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Pussy Riot: Russia’s Plastic People?

The widely criticised detention and trial of the three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, now awaiting verdicts in Moscow on charges of ‘hooliganism’ for an anti-Putin protest happening at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has been widely – and rightly – reported as a litmus test of the nature of power and opposition in contemporary Russia.

But for anyone with a slightly longer historical  memory – and an interest in East European affairs –  it also has echoes of earlier trial of a group of muscians in a politically constructed trial  four decades ago: that of the Plastic People of the Universe in communist Czechoslovakia in 1976 on a charge of ‘organised disturbance of the peace’.

Having stemmed popular protest following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 that had terminated the Prague Spring reforms  and then a variety of organised political groups in the early 1970s, Czechoslovakia’s hardline communist rulers wished to complete the ‘normalisation’ of the country by sending a powerful and intimdating signal to artists, intellectuals and young people with unconventional tastes.

Plastic People 1976 from Charta77 on Vimeo.

Subsequent jail sentences for the long-haired Plastici ranged from eight to 18 months. Outrage over the trial provided the key impetus for the   diverse groups to coalesce into the Charter 77 movement, creating the peaceful civic dissent that eventually provided the political leadership for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

In some ways Pussy Riot trial seems to offer direct parallels. An authoritarian regime with no real ideology which has emerged in the wake of a failed democratic experiment seeks to reassert its potentially fragile social control  itself by making an example of a rebellious non-conformist musicians with an English name.

A trial with a veneer of legality –  and large doses of bathos and farce – ensures and proceeds to a predictable, politically fixed conclusion. Custododial sentences for loosely framed public offence seem a distinct possibility. But in seeking to dish out exemplary punishment and send a signal to sectors of society inclined towards protest and opposition, the regime miscalculates. The trial creates a focus for a diverse national and international coalition

But the Pussy Riot trial also underlines how authoritarianism and opposition have moved on.  Czechoslovakia’s Plastici were alternative, avant-garde and  deeply at odds with their cultural and artistic values of the regime, but were in no sense a political opposition. Left alone they would probably have eked out an existence as part of a marginal underground sub-culture. But while happy to see people  retreat into private and family life, Czechoslovakia’s communist ‘normalisers’ were determined to monopolise public space and seek and  crush pockets of organised cultural and social non-conformity.

Putin’s more modernised post-Soviet regime wouldn’t have bothered.

Photo: Игорь Мухин at ru.wikipedia [GFDL (

It has learned the lesson that, provided the commanding heights of media and economy are securely under control, society can be kept on a much looser leash.

As various  in-the-field projects written by SSEES students about St Petersburg punks and Moscow football hooligans attest, marginal sub-cultures happily flourish on the fringes of contemporary Russian society.

It is independent political activity and political protest that brings a sharp, brutal tug on the leash. For while they might share some of their avant-garde aethetics and style, unlike the Plastics, Pussy Riot are clearly in the business of overt, provocative political opposition – opposition intended to be seen and heard as widely as possible.

The two trials also highlights changes in the breadth, gender and social composition of those involved in anti-regime protest in Eastern Europe. While the Plastics of 1970s –  like the  later Czech dissident cultural and intellectual elites their trial helped give rise to- were exclusively male, with wives and female partners very much in the background. Pussy Riot’s identity, impact and elan, by contrast, stem from the fact that its members are young, female and feminist – although the Western media, well accustomed to kick-ass punk heroines, doesn’t dwell on the gender politics.

Where the two historical moments seem to touch, however, is in highlighting the underlying continuties of an over-powerful (post-)communist power apparatus accountable neither to law, nor society.

Pussy Riot’s commitment to

… horizontal political activity, self-organization and the capability to be aware of oneself as an equal participant in civil politics, to understand one’s rights and fight for them to develop…

would be immediately comprehensive to even the most non-hip, conservative Chartist of the 1970s or 80s, as well as to those like Havel  with more obviously Bohemian cultural leanings, although its feminism, anti-sexism and libertarian leftism and in-your-face political militancy would probably be less palatable. Also deeply familiar across the the gap of decades and countries is the absence of the rule of law, facade of independent legal process and the obvious  political pliability of judges and courts.

Whatever the sentences next week, the final unanswered question is if and how the Pussy Riot  trial will have the politically galavanising effect similar to that of the Plastics forty years ago. Putin’s Russia is not Communist Czechoslovakia whose apparent strength eventually proved so brittle, but a far more adaptable and multifaceted regime whose hard to grasp mix of concession, repression and regression may be altogether tougher to crack.

>United Russia repesentative fails to impress EU far right


Anyone who thinks Russia is on course for a new form of fascism will draw comfort from a EUobserver report about a meeting of EU far-right parties to co-ordinate their strategy against the Lisbon Treaty – it’s a very astute one, essentially do nothing and don’t go to Ireland, especially if you are Jean Marie Le Pen. However, who should be at the summit as an observer amid the Front national, Danish People’s Party and all the usual suspects but an unnamed representative of United Russia (ER) the loose pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin ‘party’ of local political bosses and ex- apparatchiks (and full marks to one of my student’s who noticed a parallel between ER and the Movemiento National in Franco’s Spain – perhaps they did know what they were doing sending an observer). Whoever he was he achieved the impressive feat of being seen as a crackpot by the assembled EU far right: “We had some hilarious discussions with the person they sent… he believes we should all join a bloc with Russia against the United States, which is hardly our position” one of the co-ordinators is reported as saying.
The new EU was represented mainly by Bulgaria’s Ataka which following the electoral collapse of the Greater Romania Party last year is the only really electorally dynamic extreme radical right grouping left in the region, although the Slovak National Party and Slovene National Party seem to be hanging on in there.

>Czech public blame Russians and Georgians alike


Opinion polling reveals the Czech public holds a characteristically divided / balanced set of views the Russo-Georgian war: majorities disapprove of both Georgian intervention in South Ossetia and Russia’s response, with predictable splits on left/right lines and the usual swathe of ‘don’t knows’.

>Czech Republic: Georgia on their minds


Czech newspapers were pretty quick in getting correspondents onto the ground in Georgia and there was some pretty vivid eyewitness reporting in the Czech press from the war zone. Czech politicians, by contrast, most of seem to have been on holiday went the crisis blew up were initially fairly slow off the mark. However, when they – and Czech journalistic commentators – did get a grasp of what was unfolding in the Caucuses and its wider implications. Some of these echoed the wider debate in Western Europe. Other, however, had a more distinctly Czech perspective.

As elsewhere, the first issue who was more at fault. The centre-right governing coalition, the centre-left opposition and most Czech commentators, while not absolving the Georgians, saw the Russian response, as sinister and excessive and advocated a fairly robust response. There were, however, no immediate and dramatic gestures of solidarity with Georgia along the lines of the lightening visit to Georgia undertaken by the Polish and Baltic presidents. One person certainly not going to join them in the plane was Czech President Václav Klaus. After an initial period of silence and a vague early statement about his ‘deep concern’, Klaus came out firmly against the Georgians, who he felt had provoked the conflict by embarking upon a foolish military adventure.

Klaus has a record of criticizing (potential) Western intervention supported (at least lukewarmly) by many others on the Czech centre-right. He was against both NATO intervention in Kosovo and the Iraq war. So his contrarian position in opposing the centre-right government led by the party he himself had founded – he is now publicly at loggerheads on the issue with Prime Minister Topolánek – was not a total surprise. Even so some of the Czech press struggled slightly to find reasons for Klaus’s position. Pure egotism? The generous deals with Russian oil companies to publish his writings denying global warming? In fact, Klaus has had fairly consistent views about Putin’s Russia for some years and there is a kind of method in his madness. As his published writings over several going back several years highlight that while he doesn’t think Russia is anything like a normal democracy and doesn’t much care for its authoritarian state capitalism, he doesn’t see it a threat to Europe if left alone with its now rather narrowly defined sphere of influence. If it was, of course, that might imply the need for (God forbid) a more integrated European foreign and security policy, rather than a fight for Czech national interest against a German-dominated EU. And that would never do, would it?

As carefully explained by the high-flying young Social Democrat chair of the Czech parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jan Hamáček, in an interview with the business daily Hospodářské noviny, the Czech Social Democrats have a similar but more nuanced position, stressing the need for a realistic and pragmatic approach to Russia, rather than counterproductive confrontation; a clearer sense of the dangers of US hegemony and the potential usefulness of Russia (as well as China and a strong EU) as part of a more multipolar arrangement and a more frank admission of the inconsistency of the West’s position in endorsing Kosovan independence (just recognized by the Czech government). Interestingly, Hamáček seems to hold out hope of democratization in Russia, suggesting interestingly that the Kremlin’s tame opposition party Fair Russia might transform itself into a rough and ready form of social democratic party if engaged properly by the Socialist International.

All Czech political forces, whether for or against the stationing of a US anti-missile in the Czech Republic, denied that the Georgian crisis had any bearing on this issue as, despite Moscow’s threatening noises, it was not directed against Russia. The Czech Communists, predictably, had a pro-Russian position, reflecting both predictable political reflexes and anti-Americanism.

A second issue was just how Czechs should understand Putin’s Russia, its intervention in Georgia and its place in the world generally. This debate was conducted in shorthand form in a contest of historical analogies. As the conflict coincided with the 30th anniversary of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there was much consideration of parallels between Russian military intervention in Georgia and Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. As most writers noted, there are some obvious flaws in the analogy. In 1968 the USSR and Czechoslovakia were allies in the same military alliance with an agreed relationship (Soviet leadership), similar – and very ideologically defined – political systems. The Prague Spring was a reform project not a geo-political clash over territory. As Klaus and were quick to point out in 1968, Czechoslovakia had not pre-empted intervention with its own military action.

Others, such as Christian Democrat ex-foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda (now head of the government’s Legislative Council), saw Georgia 2008 as worse than Czechoslovakia 1968 because of the bloodshed and scale of the damage caused by Russian forces in Georgia and its not being part of a Russia-led military, political bloc. However, a deeper parallel picked up by several ex-dissident several commentators, was that regardless of exact parallels (or lack of) both 1968 and 2008 a betrayed an essentially imperial Russian mindset and a foreign policy bent on dominating small nations in its perceived sphere of influence. Václav Klaus, however, countered that, there was a difference between the ‘expansionist communism’ of Brezhnev’s USSR (hard to see, how ‘defending socialism’ in Czechoslovakia was expansion, but let that pass) and contemporary Russia or the Russian people. Implicitly, he suggested (in an interview with Komersant Daily, later reprinted in Czech on the Klaus website) his fellow Czechs were just a bit Russophobic.

However, Václav Havel, who roundly condemned the Russian side, saw the conflict as stemming from a more deeply grounded confusion of Russian identity about their country began and ended – a classic confusion between nation and empire, although he did not put it in these terms. This was an interesting perspective as it echoes the thinking of Czechoslovakia’s founding president Tomáš G. Masaryk, who wrote a long philosophical-historical treatise on Russia and Europe in the early years of the last century (translated into English as The Spirit of Russia), although Masaryk was curiously absent from most of the debate, perhaps because his conclusion that Russia is historical and civilizationally different from the West and poorly fitted for liberal democracy is an unspoken shared assumption of all participants in the Czech debate.

Other commentators, such as Lidové noviny’s Zbyněk Petráček, saw a better analogy in Czechoslovakia’s situation in 1918 in facing down Sudeten German ‘breakaway regions’ challenging the country’s internationally recognized territorial integrity at the behest of a revanchist neighbouring power, recently humiliated by losing an empire after defeat in war. For Russia read Germany, for Georgia read Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, in 1918, had had to send their army in to rebel minority regions to sustain the viability of their emerging democratic state, the Georgians in 2008 likewise. This recycled ‘Weimar Russia’ theme was taken up by the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (independent nominated by the Greens) and also the line taken by the news magazine Respekt, which he co-owns. The parallel does have the slightly unfortunate implication that Putin is Hitler and the Putinist ideology of semi-authoritarian ‘sovereign democracy’ as powerful and hypnotic as Nazism, which I doubt is the case even in Russia, although I suppose one might see a certain analogy between the Reichswehr and the FSB as a kind of revanchist state-within-a-state. For Klaus too perhaps the situation had an echo of 1938. His address to Czech citizens on the 30th anniversary of the 1968 invasion pointedly highlighted the ‘Munich mentality’ (mnichovství) – excessive faith in distant Western allies in 1938 who, when push came to shove, would not risk war – supposedly also characteristic of the situation in 1968.

Another LN contributor, Michal Romancov, went back still further, seeing the resurgent post-Soviet Russia assertively starting to play political hard ball with other great powers as historically equivalent to Russian after its defeat in the Crimean War of 1850s. The, slightly more flatteringly, casts Putin as an authoritarian modernizer, although the analogy also fits with the dismissal of Russia by Western politicians as a ‘19th century power’ operating with crudely outdated notions of spheres of influence and zero-sum national interest with whom ruled-based co-operation is impossible.

And, of course, there is the analogy of the ‘New Cold War’. This was taken up LN commentator Zbyněk Petráček but not many others and, as so often, seemed basically intended to dramatize the seriousness of the perceived threat and accent a few points, rather than suggest we should all start worrying about Putin’s tanks rolling through Prague. The key points of the ‘New Cold War’ tag seem to be that the new dividing line running through Europe and an ideological (perhaps these days one should say ‘values-based’) conflict with Russia making seemingly small states and statelets, rather important; and that as we were in it, we (the West) should try and win it. This is essentially the thesis of Edward Lucas’s book of the same name, although, revealingly, there seems to be no Czech translation out and the English language edition(s) to have little reviewed in Czech. (Although I thought the book rather overstated its case when it came out, but now seems unnervingly and prescient.). The New Cold War view also has the advantage of avoiding sticky issues of being consistent over territorial integrity and international law, as it stresses that, at bottom, the West is still a camp of liberal democractic goodies while Putin and sundry post-Soviet semi-authoritarians have the wrong values and the wrong system. The logic of this view in relation to Georgia might , to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, be that Saakashvili might be a unpredictable sonovabitch, but he is our sonovabitch and a more democratic sonovabitch than the current occupants of the Kremlin toboot.

The Czech government has sent humanitarian aid to Georgia and seems inclined to add to its voice to those urging the opening of a clear path to NATO membership for Georgia. Schwarzenberg has also questioned the appropriateness of the Russian hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. But most Czech politicians and commentators even of strong pro-Georgian inclinations don’t have the stomach or inclination or ideas to fight a New Cold War, even rhetorically. The Czech political tradition is one of caution, pragmatism and an engrained (but perhapsexaggerated?) sense of their weakness. Writiing Lidové noviny Luboš Palata, normally a rather sober and measured commentator on Central European affairs, did issue a ringing and most unCzech call to arms (quite literally) demanding that NATO peacekeepers should be sent to Georgia. Calls to send in the marines are not a sentiment you read every day in the Czech press. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time in Poland…

>Solzhenitsyn’s funeral: how Russia has changed


I wander down to the living room for a coffee break and switch on BBC News 24. The funeral of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. President Medvedev is among the mourners. Ex-President Putin pays tribute. “It shows how much Russia has changed that the ex-KGB man is honouring one of communism’s greatest opponents…” says the voiced over commentary.

Hmm, well, yes and no. The KGB were a powerful part of the country’s political establishment under Brezhnev and reconfigured as the FSB and looser networks of securocrats they still are. More powerful perhaps, given the disappearance of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the institutions and industrial ministries of the planned economy. And – if the BBC’s rather better radio documentary reporting on the FSB is to be believed – much more corrupt, given the disappearance of the barriers to formal private ownership. Is what’s really changed that nomenklatura and its security apparatus have simply accommodated themselves to Orthodox-tinged conservative patriotism of which Solzhenitsyn was a representative? Perestroika and democratization just a messy transition to the nomenklatura-dominated state capitalism that Trotsky anticipated in 1930s and sundry anarchists as early as the 1920s?

As a student I read my way through a lot of Solzhenitsyn. The critique of communism is visceral, shattering even. Watching the TV coverage though, my mind turned to another book that made a impression on me when I read it as a student, Alexander Yanov’s The Russian New Right which examined the conservative-nationalist wing in the Soviet dissident movement of 1970s – something a phenomenon, which extended to many more obscure – and more extreme – figures than Solzhenitsyn. Most striking in Yanov’s book, which came out in 1978 just a few years after English editions of Gulag Archipelago, were the strong ‘neonationalist’ tendencies he detected in sections of the Soviet (cultural) nomenklatura establishment and the long term prospect discussed by some samizdat writers of a rapprochement between conservative Russian nationalists and the Soviet states. I just saw that on my TV, I think.

>Startling admissions: Grassroots opposition to Putin (and Medvedev)?


UCAS admissions interviews of prospective students applying to student SSEES are a hit and miss affair for the interviewer. Apart from the small matter of whether we should admit applicant (usually I recommend we do) they sometimes they genuinely interesting – a Chinese applicant tells me her impressions of travelling in North Korea, an ex-intern with the Lib Dems tells me that ex-leader Charlie Kennedy’s drink problem were common knowledge even to party minions. At other times, they can be pretty dull. But then what did I really have say about the state of world politics that was very compelling when I was 18?

As always I diligently read through the applications. They tend, however, to follow a fairly predictable formula, probably reflecting teachers’ and schools’ advice, designed to pitch reliably to admissions tutors across several institutions: top (predicted) grades, fearsome amounts of voluntary work and extra curricular activities; and a lot about why politics really, really matters in the world.

So, as ever, today I never quite know what you’re going to hear. Today’s interviewees do, however, throw me one interesting idea: two of them assure me, perhaps from lack of knowledge, perhaps because at they take a longer view than those middle aged enough to remember perestroika, that Putin’s authoritarianism, is just a passing phase and that in the historical slightly long term Russia will be democratic.

Who knows, they might be right? The latest phase of the Putin era seems to be playing itself according to script with extensively rigged presidential elections. But how heir anointed Medvedev and VP will share power is unclear. Rigged elections, are, moreover the political science literature on semi-authoritarian ‘hybrid regimes’ tells us fairly unsustainable as a means of control over the longer term. Sooner or later turn into a focus for political protest.

Does Russia have the potential for this? Ukraine’s Orange Revolution seems to have accelerated the trend towards authoritarianism. The latest issue of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, however, carries an interesting article by activist and researcher Karine Clément noting the bubbling up of grassroots social movement – networks of pensioners, disaffected tenants and community activists radicalised by the overweening power of local state apparatus-cum-business elite. A shorter, openly accessible article on tenants’ movements by her can be found here. She also heads up an NGO called the Institute for Collective Action, whose (Russian-language) website can be found here.

The conventional answer would be that such movements are just localized shoots of civic activity, which will collapse due to collective action problems once they start to co-ordinate or be co-opted or stifled by Kremilin-friendly parties and official power structures.

Controlled elections… managed democracy … nascent grassroots civic movements. Rather reminds me of the perestroika era, the chaotic fag end of which I caught in my student days.

>The missing middle


A SSEES graduate emails me to ask if I know of any useful readings about the development of the Russian middle class. I don’t really. Russia not my main area of expertise, but it’s an interesting question. Middle classes are generally rather weak, dependent on/or overshadowed by the state and squeezed between the very rich and the fairly poor even in the more liberal CEE states and middle class revival is a theme that has entertained and agonized sociologists, right-wing parties seeking a counter-weight to social forces rooted in the communist, and liberals who see the new and/or old (historic) middle class as a potential dynamo for economic liberalism and civic engagement. Bulgaria even has a think tank called the Association for Middle Class Development.

I suspect the consensus would probably be that the Russia probably lacks a ‘middle class’ in any very meaningful sense, but the only thing I could think was a short polemical piece in Transitions Online by Andrei Piontkosky, former director of the closed down Strategic Studies Centre in Moscow. He makes the interesting point that the emergent Russia middle class – like those of Latin America – are indifferent to democracy and something of a minor prop for the Putin regime. A similar point was made a few years ago in more academic form in a very prescient article by Neil Robinson, who draw a parallel with ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ as a side effect of modernization in South America more explicitly. Unfortunately, as if to make the point – Piontkovsky seems more concerned with ‘modernization’ than democracy per se – which seems to suggest that the problem is that Russia has the wrong kind of authoritarian rule. Rather oddly, having started out with argument that Russia is a heading for a novel form of (semi-)authoritarianism ‘that is neither socialism nor capitalism but some hitherto-unknown creature’, he ends up suggesting that Putin is some kind of authoritarian neo-liberal in the Pinochet mould.

As more expert colleagues aren’t to hand, a quick google reveals a lot of informed journalistic comment – a sketch in Business Week, an article by Masha Lipman in the Washington Post, and two posts on Johnson’s Russia list (here and here) – but seemingly little in the way of academic research. How can you research something that doesn’t exist – and perhaps historically never did? The most I can turn up is a reference to a conference paper by a Dr Anna Ochkima of Penza State Pedagogical University presented at last year’s meeting of the American Sociological Association. Alas there is no publicly accessible online version, Dr Ochkima doesn’t have an email address listed, and her university doesn’t seem even to have a website. So much for Russian middle class development.

>A liberal helping of democracy? Perry Anderson on Putin’s Russia

>A Petya Federov, seemingly a Russian based in London, has thoughtfully posted an article (part 1 and part 2) on his blog about Putin’s Russia from the London Review of Books by veteran New Left intellectual Perry Anderson . Slightly to my surprise, Anderson clearly knows Russia and its politics and culture very well, although the reported ideas of Russian thinkers he is familiar with are rather more interesting than his own. Slightly conventionally, his focus is on the fate of Russia’s Western oriented liberal intelligentsia, who played such a prominent role in perestroika, allied themselves with Yelstin’s flawed reform coalition and were then marginalized – or corrupted – by the evisceration of the public sector, the rise of trash commercial culture and the semi-authoritarian ‘virtual politics’ embodied by the Putin era. Some well educated Russia (ex-?) intellectuals write detective stories (Boris Akunin) or serve in the legions of cynical, well paid ‘political technologies’creating the stage front for the grim pantomime of Russia politics. Oh horror.

However, the most interest aspects of the article from an academic point of view was Anderson’s dissection of the conflict between the ‘national’ (actually in Russia, more the ‘imperial’) and the liberal, which has some distant echoes in the travails and compromises of liberals in CEE (the long march of Hungary’s Fidesz under Orbán; the embrace of traditional Czech nationalist paradigms by Václav Klaus and the Civic Democrats in the late 1990s and – I dare say – the difficult relations between liberalism and nationalism in Serbia or Romania). Some of the more interesting parts (for me) are excerpted below

“ Fifteen years later, what has become of this [pro-Western, liberal] intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level.
For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America
The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory.
Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.
The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.
Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in [critical intellectual journal] Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.
It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor.
Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.
Might not nationalism provide such a basis [for regime renewal after Putin], if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.
Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.”

Anderson then goes on to review Alena Ledeneva’s How Russia Really Works, whose conclusions he finds too sanguine, and Andy Wilson’s Virtual Politics which he finds ‘searing’ and slightly more to his taste, although this sits rather oddly with his earlier argument that we should examine Russian society more than the state. He finishes by noting Russia’s demographic crisis and the country’s unpredecented geo-political weakness in facing a strong EU to the West and a rising China to the East. On the other hand, Will Hutton predicts trouble for China and the CIA research has seriously entertained the break-up of the EU’s semi- confederal system as a contingency to be considered, so perhaps Putin’s successors will have the last laugh. Certainly, they’ll have enough gas and oil to keep the lights on.

>Putin on some Christmas cheer….

As I suspected, the assassination of Aleksandr Livitnenko has somewhat damaged the Russian President’s public image, satirized on the latest cover of Private Eye ….

>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.