Characteristics of Russian Power: Editor’s Introduction

The current issue examines some of the key characteristics of the Russian political system from the cultural and institutional points of view. This set of articles shy away from close analysis of current political developments in favor of stepping back to look at the longue duree, in some cases going back to Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian history and culture to examine how earlier developments affect the modern Russian political system and its future trajectory. While other articles limit themselves to the post-Soviet period, they also analyze the impact of long-term trends in Russian power politics on current and future developments.

The first two articles in this issue discuss some of the conceptual bases for characterizing Russian power. “Perestroika, Second Edition: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Russia,” by Vladimir Pastukhov, assesses the prospects of a second perestroika based on his interpretation of modern Russian history in terms of the concepts of revolution and counterrevolution. Pastukhov begins by presenting his interpretation of Soviet history, in which the year 1953 plays the key role. For him, the death of Stalin and the subsequent execution of Beria were the events that signaled the end of the Bolshevik revolution and the beginning of a gradual transition to a state based on rules rather than violence that he terms a Soviet civilization. Khrushchev’s victory over Beria in the battle to succeed Stalin was the result, for Pastukhov, of a societal instinct for self-preservation kicking in.

Pastukhov terms the late Soviet period as a kind of bubble on the surface of Russian civilization. Its deflation led to the renewal of the Russian revolution in 1989 and resulted in the self-liquidation of the Soviet system. In other words, the Soviet leaders lost confidence in the system and started the process that led to its collapse. The current stage of Russia’s political development in many ways parallels the early stages of Gorbachev’s reform. The legal nihilism that pervades the top reaches of the Russian political elite has led its members to seek safer havens abroad for their financial resources and, often, their families. Without the advent of a political system governed by the rule of law, another revolution from above is inevitable, though the exact timing remains entirely unpredictable.

In “The Specific Nature of ‘Russian State Power’: Its Mental Structures, Ritual Practices, and Institutions,” Nikolai Rozov develops a dynamic theory of Russian state power as an ideal type and emphasizes the roles played by frames, symbols, and interactive rituals in its creation. He presents these frames as dichotomies, with key frames for Russian power including the concepts of our own versus other and idealism versus profit. He then argues that the specifics of these frames lead to the characteristics of the Russian national character, including such factors as atomization, poor self-discipline, and incapacity for self-organization, which result from the rejection of everything alien. Other characteristics, both positive and negative, result from various combinations of these frames.

Rozov then goes on to consider how these frames can explain some of the key attributes of Russian state power. He notes that Russian officials consider the rest of the population to belong to the category of other, rather than considering them to be part of our own. This mentality increases their willingness to sacrifice the people for the goal of achieving and holding on to power. As a result, the rulers have limited legitimacy in the eyes of the population and frequently have to result to violence to maintain control. Rozov concludes that as the international community has evolved, the crises of the Russian authoritarian state have become more frequent. As a result, the cycle of disintegration and restoration may be broken through a peaceful institutional revolution carried out by those social groups that do not accept the traditional cultural frames.

The final two articles turn to more concrete aspects of Russian power. Boris Makarenko’s “The Post-Soviet Party of Power: United Russia in Comparative Context,” addresses the character, role, structure, functions, and evolution of United Russia (UR) in the context of world experience with dominant and predominant parties in competitive political systems. In the first half of his article, Makarenko discusses the phenomenon of dominant parties with examples from around the world. He notes that the establishment of such parties allows for the establishment of broad elite coalitions that can maximize resources and minimize risks for elite projects. He shows that in various countries such parties have been set up both from above and from below.

In the typology of dominant parties, United Russia is neither a traditional catch-all party that avoids any form of ideological commitment in order to appeal to the broadest possible swathe of the electorate nor a monoparty that serves “merely [as a] means of support for military or civilian dictatorial regimes.” Instead,UR is a party of power, a new dominant party type that has been created in the post-communist world in order to support the re-election of a popularly elected president and remains beholden to the power of the executive branch for its survival.

After briefly tracing the development of the party of power institution over the two decades of post-Soviet Russian history, Makarenko discusses the current state of UR. Its role as a dominant party has been cemented in recent years by increasing federal control of electoral processes at the local and regional level. As UR has squeezed all forms of opposition out of the legitimate political arena, its leadership has increasingly come to recognize that internal pluralism is necessary for the party’s continued functioning. To this end, it has created so-called clubs to foster intraparty discussion and allow for a diversity of views to be represented. Makarenko argues that while the party can continue to function quite successfully as an electoral machine, it is incapable of providing the new ideas necessary to continue the development of Russian politics and society and therefore risks becoming a dead end model for Russian political development.

The final article in this issue, “The Russian Establishment: Paths and Means of Renewal,” by Olga Voronkova, Aleksandra Sidorova, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, analyzes the changing structure of the Russian government elite in terms of age, length of service, place of birth, level and type of education, and work experience. The article uses a unique database of biographical information on 175 members of the elite who served in top positions in the Russian government between 2000 and 2009. The study rejects the conventional wisdom that President Putin’s governing team was formed primarily from a combination of Putin’s colleagues from the power ministries and from St. Petersburg. However, it does confirm that Putin’s closest advisers were from one (or both) of these camps.

In conclusion, the authors argue that the Russian political system has yet to develop a functioning formal mechanism of elite recruitment. In its absence, leaders resort to the traditional methods of recruiting their teams through personal ties based on previous service together in other branches of government. As a result, the channels for younger cohorts to enter the government are inadequate and prevent the introduction of new ideas into the political system. One of the Russian government’s greatest challenges is how to develop a personnel reserve system that allows for the regular renewal of governing elites.

While the four articles in this issue come from very different points of view, they all share a conviction that the Russian political system faces a critical juncture. For all of them, the existing system is at the point where it has more or less played out its possibilities. The choices made by the current set of leaders over the next three to five years are likely to have a determining effect on Russian political development over the next several decades. They hold in their hands the choice of whether Russia continues to modernize its political and economic systems in a gradual manner or if it faces yet another revolutionary moment once the current political system ceases to be capable of dealing with the challenges of the future. My sense is that Putin and his team are more likely to try to muddle through any coming crises, rather than taking the risk of shaking up the system. The lessons of Gorbachev are still too fresh in their minds. Another revolution from above is at least a generation away.