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.