Thinking beyond Putin

Monday, April 10, 2023

Lately I've been thinking about the possibilities of collapse. No, not my own--but rather that which could take place inside Russia. 

When Nicholas II of Russia was, in 1905, pushed to the brink of overthrow, the world was incredulous. After all, the Russian government had, it seemed, been making all of the right moves for decades. The liberalization of the economy that had followed Russia's abolition of serfdom had led to an astonishing level of development. In the 1890s, Russia had the second fastest-growing economy in the world, after the USA. Foreign investment in the Russian economy increased nine-fold between 1880 and 1900. 

Meanwhile, infrastructure was growing at an equally rapid pace. Between 1881 and 1894, Russia's railroad network had grown by 40%, then doubled again between 1895 and 1905. In 1880, there were roughly 22,000 elementary schools in Russia, roughly 70% of which had been opened since the abolition of serfdom in 1861.  20 years later, the number of elementary schools had reached almost 80,000. 

Russia had not only become more educated and better developed by 1900, but also much more urban. Whereas there had been just thousands of industrial laborers in Russia in the 1830s, by century's end that number exceeded two million. The vast majority of these factory workers were residing in urban centers located in the empire's western provinces, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Kiev. 

By any standard, the generation of Russians who rebelled against Nicholas II in 1905 was the best educated, most urban, and most sophisticated to have ever existed in Russian history. And yet, with Russian armed forces fighting a losing war against Japan, Nicholas II came within a hair of losing his throne in the wake of a series of strikes and protests that rocked his empire. And while the tsar would, after making promises to create a parliament and constitution, manage to retain his hold on power for another twelve years, the February Revolution of 1917 (which also took place during the course of a war that was not going well) was in many ways simply a case of the second shoe dropping .

Nicholas II's mistake (like that of Putin in the early 21st century) was in trying to modernize Russia in every way but one: politically. Tsarist administrators had sought, in the second half of the nineteenth century, to develop the country's educational system, infrastructure, and economy, and in many ways they had succeeded. The problem lay in assuming that Russian subjects would simply be grateful for all of the seemingly quite positive changes that had been brought to their lives. Rather, an increasingly educated and urbanized society began to make more demands upon the government. Nicholas II and the people running Russia in his name had created their own opposition (much like the Shah of Iran, flush with oil-wealth, would do in the 1960s and 70s). 

Fast forward to 1981, and the final slogging steps of the Brezhnev years: did anyone think that the USSR would vanish from the map of the world just a decade later? On paper, it looked like the Soviet Union would be around forever, or at least for as far as the eye could see. Under Brezhnev and his immediate successors Andropov and Chernenko, ambitions were similarly grounded in the state's ability to better provide material goods to its citizens and preserve the status quo. These late-era Soviet leaders, like Nicholas II at the beginning of the 20th century, wanted to modernize the USSR in every way but one. 

For a party that was supposedly revolutionary, however, such drab ambitions were a sign of the USSR's advanced state of ideological bankruptcy. 
Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed power in the USSR in 1985, genuinely tried to change the Soviet Union's political system. 

Gorbachev's most significant contribution, I think, lay in his willingness to expose the party, and the Soviet government, to criticism by ordinary Soviet citizens. The problem was that very little was done to create an alternative to a system of repression that had existed, in varying forms, since 1917. By modernizing Soviet politics in one particular way--by making it much easier for Soviet citizens to criticize the state and party--without creating something workable to replace it, Gorbachev's reforms swiftly led to the USSR's breakup. And the fact that all of this was taking place in the context of another losing war, this time in Afghanistan, should not be ignored, either. 

Vladimir Putin's approach to modernizing Russia is much more in the mold of Nicholas II or Brezhnev. His more than two decades of rule have been characterized by a desire to improve Russia's standard of living and infrastructure, while slowly consolidating power for himself. As was the case in the years before 1905, Putin has presided over the creation of a generation of Russian citizens who are better educated, more materially well-off, and internationally sophisticated than in any previous era of Russian history. But it's a form of service-based legitimacy that is dangerously dependent upon his ability to continue delivering the goods. 

In many ways, it's been a successful run. I started traveling to Russia regularly in 2002, and spent at least part of every year in various locales in the Russian Federation between 2002 and 2010. Then, after a break of five years, I again began visiting Russia semi-regularly in 2015. What I saw upon returning to Russia astonished me: whereas in the early 2000s,  Moscow and St. Petersburg had, in comparison with the provinces, felt almost like foreign countries (especially Moscow) with respect to their level of material development, in the second decade of the 21st century public investment and the improvement of infrastructure had greatly changed the appearances of places like Kazan, Ufa, Samara, and other populations centers in the regions outside the capital cities. 

More than any previous leader in Russia's history, Vladimir Putin's pitch for legitimacy has been based upon his ability to deliver. Unlike Nicholas II, Putin is not part of a dynasty that has ruled Russia for hundreds of years. Unlike Brezhnev or Gorbachev, there is no institutionally relevant party to fall back upon (Putin's party, United Russia, does not have anything close to the sort of ideological standing in Russia that the Communist Party had in the USSR). Nor is there any sort of real ideology behind Putin, although he has lately been attempting to create one based upon a combination of Russian nationalism, religious conservatism, and hostility toward LGBTQ communities. 

What sort of institutional legitimacy does Putin have to support him? Very little. Since 1999 Russians have, for the most part, shrugged their shoulders and allowed Putin to amass power in exchange for his ability to improve their lives materially and provide political stability (even if this 'stability' was just a more polite name for an ever-strengthening dictatorship). But after the chaos and manifest incompetence of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, who could blame them? Sure, he enriched himself and his supporters. Without question he was no democrat. But people's lives appeared to be getting better. The country was developing. Something was getting done. 

But what about now? Putin has been exposed as spectacularly incompetent in the most important undertaking he has ever initiated. A war is going badly. For someone whose claim to rule is based largely upon his ability to improve people's lives, what happens once it becomes obvious that the president is wearing no clothes? Lacking an ideology, a dynastic claim, or a party to legitimize his rule, what's left for Putin if the aura of competence which has thus far surrounded him evaporates? 

The way I see it, Putin today is suffering the challenges of both Nicholas II and the latter-day Soviets. On the one hand, he has sought to modernize his society in every way but one--politically. This is always a problem (just ask the Shah). 

On the other hand, there's no pretending anymore: the emperor has no clothes. There's nothing driving him forward at this point other than inertia. No party, no ideology, no revolution, no nothing. The organization man unravels amid total intellectual bankruptcy. 

None of this means that Putin is going to be overthrown. Indeed, he certainly appears to have a strong hold over the levers of power and their ability to repress dissent. And, thanks to the Kremlin's control over television and radio airwaves in Russia, most Russians probably don't know enough to form an informed critique of Putin's prosecution of the war in Ukraine, anyway. 

But there is a history in Russia of outwardly stable-looking regimes collapsing suddenly and unexpectedly. Without an ideology, a party, or a dynastic claim to justify his rule, Putin needs to deliver success. If he can't do that--in the form of either winning the war or extracting Russian troops from it--his rule will begin to appear just as bankrupt as Communist Party rule appeared to Soviet citizens in the latter 1980s. 

In other words, imagining Putin's political downfall is not simply an exercise in wishful thinking, and there are historical precedents for this happening in Russia. In both 1905 and in the latter 1980s, moreover, the imperial and Soviet regimes were exposed as inept at a particularly delicate time--during the course of a war that was going very badly. 

For all I know, Putin will continue to rule Russia for another twenty years. However, given what we know about Russia's past, I think it makes sense to prepare for the contingency that, if this war continues to go badly for Russia, there could be a swift and unexpected change in power in Moscow. 

The real question is: what would happen after that?  


More posts on Russia: 

Regrouping in Belgrade N & P

Russia-Ukraine Notes: Early October Edition

All Crimea/Ukraine posts since 2008

Re Russia-Ukraine: Changes Coming?

Back and Forth in the Quagmire

A "Mission Accomplished" Moment?

This past week...

More Thoughts Re Ukraine and NATO

The USA: NATO's Weakest Link?

Brown Trouser Time

Looking for the Long-Term in Putin's Moves

Moscow Recognizes Two Breakaway Republics: Why do this?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the 'Mini-Republics' (from 2008)

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