Home inSight The Permanent Crisis of the Russian State

The Permanent Crisis of the Russian State

Stephen Blank
SOURCEinFocus Quarterly Winter 2014

“Today’s Russian state fundamentally remains the patrimonial Muscovite state originating in the medieval formation of the Tsar surrounded by his Boyars, an aristocratic tier of society that formed the early supreme council, the Duma. This system characterized both Tsardom and Soviet power.” – Stephen Blank, PhD.

A permanent legitimacy and capacity crisis exists today in Russia and the state’s nature ensures that this cannot be otherwise. Indeed, we have arguably entered into what Soviet historians called a revolutionary crisis, i.e. a long-term crisis of the state culminating in a revolution or fundamental transformation because that system cannot function any longer and collapses under the combined stresses of domestic failure and international competition. But understanding this state is particularly difficult. Western analysts are trapped in a self-imposed labyrinth of an ethnocentric American or Western approach to politics that sees Russia merely as an authoritarian construct. But to call Russia authoritarian is tantamount to observing that the sun rises in the East.

To understand both the masquerade and the reality of the Russian state we must understand that Russia is trapped in what Claude Levi-Strauss called a frozen [political] culture. Today’s Russian state fundamentally remains the patrimonial Muscovite state originating in the medieval formation of the Tsar surrounded by his Boyars, an aristocratic tier of society that formed the early supreme council, the Duma. This system characterized both Tsardom and Soviet power. Over time it has become increasingly clear that this state cannot, for the most part, obtain domestic or external legitimacy or create a government equal to the tasks of economic and political modernization except through Stalinist mobilization, which is no longer possible. Hence the current situation of a permanent legitimacy and capacity crisis that will last as long as the present system continues.

The Nature of the System

What is the nature of this patrimonial neo-medieval system?

  • First, the Tsar owns the entire state and national economy. They are his property or patrimony to dispose of as he sees fit. Putin and Medvedev’s notorious “castling” move in September 2011 of switching the presidency and prime minister’s positions showed that both men viewed the state as their personal possession. This fact entails certain critical consequences.

  • The Tsar along with his officials can seize anyone’s property without accountability to anyone. Indeed, they answer to no person or institution except to higher officials like the Tsar who, in turn, only answers to his conscience.

  • Consequently there are no property rights in Russia. Whatever Russian law says, property is held on condition of service to the state or loyalty to it. Without property rights there can also be no human, civil, or political rights since government does not answer to any law. As Medvedev observed, legal nihilism pervades Russian life.

  • Therefore this state reincarnates the Muscovite service state where office and property were fused as in feudalism. Officials who direct political institutions acquire state-granted rents as compensation for their service. This makes the state a rent-grantor and them rent-seeking officials. Accordingly, corruption is intrinsic to the system. The system is not corrupt, rather corruption is the system, otherwise nothing would get done. The system works through informal deals, not legal agreements. This pervasive corruption stemming from the huge amount of state property “owned” by these new plutocrats reinforces the autocrat and his servitors’ sense that they own the state and can do with it what they like, for it is their property.

  • As the state and national economy have expanded, any effort to impose a rule of law or perfect hierarchy, or Putin’s vertical of power upon them is inherently problematic. A law-governed state or any kind of systematized state is utterly antithetical to Russia. Nevertheless rulers, including Putin, have had no choice but to try and make the government work according to its own premises and impose, or devise some sort of system. Consequently state policies are repeatedly obstructed and blocked within the bureaucracy notwithstanding the masquerade of perfect omnipotent autocracy.

As the state and economy expand the Tsar’s officials have also expanded, their remit power to ensure their hold on power and property. Thus they create extensive patronage networks often of family members and other Boyar families into which they marry their children to create alliances and extend these networks. Nepotism and patron-client networks are therefore equally intrinsic to the system, which could not exist otherwise. Governance or administration is inconceivable outside of these networks, which make the system function but simultaneously preclude any hope of systematization or of sufficient advances in state capacity to meet contemporary socio-economic challenges. Ultimately the ruler, to maintain his authority must constantly balance among the competing factions at court and do so in symbolic and tangible political-economic terms by dispensing rents for services performed to these quarreling groups of rival Boyars. This was as true of Alexander II and even Stalin as it is of Putin.

Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia remains a paradigm of what North, Weingast, and Wallis call in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History a limited access order or natural state. And they explicitly label Putin’s Russia as such. Such orders are based on personal or personalized norms of rule, are weakly developed in regard to social organizations, and cannot therefore rely on third-person enforcement of legal norms or contracts. Long-term economic growth in such states approaches zero—meaning that for every period of growth there is one of decline in per capita income. These systems’ deficiencies regarding formation of impersonal and binding institutions also mean that they are much more permeated by violence unless potentially violent elements are bought off by rents:

Systematic rent-creation through limited access [to assets] in a natural state is not simply a method of lining the pockets of the dominant coalition; it is the essential means of controlling violence. Rent-creation, limits on competition and access to organizations are central to the nature of the sate, its institutions, and the society’s performance. Limiting the ability to form contractual organizations only to members of the coalition ties the interests of powerful elites directly to the survival of the coalition, thus ensuring their continued cooperation with the coalition.

Thus rule by force and imperial expansion are also intrinsic to the system, a fact that sets all of Russia’s neighbors on permanent watch.

In such a state reforms from above and markets, though not a “market,” are not ruled out and economic growth can occur albeit under severely limiting conditions. But those reforms are invariably circumscribed lest they undermine the system’s foundations, i.e. the concentration of power at the top and in the capital, extreme centralization, an unlimited autocrat, the service state, the absence of contractual guarantees of property or of the accountability of officials to the law.

Clearly democracy, liberal, socialist, or any other kind, is inconceivable in this system. While such states can evolve towards “open access orders” that characterize the modern democracies of Europe, America, and Asia; they can also regress. Indeed, North, et. al. state explicitly that Putin’s Russia is regressing. Current trends in Russian economic policy guarantee stunted growth, obstruct technological innovation, preserve low productivity and thus a high cost of labor, generate hostility to foreign technology and investment, and promote massive corruption.

Around these enduring political and economic relationships justificatory, often quasi-religious cults of personality and ideologies grow up. Likewise in such a politicized economy, political outcomes trump economic results, rendering the former inherently sub-optimal over the short and long-term. Since this system fuses political and economic power, along with ideological power, all efforts to modify, let alone transform this system and its accompanying structure of relationships are politicized. Ideologically as well, there is a very deeply rooted Messianism, or sense of Russia’s unique place in world history. Either due to its mission—religious or Marxist—it has territorial scope joined with an equally deeply rooted Caesaro-Papist ideology that made the Tsar the incarnation of God on earth and the head of the church. In Marxist terms, the Secretary General was the embodiment of the contemporary understanding of history’s dialectic.

Can Change Occur in Russia?

For substantive economic and political reform to occur, the state’s “mass mind” must also change as well. Political, economic, and ideological reform are all inherently and structurally linked as necessary factors of genuine progress, as the Gorbachev years showed us. Maya Eichler writes in “Explaining Post-communist Transformations: Economic Nationalism in Ukraine and Russia”:

Post-communist transformations are fundamentally about conflicts over restructuring political and economic power in society. The transformation path adopted is not simply a question of common sense [of “market and democracy”]; it is inherently political and hotly contested by economic and political actors. Struggles over the form property should take, the control of economic resources, and government policy take place not only at the economic and political level but [also] in the ideological realm. The main issue for those groups seeking power and stability therefore becomes how to legitimate a particular path of transformation and make it appear incontestable.

Absent coherent concurrent reforms in all these areas we get, as we did in 1990-93, systemic breakdown. But this also means that the state and economy exist in a permanent condition of instability, even crisis, whether it be an urgent or slow-burning, long-term crisis. Yet reform is so contrary to the interests of this deeply entrenched elite that it does not take place absent an urgent, as opposed to slow-burning, crisis.

Likewise, historically the main preoccupation of the state has been war, and the resources, including manpower, of the state have generally been subjected to the quest for a military that can prevail over all enemies, often technologically stronger ones. This phenomenon has several important consequences for Russia. Most important, it entails what Vitaly Shlykov calls “structural militarization.” This militarization takes many forms, both rhetorical forms and actual policy outcomes. We see it today in the huge but futile military spending that has only modernized 19% of Russia’s armed forces from the level of 10% in 2008. Yet war and military threats, as noted above, remain essential structural components of this regime.

As Shlykov wrote in “Back into the Future, Or Cold War Lessons for Russia,” this phenomenon pervades the economy.

This skewed economic setup, when the economy does not respond to a fall in arms procurement and prevents the re-funneling of resources from the military to the civilian sector, can be described as structural militarization, in contrast to militarization that can be measured through the share of military spending and military production in the national budget, GDP, etc. In a structurally militarized economy, arms procurements can come to a halt (which is what happened in Russia by the mid-1990s), but this will not automatically make the civilian sector more effective. Furthermore, it is possible for the economic situation in such a country to worsen. Paradoxically, in a structurally militarized economy, resources are mainly wasted not in the defense sector but in the civilian one. Because the economy is in extremely poor shape, even the maintenance of the civilian sector requires a colossal amount of resources: raw materials, energy, machinery and equipment. To support its pathetic agricultural complex, the U.S.S.R. had to produce six or seven times as many tractors and several times as much fertilizer as the United States.

Moreover, large parts of the population, not least the armed forces, are essentially bound to their masters and the state for substantial periods of time and have no rights against their masters. They are, as Aleksandr’ Herzen called the serfs, “baptized property.” As such they are individually and communally obliged to serve the state. Consequently, and given the privileges that accrue to officers who can command this population, there is an inherent demand for a large army. Officers and elites have a hard time believing that they do not need a large mobilization base for internal as well as external purposes and that they cannot have a permanent call upon Russia’s material and manpower relations. Invoking a permanent threat that justifies a large military establishment is a very attractive way to do that.

Clearly this entrenched system cannot and will not reform itself and cannot but cause a permanent state of siege in its neighborhood. But it also therefore cannot surmount its systemic crisis except by transforming itself, which is impossible. That an explosion will come is all but certain. Only the date, manner, and circumstances of its occurrence are unknown. But all these considerations, taken together should suffice to make us constantly vigilant and constantly aware of Russia’s abiding importance in world affairs.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.