• A Bashful Autocracy: Why There is no Putin Street in St. Petersburg

    Posted by: Yekaterina Schulmann August 25, 2015

    Soon, Muscovites will get to choose the location of an enormous, 24-meter tall monument of Prince Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler in the East Slavic world. They will be able to vote via a smartphone app between three different locations in the capital. Two other options on the ballot, “Experts should decide” and “I don't know,” basically mean "Leave it to the authorities." The choice "Don’t put it anywhere”  is conspicuously absent.

    In July the Russian leadership commemorated the millennium of the death of Vladimir in 1015 with a grand reception in the Kremlin and a four-point presidential decree, in which the last two points were classified as secret. Evidently, the Russian authorities want to erect the monument to Vladimir on Lubyanka Square, the location of the headquarters of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. He will rise in the empty space once occupied by a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky that was, until recently, being readied for his reinstatement. 

    In the same month a group of senators from Russia’s upper house of parliament submitted a draft law to parliament instituting two new commemorative dates: April 19, the Day of the Accession of Crimea, Taman, and Kuban into the Russian Empire (1783) and September 9, a Memorial Day for the Veterans of the Crimean War (1853-1856). 

    The accompanying commentary to the law explains that the dates reflect “authentic geopolitical events" which compelled Catherine the Great to bring these territories under Russian rule on the request of their citizens and that this "became the legitimate form of the accession of Crimea into Russia." 

    The two key concepts here are “authenticity” (the events really did take place, they weren’t just some fantasy) and “legitimacy” (Crimea was brought into the empire at its own request, it was not just seized by force). Of course 1783 should really read 2014: the April date was selected for its proximity to the so-called Crimean Spring, and “Catherine the Great” is a stand-in for an entirely different Russian leader.

    In the same way, everyone can see that Vladimir the Great is also a stand-in for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian elite really wants to honor him with monuments and feast-days but it has to do so in roundabout fashion. 

    Why is it that Russia cannot erect a rotating monument to Vladimir Putin, just as Turkmenistan did for its first president, or rename St. Petersburg University Putin University, just as a major university in Astana has been named after Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev? 

    In Russia, everyone knows that adulation of this type is impossible. Indeed, the bureaucratic machine would view someone who proposed this initiative as a provocateur.

    The prohibition is both obvious and hard to formulate. 

    First of all, Russia's rulers are acting in a special-ops style because most of them are themselves siloviki, or members of the security forces. For them an element of secrecy and surprise is key to all political decisions. The truth should never be expressed in public, even when doing so is beneficial, and all maps must be printed with errors so as to mislead potential spies.

    Under this special services logic, this year a presidential decree instituted February 27 as a Special Operations Forces Day holiday. Why this date? The government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta told its readers, “Just recall what happened where this time last year, and how it ended.” The new holiday is a not-so-subtle celebration of the Crimean takeover.

    This rather strange nod-and-wink routine in official commemorations makes Russia's state and citizens co-conspirators in unspoken truths.  There is nothing new here. Russian émigré author Vladimir Nabokov wrote that when radical thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky spoke in the 1860s about the Italian resurgence, “he kept adding in brackets, with drilling insistence, after practically every other sentence: ‘Italy,’ ‘in Italy,’ ‘I am talking about Italy.’ The already corrupted reader would have known that he was talking about Russia and the peasant question.” Soviet theater goers would learn to read between the lines in similar fashion. 
    Hints, insinuations, and doublespeak are the weapons of the weak. When a powerful state resorts to such technique, it creates a somewhat warped but strong bond between the government and its citizens.

    The phenomenon of what we can describe as Russia's "authoritarian bashfulness" can also be explained by political theory. Professor Barbara Geddes, a prominent researcher of authoritarian regimes, classifies Russia as a "personalist autocracy," as distinct from a single-party or military autocracy that exists elsewhere in the world. This concept is regarded critically (why can’t Russia rely on its laws and institutions rather than on one-man control?) or with pride (Russia needs a heaven-sent leader), but no one denies that this is how the country is run. 

     Most personalist regimes are less durable than single-party dictatorships and more susceptible to economic and exogenous shocks, because a “heaven-sent leader" must continuously prove his ability to turn water into wine and multiply loaves of bread or fish. Any difficulties must be temporary in nature. Also, personalist regimes need to continually buy off their elites: when the rewards for loyalty run out, the ranks of supporters suddenly evaporate.

    However, there is a subtle but important internal contradiction in this Russian regime. Even if autocracy here is centered on one leader, the legitimation of authority is still procedural, in other words, power is acquired and transferred through elections and the interpretation of written law. Bureaucrats, not revolutionaries, are the custodians of authority.

    This does not mean that the government abides by its own laws, but it must at least pretend to abide by them, and it violates them only within certain limits (in fact the laws are often written to allow for this eventuality). The fact that the authorities feel the need to falsify elections or bend the constitution is a perverse proof of this.

    Russia's leaders seek legitimation by means of procedures to make them less vulnerable to external and internal shocks. They can answer criticism by saying “The laws are the same for everyone,” or “If you don’t like it, take us to court.” 

    The real risks come when a regime of this type exhausts its legitimacy and misses the moment when a transfer of power can still be carried out through procedures that are ostensibly legitimate, even if inherently flawed. After that point, the regime begins to morph. The head of state has to behave like a revolutionary leader--even if he isn't one-- accomplishing great feats, vanquishing enemies, conquering new lands, discovering treasure. A charismatic leader must live by cult of personality alone, because he has no other legitimate grounds for holding his office.

    Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist

  • The Changing Price of Loyalty: What does Vladimir Yakunin's Resignation Signify?

    Posted by: Konstantin Gaaze Friday, August 21, 2015

    Russian Railways Chief Vladimir Yakunin relied on his personal friendship with President Vladimir Putin to keep his job for a decade. But the political realities of 2015 require a different kind of personality for that job.

  • Cultural Terrorism in Moscow: The Enemies of Classical Art in Russia and their Protectors

    Posted by: Alexander Baunov Thursday, August 20, 2015

    A brazen attack by Christian conservatives on an art exhibition in central Moscow evoked measured criticism from the Russian authorities. But their appeal of the attackers to archaic and anti-modern values is only an extreme form of current Russian state ideology.

  • Destroy at Any Cost: The Political Rationale Behind Russia’s Food Burnings

    Posted by: Tatyana Stanovaya Friday, August 14, 2015

    The Russian government provoked controversy with mass destruction of European food. The government could not allow its counter-sanctions policy to be seen to be failing and is exploiting different attitudes to banned Western products amongst the opposition and the general public.

  • Myths and Realities of Sanctions in Russia

    Posted by: Oleg Buklemishev Thursday, August 13, 2015

    The Russian elite and public are propagating certain myths that Western sanctions are not hurting or are even helping Russia's economy. The reality is much bleaker: sanctions are here to stay for a long time and there can be no healthy economic development while they are in place.

  • Russian Roadblock. Why Moscow Is Obstructing the MH-17 International Tribunal

    Posted by: Alexander Baunov Friday, July 31, 2015

    The MH-17 catastrophe has been a major factor in the current state of relations between Russia and the West for more than a year already. Paradoxically, the establishment of an international tribunal is unlikely to sour relations further, even though Moscow fears that protracted legal proceedings might stand in the way of a future détente with the West

  • How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?

    Posted by: Denis Volkov Monday, July 27, 2015

    If you look at the entire 15 years that Putin has been in power, rather than just the last year and a half, you can see that this is the fourth time his popularity has soared this high. Furthermore, there are simultaneous changes in various indicators, which makes for a more complicated picture than what most observers see

  • Through Iran’s Eyes: A Deal of Hope and Respect

    Posted by: Maryam Khamedi Monday, July 20, 2015

    Iranians are rejoicing, expecting that their new “peace with the world” will help them solve economic problems and improve living standards. After decades of isolation, the taste of hope is unbelievably sweet. But above all, the Iranians believe that the world powers have finally shown their country due respect

  • What Does Iran Get in Exchange for the Bomb?

    Posted by: Alexei Arbatov Monday, July 20, 2015

    In assessing this compromise agreement, we should consider all the possible alternatives. There are three: a new Gulf War with airstrikes against Iran. The second option is a nuclear-armed Iran. The third possibility: a strike against Iran, followed by an Iran with nuclear weapons, and then followed by another regional war—only this time, a nuclear one

  • Why Moscow Opposed Grexit

    Posted by: Alexander Baunov Thursday, July 16, 2015

    Putin phoned IMF chief, asking the Europeans to support Athens in any way possible. It is likely that Obama asked to do the same thing: there is no indication that Greece was ever a point of contention between Russia and the United States—despite Greece’s position on the Ukrainian crisis, its anti-Western rhetoric, and Tsipras’ friendship with Putin



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