The “2008 Problem” and Russian Capitalism

Steven Lee Myers article, “Post-Putin” in the International Herald Tribune and in the New York Times Sunday Magazine is sparking some commentary among bloggers.

Robert Amsterdam has alerted readers to a rather amusing section where Myers speaks of Aleksandr Donskoi, the young mayor Arkhangelsk who declared his candidacy for president. Since his declaration, Donskoi has been a victim of harassment, some of which are rumors in the local press that he is gay. The rumors have apparently gotten so bad that he has had to hold press conferences to deflect them as well as charges that he falsified his university diploma and has an interest in “gypsy hypnosis”. According to Myers, at one such conference, Donskoi’s wife Marina, visibly flustered by the tabloid style accusations against her husband, interrupted him and shouted “He’s not gay! He impregnated me.” It appears that however fixed the 2008 Presidential Election might be, it won’t be void of bread and circuses.

Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow has also commented on the Myers’ piece. The text conjured memories of the phrase “Who lost Russia?” First, I should say that it’s funny to think that anyone besides the Russians themselves have any claim of loss over Russia. Alas suffice to say that hubris has never quelled a pundit’s gumption. Lyndon provides an excellent genealogy of the question “Who Lost Russia?”, locating its origins in an 1998 article by premier American nationalist Pat Buchanan. Who would have ever guessed Buchanan to be such a sage! Lyndon’s post is a must read not only because of its trip down memory lane but also because in reflecting on that past, he reminds us that “in the end, Yeltsin, because of his move naming Putin acting president just months before the 2000 election, may be remembered as both the midwife of Russian democracy and its executioner.”

The Myers’ article intrigued me for other reasons. I want to put aside the proverbial tales of “there is opposition to Putin” and the very real harassment that Kasyanov, Donskoi, Illarionov, and Kasparov have all faced. I also want to keep silent about the obvious attempts to turn Ivanov and Medvedev into something representing human empathy. These are often told tales and I think Myers does a fine job in retelling them. Instead, I want to focus, or really piece together a notion I think Myers hints at but still requires some culling together. Namely, that Putin’s Russia represents a hybrid of capitalism and authoritarianism facilitated by the practice of patron client politics. The latter characteristic has long historical roots, making it a historical vestige that has been remodeled and reformulated to present elite interests.

Some might argue that there is little difference between what Myers calls the “new imperial Russia” and the “Soviet Union Lite.” Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a revision underway in Russian historiography that sees Soviet Russia as a continuum of Imperial Russia. 1917 was less a break, historians argue, than it was a ratcheting up, an acceleration if you will, of Russia’s journey into the modern era. If this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, Russia is on a different path but to an altogether similar end to the West (and the rest of the world); the singular world historical end of capitalism. Thus, Putin is part of long lineage of Russian modernizers: Peter I, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Sergei Witte, Piotr Stolypin, Lenin, and Stalin. A similar assumption is hidden in Myers text. After all, what else could provide the impulse to declare that Putin might be judged as “Russia’s George Washington?” However much each of the listed figures combined personal power with state power, violence and repression with state building, each, when stripped of moral trappings and sentimental analysis, was a Russian modernizer. The odds of Putin eschewing “the possibility of retaining personal power [ to overrule] a young country’s laws and democratic principles” however moribund and hollow those laws and principles may be, places him squarely in that lineage.

Yet the path to modernity is not a smooth one nor is it so teleological. Modernity is filled with contradictions, and despite Marx’s claim that capital makes “all that is solid melt into air,” one can find in his more dialectical moments the articulation of a divergent and rockier path. Namely, where capital only ideally overcomes its barriers (i.e. culture, tradition, religion, identity, and history), “it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and, since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.” Thus, the vestiges of the past are never really past, but only soldered to the crevices of modernity. The end product is not a smooth capitalist system with all its idealized democratic trappings, but one that is a hybrid where the vestiges of the past are fused or braided with the present.

Present day Russia is one such example of this braiding. On the hand, Russia exemplifies the antithesis of what we are told is a modern capitalist democracy. It has democracy in form but not in content. Its vertical power structures outweigh the horizontal. Civil society, which is often touted (or should I say fetishized) as part and parcel to capitalist democracy, is either subordinated to the state or where there it has autonomy is politically irrelevant. The rule of law is better stated as the law of rule. On the other hand, when you look at Russia in regard to economics it has a free market, private property, and is bound to the globalized economy. And despite all of the charges of Putin’s authoritarianism and economic corporatism, privatization of small industry, land, and property has flourished under his tenure. As Myers states, “Kremlin Inc. has become the name for the hybrid system Putin created: capitalism with an authoritarian face.”

Many have wondered why capitalist Russia did not produce a democratic system similar to the European or the Anglo-American model. Forget the fact that the only states that have these models are the Europeans (which is more properly a conglomerate of particular models all under the conceptual umbrella of parliamentarian democracy) and the British, the Americans and their vassals (despite the fact that while they are always mentioned in tandem, really have very different systems). One can throw in Israel and Japan as shining examples of capitalist democracies outside of the Euro-Anglo-American sphere, but still their presence does not make historical law.

Conceptual misnomers, however, have not stopped experts from trying to explain Russia “failure”. They have pointed to Russia’s authoritarianism, unshakable patriarchy, its Asiatic culture and mentality, and its traditional culture as explanations. Others have suggested that its tragic history and perpetual instability are the midwives of authoritarianism. Experts have dug deep into the bedrock of history and have highlighted Ivan IV as an origin; others only scraped the surface of the recent past and put the blame squarely on Bolshevism. Whether primordial or constructed, part of the long dur?e or the quick shifts of modernization, it is argued there is something in Russian society that prevents them from becoming like us. Perhaps the problem is that we, that is, those who hold the “West” (yes, the scare quotes are necessary) up as some sort of archetype of human society, should first strip ourselves of conceptual narcissism before understanding them.

Myers’ article might provide some answers to Russia’s present character. It is often said that Russia’s leaders can aptly claim that “L’Etat c’est moi.” But if you look carefully at Russian history and present Russian politics, the “I” in the state might better represent a tightly bound elite rather than one all-powerful individual. The fact that all societies produce elites is a sociological fact; as is the idea that every society produces elites in their own particular way. For Russia, elites are made and reproduced through patron client networks, where a “manager” is placed at the center to adjudicate conflict and divisions between elite clans. There have been times when the “manager” has had to smash networks that threatened his power (whether real or perceived). Ivan IV’s move against the boyars was one example, as was Stalin’s move against the Old Bolsheviks. Putin’s campaign against oligarchs like Berezovsky and Khodorokovsky can been seen in a similar light.

I have argued before that Putin is also such a manager. But you can see this in Myers’ article with statements like,

The search for his replacement has started to look less like a political campaign and more like a boardroom struggle to select a new C.E.O. As at most corporations, the process is out of the public eye, the result presented to shareholders as a fait accompli. And like most executives, Putin is susceptible to choosing someone most like himself. (Emphasis added.)


All [of the possible candidates for president] have been mentioned as possible successors to Putin, not because they have said anything or even distinguished themselves in any particular way but because they are close to Putin. All, with the exception of Sobyanin, are old friends and allies from his hometown, then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. No one knows for sure who might emerge as a candidate, because Putin himself will decide, and he has given no indication yet of his final choice. What is certain is that whomever he selects will become the next president of Russia. (Emphasis added).


Ivanov is portrayed as a hard-liner, part of the clan of Putin aides known as the siloviki, or people of power. Medvedev is the (comparatively) liberal, democratic reformer, from the clan representing the modernizing businessmen. Both are oversimplifications, since their singular positions are entirely dependent on their close, personal relations with and loyalty to Putin, who is unquestionably in charge. (Emphasis added.)

Myers is clear that he thinks elites are “dependent” on Putin for their positions, and that is true up to a point. One might also ask: How much is Putin, not to mention his successor, dependent on them for his?

These patron client networks, where the patron is in indisputable charge but that indisputability is given by the client, is a reciprocal relationship that forms the binds of an elite. Much has been made of the fact that Putin has surrounded himself with ex-KGB/FSB types and how this is a reflection of Putin’s inability to shake his spy past. Part of this is certainly true, but such a move is quite logical. First the KGB/FSB produced some of USSR/Russia’s most talented people. Second, the clannish nature of Russian politics is going to make Putin surround himself with people he knows and can trust. Putin hasn’t smashed the oligarchy as much as he created a managed oligarchy. This practice wasn’t called khvostizm or tailism in the 1920s and 1930s for nothing. It is the reality of clan politics that makes Andrei Illarionov’s description of the “succession process as something out of the Middle Ages” quite apt.

In regard to capitalism, Russia is simply a more transparent capitalism, and despite what partisans of capital might say, it fits well in capital’s tendency to concentrate wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. What makes Russia different than say other capitalist states is that the overt practice of clan politics closes many of the avenues that distributes wealth and power among a wider elite class. Thus, the first question a young Russian up and comer might be asked is “who do you know?” rather than “What do you know?” In addition, the fact that Russian capitalism is predicated on patron-client networks makes its flesh and innards no less capitalist. In fact, I would say that in many ways it wears capital’s true face.