Russia’s hybrid authoritarianism is clearly manifest in its formally democratic but informally autocratic characteristics, but it also has totalitarian characteristics, which older generations are very familiar with. Ellendea Proffer’s memoir about Joseph Brodsky, which was just published in Russian, contains an amazingly accurate passage to this effect: “As any totalitarian system, the Soviet one didn’t simply demand obedience, it required participation.” This observation is borne out by the research on totalitarianism: back in the 1950’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski noted one of the key features of totalitarian regimes: they are not satisfied if one merely refrains from doing something prohibited , one must do what the regime prescribes.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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In today’s Russia, if you are in law enforcement, you are prevented from traveling abroad, however unconstitutional that might be. If you want to be just like everyone else, you have to attach a St. George’s ribbon to your Mercedes. If you are a teacher, you have to put Crimea on the Russian map and repeat quasi-patriotic gibberish in class; otherwise, you will lose your job. And if you work in some dreary office, you are obliged to get on a bus that will take you to a government-sponsored rally. Otherwise…

The severity of these and other similar prescriptions varies, but the Russian regime is not completely totalitarian either; even its authoritarianism is theatrical on occasion, though it is no longer funny. It is hybrid, just like the wars that are fought along Russian borders.

Of course, this hybrid regime aspires to be totalitarian. In her classic 1951 work, Hannah Arendt asserts that in totalitarian regimes, the state is the only force that determines what people feel and think. This is what the current regime is instinctively striving for—it has created its own imitated civil society (everything else is suppressed or declared to be a “foreign agent”), and imitated media that serve to disseminate propaganda rather than inform the public.

In a system that requires participation, mere nonparticipation comes across as a sign of foreign political culture to the regime. Even more so, it is a form of resistance. Being prepared to lose one’s job at some state-run university where one now has to ask management for permission to leave the country is a form of resistance. In fact, the management notices the resistance and looks for ways to counteract it.

There is no hypocrisy here.  These people are deliberately trying to live without noticing that their former work colleagues are becoming more and more like members of a Communist Party committee or a vice squad. They just want to live freely.

Merab Mamardashvili once said, “it is believed that we are free when we are able to choose; the more choice, the more freedom. But the philosopher says something else… Freedom is a phenomenon that appears in a place where one has no choice. Necessity is intrinsic to freedom. Something that is a necessity for itself is freedom.”

If an individual has inner freedom, the system can do nothing to him. Even if he no longer has political or personal choice.

This article originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov