Interactive Class Discussion: Is Putin really the problem?

This is my second attempt at creating an interactive article, and now that more people are regularly commenting I hope it will bear fruit.

There’s this idea I’ve been kicking around lately. Is Russia’s problem really Putin, the man, or rather the system that was built up around him? Are all the worst aspects of that system his own idea, or did he trust the promises of his underlings who engineered the whole system?

This is predicated on the commonly accepted fact that Putin does not micromanage- he sends out broad messages and then underlings scramble to fulfill what they believe to be his real wishes, swiping a cut here and there while they do so.

That Putin is at the top of the pyramid is not necessarily the same as him actually controlling everything, an idea that most informed people doubt. A key feature of the system is that Putin is supposed to be the highest authority. Whether or not he actually masterminds something is irrelevant, the important thing is that actions should not contradict what he wants or what he supposedly wants. In this respect, on at least some issues Putin is playing a passive role as this sort of standard. I would not be surprised to learn that some initiatives are defended with arguments such as “Putin would approve of this,” while others are criticized with arguments such as “that would go against the president!”

None of this absolves Putin of any guilt in taking part in this system and playing the lead role in it. That is not the purpose here. This is a thought experiment. The question is about who is really in control. Is it Putin the man, or is it Putin the character, the hero figure? Understanding this will no doubt help determine the future of Russian politics if not the country as a whole.


18 thoughts on “Interactive Class Discussion: Is Putin really the problem?

  1. Callum Carmichael

    I think he is, yes, but not in the way we commonly understand. I mean, as you wrote, the way Russia got out of the ’90s was mainly to do with oil revenues. It was also very widely predicted, even during Perestroika and the early ’90s, that “liberalization” and, more importantly, the lawlessness and chaos that happened when it was bungled would lead to an authoritarian backlash.

    So Putin’s system is basically lightweight authoritarianism + corruption + high oil revenues. That’s not really unique and happens in plenty of countries.

    Putin’s contribution has been his ability to sell himself as some sort of modern political rock star. His brand, if you will, has been so successful that every jumped up strongman from Aliev to Al-Sisi has tried to copy it or even just bask in its background radiation.

    His achievement, then, has been to make authoritarianism “cool” and to implant himself firmly into Russia’s self-image. This, I think, has been a big obstacle to the kind of reforms Russia would need to basically unfuck itself.

    I mean, even in the Russian ex-pat community in Canada, who should know better, half of them have Putin as their facebook photo and constantly repost articles praising their lord and master and talking shit about gay people and Ukrainians.

    The only difference is that Russian-Canadians seem more likely to incorporate North American Right wing talking points into their cotton padding.

    (Note that I just had a huge argument with like five of them so I probably wouldn’t be this hostile in regular times).

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Shit that thing with the ex-pats seems like an easy argument to win: “Why are you here?” x 5. See people like me…I moved to Russia because I straight up wanted to. I actually expected a decline in living standards, but in some ways it was actually advantageous for reasons that are not at all uniquely Russian.

      But for those people who praise Putin from afar I always wonder- why can’t you do what I did and put your money where your mouth is.

      As for the main argument here, yes, Putin certainly has achieved a kind of mainstream stardom. There’s an interesting article on Russia! Magazine about how Putin’s mystique affects pop culture in the West. In House of Cards the Putin stand-in character is portrayed as a deadly ex-KGB field agent who is quite tall. In real life he’s very short and held a desk job. His voice is rather soft as well.

      1. Callum Carmichael

        I don’t like using the “why are you here” argument, it makes me feel like one of those morons who say things like “Hey, if you don’t like our culture, you can get out!” I generally try to reach something of a consensus when I argue with people (I even sort of managed with one of these guys, but holy fuck), and I find that taking advantage of obvious vulnerabilities like that makes people more defensive.

        As to Putin’s voice… yeah, it is a bit softer, even higher pitched than the norm. Russian men to me seem to have somewhat deeper, more masculine (if you will) voices than I’m used to, although I won’t claim that as a universal truth. In 2014 I was in Petersburg for a month and then I flew to Farnce to see some relatives, and it hit me really hard how high-pitched every male’s voice sounded in Marseille and Aix in comparison.

        Actually, the more comfortable I get understanding Russian and… uh… Russian-isms? The more intolerable I find Putin’s interviews.

  2. Antoine Sans

    I think there are two main problematics on this topic, both extremly complex as well as fascinating, and I unfortunaly lack both the time and the knowledge to go into them deeply :
    – In general, how much influence does a chief of state has in the functionning of the state and the way politics are done ?
    – In the precise case of Putin, how does the Russian state enforce decisions made by the head, and how are these decisions made ?

    For the general question, I invite you to look at the “working towards the fuhrer” theory. Though initially applied to Hitler, I think it works very well for other states, including Russia.
    For Putin, Fionna Hill’s “biography” of Putin goes into great lentgh about his decision-making system works.

    Finally there is the issue of regions vs central state. Sure, local regions don’t have as much influence as under Eltsin, but they aren’t completely powerless either. Especially, they have great influence when it comes to how the Kremlin’s policies are actually done on the ground.

  3. Strykr9

    I think the failure lies with the Russian political system for not being a coherent structure. In the modern world, there are mostly successful democracies such as the US, the EU, Japan etc… while there are a relatively few successful autocracies(Singapore, China and some Arab monarchies). The problem is Russia has the worst of both worlds. It has the lack of economic and political inefficiencies as well as the corrupting influence of religion and traditionalism on the state like in the US while also having the political repression and lack of free speech that at times mirrors that of China’s.

  4. Bandersnatch

    It seems obvious that it is both, at least to me anyway. Putin undermined the nascent democratic systems that had germinated before his arrival and now that he is yet to be in complete control, relies on his growing cult of personality and insinuation for those errands and events he cannot or will not apply himself directly to. The man has clearly shaped the system in ways both beneficial to him and conducive to this kind of rule but it has had consequences.

    A queen bee, for example, works by emitting her pheromones onto her retinue which, in turn, spread here chemical commands throughout the colony. The moment she fails to produce strong chemical messages, portions of the hive passively rebel in that they prepare for a coup by incubating new queens. The current queen either has the power to end this or she does not and if she fails she will eventually be usurped.

    This is how I imagine Putin and Russia. Yes, he has shaped the system greatly but it has become one in which much of his command is through insinuation, spread and disseminated through his retinue.

  5. Pat

    I think this quote from The Sources of Social Power is both apt and an answer to your question.

    “Putin’s state has enough power to do simple things like rig elections and assassinate troublesome dissidents, but a kleptocracy is the opposite of a bureaucracy for it is not controllable from the top. Even cronies can become difficult to control if they have their own fiefdoms. A U.S. Diplomat noted in 2006 that ‘at the height of Putin’s control in a booming economy- it was rumored within the Presidential administration that as many as 60% of his orders were not being followed'”

    I think Putin is the emperor with no clothes on. Just look at the number of time he had to take “manual control” over a given situation (natural disasters, Sochi etc) and you will see that the 60% figure is probably a low ball estimate. He can’t control people unless he’s physically standing in the room with them and even then it’s iffy. Some system. People give the illusion of fealty because it suits them and the thefts they are busy carrying out. To be seen as aligning yourself with him probably makes the thefts go faster and more lucratively. Classic current example (lest you think that things have “patriotically changed” since 2006) The Russian Railways crisis. Russian Rail cut a bunch of “nonviable” routes (because corruption made them so) Putin famously personally intervenes (hello manual control once again!) on TV and tells them to get the trains running. So, by the logic of OP’s question those trains should now be running, right? Alas but they aren’t “As of yesterday, she reports, railroad connections between Kostroma and St. Petersburg have “in fact been liquidated.” That has been “achieved” in the following way: Russian Rail has introduced so-called “inter-modal” service involving buses on part of the route and then not provided service unless enough tickets have been sold.” Quote from See also But, but wait, why should the government have to withhold road money if PUTIN HIMSELF said the trains would run? If that’s what control looks like I’d hate to see chaos…

    Thus to answer Jim’s original question, Russia’s problems are clearly due to its system and not Putin. He can’t even exert influence when he wants to. He’s just good at making the outcomes of the system look like his idea. It does not help that Putin is wildly in favor of such a system, but even if he were deeply opposed it would only affect the margins because the Russian people themselves support such a system with their inaction.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Putin’s famous “have you lost your mind” performance after the train thing was no doubt just that- a performance. The kind of people who watch that believe in this fantasy that says that there are “bureaucrats” under Putin who do bad things because they’re part of the “6th column”(yes, 6th). In other words, yes- there’s corruption and incompetence, but Putin doesn’t know about it. And if he finds out, he punishes those people. In any case, notice how he reprimanded those people without saying in detail where they were supposed to take the money from in order to restore those routes.

      But in the case of the trains, this little play was brilliant because even if you live in a place where that train route is still shut down, you can assume that other routes in other places were restored and surely yours is next on the list.

  6. Asehpe

    Putin doesn’t seem to be a Stalin (who really had the country under control… and yet I’m sure things happened without his direct orders and/or involvement as well). He is somewhere in the middle between Stalin the authoritarian monarch and Orwell’s Big Brother, with his photo spread all over Oceania but with actually no influence over internal Oceanic politics. Putin gives the impression of a strong guy in control (hence the shirtless photo ops), and his antics and speeches are certainly those of a very intelligent person who can control his surroundings; and I am quite sure that the system we have now is what he wanted to have, what he set out to do ever since Yeltsin gave him the presidency. Still, his most important contribution is the appearance of a strong leader, the appearance of being in control; not really his ”savoir-faire” (which may actually be quite good, too), but his ”savoir-paraître”, his symbolic value, his capacity to make girls sing “я хочу такого как Путин”.

    Which is why I think that the current system will need some strong masculine-looking figure like Putin, with symbolic magic powers. Who could do that? That’s the big question. Medvedev, for example, would never be able to pull it off. If they don’t have a similarly symbolic successor — if the next president looks more like Brezhnev, for instance — then the system will probably no longer work, and will have to reinvent itself.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Actually in my study of Stalin there’s a lot of parallels in the sense that Stalin too wasn’t nearly as in control as people generally believe. This is because as much as people study the era, you rarely find people that actually read his works and read what he said or wrote. When you read that and then see how reality unfolded, as well as look at the number of politburo decisions taken in Stalin’s absence or sometimes with his objection, you see that he was nowhere near as omnipotent as is generally believed.

      This suggests a pattern too, whereby Russians will rally and uplift a certain figure to great heights, only to blame and condemn that person for all their failures after they have died. The leader becomes an excuse to do all kinds of evil and then they are a scapegoat.

      “his symbolic value, his capacity to make girls sing “я хочу такого как Путин”.”

      What makes that girl sing is money, or position, I guarantee.

      1. Asehpe

        “What makes that girl sing is money, or position, I guarantee.”

        Yes, but the fact that that theme — Putin’s ‘ideal image’ — is what brings money or position is a clear sign of his symbolic value.

        You say that Stalin was not so much ‘in control’ as he was believed to be, which is interesting — it makes one think about how much of Stalinism was actually other people’s fault rather than Stalin’s. Still, Stalin’s role was crucial, not simply because he was a “steel” personality who did wield great power and use it to pursue his goals, but also because of his symbolic power which made others scurry around to please him.

        Maybe the ‘Great Leader’ is always more important as a source of symbolic power than he actually is because of the real power he wields or the real decisions he actually makes. Still, in Russia, it seems to me that the image, the belief instilled in the population — from the ‘good Tsar’ who is our ‘daddy’ and who would do what is good for us ‘if only he knew’, to Stalin, to Putin — is the real anchor of stability for the country. The next Tsar has to be able to project a similar image — or else the system becomes unstable.

        Or so it seems to me… from a distance, and also judging by the number of personality cults that one finds in Russian history. Does it feel like that to you in Russia? Do Russians seem to need the image their great leader projects more than the results that come from his actual actions in power?

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        For more information about the nature of Stalin’s rule based on more up-to-date evidence, I recommend reading Stalin: A New History by Sarah Davies.

        As for how this phenomenon got started, I think it has a lot to do with the conditions from which Russia emerged in the revolution. I think it is rather foolish to assume that a successful socialist revolution breaking out in Germany, France, the UK, or the US would have followed the same course as the Russian Empire. Yes, the Soviet experiment would have gone differently had it not faced half the world trying to drown it in blood from the very beginning, but even without that it would have had internal struggles.

        Apart from the low level of education, there seems to be a historical rule that failure to successfully acclimate to a new form of society leads to people going back to what worked. Hence things like the clan politics in Afghanistan, blood feuding in Chechnya, or “ger districts” in Mongolia where people left cities to go back to a pastoral way of life.

        One pattern I’ve seen in my study of early Soviet history, which incidentally is the part of Soviet history I’ve almost always concentrated on, is that you start with wildly idealistic, progressive notions, and little by little these things erode and are subsumed by old, conservative beliefs and practices, sometimes due to backlash from below or priority towards industrialization so as to support defense. The return to dominance by Great Russians seems to be an example of this. They had a natural advantage in terms of education and involvement in industry, often far ahead of local peoples in certain republics. Russian communication was most efficient between industries. Therefore in spite of Stalin’s ideas about Great Russian chauvinism being the “greater danger” in the 1920’s and early 30’s, by the end of industrialization he wrote a famous letter about how the Russians were the world’s most progressive people. Add to that the war and the deal was sealed- setting the USSR on course to become a new Russian empire.

      3. Asehpe

        Thanks for the reference! Even though it’s not my field, I am really interested in Soviet history — and your description of an initiallly idealistic, progressive movement then turning conservative (‘Russian empire’) sounds fascinating.

        It is nowadays almost a stereotype to say that Russians need a ‘big leader’, a ‘daddy-Tsar’ figure, in order to believe that there is a government at all. Do you think that’s true? More importantly, if this is roughly true for a whole people, how can this ever change?

    2. Estragon

      Re: “Stalin (who really had the country under control)” – it strikes me as odd that a lot of people think a country as gigantic as Russia or the USSR can be controlled by one person, who is responsible for everything and makes decisions on everything.

      Yes, Stalin was tremendously powerful, but in the context of Russian history it’s wise to remember the lament of Nicholas I: “Russia is not run by me, but by my 40,000 bureaucrats” (other sources vary the number, but you get the idea). And Nicholas was considered one of the most hard-assed, autocratic tsars of them all.

  7. Dan

    I personally think that Putin’s just the result of the resources curse. A society and political system where corruption’s been able to flourish. The cynicism that results from that environment. The ability to ‘act out’ on the international stage because as long as the oil flows, no one can hurt you. People like Saddam, Gaddafi and Putin are all products of similar environments. I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that.

  8. Viedoklis (@Viedoklis_lv)

    My english is not the best but I’ll try to explain. I’m from Latvia by the way and I do understand both russian and english. So I watch: west msm, putin regime propaganda and last independent russian media TC channel – dozdgj (TV rain). I also read materials, articles, comments in russian, etc.

    So what I can say you about putin regime. It’s fragile. It is based on different elite factions (military complex, industrial complex, FSB, oil & gas, etc.). Each faction has it’s elite and putin has created his own fraction called ‘siloviki’. These faction has accepted putin as judge (for now) who is taking into account all faction interests so that everyone get’s his piece of money from Russia wealth. So it’s corruption from the top to the bottom. So far oil prices where high and so pie that should be divided was big enough for everyone. putins fraction is how to say…artificial. It means they don’t hold power over real assets, putin is simply forsing in his guys in different places to gain more power. In companies, agencies, etc. but those people will sell out at any time if anything happens and putin is removed by these factions. So his faction is actual fragile. Because now that oil prices has dropped and sanction has bitten pie to dived among fraction starts to shrink and so balance is lost. There starts internal conflicts and that means that at some point when business is too much hurt from putin adventures – he will be removed by these fraction. What it means for russians? Well, there will be other ‘putin’ after putin untill this fraction system somehow is reformed. But I don’t see that coming. Majority russians are trully stupid and brainwashed. Those who understand reality is minority. Of course change can be brought by super active minority – but they don’t have any fraction as they are out side the system. And I think fractions would beat down such democratic open minded active minority – their leader will simply be shot.

    Hope that helps!

    P.S. I recommend to study:


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