Vladimir Putin: His Place in History


While Putin restored effective bureacratic order to Russia, the rules were never meant for himself or his cronies. For this reason, many Russians believe he has become a block to the development of Russian statehood. Image (cc)

by Vladimir Pastukhov

Vladimir Putin’s one great achievement is the restoration of bureaucratic order after its near destruction by Gorbachev and privatisation by Yeltsin. Yet the end game is fast approaching, and the longer Putin clings on, the more likely he will be instead remembered for letting greedy friends and bureaucrats run amok.

Twenty years ago I made my ‘debut’ as Russian political commentator with a text on Russia’s democracy movement.  My conclusion, written in October 1991, read as follows:

‘There were times — and to some extent this is still the case today — when the democratic movement was showered with accolades that were not always fully justified. And the time is not far off when public opinion will just as arbitrarily begin to regard this very movement as an outcast.  However, its role ought to be assessed in terms of specific historical events. At a specific stage of Russia’s development, the movement faced very specific tasks and having successfully completed them, it reached the pinnacles of power. Nobody should have expected it to deliver what it was not, by definition, able to deliver. This movement did not have the potential to become the organizing force of civil society. Russia today faces different challenges and the movement has been forced to retreat from the political stage. We ought to accept this fact calmly.’  (Pastukhov, V. ‘Russia’s democracy movement: the path to power’. Polis, 1992, No. 1-2, p. 16).

Now that the political cycle initiated by perestroika is in decline, the lines I wrote twenty years ago about the democracy movement can be repeated verbatim in relation to its ‘last hero’, Vladimir Putin. There had been times — and to some extent this is still the case today — when Putin was showered with accolades that were not always fully justified. And the time is not far off, when public opinion will regard him as an outcast. However, the role he played in Russian history has to be assessed in terms of specific historical events. When he rose to power he faced very specific historical tasks, and he completed them more or less successfully. He can’t be expected to deliver what he is not, by definition, capable of delivering. He was not the organising force of Russia’s new statehood. Russia today faces different challenges and Putin will be forced to retreat from the political stage.  We ought to accept this fact calmly.

Calm acceptance — it is hard to think of a less apposite idea these days. What I am going to say is not likely to please either Putin’s supporters or his opponents. It might seem quite strange to be contemplating the departure from politics of a man who seems intent on establishing himself in politics forever. But I’m not claiming that Putin will leave tomorrow, just as the democracy movement didn’t suddenly dissolve into thin air in 1992.  It’s just that a few years mean a long time for an individual but they mean nothing in terms of history. What matters is not the number of years but the trend.

In the course of just over ten years we have witnessed the rise and fall of Putin’s popularity, we have seen the splendour and misery of his policies. It would be unfair to judge him exclusively by today’s standards. But it would be just as strange to assess his present-day political role on the basis of his achievements of yesterday.

Putin’s key achievement for Russia was to bring bureaucracy back onto the Russian political stage, it being the only force that is capable of providing the organising principle for any contemporary society, and for Russia’s society in particular. In the course of the past century and a half virtually every democratic movement in Russia has been infected with the virus of anarchism.  Bakunin’s shadow looms over all Russian revolutionaries from Lenin to Yeltsin. Russia’s democrats have always aimed primarily to destroy the hated bureaucratic regime rather than to take it over.

Those who have come into direct contact with Western democracy know that it is based on a powerful, well-organized and ubiquitous bureaucracy. The life of a democratic society is highly regulated, even over-regulated. It is subordinated to a million rules whose observance is enforced by a mighty army of bureaucrats. As Weber aptly points out, the present-day state is a copy of highly developed capitalist production, whose algorithm of administration and trained management has been honed the point of being almost automatic. Weber regarded the training of highly qualified bureaucrats as the most labour-intensive social task whose completion necessitated, in his estimate, some 30 to 40 years.

This rational and respectful attitude to bureaucracy and the understanding of its significance for the life of present-day society was completely alien to Russia’s intelligentsia, which formed the backbone of the democratic movement in general, and to Soviet intelligentsia, in its capacity as the forerunner of perestroika, in particular. This was largely linked to the traditionally low quality of Russia’s bureaucracy, which, incidentally, is often in line with the quality of the human resources as a whole. In the 1990s, Russia’s state-building was in the hands of people who were mentally least predisposed to this task and congenitally incapable of being part of the state apparatus, people who did not understand or refused to understand the role and significance of bureaucracy, of rules and regulations, of a unified and universal order. As a result, Russia’s bureaucracy got completely out of hand under Yeltsin, becoming run-down and bogged down and eventually being privatised with all the consequences this had for society.

Putin was in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement of the 1990s. Having joined it quite late and not quite of his own accord, he has retained a high degree of the ‘Soviet’ mentality and, consequently, of a nostalgia for the old times. But that was precisely what enabled him to sense and express the mood of the part of population that regarded the collapse of bureaucracy as a threat to Russia and which, at the turn of the century, voiced loud demands for the restoration of order in the public sphere. Once in power, Putin became the leader of a movement ‘in defence of bureaucracy’; he dragged bureaucracy ‘from the dirt into the palace’, restoring the honourable status of state service and installing the bureaucrat back to the inaccessible heights where in Russia he’d been accustomed to reside since time immemorial. The philosophy of  ‘vertical power’ is nothing but a paean to the bureaucratic class with society uniting around it. The new ‘emperor’s people’ under Putin’s leadership set out to re-conquer, step by step, the positions they had lost over the past decade, pushing chaos and anarchy to the margins of society. This produced an immediate and tangible positive effect, which it would be absurd to deny today. That is why the activities of the early Putin found genuine support among the most disparate strata of Russian society. He was moving precisely in the same direction towards which the Russian mentality was shifting and that is why his lack of consistency has been tolerated for quite some time.

Putin’s shortcomings are an extension of his virtues. His view of the state was not just Soviet, it was parochial. He was able to give back bureaucracy its power, but incapable of making it work in a methodical and organized way. Moreover, he allowed bureaucracy to get even more out of hand than had Yeltsin, who knew how to keep his apparatus in check through fear. Russia’s new bureaucracy, brought to life by Putin, lacked internal coherence, was not subject to a unified system of rules, and was based on clientelism, and it attacked the country like a swarm of locusts. In essence, Putin has brought a horde to power.

The temporarily tamed external chaos that had been so striking in the near-universally abused ‘bad 1990’s’, was soon resurrected in the form of an outrageous mess in the state apparatus and uncontrolled bureaucratic lawlessness that spilled into the outside world.  Putin brought the horse out of the stable but wasn’t able to saddle it and let the unbroken horse gallop out into the world, crushing everyone in its way.

Putin could only reinforce his power on the back of a huge wave of a longing for law and order, which is now working against him. People are demanding that he bring his minions to reason and take control of the bureaucracy he has spawned, making it follow some rules. But in terms of his basic psychological make-up Putin is clearly not a man who can do this. He is not a man of rules but rather a man of exceptions. He is not someone who builds bridges but rather someone who destroys them. He regards law as something purely functional that doesn’t inspire any piety in him. He believes law is there only for the others, who are not ‘friends of his cause’.

This is how Putin has gradually become an obstacle to the development of the very statehood he had apparently resurrected from dust and rescued from the revolutionary and anarchic quagmire. The cause to which he may well be sincerely committed has outgrown him and his friends.

If people were capable of leaving power in time, of doing so in a generous and graceful way, history might not have recorded thousands of brutal revolutions and the pantheon of great men of state would have become the grandest edifice on earth, not big enough to accommodate all the deserving. Putin, too, would have found a place there. However, people are not capable of leaving at the peak of their glory and letting their descendants pay tribute to their achievements rather than keep an account of their mistakes and delusions.

The longer Putin stays in power the smaller the chance that he will go down in history as the man who restored Russia’s statehood rather than the man who allowed Russia’s bureaucracy to get completely out of hand. People used to tell the following joke about Soviet leaders: Lenin showed the people how to rule the country; Stalin showed them how not to rule it; Khrushchev demonstrated that a country can be ruled by threats and Brezhnev proved that it doesn’t need to be ruled at all. For post-communist leaders the joke would go like this:  Gorbachev showed that every bureaucracy, even the most powerful one, can be destroyed. Yeltsin discovered it could be made profitable, while Putin showed that it could be reconstructed from spare parts found on the scrapheap of history.

The question today is what Russia’s ‘democratic’ movement 2.0 can show us. Will it remind us that every bureaucracy can be taken apart again or that bureaucracy can and should be tamed, put under control, and made to work effectively? It is the answer to this question that will determine Russia’s future.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy|Creative Commons

About the Author:

Vladimir Pastukhov is visiting fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford and advisor to the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation.