Too often, experts ask the question “who governs Russia”, when they should be asking how the country is governed. Ryan Steele argues that by failing to understand the patterns in which Russia has been governed for centuries, we miss vital contexts to the power of Putinism.
There are salient characteristics in the means by which Russian rulers have been able to successfully rule the amalgamation of people and cultural symbols that we would contemporaneously call the Russian Federation. The most central of these characteristics, especially observable in Putin’s style of leadership, is the need for a nominally powerful figure to head the system. This has its roots in the very strange system that cemented itself under Ivan Groznii (‘the Terrible’) known as pomest’ia (conditional land tenure).
In this system, an individual or family had no formal position in relation to the Tsar. If you were ineffective, inefficient, or sought to rise above your station, you could lose your position in the court and/or your estate(s). This created a system in which innovation was punished and promulgation of the status quo was rewarded. The means by which this was kept stable was through a process known as kormlenie (feeding) whereby every boyar (noble), or d’iak (an early version of an apparatchik), was able to feed off the estate or chancellery which fell under their purview. A single, legitimate leadership figure provided stability by allocating resources.
Yet while nominally the most powerful legal authority, the Tsar was accountable to his boyars. Should his nobles and bureaucrats choose to rise against him he would quickly lose his power; as the nobles and bureaucrats were actually in control of the state’s resources. But, this would require a large group of individuals to agree in their opposition and put the potential of fantastic reward ahead of the risks of failure. Most often, the Tsar was able to use the resources available to him to divide and rule.
This pattern of governance continued through the Tsarist-period and Soviet-era up to the present. What is Putin if not a nominally powerful Tsar Gosudar’ who divvies up the various estates (regional governorships, quasi-state owned enterprises, state owned enterprises) and positions in the bureaucracy to various people whose only real qualification is their loyalty to the feeding that their position allows them? Those who question the leadership face not only the wrath of the boss, but the enmity of fellow functionaries who may be eyeing a division of the estate under the rebel’s control. The most salient example of this was the former head of the oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who deigned to rise above his station and contradict the line of the system’s nominal head. He was imprisoned for years and released long after most of his assets had been spread amongst the more loyal of Putin’s boyars.
The current financial crisis has seen a similar pattern emerge. Putin is beginning to look for scapegoats on whom he can pin the crisis, or, at the very least, divert attention. The first example of this broke during Putin’s marathon press conference, with the issuing of an arrest warrant for the former General Director of ‘Bashneft’, Ural Rakhimov. The authorities have decided, after the fact, that the company was privatized in an illegal manner.
Russian business is like the mob; everyone commits illegal acts that the other people who have been ‘made’ know of. Thus, when there is a need to give the people someone’s head, plenty are readily available, thereby reinforcing the fear in the hearts of those who also have ‘blood on their hands’ and making their fervor in support of the nominal head all the more powerful.
If we can learn anything from history we can see that in a ‘time of trouble(s)’ (smutnoye vremenya) there is a need for the nominal figurehead of the system to produce scapegoats so as to preserve the system as a whole. Rakhimov is the first example of this in the current crisis; however, we would be naïve think that this is the only head that will roll.