Russia’s Salic Deficiency

The last two weeks, the Russian news may have been focused on the now yearly gas war.  It’s over now and I will leave it to more competent minds sort out the winners and losers. Besides haggling over the price of 1,000 cubic meters of gas, the new year means a new round of speculation about Russia’s future.  Especially, what might be in store for Russia’s power elite.

Some have been propagating the idea that a rift exists between Medvedev and Putin. Medvedev’s recent complaint that “the planned [anti-crisis] measures are being implemented more slowly than we expected” will certainly fuel that theory. But Putin agreed with Medvedev’s assessment and announced changes to speed up the bureaucratic process.  So maybe it is better to say that there some working understanding between the two leaders.  While there might not (or might) be a rift between Medvedev and Putin, the possibility of one as well as its potentially disastrous effects remains a constant specter of concern.

Nevertheless, the constant speculation about Putin’s and Medvedev’s relationship, not to mention the often repeated notion that Putin looks to come back to the Presidency, highlights the historical problem the Russian elite has had with succession. Simon Sebag Montefiore dealt with the “problem of succession” in a rather excellent article in the Sunday’s New York Times.  As Montefiore notes, Russia’s behind-the-scenes wars of succession have always baffled observers. The lack of a heeded succession law has resulted in civil wars, pretenders, palace coups, bedroom assassinations, and in the Soviet period, the elite’s cannibalization.  Moreover, the Russian elite’s propensity to cannibalize itself has lent to its inability to move from a class in itself to a class for itself. Instead, the reluctance to give up power to rival clans or to see potential successors as their future gravediggers has only perpetuated its feudal and clannish character. The transfer of power, let alone comprehensive reform of the system, has thus been condemned to coups, tsaricide, or revolution.

Given the last two, it is no wonder that in Russia any peep from “civil society” or pressure from below is met with fear and paranoia from above. Unlike elites in the West, the Russian elite has failed to realize that civil society is really an effective means rule and stability. Instead, the it rules through domination but without hegemony.  Here, I’m reminded of a interesting passage from Gramsci’s “State and Civil Society” on why there was revolution in Russia but not in the West.  I offer it for contemplation:

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between the State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed.  The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying–but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.