Anatomy of an Elite

The character of the Russian elite is a topic of constant speculation. Is it one man rule? Is it an oligarchy? Is it a mafia structure? What is the real relationship between Putin’s administration and the security organs? Between the state and the emerging Russian middle class? What will happen in 2008?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Elite Studies Center at the Sociology Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, and author of Anatomiia rossiiskoi elita (2004) says that the Russian elite has been split between Westernizers and Slavophiles for the last 200 years. “In fact, these have been the only two “parties” in Russia ever since,” she says in an interview with Kommersant Vlast’. “No others have emerged, no matter how many parties Russia has seen over the decades. The Westernizers argue for freedom of the individual, private enterprise, separation of powers, elections. For Slavophiles, all this means alien ideologies and chaos that casts doubt on the very existence of the Russian state.” Putin’s regime is simply the most recent personification of the Slavophile faction in power.

Kryshtanovskaya makes several other interesting insights in the interview. I encourage everyone to read it. Here are few highlights:

Question: If the strength of the Russian state lies in rejecting democracy, then why do the people who are currently at the helm keep saying that Russia needs democracy? They could just change the Constitution, after all.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: But why act so crudely? It was the liberals who publicly betrayed the autocratic machine and openly attacked its load-bearing components: the pyramid of power, the command economy, secrecy. But today’s authorities have an entirely different background. In the secret services, they were trained in undercover operations – working behind a mask, concealing their true intentions. No need to wreck the system openly; instead, you need to infiltrate it and go on to preserve its facade while altering the contents to suit yourself, step by step. But these steps toward changing the system should always be done from different directions, and always unexpectedly for those within the system and outside observers alike. So that no one will be able to trace a logical connection between various steps or figure out the purpose of the whole operation.

Rumor has it that soon after Vladimir Putin came to power, he made a revealing remark: “Wherever you look, it’s all like Chechnya.” What he meant was disorder. But what is “disorder” to someone from a military or state security background? It’s the absence of control. If there’s no control, there are opportunities for independent influence. And the presence of alternative centers of power is perceived by the siloviki as a threat to Russia’s integrity. Does the Duma refuse to take orders from the presidential administration? That’s disorder. Is Gazprom run by Rem Vyakhirev rather than the Kremlin? Disorder. Are some parties making demands, are the media talking about something or other? It’s all disorder – it needs to be eliminated. And they have eliminated it. Over the past seven years, the chekists have changed Russia’s political system entirely – without changing a single letter of the Constitution.

Question: But most citizens are content with present-day conditions – judging by President Putin’s popularity.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: For the people, democracy still remains something foreign, incomprehensible, and suspicious. But the present regime’s autocratic style is familiar – they understand where President Putin is leading Russia. We still retain our traditional faith in a Good Tsar. Besides, the position of the chekists is incredibly stable these days. That’s mostly because the present system relies on age-old traditions of autocratic statehood. The siloviki aren’t being resisted by any other force. Not even Yuri Andropov enjoyed such freedom of action: he always had to consult the Politburo, where he had only one vote. But now the chekists are their own “Politburo.” Essentially, all the major decisions in Russia are made by five people: Vladimir Putin, Viktor Ivanov, Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, and Nikolai Patrushev.

Question: But Vladimir Putin will drop out of that quintet in 2008.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Even if he steps down as president, he won’t leave the “Politburo.” The corporation known as the Federal Security Service (FSB) and its ruling group will remain unchanged. It’s only Boris Berezovsky who claims that he “made” Putin. Putin was made president by the corporation that came to power in 2000. And it didn’t go to all that effort just to surrender power after a mere eight years.

Question: A great deal will depend on the successor, right?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: The chekist “Politburo” will remain in power anyway. If they prefer a “strong” president, they will choose Sergei Ivanov. If they prefer a “weak” president, it will be Dmitri Medvedev. Or Vladimir Putin might remain the leading figure after all.

Quotations from the interview were translated by Elena Leonova.