Vladimir Pastukhov on authoritarianism in Russia

When looking for some pre-war analysis of #Russia's foreign policies I found a 2016 article “Russia Today: Three Horsemen of the Russian Apocalypse”^1 by Dr Vladimir Pastukhov, an expert on Eastern Europe and Russia on University of Oxford. Back then the author predicted three scenarios of devolution of Russia, two involving one form of collapse or another, and an third one, moderately optimistic, where Russian elites somehow manage to replace rigid centralism and cult of personality with a true federation and democratic society.

Back in 2016 the author saw the origins of the decline in “thinning of Russia’s 'cultural layer' and consequent degradation of the elites”, but Russian society was notably absent from his analysis. This is understandable, as anyone who has ever been to Russia does realize the endemic and hopeless political passivity of vast majority of its society. I encourage reading the whole article, but I will just leave this final paragraph from the 2016 article here:

The sooner Russia breaks apart, the more painful this process will be. To a large degree, the newly formed states will find themselves under the protectorate of neighboring Japan, China, Iran and Turkey. Central “parent” Russia will remain a part of Europe, but for a long time it will be the continent’s “sick man.” For a long time to come, control over Russia’s remaining nuclear arsenal will continue to be the world community’s major headache. While undergoing this agony, Russia can provoke military conflicts of varying intensity.

Russian society as source of violence

Just recently I stumbled upon another analysis by Dr Pastukhov's, this time posted on his Telegram channel^2 in Russian, and I found it so interesting that I translated it to English. It very much seems like the author, after 24 February, lost all illusions and hopes of Russian society:

In an authoritarian (or, as it is also called, “police”) state, the primary source of unlawful violence is power, which spreads numerous metastases into the fabric of society. In totalitarianism, things are more complicated. Here, power plays only the role of a trigger, the primary link of the disease. It affects the fabric of society in such a way that practically every single cell becomes an autonomous isotope, radiating violence. The role of power is further reduced to a policy of two “P's”: provocation and populism. Power provokes with one hand a permanent demand for violence from society, and with the other it organises a populist response to this ever-increasing demand.

Note the switch of the paradigm: it's no longer “the elites” and their cultural deficit, it's the “fabric of society” and “every single cell” that contributes to the overall country's stance. I do agree with this diagnosis, because I have witnessed this cult of social Darwinism flourishing in Russia for over 20 years – it's always either you or them, win-win situation is a battle lost.

One way or another, the source of lethal radiation in the Putin-designed system is society as a whole, not the government. The power in this system is assigned the role of a dispatcher, which regulates the power and intelligently directs the flow of violence in the right direction. Therefore, if we simply tear down power (“remove Putin”, as many dream of doing), then globally it will only lead in the first stage to controlled chaos becoming unmanageable and organised violence becoming unorganised. We are dealing with a society which radiates violence like enriched uranium radiates radiation. So far it is a controlled reaction, which does not become a chain reaction only because the authorities skilfully dispose of the surplus “dark energy”.

That paragraph caused quite a stir among some of Russians I shared this article with. The paradox of those people is that they feel offended, yet themselves they do not watch the most aggressive Russian state TV shows, where hosts and guests routinely call to kill and torture civilians, eradicate whole towns, eradicate whole Ukraine, whole Europe etc, and they don't watch them... because they find them disgusting and violent!

Yet, they are apparently unable to notice that majority of their compatriots does watch them, and they do cheer their guests. It's the same majority they refer to as “cattle” (быдло), speaking of their rudeness in daily life, aggressive and dangerous driving... and all the other reasons why they fence their modern apartment with thick, steel door from the society outside. Yet, they are unable to step out of the collective Russian identity and admit the authoritarianism wasn't built in Russia overnight.

Future scenarios

Dr Pastukhov isn't particularly optimistic, to put that lightly:

Let's assume that this hand, clutched in its dead grip on the control panel, is cut off. Which scenario seems more likely: society miraculously organizes itself and suppresses the violence within itself, or a chain reaction of violence ensues that will eventually spawn a “new Putin” in a cloud of nuclear mushroom? There is no clear answer, but the second scenario seems more likely to me personally.

Anticipating the reproach that in talking about the inevitable challenges that Russian society will face in the event of a revolution I am giving larger chances to the existing regime, I want to say in my defense that I don't see the need to simplify the situation just because it might scare someone and make them grasp at the existing reality as the last straw. The fearful ones should not think about the future of Russia at all – it's a fairy tale for adults with a bad ending, which people with weak nerves shouldn't read at all. For the rest, I will say that there is already a dilemma that “decent people” prefer to remain silent about. Without a broad democratic movement Russia will not be pulled out of the worn-out rut of decivilization (chronic cultural deficiency) and any democratization under the existing conditions will lead to a flood of the most obscene, pogrom-type violence in the country. The natural and seemingly only possible response to this threat is the decision to lower the braking “lead rods” of the new dictatorship into the overheated, radioactive social mass. That is, having said “A”, it is necessary to agree to “B”. If we accept the inevitability of revolution in Russia, then we must also accept the inevitability of a revolutionary dictatorship in Russia. And if we accept the inevitability of a revolutionary dictatorship, then we must ask ourselves what mechanisms can be proposed to prevent the revolutionary dictatorship from turning into a reactionary one (and Russia from entering the third circle of “Stalinism-Putinism”)?

At this point, I would like to bring back Pastukhov's quote from 2016, which explains the position from which he's assessing the rationality of the Russian society and its elites:

The world community, in spite of its selfish instincts, will have to exercise great wisdom and careful consideration to be able to discern and support the seedlings of a new Russia, for the very simple reason that preserving manageability and stability across such an enormous space are in the vital interest of all humankind. Admittedly, the chances for the realization of this scenario remain very small. (...) For the world at large, preserving Russia’s unity remains without any doubt the least expensive and the least dangerous scenario.

Returning to the 2023 publication, Pastukhov is pessimistic specifically because you can't impose a mature democracy on a society that does not want it:

The guarantees of the rule of law and constitutionalism (and, of course, democracy) do not lie in the legal and institutional plane, but in the cultural and political planes. The only real guarantee against an eternal dictatorship is a constitutional-democratic social consensus, that is, a value-based (if you like, “conceptual”) unity among the elite. Everything else is a mirage.

Is this possible at all? I believe it's certainly not impossible: Russian elites tried one way (Dugin's anti-rationalism) and they may learn their lesson or may not. There's nothing preventing more optimistic scenarios for Russia... other than widespread belief that you can bully your neighbour, either on a shared stairway or on a shared continent, by mere brute force. Whether the lesson will be learned certainly depends on the outcome of the military stage of the war, because if Putin is given an opportunity to even pretend a victory, what's any lesson to learn here?

— Paweł Krawczyk https://krvtz.net/ Fediverse @kravietz@agora.echelon.pl