20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Sergei Medvedev discusses the shortcomings in the Russian intelligentsia; Konstantin Gaaze juxtaposes Putin’s “court” and the country’s “Politburo 2.0” system; Lilia Shevtsova classifies Russian experts and intellectuals who support the current regime; Vasily Zharkov explains the public support for Russia’s aggressive foreign policy; Alexander Rubtsov highlights the link between ideology and business in the country. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Russian president's chief of staff Anton Vaino (right) and Tula region governor Alexei Dyumin, who are viewed at members of Vladimir Putin's so called “court,” attend a gala reception at the Kremlin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky / TASS.


Republic: The Silence of the Lambs. Why the Intelligentsia Is Afraid to Support Navalny or Stand up for Serebrennikov

  • Historian and journalist Sergei Medvedev discusses director Ivan Vyrypaev’s open letter on the Serebrennikov case and the shortcomings in the Russian intelligentsia.
  • Speaking out in support of Serebrennikov and advocating for non-violent forms of resistance to the state, Vyrypaev’s letter is worthy of admiration for its sincerity and purely ethical message, but it also illuminates a major problem in the Russian public sphere: instead of civic action, politics is replaced with ethics, and protest is reduced to passive observation and commentary.
  • The primary bearer of this kind of ethical protest is the intelligentsia, which is both dependent on—and highly critical of—the state.
  • Despite the absurdity and potential consequences of Serebrennikov’s accusation, his case will not be a watershed moment for Russian politics; just as countless other opportunities for protest have collapsed.
  • An analogous situation can be observed in the intelligentsia’s attitude toward Navalny. While he is the only national-level opposition politician capable of reforming the current system of power, a large part of the educated class refuses to support Navalny because of ethical claims about his supposed nationalism or dictatorial potential.
  • At the heart of the intelligentsia’s ethics lies a refusal to act, whereas Navalny’s ethics could lead to actual change and the destruction of the educated class and its self-sufficient ethical discourse. Aware of what the Bolsheviks did 100 years ago, this is what the intelligentsia fears most.
  • The problem of the Russian intelligentsia, according to Medvedev, is the lack of professional, ethically neutral politics. It took European civilization a long time to evolve from Machiavelli’s claim that political life is beyond morale to Max Weber’s definition of politics as a vocation.
  • For too long, the intelligentsia has been involved in ethical discussions, leaving pragmatic politics aside. As a result, the country’s political life has been taken over by cranks and crooks.
  • The phenomenon of Navalny, like that of Serebrennikov, signals a choice for the intelligentsia: Will its pursuit of ethical correctness result in its emergence as a political entity, or will Russians be limited to writing letters to their leaders and creating petitions on Change.org in a vain attempt to bring about change?

Republic, Молчание ягнят. Почему интеллигенция боится поддержать Навального и Серебренникова, Сергей Медведев, 28 августа 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: A Court Instead of the Politburo. What’s Happening with Putin’s Entourage?  

  • Journalist Konstantin Gaaze discusses the “court” of President Putin, which is bending the authority of the state apparatus to the will of the president’s hand-picked entourage.
  • While the topic of power relations in Russian politics has always been difficult to decipher, Gaaze argues that new concepts and tools of observation can help understand Putin’s current loyalties.
  • One such concept, circulated by the Minchenko Consulting group in 2012, is the term “Politburo 2.0”—a network of distributed power like that of the Soviet Politburo.
  • Though not a formal institution, Politburo 2.0 is a club of the most influential dignitaries and businessmen in Russia—a patronage network whose members enjoy Putin’s confidence and whose existence has replaced political strategy in Russia since 2011. While other, smaller networks exist, the impenetrability and the number of resources at the disposal of its members set the Politburo 2.0 apart.
  • But next to the state apparatus, a new political form has appeared: the court of President Putin. The court is not a form that evolved out of Putin’s team, but a form that is dismantling this very team.  
  • The court’s members—including Alexei Dyumin, Anton Vaino, Arkady Rotenberg—ensure support and protection for the patron through their absolute loyalty, rejection of personal political ambitions, and minimal publicity. On an unofficial level, they participate in state governance in their readiness to solve problems for the patron outside of the state apparatus.
  • One of the biggest distinctions between the Politburo 2.0 and the court is that the court focuses on cultural politics (for example, it has been an integral player in the hybrid war).
  • In 2012, when the "Politburo 2.0" reports originated, Putin faced a dilemma: should he dismantle the court and turn back to the state apparatus, or should he try to incorporate the court into state practices?
  • The choice was made in favor of the latter during the 2016-2017 “personnel revolution” when Putin began to delegate court figures like Vaino, Dyumin and Yevgeny Zinichev to public posts. Whether these appointees will try to preserve their court status or cede it to government practices remains a question for 2018.
  • Gaaze concludes that the campaign for the president’s fourth term has not only shown that Putin lacks a concrete image for the future country, but also for the future state apparatus and Russian politics in general.
  • Gaaze ends by posing two pertinent questions. First, what is more dangerous for Putin: the court growing into the state, or the state attacked and exploited by the court for another six years? Second, what is more dangerous for the Russian people?

Carnegie.ru, Двор вместо политбюро. Что происходит с окружением Путина, Константин Гаазе, 25 августа 2017 г.


Svoboda: The Keepers 

  • Political scientist Lilia Shevtsova reviews different factions of experts and intellectuals who support the Russian political class of “guardians.” They have monopolized all types of analytical activity in the country and serve to produce meaning and sense for the latter’s policies.
  • Shevtsova highlights the following expert factions:
    • Pragmatists, who compose the majority; they renounce ideology in favor of a “balanced” approach, while in reality only follow shifts in the political environment.
    • Technocrats, who have mastered the art of “serving the authorities”; they have monopolized the area of managing the economic instruments of autocracy.
    • Optimists, who find reasons to be happy even in hopeless situations; they provide a positive outlook for the rotting system and believe that imitating democracy can actually lead to democracy itself.
    • Advocates of “small actions,” who believe that doing anything useful can create a perspective for the future; in fact, they help autocracy to survive.
    • Realists, who think that foreign policy is based on the power ratios thus legitimizing Russia’s aggression that distracts people from domestic issues.
    • Geopoliticians, who like to impress by talking big and referring to outdated myths in order to maintain the facade of the state’s grandeur.
    • Statists, who may sincerely believe that Russia can only exist as a personalist power.
    • Advocates of new formats and style, who represent a new generation of experts and try to modernize the formats of communication with the audience or experiment with new technologies—often at the expense of substance.
  • Shevtsova notes that within among these factions, experts in international politics have the most influence. They feed on nostalgia and try to reinvent autocracy and its imperial ambitions.
  • Still, some of these experts may appear confused, as their axioms rapidly become obsolete (e.g. Russia’s turn to China); others try to be more cautious in their assessments of Russia’s foreign policy by deeming it “impulsive” and calling for “restraint as an imperative.” But none of them were able to make an analytical breakthrough.
  • Shevtsova concludes her critique by underscoring that the saddest thing in the Russian expert community is its focus on analyzing every move made by Vladimir Putin, which is essentially reduced to simple guesswork.

Svoboda.org, Охранители, Лилия Шевцова, 27 августа 2017 г.


Novaya Gazeta: Doomed Guardians. Why Russians Have No Claim to Foreign Policy

  • Historian Vasily Zharkov, chair at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Science, analyzes opinion polls that suggest public support for Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. He refers to the manipulation of memory surrounding the Second World War as evidence.
  • One recent poll is cited according to which 76 percent of Russians expressed pride in the Russian Empire’s territorial acquisition of Finland and Poland, while only 3 percent said they were ashamed of the annexation of Crimea.
  • It is no secret that Putin’s high approval ratings are the result of the country’s territorial expansion and its return to local wars for geopolitical interests and to confrontation with the West.
  • At the same time, the latest updated figures on the USSR’s death toll in World War II, numbering around 40 million, have failed to make an impression on the public, who prefer to think of the greatness of the sacrifice. Zharkov argues that it is the semi-official myth of “The Great Victory,” along with media propaganda, that encourages the public to be belligerent and look kindly on war-mongering.
  • In fact, the Russian desire for war is understandable given the tumultuous nature of the 20th century. The makeup of the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin and the place of ethnic Russians within the system reminds Zharkov of Plato’s “Republic,” whereby the “guardianship” class were a special caste of spiritually perfect people, free from property and protected from negative information. Their job was to defend the motherland from all enemies.
  • In the early Soviet era, Russians became that “guardian” class. Property was provided for them, their children became children of Lenin, and the true course was set by the “great helmsman” and his advisors, all of whom had been endowed with all-powerful methods of teaching.
  • As the Soviet utopia presupposed war with the rest of the world, Russians became the “elder brothers” of the Soviet nation and subsequently turned into cannon fodder, with their main duty consisting of dying in their millions.
  • Zharkov concludes that the tragedy that befell the Russian people in WWII has become the source of their happiness—a trend that demonstrates the paradox between Russia’s past and present. If Russia is to survive as a state in the future, it will have to moderate its spirit of war, if not get rid of it completely.

Новая газета, Обреченные стражи, Василий Жарков, 28 августа 2017 г.


RBC: The Return of Ideology: How the Worldview Influences the Economy

  • Philosopher Alexander Rubtsov discusses the growing connection between ideology and business in contemporary Russia, and the authorities’ influence over the economy.
  • The connection between business and ideology is poorly intellectualized both in theory and reality, according to Rubtsov.
  • The quality of the business environment is systematically examined through the prism of exclusively economic models, and strategies and reform programs are developed as if their implementation does not depend on inertia of consciousness, prejudices and illusions.
  • Rubtsov considers that most inertia is connected with the fact that ideology and business are considered fundamentally alien to each other and not at all interconnected. Therefore, endeavors consistently fail in the same manner, and resurrected strategies restart from the same erroneous point.
  • Rubtsov contends that one might expect state ideological constructs such as “patriotism” and “Russia’s growing global influence” to be grounded in easily understandable business plans with budgets, interests and beneficiaries. However, the reality of the situation is an economic disaster comparable to the pension deficit or bungled investments in oil and gas pipelines.
  • In reality, the Russian political regime is degenerating into a costly “ideocracy,” which the author compares to Soviet practice. The current regime, like its Soviet predecessor, spends considerable funds engineering the “correct citizen.”
  • As a result, rationality and the very matter of life are subordinated to state ideology, and rationality is fighting a losing battle.
  • The authorities’ stranglehold over business depends not only on the distribution of resources and influence, but on the worldview common to society.
  • Inertia and operational ideology shape public attitudes towards property, initiative, social roles and the phenomenon of entrepreneurship.
  • Rubtsov concludes that the topics of conversation concerning ideology and business will be updated in the run-up to the next elections, meaning that economic and political analysts will rise in significance. Further ignoring the links between business and ideology is extremely short-sighted, if not downright dangerous, warns the author.

РБК, Возвращение идеологии, Александр Рубцов, 26 августа 2017 г.


Russia under Putin

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