In Authoritarian Russia Vladimir Gel’man answers a question that is extremely important for contemporary international relations: Why is post-Soviet Russia the way that it is? Or, framed slightly differently, how did post-Soviet Russia get to be the way that it is? Gel’man, who is a friend of a friend, presents his answers in 150 carefully argued and thoroughly sourced pages, with another 50 pages of endnotes for anyone who wants to double-check his work. He makes the heart of his case right up front, and from personal experience with people who would be crucial to Russia’s path after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s worth quoting extensively.
It was a very lovely and sunny day in the summer of 1990 when I sat at the reception hall in the Mariinsky Palace in (then) Leningrad. I was a twenty-four-year-old activist for the anti-Communist prodemocratic movement, which had gained a majority of seats during the recent city council elections. After this victory, I had received two rather different job offers from two groups of my acquaintances. […] I had to choose between a junior research fellowship at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, and a somewhat mid-range position in the newly formed apparatus of the city council. The latter option initially sounded tempting, and I came for a job interview with the chair of the city council, Anatoly Sobchak. A professor of law who had been elected to the Soviet parliament during the first semicompetitive elections in 1989, he had gained great popularity as a vocal and outspoken critic of the Soviet system; the following year, Leningrad deputies invited Sobchak to serve as chair of the city council upon winning a seat in the by-elections. As usual, he took a long time to arrive, and while waiting for him, I chatted with a receptionist named Dima, a smiling, talkative guy the same age as myself.
Finally, Sobchak arrived, and we went to his extraordinarily large office, with its excellent view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Without asking me anything or even taking my presence into account, my potential boss began a long and passionate speech, as if he were giving a talk before hundreds of people, even though nobody else was in the room (I think he used this opportunity as a testing ground for one of his public appearances, which were bringing him countrywide fame at that time). Sobchak’s speech was full of bright rhetoric but rather vague in substance […] After a seemingly endless speech, he paused, and I was able to ask a question I considered essential for my future job. “Anatoly Aleksandrovich, how do you perceive the system of city government that you plan to build?”
Sobchak turned toward me at last, shifted his attention down to earth, and changed his tone to a more sincere and frank register. “Well … there are the city council deputies, who are numerous, noisy, and disorganized; they have to respond to the complaints of ordinary citizens and mostly work in their local constituencies instead of having long discussions. Then there is the city executive committee; it should deal with matters of everyday routine, such as bumpy roads and leaking pipes, but not go beyond such duties. And I myself […] with the aid of my apparatus […] will conduct politics in the city.” I was shocked to hear these rather cynical words from a person who had a public image as a democratic icon. “But this sounds almost the same as what we had before, under the Communists … and what about democracy?” Sobchak was probably surprised that someone who was supposed to become a member of his emerging team had posed such a naive question. He responded firmly, as certain university professors often do when they pretend to tell the truth to freshmen: “You know, we are in power now—that is democracy.” […] I was unable to turn myself into a minor cog in the newly emerging political machine. I turned my back on Sobchak and left his office, not even saying goodbye. Then I walked directly to the Institute of Sociology, and joined the world of scholarship, not the world of politics.
[…] And the lessons I learned from Sobchak in his office many years ago were worth dozens of textbooks on normative political theory to me. I realized that the ultimate goal of politicians is the maximization of power […].
In fact, Sobchak also failed to achieve this goal and did not maximize his power in Leningrad and (after 1991) St. Petersburg. Six years later, in 1996, as a city mayor, he faced tough electoral competition from his deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev, and lost by a tiny margin. His other deputy, namely Vladimir Putin, learned certain lessons from Sobchak in his career as a politician—but these lessons were very different from those I’d learned, because of the difference between politics and political science. Putin, at least for the time being, was able to maximize his power as president and prime minister of Russia, although more recently [Authoritarian Russia was published in 2015] he has been facing increasing challenges. And Dima, whom I had met on that memorable day, also learned some lessons: Dmitry Medvedev, too, has served as president and prime minster of Russia. He is still a very nice, frequently smiling, and talkative guy—but in a sense, he is still a receptionist. (pp. XI-XIII)
In post-Soviet Russia, Gel’man argues, political conflicts were resolved as zero-sum games, and the consequences of losing were high. In the 1990s, state and economic weakness contributed to a certain degree of political pluralism if one looked at the country as a whole, although there was often little competition within a given region. In the 2000s, “thanks to economic growth and the revival of state capcity, [Putin] was able to successfully pursue the reshuffling of winning coalitions, and to impose conscious and consistent institutional changes. The Russian political system seemingly achieved a stage of authoritarian consolidation on the basis of an inefficient low-level equilibrium, which could not be easily broken without significant losses for the country’s elite and some segments of society.” (p. XIV)
In addition to his key point that political leaders act to maximize their own personal power, Gel’man discusses path dependency. “These strategic choices, made at certain “critical junctures,” can impose certain constraints on further trajectories of regime change. … And if once the choice leads to a dead end, then the return to a turning point becomes quite difficult.” (p. 9) For example, once Boris Yeltsin ordered the shelling of the Russian parliament in October 1993, there was no going back to a previous relationship between president and parliament. That action also raised the stakes of losing a leadership contest. Or, considering the stakes of such losses during the Soviet period, at least signaled that the post-Soviet period a loss could be permanent too.
On the other hand, the Yeltsin years meant that elections were and are the main source of legitimacy in post-Soviet Russia. The rulers have to at least observe the forms, and that means that the state does not rest on naked power, as it does in other post-Soviet states.
Gel’man navigates among political science, sociology and contemporary history in describing the events of three post-Soviet decades in the top levels of Russian politics. He gives details of the people and actions involved, but also abstracts from them to the level of institutions and also looks at how the system as a whole functioned. Given the brevity of the work, it is not particularly quantitative, though it draws on research that is. He also notes the importance of economic changes, particularly the strength of the energy economy in the 2000s, although he does not go into great detail about how economic change came about or the mechanisms by which it affects state and society.
As a guide to thinking systematically about developments in the top level of Russian politics, it’s concise, clear, and helpful. For example:
The imposed consensus of the Russian elite under Putin was based on the following principles: (1) an implicit taboo on open political contestation among the federal elite (in other words, a taboo on electoral democracy as such); (2) an informal agreement between the dominant and subordinated actors on loyalty in exchange for access to resources and rents; (3) the prevalence of informal and actor-specific particularistic rules of the game over formal and universal norms in the political arena. (p. 81)
The “dictatorship of law” proclaimed by Putin in July 2000 “did not lead to the emergence of the rule of law, but rather served as a smokescreen for informal governance based upon the arbitrary rule of the Kremlin and its loyalists. (p. 81) This lead to the creation of what has become known as the “power vertical.” In the authoritarian system of Russia today, power flows from the top, as do favors and economic advantages. The Kremlin has co-opted sub-national political machines controlled by regional and local leaders, built a party system that can deliver the votes that provide legitimacy, and regained state control over major economic resources with consequences for loyalists and for possible sources of political alternatives. (p. 84)
The 2010s, Gel’man argues, have offered more challenges to Putin’s system of a power vertical. Gel’man notes that authoritarianism can be a brittle system, more prone to breaking than to bending. The long bear market in energy is one challenge, as it decreases the resources available for division among key political players. It also slows the rising prosperity of the Russian middle class that had done so much to create assent for Putin’s rule, if not enthusiasm for the limited political choice that implied. As the book was in its final stages, Russia also seized the Crimea from Ukraine, drawing significant economic sanctions from Europe and the West. Repercussions could not be analyzed before the book went to print, but it fits Gel’man’s model as another source of uncertainty for the regime.
Parliamentary elections in 2011 posed a particular problem for Russia’s electoral authoritarianism. The upper echelons were preparing for the upcoming switch back to President Putin from President Medvedev. They misjudged both opposition and populace, and had to resort to obvious fraud to contain the losses. That “gave rise to large-scale postelection protests, which were larger than any in post-Soviet election history, and soon exceeded the technical limits of police coercion. The public’s demonstrative rejection of the status quo contributed to the shift in previously hidden public preferences and had a snowball effect on the protest.” (p. 119) But the protests fizzled and five years later Russian electoral authoritarianism is still in place. Why?
Gel’man notes how soon the presidential election followed on the parliamentary elections: December 2011 to March 2012. The opposition’s success in December surprised even them, and there was no time to organize around a single candidate for president, particularly given the massive barriers put in the way by Kremlin loyalists. The opposition agreed on a negative consensus — “No votes for Putin!” — but did not have a positive alternative. “In sum, the creativity and passion of the opposition leaders and their supporters could not replace organizational potential and strategic planning.” (p. 122)
The final chapter of Authoritarian Russia covers scenarios for future developments as well as a research agenda for scholarly inquiry into the hows and whys of Russian political development. The chapter is a Heraclitean coda, a reminder that in human institutions change is the only real constant. The book as a whole provides crisp and clear analysis, a guide for thinking about how Russia has developed, and, for people on the outside, how to see not only what is, but what could be.