Peering back through recent history can be frustrating. The West expected that the self-burial of the USSR would open an era of liberal awakening, including for Russia. Today, one has to admit that the collapse of the USSR instead yielded a perverse outcome: the refurbishing of the personalist “strongman” Russia, and a government that sees its governing power as sacred and unbound by any social contract. Russian liberals and the West have provided unwitting assistance in helping the country reach this point.
One can easily be bewildered by Russia’s ability to generate misconceptions about itself. Suffice it to say that there were a staggering array of errors, fallacies, and self-deceptions confounding both Russians and foreign Russia hands following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some Russian experts at least deserve credit for admitting that the developments were “unexpected.” If Russians had trouble understanding their reality, we should not have been so sure that their Western colleagues had a crystal ball. As we look to the past to understand the future, questions arise: Where did we go wrong abut Russia and why? And what new shocks might Russia be preparing for the world?
To understand what happened, one has to start with our perception of Mikhail Gorbachev’s and Boris Yeltsin’s roles. In the current context, Gorbachev can be viewed as the leader who delivered a crucial blow to Russia’s imperial and personalized system. Trying to humanize the Soviet state, he dismantled its pillars, provoked its unraveling, and buried global communism. He turned out to be simultaneously a Terminator anda hostage of unintended consequences. But he opened the door to a liberal perspective for the post-communist world, including for Russia. De-hermitizing Russia, he gave its society a chance to learn to live in freedom.
Gorbachev undermined autocracy, whereas Yeltsin moved toward the neo-patrimonial regime, albeit without the trappings of communism. Yeltsin was torn by contradictions. At the beginning, he respected basic freedoms, but he quickly returned to monarchic rule and laid the foundations for oligarchic capitalism and the rentier state. He too became a victim of unintended consequences.
Yeltsin shelled the Parliament and allowed the manipulation of election results to secure his presidential victory. He crafted a new constitution that legitimized concentrated powers in the president to an extent that even Soviet leaders would have envied—Yeltsin’s legal adviser himself admitted, “This constitution prevents any development of democracy.” Yeltsin’s Russia continued to follow the imperial principle that “Russia is either a great power, or nothing.” Finally, Yeltsin initiated the transfer of power to a successor who guaranteed security for himself and his family and defended the interests of the ruling corporation.
Many pundits (myself included) hoped that analysts Juan Linz, Giuseppe Di Palma, and Albert Hirschman were right in arguing that “the non-democrats of yesterday can become democrats,” and that a lack of fertile conditions could be “transcended by political leadership and political engineering.” Russia’s political class, including its liberals, has finally dispensed with these hopes.
However, there are inescapable facts that defy a fatalistic approach. In 1991, 70 percent of Russians polled were prepared to move toward democracy. At the time of the 1993 referendum, 53 percent of respondents supported painful reforms. Thus, one can assume that there were at least some conditions favorable to a democratic option. Pursuit of such a course demanded vision, courage, and a readiness to share power with other institutions. Yeltsin chose the familiar path, claiming he needed a monopoly of power to proceed with reforms. Once he secured that monopoly, he forgot all about the reforms. The bitter irony is that among the key enablers of Yeltsin’s personalist system were Russian liberals-technocrats. It was they who became the builders of Russia’s oligarchic capitalism and who today are one of the drivers of Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Instead of being remembered as the founder of Russia’s democracy, Yeltsin’s reputation is secure as the Godfather of the new personalized system. Accordingly, Putin’s regime represents not a rupture with Yeltsin’s past, but its natural product.
President Putin has presided over the maturing of the system that Yeltsin began to erect. During his rule, Putin has experimented with several modifications of personalist power: being friendly to the West with select controls at home; being suspicious of the West with tougher domestic subjugation; and being confrontational toward the West with a shift toward totalitarian control.
During the early stage of his rule, Putin tested out a duality: cooperating with the West while softly insulating Russia from Western influence. This duality secured Western resources for domestic development, guaranteed a Western style of consumption for the elite, and allowed ordinary Russians a measure of freedom in their personal lives.
At the time, Putin was viewed in the West as the guarantor of a reformist and responsible Russia. In 2002, President George W. Bush and Putin signed a joint declaration stating, “Russia and the U.S. reject the model of competition of ‘superpowers.’” At its summit in Kananaskis in 2002, the G8 stated that Russia demonstrates an “amazing economic and democratic transformation, primarily under the leadership of President Putin.” The West, mesmerized by the “Russian miracle,” was for the most part blissfully unaware of what was coming. The Western world was shocked by Russia’s return to a confrontational pattern when, at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin delivered an ultimatum that boiled down to “either you accept our terms or else.”
Why had the liberal democracies failed to see the mood of “grievance” that had been developing in Moscow for years? The West misunderstood the meaning of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008–12), welcoming it as Russia’s return to a pro-Western path. Henry Kissinger went so far as to argue in 2008 in the Washington Post that “government operation . . . with two centers of power [Medvedev and Putin] . . . appears to be the beginning of an evolution toward a form of checks and balances.”(!) President Medvedev confirmed the West’s hopes: “We have the same values,” he said in an 2016 interview with George Stephanopoulos. By 2021 he was declaring, “The USA, other Anglo Saks and their vassals . . . have a goal: to suffocate our country and erase it.”
True, there were some warnings. In 2006 the Council onf Foreign relations published a report alerting that Russia “was heading in the wrong direction.” Some observers warned that Russia could never change, a theory that fails to account for the 26 percent of Russians who today support the right for peaceful rallies and the 61 percent who support freedom of speech. A substantial part of Russian society is ready for democratic change, but the change has to begin at the top—and the authorities that have a monopoly on power aren’t ready to share it with the people. Russia’s liberal choice would mean its readiness to integrate into Europe and obediently follow its rules. Yet the Russian elite shows no inclination to compromise Russian sovereignty and great-power instincts, which continue to cement the state.
Here is an even more dramatic concern: Russians have failed to acquire a national identity. That is why the imperial culture and mentality could still appeal to them. They face a terrifying choice between empire—which will require the sacrifice of tremendous resources and lives to limp along—and forming a nation, which could bring about the unraveling of the state and lead to an untold misery along the way. Even Russian liberals are torn; one of the leading pro-Kremlin liberals, Anatoly Chubais, said that “the key task of the Russian Federation is to build a ‘liberal Empire.’”
For the second time in recent history, Russia is trying to adapt to global challenges by reproducing its traditional imperial model and forcing the world to accept its demands. The first attempt, the Soviet Union, ended with its crumbling. It took more than seventy years and Gorbachev’s suicidal recklessness to end that project. Putin’s Russia has started a new experiment to update the imperial great power. While the Soviet Union was intent on influencing the future, today’s Russia seeks to revive the past with a de-modernization agenda.
Watching this pivot, one can’t brush aside the question: What if Russia in its current geographical format can exist only as a personalized construct with great-power ambition?
The Imperial Thread
The Russian state system is clearly a unique sociopolitical phenomenon. It rests on a triad: the state’s total domination; legitimization by an idea (religious or political) that serves as a substitute for the notion of nation and justifies submission to the state; and a perpetual longing to dominate and expand for the sake of internal subjugation. Russia has created Hobbes’ Leviathan minus the Hobbesian social contract.
Putin has for years been dusting off the Soviet mummy, restoring its symbols and its bones. Unexpectedly for many observers, its restored incarnation has acquired a new logic. It has lost its rigidity, demonstrating a chameleon-like adaptivity and postmodern ambivalence that have produced fertile ground for deceptions. What we see could be an evasive image of something different—an Orwellian canvas, indeed!
Militarization is a fixture of Russia’s postmodernity and it continues to be a guarantor of Russia’s great-power status. But it has lost the modernization role it played even in Soviet times and it can’t turn Russian society into a military camp. Moreover, militarization could exhaust the state’s vitality. It remains to be seen if postmodern fuzziness can consolidate society; most likely it can only atomize it further. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, external confrontation requires the internal consolidation of society, not its atomization. Another headache for the Kremlin is that it has allowed the privatization of state military might, leading to the emergence of quasi-private mercenary armies such as that led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The hyper-centralized state is losing control over its sources of power.
The Kremlin has been experimenting with the synthesis of various ideological and political ingredients to keep the system breathing. So far it’s working, though of course we don’t have a clue how stable it will be and what sort of dead-ends it might produce. Yet there is a conflict between imperial rebirth as the state’s key way of legitimization, on the one hand, and its limited resources to secure it (not to mention Western resistance to it) on the other. Escalation, not compromise, is the Kremlin’s present solution. However, there are signs that the Kremlin has started to mull how to achieve a compromise could be presented as victory.
By confronting the West, Putin demolished an effective mechanism to sustain Russia’s existence that was formulated by Peter the Great and successfully exploited by Stalin: using Western technology to strengthen the anti-Western construct. De-modernization brings a different existential pattern that is only now evolving.
The Stacked Deck
Several factors could influence Russia’s trajectory in the short term: the state-regime fusion which makes the state an instrument in the regime’s survival; the elites’ mood; and the idea of unity that appeals to the Russian majority formed during Putin’s rule. The state has been captured by the personalized regime; any attempt to bring down the regime will destabilize the state or even cause it’s unravelling. Quite an apocalyptic perspective!
Transformation of the Russian system will demand a revolution not only in governance but in psychology—that is, in the Russian paternalist mentality. The elites inside the system are not ready for that experiment. Those outside have no chance, for the time being. If there is no elite consensus regarding change, revolution from the bottom usually results in a new one-man rule.
During late Soviet times, pragmatic members of the nomenklatura were thinking about de-hermetization. Today, however, we find no Gorbachev-type personalities within Putin’s ruling class. On the contrary, it is the militarist and isolationist groups around the Kremlin that are the most outspoken. The generation of aggressive “wolf warriors” is ascendant amidst the “special military operation.” The old elites are leaving the scene or hiding in the shadows.
One can see the emergence of the “Putin Man” in Russia today—an angry person who feels unjustly aggrieved and who hungers for vengeance. One can easily imagine that the most viable concept around which to rally in a post-conflict situation would be a longing for revenge that could give energy to an even more brutal personalized regime needing external shocks to legitimize itself.
Several more circumstances stand to undermine the chances for liberal change in Russia: the annihilation of the liberal opposition; the population’s dependence on the state; the rejection of liberal values, which are viewed by many Russians as the cause of the Soviet collapse and the misery of the 1990s; and the perception of the West as an enemy that wishes to destroy Russia.
In this context, irrespective of whether Russia wins or loses in Ukraine, the future will most likely be defined by the continuation of personalized rule either under Putin or his successor. The ultra-patriotic ideologues are already preparing for the post-Putin scene, arguing that the new leadership will be “tougher.” One can imagine an attempt to merge revenge with a thirst for “justice” in a way that would appeal to the unhappy population. A lot depends on how Russians returning from the front position themselves. They could become a powerful pillar of the “revenge/justice” agenda.
In any case, it is difficult to imagine that Russia will be ready to reject a great-power role and their ideology of the state as sacred, existing above the law, and free of moral taboos. Some observors say Russia needs “a true humiliation” in order to change. Yet humiliation would only strengthen Russians’ thirst for revenge.
Expecting that Putin’s exit will change Russia’s trajectory looks to be another self-deceit. Explaining Russia by means of digging through Putin’s psyche while ignoring the context of Russian culture, the legacy of the 1990s, and the evolution of thinking during Putin’s “success story” areis a surefire ways to produce new fallacies. What if all of these matter more today than the mood of the leader?
Does the current drama mean Russia is hopeless? To be sure, Russian society is following its leader in the dark course he has set, yet Russians also long for a “normal life,” even if they define that normalcy in terms other than “freedom.” One can’t reject the possibility of the emergence of a pragmatic force (even if it is only concerned with its own survival) that will come to the conclusion that change is an opportunity rather than a threat that could offer Russia a new political path. A paradox in this context is that the prolongation of Putin’s regime could accelerate the personalist system’s exhaustion, whereas regime change could give the system a new lease on life.
So far, and contrary to expectations, the Russian system has proven adaptable. Russia continues to play the role of global spoiler thanks to nuclear blackmail, energy blackmail, confusion in the West over a post-conflict strategy toward Russia, and the acquiescence of the Global South in Russian aggression. The world should be ready for new shocks. The resilience of the Russian system depends on its ability to hurl thunderbolts to legitimize the overcentralized state standing above the law and rejecting any rules.
Several things are clear about the near term: There will be a period of clashes for Putin’s legacy, a search for targets to blame for goals not achieved, property redistribution, and social turmoil. It’s hardly an auspicious time for systemic transformation. What will come after the post-conflict interlude is less clear. Will we see the emergence of a ruling group ready to compromise with the West while continuing to stifle domestic change? Or a more aggressive revanchist regime? The jury is still out.
Vladimir Putin could go down in history as the leader who has most severely tested the limits and adaptability of the Russian state system, and he still has time to test them further. Russia at this point in time has no force that could lead it out of its civilizational deadlock that boils down to this: Russians simply have no idea how to break with the past without causing immense national pain or threatening the collapse of the state.
Victor Monteverdi (a pseudonym) is an independent observer.
Image: Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced his early resignation as head of state and the temporary transfer of his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, December 31, 1999. (Wikipedia: Russia's Presidential Press and Information Office)
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