In June, Stanislav Belkovsky wrote that Putin “never created a power vertical.” Instead, the Putinist system is a “rhizome” state, a horizontal network “composed of innumerable multiplicities of power centers.”
Putin stands at the core but is isolated. He is the last to know or is simply left in the dark. In the network, each node, which is a merger of money and administrative resources, is really where the Russian state “is born, lives, and from time to time dies.” The implication that Russia as a rhizome state is clear: We must abandon the vertical for the horizontal if we really want to know how Russia is ruled.
I was reminded of Belkovsky’s provocative revision as I read Alena Ledeneva’s excellent and informative Can Russia Modernize? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance. This book is a sequel to her Russia’s Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (1998) and her exploration of post-Soviet informal practices in How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices that Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (2006).
Can Russia Modernize? is not so much a sequel as it is the outer crust to these previous subterranean explorations. While the first two texts focused on the societal workings of informal networks, the new book illuminates their presence in the innards of the Russian state.
Like Belkovsky, Ledeneva also sees Russia as a network state, a vast web of money and power linked through informal practices, clans, personal relations governed by unwritten rules and codes. This complex circuitry forms the sistema, or system, of Russia that Putin lords over – and of which he is just as much a prisoner.
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By Sean — 6 years ago
On Sunday, by all accounts, Vladimir Putin will be elected President of the Russian Federation for a six year term with the option of running again in 2018. The polls don’t lie. The last Levada Center poll, places Putin at 66 percent with Gennady Ziuganov at a distant 15 percent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 8 percent, Mikhail Prokhorov, 6 percent, and Sergei Mironov, 5 percent. The second round possibility is now a fantasy. Even without rigging the polls, Putin is slated to win with 50+1 for a first round victory. It’s too soon to speculate if Putin will indeed remain in power until 2024. A lot can happen in six years. If recent events are any indication, a lot can happen in three months. For even though Putin will be victorious, that victory has happened in unfamiliar conditions.
Indeed, the Russian presidential election has been anything but ordinary. Sure, the official cast of characters remains virtually identical to past contests, save a few additions. Communist Party stalwart, Gennady Ziuganov still plays the role of “loyal opposition in-chief,” the aging face of a Communist Party that has the organizational resources to actually present a political alternative to Putin, but lacks the so-called “Leninist will” to adapt to present political conditions. Part of that adaption, however, would require dumping Ziuganov and forsake its aging electorate, something the KPRF mandarins and rank and file are still unwilling to do. Opposite Ziuganov is Vladimir Zhironovsky, another perennial “loyal oppositionist.” Zhirik plays the harlequin in this grand performance, adding outrageous, comic relief to a show already thin on drama. In a way, Zhirinovsky reflects the whole process itself, a clown for a clownish spectacle. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, the new addition to the cast. Prokhorov serves as a kind of Khodorkovsky-lite (since the real Khodorkovsky is less pliable and, well, in jail for the foreseeable future). An oligarch who “made” the bulk of his wealth in the “loans for shares” scheme that saved Boris Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 Presidential election, Prokhorov, unlike Khodorkovsky, not only understood the rules of the game, but also played them correctly. But the biggest question that has dogged Prokhorov is not his past, but whether he’s a Kremlin project or not. I suspect that he’s a mixture. One thing is clear to me after reading Julia Ioffe’s profile of him in the New Yorker is that Prokhorov’s biggest obstacle is that he’s a sleazeball. Bringing up the rear is Just Russia’s candidate, Sergei Mironov. His candidacy only inspires one question: Who’s he?
Then there is Putin. Yes Putin. Not much to say about the man except perhaps, as the star of the show, we’ve seen his ability to play multiple personalities. During this campaign, we’ve seen Putin as the defender of stability, Putin the xenophobe, Putin the strongman, Putin the liberal, and Putin the populist. If there is anything Masha Gessen got right in her new book on the man, it’s the title. Putin is indeed a man without a face, and it’s this facelessness that has made him so effective. Given the choices on the ballot, Putin ironically serves as the political moderate. But Putin’s chameleon-like abilities also make him a perfect totem for his supporters and detractors alike. He serves as both good and evil, corrupt and uncorruptible, hero and villain. Indeed, Putin is a man of contradiction. He rebuilt the Russian state, but in doing so has contributed to its ossification. He has rebuilt the Russian economy, but in doing so made it too inflexible. Putin facilitated the creation of the middle class, but in doing so created his most challenging opposition. Putin vanquished oligarch patronage, and in doing so helped create new patrons. Unfortunately, in resurrecting Russia from the smuta of the 1990s, Putin has had to restore some of the worse historical aspects of Russian statecraft: centralization, personalization, and patrimonialism. In such a system, Putin is the most indispensable and dispensable figure. Indispensable because as the center of the Russian political system, he prevents the whole thing from collapsing. But as that center, Putin also ensures the system a slow and decrepit march to suspension. Given that Putin will be sticking around for at least six more years, it can be assured that so will the contradictions.
The Rise of the Bandar-log
This presidential election also has a new addition to the cast: the Bolotnaya protesters. They weren’t officially hired to play a role, that is unless you believe all the conspiracy theories that they are paid US agents. It’s more like they’ve pushed themselves on to the stage, a motley Greek chorus whose disparate voices have been cauterized into a collective cry for “fair elections.” Liberals, nationalists, communists, anarchists, and their fellow-travelers make up their political palate. The movement, if it can be called that, was conceived on September 24 when Putin announced he was running for election, born during the parliamentary elections on December 4 with outrage against electoral fraud as its first cry, and since has matured into a political force, and if not then at least political irritant to Putin’s re-election bid.
The Bandar-log have captured the political imagination of those at home and abroad, as evidence in the showering of comparisons to the Arab Spring, the colored revolutions in the mid-2000s, the handmaidens of a new Perestroika, and even the American Civil Rights Movement. Comparisons, especially historical ones, are always tricky because they suggest a large measure of similitude. Thus for the protests to be akin to the Arab Spring, Putin must be a Mubarak and Russia, Egypt. Hardly. For the colored revolutions, there must be an opposition candidate strong enough to make the elections contestable. He or she doesn’t exist. For a new Perestroika to be on the horizon, today’s Russia must resemble the Soviet Union. There’s no need to exaggerate. As for the Civil Rights Movement . . . huh?
This not to say that events in Russia are isolated from the global uprisings of 2011. They are not. Revolutionary upheavals are never contained. We’ve seen this too many times–1789, 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989–to discount their contagiousness. While Russia looks nothing like North Africa, it is hardly immune to the infectiousness of its enthusiasm and symbolic power. Indeed, the uprisings in Russia are part of global reconfiguration of mass politics into a more ideologically amorphous, leaderless, network based, social media driven phenomena. In them inhabit revolutionary echoes of the past, which are reconfigured, for better or for worse, toward an undetermined future. What is striking about many of these uprisings, and here Russia is included, is that there is no future program of utopian or technocratic nature. Their platforms are mostly ethically laden calls for dignity and recognition. The rest is made up as they move forward.
This is certainly the case in Russia. The repeated protester mantra that “We want reforms, not revolution” is not just a tactic to keep contradictory forces together, a trauma of past revolutionary experiments, or indicative of its class makeup. Rather the mantra is born out of an ideological moment in Russia where nothing beyond reform is imaginable. In this sense, Russia is already a liberal society.
But what kind of liberalism? That is the question. Will it be the liberalism of Putin that allows for the ravages of economic globalization to eat away at the social and economic fabric of Russian society all the while funneling the benefits into the few oligarchic hands? Or will it be the liberalism of Bandar-log, who if they ever gain a measure of influence will abandon their left and nationalist allies, for a less crooked, but no less neoliberal capitalism? Thus when it comes down to the standoff between Bolotnaya and Putin, the disagreements are about the rules, not the game.
That said, the protests in Russia have unleashed more than a middle class yearning for power. In a fascinating essay, Maria Chekhonadskikh and Alexei Penzin detail the more molecular political explosion that has occurred since December 4. Under the slogan “You can’t even imagine/represent us!” (Vy nas dazhe ne predstavlyaete!), a number of smaller radical initiatives have grown that have mostly flown under the media’s radar:
The protestors’ distrust of liberal oppositional leaders has provoked the mass self-organization of people who wanted speak about their issues and make different suggestions on the tactics of struggle. For example, at the Sakharovsky Prospect rally on December 24th, there were alternative platforms of students, teachers, cultural workers and traditional civil movements. For example, during the meeting there was an open people`s mic and workshop “Making your slogans”, organized by Union for Cultural Workers and Occupy Moscow Movement. Every day, new alternative committees, platforms and activist initiatives have emerged since January 2012. This “constitutive power” of the people is growing and is more aware of the stalemate of representative politics of any sort. The recent rallies and actions on February 4th and 26th demonstrated exactly this – the joyful creativity of a network-organized multitude of protesters and their distrust of any forms of traditional and authoritarian political leadership.
One cannot predict now how and at what moment the growing protest will reach its peak, nor when it will be able to dismantle the regime of so-called “managed democracy” dominating Russia for the last 10 years. Probably, the protests will be so strong that, after March 4th, the situation will drastically change again. At the same time, many activists are thinking about long-term struggle and putting their hopes in the democratic elaboration of a more socially and economically attuned political agenda, dealing with topics of the global crisis of neoliberalism and the question of social justice. But something irreversible has already happened –mass politicization and a rising political consciousness cannot be stopped and trapped in banal mantras of representative democracy. This situation of openness and uncertainty itself is an achievement of the movement, which indeed was unthinkable only three moths ago in the midst of the despair of imagining Putin’s uncanny “stability” for the next 6 to 12 years.
There are many echoes here, mostly of Italian Autonomist Marxism, particularly that of Antonio Negri with the references to joy, creativity, network, and multitude. It is here, hopefully, in the formation of a constitutive power that abandons the yoke of liberal hesitancy that Russia’s brightest political future dwells. There can be no real democracy without social justice, and on this last point the liberals of Bolotnaya are virtually silent.
In the meantime, the liberals of the Bandar-log remain the force in play, and its injection on to the political scene has completely transformed the Russian presidential election. After all, who is Putin running against? It certainly isn’t Ziuganov, Zhirinovsky, Prokhorov, or Mironov. The vast majority of Putin’s memorable comments, warnings, and threats have been directed to the Bolotnaya crowd. The utilization of the counter-protest by Putin’s camp has turned the struggle into an almost schoolyard battle, perhaps not unlike Putin’s childhood fisticuffs. Each side endeavors to tell the other: “I have more friends than you do.” It appears that at least in the short term, post-election Russia will feature more protest tit-for-tats of similar ilk.
The Road Forward
As that great philosopher Donald Rumsfield said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” We know Putin, but which Putin Russia will get is unknown. We know the opposition, but whether it can sustain and build is unknown. We know the Russian people, at least some of us like to imagine we do, but they remain the biggest unknown of all. The question, as the former Defense Secretary put it, is about the unknown unknowns. A heavy canopy of unknown unknowns hangs over the Russian political landscape. This, I think, is best encapsulated by the ratcheting up of rhetoric in the last week producing an eerie specter of violence. There is suspicion from both sides that the other will try spark something. The language of provocation is at its height. Blood figures too often in commentary. For example, I was personally struck by the amount of times Viktor Shenderovich mentioned “the spilling of blood” as a possibility in an interview on Ekho Moskvy. Each side may say that violence is a “lose-lose,” but the necessity of making that conscious articulation suggests that the haunting presence of violence is there. And if violence realized, by intent or accident, it would lead Russia into the greatest unknown unknown of all.Post Views: 482
By Sean — 5 years ago
Last weekend’s sudden death of Boris Berezovsky generated a slew of questions. How did he die? Murder, heart failure, or suicide? Why? What’s the significance? It’s increasingly clear that Berezovsky committed suicide thanks to a mixture of financial ruin and depression. But perhaps the strangest mystery was the bomb Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov dropped when asked about the kingmaker’s death.
“Some time ago Berezovsky gave his own letter to Putin where he recognized that he had made many mistakes and begged pardon for his mistakes. Berezovsky also asked Putin for allowing the oligarch to return home.”
We do know that he wanted to return to Russia. He said as much in an “off the record” interview with Forbes Russia the Friday before his death.
F-R: Do you miss Russia?
B: Return to Russia… I want nothing more than to go back to Russia. Even after a criminal case was opened, I wanted to go back to Russia. Even after a criminal case was opened! I only stayed on the advice of Elena Bonner [the late widow of Russian physicist and exile Andrei Sakharov]. The main thing I underestimated was that Russia was too dear to me, that I couldn’t be an immigrant.
I have changed many of my past assessments. Including of myself. My views, as to what’s Russia and what’s the West. I absolutely idealistically imagined the possibility of building a democratic Russia. I idealistically imagined what a democracy in the heart of Europe would be. I underestimated the inertia of Russia and greatly overestimated the West. And this was happening gradually. I changed my view about Russia’s future. I shouldn’t have left Russia.
F-R: If you would have stayed in Russia, you’d be in jail. Is this what you want?
B: Now, looking back at how I spent those years in London…
Berezovsky looked ahead, then put his hand to his chest. His hand was shaking. He turned to me and looked me in the eye for a while. Finally he said:
B: I don’t have the answer to this question. [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky [Russian political prisoner, once the country’s richest man] saved himself.
Berezovsky looked at his feet, then quickly glanced at me and began to speak quickly as if trying to justify himself.
B: This doesn’t mean that I have lost myself. But I’ve lived through a lot more of my own revaluations and disappointments than Khodorkovsky. I lost the meaning.
F-R: Of life?
B: The meaning of life. I don’t want to engage in politics now.
Still, a letter to Putin asking for forgiveness and to return to Russia? No way. Few believed it could be true, including myself. I assumed it was one last dig at Russia’s mortal foe. It was a rare moment when I agreed with Masha Gessen:
Berezovsky would have appreciated Peskov’s apparent bit of fancy: It was a page out of his own playbook. Berezovsky was a master of political intrigue and manipulation. He never lost his taste for it, even when the consequences of a poorly played hand forced him into exile and, eventually, into near-bankruptcy.
Despite my skepticism, I admit I sure hoped Berezovsky’s letter was true. It would be karma coming full circle.
Unsurprisingly, speculation swirled around the purported Berezovsky letter. Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan quoted an alleged passage on air, “I made many mistakes. I understand how hard it is for me to ask, but I become unraveled and I implore you [Putin] for forgiveness.” Moskovskii komsomolets editor, Pavel Gusev (who of late is no stranger to scandal), said that he didn’t doubt Berezovsky wrote the it, adding that it was written in the former oligarch’s style.
Reporters badgered Peskov. What was Putin’s reaction? How did Berezovsky send it? Would the Kremlin publish it? The answers were: Don’t know. Through private channels. No, it was personal.
So did Berezovsky fall on his sword before Putin or not? It turns out he did, or at least, so says Katerina Sabirova, a close Berezovsky confidant, in an interview with The New Times.
What do you know about Berezovsky’s letter to Vladimir Putin?
Yes, I came to London in October and he met me at the airport. We went to his home. He told me that he thought that the only way he could return to Russia was to “make a move”–to apologize to Putin. He talked about it like it was his last chance.
For what in particular did he want to apologize to Putin?
He said that he didn’t see another way except to go to [Putin] on all fours. I think that it was Boris’ and his [ex-]wife’s idea. He discussed it with her for a long time on the telephone. They talked about it for hours. I was never present at their conversations. Boris left and I understood that they talked about the possibility of such a letter. He didn’t conceal that they talked about this letter. I didn’t believe that this letter would help. He said that it was all the same to him and he would see it as necessary to return [to Russia]. Elena [Berezovsky’s ex-girlfriend] convinced him to go back and make peace (with Putin.) Even his mother, Anna Aleksandrovna. I heard her say, “Borya, maybe you can make peace?”
Was there a letter?
Yes, I saw the handwritten text. He read it to me. He asked forgiveness and asked about the possibility of returning. It was such a whipping. He asked me what I thought about the letter. I said that they will publish it and you will look bad. And that it won’t help. He responded that it was all the same to him, that everyone will hang every last sin on him, and that this was his only chance.
So there you have it. And keep in mind, this isn’t coming from the Kremlin. But from one of the most liberal, anti-Putin publications in Russia.
Photo: ReutersPost Views: 539
By Sean — 7 years ago
In the Soviet 1920s the leather jacket was the communist fashion statement. It symbolized proletarian ruggedness, ideological fortitude, and the quintessential expression of revolutionary manliness. The fact that few “proletarians” could avoid such a luxury was irrelevant. Cowhide was more an accoutrement for those who lacked the proletarian stock to acquire the image of a defender of the working masses. Thus when the author V. F. Panova’s husband decided shed his intellectual lineage and “forge” himself into an “iron Bolshevik,” he strutted around in a leather jacket, “spoke with an echoing base” and “worked at a wild pace to add extra authenticity.
By the late 1930s, when most communists abandoned leather for wool suits, the jacket became the provenance of the secret police, the self-anointed embodiment of the Revolution. Indeed, leather’s sleek shine went well with Felix Dzerzhinsky’s famous slogan that a good Chekist had “clean hands, a cool head, and a warm heart.” That is to say, as the leather jacket served as a communist costume to mimic militancy, so did Dzerzhinsky’s slogan varnish the fact that in reality, Chekists had neither clean hands, cool heads, nor warm hearts.
This jaunt back into Soviet history is merely to note that some habits die hard, especially if they’re seared into tradition and memory. The leather jacket continues to have meaning for Russia’s security organs. So much so that the Federal Protective Service (FSO), which serves as Presidential security and possesses a wide range of police powers, placed an order to purchase 120 black leather jackets for its high ranking officers, reports Zakupki-News, a site that monitors government officials’ outlandish spending. The cost for just 60 Chekist chic jackets is about 3 million rubles ($106,000).
The Cheka-GPU-NKVD redux wasn’t lost on readers. One commenter on Zakupki-News wrote, “They still haven’t bought the Mausers?” in reference to the pistol used to execute “enemies of the people” in the 1930s. Another quipped, “Or is so this they can standout among the People’s Front?” Or another, “Ah, beautiful. Dirt to filth is a natural movement.”
The FSO’s extracurricular spending should come as no surprise. In May, it allocated 336,000 rubles ($12,129) to purchase marble bathtubs. And not just any marble tub. They had to be “white marble, 1900 mm long, 900 mm wide, and 520 mm high.” The tubs had to hold 310 liters of water. When a journalist asked Mikhail Moksyakov, a rep from the FSO, whether the white marble tubs were for his apartment, he responded, “And why can’t we buy a bathtub? Why does this interest you, exactly?
He has a point. Chekists need to bathe too. How else do you expect them to keep their hands clean?Post Views: 1,082