>Putin’s Russia: Informal enquiries


Last Monday I attended the roundtable launch of the much awaited new book my SSEES colleague Alena Ledenev: How Russia Really Works (Cornell University Press, 2006). Alongside the author, the two roundtable participants were Sir Roderick Braithwaite, former British ambassador to Moscow and Prof Archie Brown of Oxford University. Alena started with a succinct presentation of key arguments combining intellectual clout with brutally offbeat satirical illustrations from the book. Its key argument is that the economic and political system of post-communist Russia in the Putin era has come to work through a large dollop of new post-communist informal practices, which complement, feed off and reshape the formal institutions of electoral democracy, market economy and civil society.

Such practices, she suggested, have replaced the Soviet era coping strategies of blat intended to cope with an economy of shortage and a formally closed and authoritarian political system. While blat was a relatively democratic and benign phenomenon, Alena argued, the ‘market’ for informal use of economic and political power is now far more unequal and restricted to players in the overlapping worlds of post-Soviet media, business, crime and politics, taking the form of ‘black PR’, kompromat, ‘dual accounting’, ‘black barter’ and other nefarious informal practices. These form a latterday and much more potent version of the circular networks of dependence and control well known from Soviet times (the krugavaya poruka phenomenon immortalized in a perestroika-era pop song, whose lyrics are thoughtfully reproduced as an appendix in the book).

I say ‘nefarious’ , but Alena argued that in fact it is wrong to read Russian simply as a kind of failed or distorted liberal state – its informal practices are two edged: they impede the efficient – democratic or competitive – functioning of the system, but like blat also enable some form of basic political and economic functionality and contribute to a gradual, if authoritarian inflected, modernization. Slightly contradicting Andrew Wilson’s arguments in Virtual Politics, Alena argued, these practices differ in scope and quantity but not in kind when viewed comparatively, a reason for long-term optimism she thought. The two roundtable panelists were impressed by the book but gently critical. Sir Roderick could not fault its line of arguments but thought the modernization argument somewhat heroic. For Archie Brown the book’s great strength was the represented a reinvention of the tradition of multi-disciplinary in Area Studies supposedly lost in 1990s favour of a procrustean influenced US political science obsessed with quantitative method and rational choice theory. For him too the authoritarian Putin era contrasted with genuine if chaotic freedom and (political) competition of the perestroika period, which he sees in hindsight as a high point – or at least a missed opportunity (a similar argument was advanced this week in The Guardian by Stephen Cohen.

When the floor was opened for questions and comments several Russian specialists from outside UCL then joined the fray, some making some rather exasperatingly drawn out questions-cum-speeches on the state of contemporary Russia The basic point –already made by the two roundtable panelists and indeed by my SSEES colleague Pete Duncan in the first question – was that Putin should perhaps be viewed as a politically lucky authoritarian propped up by surfeit of oil money, rather than Russia’s last best hope for incremental modernization. Were not the informal practices described in the book rather less ambiguous and complex in their effect than suggested?

Not being a specialist on post-Soviet politics, I watched this debate from the sidelinesl, looking mainly for comparative insights for work on CEE. My instinctive reaction was that instinctive British discomfort at Russian’s increasingly illiberal democracy (perhaps I should write ‘democracy’) missed the point, which seemed to be a more subtle one about the relationship of formal and informal forms of power, which could in principle take open or close forms. The key to Russia’s political system, distinguishing it from other more liberal post-communist democracies – as far as I could understand – was less the greater predominance of informal forms of power (although these are far more prevalent) but their greater centralization and monopolization. Should we not study informal practices in other (Central European? West Europe?) to find out how Hungary or Holland ‘really works’?

Archie Brown was right, I suspect, to see Alena’s book – which I picked up from the Cornell University Press stall immediately afterwards – as staking a new claim to be a new genre of political anthropology painting a large canvass rather than a local miniatures – although Katherine Verdery’s work on Romania may be a partial exception. However, his critique of US political science did strike me as attacking a straw man. As well as a legion of Rational Choices and Quant Methods specialists, the US has also has perhaps the strongest and biggest area studies centres (or should I write centers?) producing work, which manages both to combine excellent qualitative research with a stiff dose of methodological rigour that the soggier, more mongraphical British tradition – my own work included – can only dream. ‘Multi-disciplinarily’ in the context of UK research on Russia and East Europe was too often been a euphemism of acres of description with a sprinkling of social science terminiology. Few working in this rather traditional school can sadly match the heights of Brown’s The Gorbachev Factor, although Mary McAuley’s Russia’s Politics of Uncertainty comes to mind.

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