the Police (20 percent), and finally Political Parties (13 percent). “Neither trust nor distrust” in all these hovered around 20 percent.
I think the discrepancy in trust in the Presidency and in Political Parties says a lot of what Russians think about politics. Especially in regard to the upcoming Duma elections. But I also think the gap suggests something else: When Russians say that they favor democracy what do they mean exactly? Here, as always, were are left to our own speculation.
By Sean — 10 years ago
Prime Minister Putin continued his annual Q&A with the Russian people on Thursday. A full English transcript is now available on Putin’s website. Russia watchers have already began combing through his words, interpreting their significance, and assessing their political resonance. As most reports emphasize, Putin spoke at length about the economic crisis assuring Russians that things will get bad but the nation will weather the storm. It’s not surprising that the PM’s comments focused on the economy. Issues like unemployment, inflation, benefits and pensions were naturally what concerned most people.
Russians were eager to pose questions to the PM, or as a caller named Dasha Varfolomeeva called him, “Uncle Volodya.” About 2.2 million flooded in via phones, text messages, and the Internet. At times it appeared the studio was barely handling the deluge. At one point, Maria Sittel, the event’s co-host said, “The load is tremendous, Mr Mackevicius. No time for rest. I think we have crossed an important psychological barrier: 2.2 million communications, including 1.5 million telephone calls and just over 600,000 text messages. The rest is from the Internet.” Putin may not be president, but he certainly is “the father of the nation.”
This idea of Putin as “father” or even “uncle” to the masses is certainly not a new political idea for Russia. Direct communication with the Father, whether it be the Tsar, General Secretary, President or Prime Minister has been a dynamic between leader and people for centuries. Normally, the distance between leader and led is vast, giving the opportunity to be in the leader’s proximity a momentary but significant symbiotic relation. Here I find myself in agreement with Masha Lipman’s explanation of this event:
“[It] emphasizes the paternalistic nature of the regime. It is a style of government in which the most important thing is the rapport between the top decision-taker and the people. Many of those questions were local or even individual. And people have their own legislators. They have federal legislators they voted for, they have their own governors and yet there is this sense that maybe the only way to get a problem solved is to get through to the supreme authority.”
Putin’s Q&A does say a lot of about the personalized nature of the regime, but it also says that Russians themselves recognize this as an effective means to get problems solved. For example, the Financial Times notes,
From the southern city of Nizhny Novgorod, a mother called to complain that a subsidised baby food clinic had been closed. Half an hour after the show, the governor of the province announced the miraculous resolution of the problem.
The Tsar + people against the boyars dynamic continues to function. The interests of the leader are sublimated into the people so that for one brief moment they embody the sovereign body of Putin. When looked at closely, the whole exercise exerts an air of the carnivalesque.
The notion of proximity between leader and lead is further seen in how so many Russians crafted their questions. Not only did they address subjects as wide ranging as Christmas trees and pedophiles, how callers crafted their questions says volumes about the language of appeal. The questions were often personal and callers were quick to give Putin a short autobiographical note mixed with a political statement. For example,
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Oksana Klimova. I’d like to express the pain of many people who live in the Far East. We feel detached from central Russia, since many families cannot buy train or air tickets, because air tickets cost around 30,000 rubles or even more. My kid asked me if we could go to St Petersburg for winter holidays, but I said No.
What will be done for the healthcare and education professionals to help them afford such luxury?
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Savelyeva.
I am a single mother. My daughter is 16. She studies in the 11th grade, this is her final year. I work at the radio-electronics plant, the Kontakt plant with billions in sales. These days, they have announced layoffs because of the crisis. Out of its 4,000 workers, 1,500 will be dismissed. I have worked as a production engineer for more than 20 years, and my salary grew from 6,000 to 8,000 rubles, but now it is being reduced. I am afraid I may lose my job.
Mr Putin, how will you deal with massive unemployment?
As someone who has read a number of appeals to leaders during the Soviet period, I’m struck by their narratological similarities. Often letters to power began with an autobiographical introduction of some sort. Since those appeals were written, the authors tended detail their life in greater depth than those fielded by Putin. Citizens’ requests from the early Soviet period also had a similar individual tone. I have letters to Komsomol General Secretary N. Chaplin asking for advice on marriage, employment, money, and other forms of assistance. Sometimes people got results. On some letters to Stalin, one can see his marginal notes directing the appeal to the appropriate authority. In other cases, letters of complaint and denunciation opened up investigations of local officials.
Finally, I think the most interesting part of the Q&A was the final part when Putin took short questions and at many points took personal responsibility for their resolution. Here are a few examples:
“I have eight children, my eldest daughter is 20. I have not received the Order of Maternal Glory, and, hence, I don’t get the benefits.”
It goes without saying I will check on this. I can’t comment on this particular case now, but this mistake should be corrected. I hope you’ve left your address here. We will find you.
“Dear Mr Putin, I found my father’s grave killed during WWII on the Internet.” The man asks to help with restoring the monument, which the local budget cannot afford.
We shall contact you. This is a sacred duty of local and regional authorities alike. If they do not have enough money, I would stress that the matter implies not only money but also morals. We shall help if they cannot afford such things, but I don’t think this is a matter where thrift should come in to play.
“We have no school and no art or knitting classes near our home. The children hope you will help.”
This is also a matter of regional scope, but we shall help, as the message has reached me. We shall certainly help.
“My request concerns my son, who will be conscripted next autumn. He dreams of serving in the Kremlin Regiment.”
Good boy! It’s great that he wants to go into the army. As for the Kremlin Regiment, it has certain qualifications. I will pass your message along to the Federal Guard Service, and I believe its chiefs will do something for you.
Whether Putin actually comes through on these is immaterial. What is important is that he acknowledged people’s individual voices in a very public forum. In the big political sense, that recognition is more important as any results.