Special Report

A Russian Awakening

Moving on from Alexander III, Konstantin Pobedonostev, and Vladimir Putin.

By 12.19.11

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It is tempting to think of Russia in terms of historical continuity, with a red thread of autocracy, coterminous with the grim flow of the centuries, extending from the Rurikids to the Romanovs, and from the Politburo to Putinism. Such a thread was firmly embedded in Russian historiography a century ago, when the influential lecturer Vasily Klyuchevsky, in his magisterial five-volume Course of Russian History, characterized Russian autocracy as the ineluctable consequence of climate, geopolitics, and the supposedly simple social structures of its vast populace. Generations of historians have plumbed the depths of Russia's past, each searching for evidence of the inevitability of imperial absolutism. For some, like the nineteenth-century aristocrat Nikolay Karamzin, Moscow "owes it greatness to the khans." For others, like the twentieth-century Byzantinist Romilly Jenkins, the modern Russian state "merely carries on the tradition of tsarist days," which in turn was part of an "age-old structure… very recognizably [that of] the Byzantine Palace of the Third Rome."

Autocracy has thus been presented as a fundamental feature of the Russian landscape, as natural as the loamy black earth of the tillable steppes. It matters little, then, if the Russian people have paid a terrible price for this phenomenon, routinely subdivided as they have been into the three categories provided by the poet Aleksandr Pushkin: "tyrant, traitor, or in prison." After all, it would seem altogether foolhardy to challenge the black letter laws of history. The seemingly static nature of the Russian experience -- notwithstanding the endless succession of "Times of Troubles" and "Epochs of Executions," peasant revolts and pretenders to the throne, ideological revolutions and civil wars -- suggests an eerie stabilnost kladbishcha, a "stability of the graveyard," one that is by all appearances gated shut.

As a result, when tens of thousands of men, women, and children fill Moscow's Bolotnaya Ploshchad ("Bog Square") to protest the transparently fraudulent results of the December 4, 2011 Duma elections, skepticism regarding the prospects of a liberalizing sea change in the Russian Federation is understandably widespread. Perhaps Nikolai Yazykov was right to prophesy, on the eve of the 1825 Decembrist Revolt, that "Those age-old bonds will never slacken/ Around our homeland's patient woe"? But perhaps, at long last, that patience is running thin, and genuine democratic reforms are within reach. Or perhaps Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's once and likely future president, would rather follow in Ivan the Terrible's footsteps, becoming (as Klyuchevsky put it) rather like "the blind knight in the Old Testament who collapses a building on top of himself in order to destroy the enemies who are sitting on the roof." In any event, the contentious aftermath of the recent Duma elections, and the run-up to the March 2012 presidential election, will provide at least a partial answer to the question of "whither Russia?"

To more effectively grapple with this pressing issue, it should be kept in mind that Russian society is not really the static monstrosity described by Karamzin, Klyuchevsky, and company. It is better thought of as a "sedimentary society," a phrase used by Alfred Rieber to discuss a process by which "a successive series of social forms accumulated, each constituting a layer that covered all or most of society without altering the older forms lying under the surface." Throughout Russian history, various estates, classes, and ethnies commingled with broader notions like narod ("nation") and obshchestvennost ("educated, politically-aware society"). The peasantry, meanwhile, has been evocatively likened by Konstantin Kavelin to "Kaluga dough," "malleable enough in form but possessing its own weight, texture, mass and resistance, above all resistance," a description suitable for the population as a whole. Not unlike in a geological context, the superimposed and shifting sedimentary strata of Russian society produced innumerable tensions -- between liberalism and the Orthodox faith, Westernizers and Slavophiles, European and Eurasian strategic objectives, capitalism and socialism, "Russia for the Russians" and federalist multinationalism, and so on -- all of which have resulted in a collection of internal contradictions that can serve either to make or to break the Russian state.

It is hardly surprising that Russia, simultaneously blessed and cursed by a body politic such as this, would tend towards political sultanism. Today's Russian Federation, however, is as diverse as it has ever been. As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has recently written, "Russia's sociopolitical spectrum is as wide as the country itself," with "socialists, liberals, and conservatives; big, medium, and small businesses; major urban centers, small towns, and the countryside; ethnic Russian and non-Russian regions, including the very special case of the North Caucasus," all of whose "demands are very diverse and are sometimes hard to reconcile." With "many people more affluent than ever before in the entire history of Russia," Trenin continued, "the level of popular tolerance has changed."

The obshchestvennost, in other words, is in the ascendant. A similar development occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as mass-circulation newspapers and journals sprouted up across the empire. The historian Geoffrey Hosking has noted that "the ever denser web of information, ideas, comment and discussion" gradually created a "new kind of public," one "able to discover information independent of the regime, absorb it evaluate it and remould it as part of a view of the world." The czarist regime's monopoly of police powers, its ability and willingness to arrest and to suppress those who expressed "dangerous" ideas, would prove a small consolation to the imperial establishment. Thanks to new modes of communication enabled by Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal, a similar evolution is taking place in the Russian public square, as evidenced by the ongoing opposition protests in Moscow and elsewhere.

The Russian autocracy -- czarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet -- has proven predictably resistant to the sorts of democratic reforms envisioned by the obshchestvennost. One exception to the rule was the liberal Czar Alexander II, who on the morning of March 13, 1881 affirmatively initialed a proposal enhancing the role of elected representation in the State Council, not knowing that in a matter of hours he would be felled by an assassin's bomb. But when his second son and successor, the utterly illiberal Alexander III, took up the matter of institutional reform, it was the counsel of the reactionary Ober Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev that held sway. The procurator, rejecting the "foreign falsehood" of a parliamentary "talking-shop," maintained that "Russia has been strong thanks to the autocracy, thanks to the limitless mutual trust and the close tie between the people and its czar."

It was a revealing answer, providing a template for Russian absolutists of all stripes. The attitude that absolutism was vital to Russian greatness, and that any attempts at reform are related to nefarious foreign machinations, is certainly on display in today's Russia. On December 15, 2011,Vladimir Putin appeared on state television four nearly five hours in order to deliver broadside after broadside aimed at his opposition. The protests, remarked Putin, are merely part of a "well-tested scheme to destabilize society," executed by "pawns in the hands of foreign agents," "people with Russian passports but who work in the interests of foreign states." It could not be otherwise, in Putin's mind, for he claims to have a finger firmly on the pulse of the Russian people, and has promised to leave power "within a day" if he felt he had lost the Russian equivalent of the Mandate of Heaven. For both Pobedonostsev and Putin, then, the need to maintain legitimacy both at home and abroad, the need to tighten the "close tie" between the autocrat and the people while fending off foreign interference (perceived or otherwise), is crucial to keeping a steady grip on the reins of state. When the horse begins to evade the bit, of course, the matter of legitimacy becomes all the more important.

Vladimir Putin, always eager to "separate the flies from the cutlet," as he likes to put it, casts his critics as the former and true patriots as the latter, but there are indications that this self-serving dichotomy is less and less tenable. For Maria Lipman, the analogy is not that of flies and cutlets, but rather a government and people living "under an informal, nonintrusive pact, or a divorce contract: the government made the decisions and the people minded their own business. As long as the government would not intrude, people accepted that they did not make a difference and engaged in their pursuits." The December 2011 Duma election, Lipman has suggested, "brought the 'divorcees' -- the state and the people -- back closer together, forcing a vote of allegiance to the government that many had come to detest." The result was a pivot towards Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, and Sergei Mironov's A Just Russia Party, and away from Putin's United Russia Party, which required fraudulent vote inflation of fifteen to seventeen points, according to election observers Alexander Kynev and Dmitry Oreshkin, to achieve its 49.3 percent share.

With the legitimacy of the regime being systematically undermined, and with President Dmitri Medvedev now an irrelevancy, it has become necessary for Putin to offer various domestic political sops, including the possibility of a reshuffled government, provisions for the direct election of regional governors, and the potential allowance of registration of presidential candidates by genuine opposition parties. In the international arena, Putin has been lambasting American missile defense initiatives (somehow an existential threat to the Russian people), laying the groundwork for a "Eurasian Union" and a Russian version of the economic "New Silk Road," and dispatching humanitarian convoys to Russia's embattled Orthodox Serbian brethren in Kosovo, all in the hopes of buttressing his legitimacy abroad. Whether this will bring about a return of the "limitless mutual trust" extolled by Procurator Pobedonostsev is very much an open question at this crucial juncture of Russian history.

Given the reluctance of the various Kremlin-approved opposition parties to boycott the Duma, it is likely that subsequent reforms will be incremental at best. And unless the billionaire entrepreneur Mikhail Prokhorov can pull off a massive upset in the upcoming presidential elections, Putin figures to be in a position to stall any future serious attempts at reform. Nevertheless, the Russian political establishment has been shaken to its core. Putin's crude joke about the white ribbons of the protesters -- "I decided that it was an anti-AIDS campaign… that they pinned on contraceptives, I beg your pardon, only folding them in a strange way" -- belies a sense of distinct unease with the aftermath of the botched election rigging. For an autocracy that heretofore relied on unbending trust, or at least unbending fear, on the part of the people, these are disturbing developments indeed.

The Russian Federation, like its political predecessors, has continuously stressed the vital importance of national unity. Its constitution refers to unity and continuity repeatedly, mentioning the country's "common fate," and the resulting need for "civil peace," "accord," the preservation of "historically-established state unity," and reverence for the "memory of ancestors who have conveyed to us the love for the Fatherland." For a multinational people spanning nine time zones, this is an understandable desire, but maintaining civil peace is still predicated on the legitimacy of the powers that be. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is being subjected to serious popular scrutiny regarding not only its electoral procedures, but also the very validity of its institutions.

The veteran journalist Boris Tumanov, writing for the online Russian newspaper Gazeta in the immediate aftermath of the fraudulent Duma elections, addressed the specters of Russian nationalism and disunion with an eye to the longue durée. With the czarist motto of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality" "bursting like a bubble," and with the Soviet mottos of "Unbreakable Union" and "Forever United" revealed to be mere shibboleths, Tumanov convincingly argued that the "archaic mythological idea" of intertwined autocracy and unity has proven to be "the main reason for the regularly occurring disasters" in Russian history. So a red thread does run through Russian history, though it is not the same one that Putin and his backers imagine stitches together the Federation's patchwork of nations, communities, and individuals. "Pryedoopryezhdyen znachit vooroozhyen," Tumanov concluded: "forewarned is forearmed." There are plenty of warnings to go around, for Russia's current regime, for its restive and awakening people, and for outsider actors looking to make sense of the striking developments occurring both in real time and as part the broad flow of Russian history.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.