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The Russian System: a View From the Inside

The Russian System: a View From the Inside

The System as Procedure

There is vast literature on the Soviet System. Of particular interest for us is the vision of George Kennan, who provided a short but impressive outline of Soviet power and was the first to describe the roots of Russian conduct. Kennan was not neutral; he was a U.S. diplomat during the Cold War. But his picture of the enemy country, – the USSR, – is friendlier than some contemporary Russian descriptions of the Soviet world.

In February 1946, the United States was challenged by the USSR, which was under Stalin’s rule. George Kennan investigated Soviet ideology, not as a doctrine or political faith, but from a pragmatic perspective. He wanted to explain how Russians handled everything in the world—enemies, friends, even themselves— and why they did so in a particular way, which was very different from how other countries might have handled such things. His famous “long telegram” conveyed his insights about the origins of Russian conduct. Let’s try to imagine him doing the same job today. What would he say of Russia’s new statehood after December 1991? There have been many attempts to find the answer regarding what Russia is today and why this country is as it is, but none of them has been entirely successful.

The Russian System was born within the communist ideology. The space vacated by the communist ideology is now occupied by the System of the Russian Federation. But the System of the Russian Federation is not a state. Rather, it is a mode of conduct.

The System consists of a procedural skill for communicating with everything around, a skill that can be easily learned by new bureaucrats and everybody else. This is the only point where the Soviet Union and modern-day Russia secretly merge. The Soviet legacy is not really about “totalitarianism” or “imperial ambitions.” It is about the way the Kremlin deals with everything in the world, including materials, finances, and mental, ethical, and religious issues. The legacy of the Soviet era is the technique of treating people—regardless of their rights, social station, or wishes—as simply pretexts and resources.

The System is not a state, and even less is it an ideology. It is a well-developed collection of methods and practices for dealing with the world, and one that is rather simple, allowing this type of conduct to spread to any number of people involved in servicing it, and nothing stops them from adopting it.

We may even say that the System is the most unlimited (or free) form of statehood in the world. But, of course, it must not be confused with “liberalness” or liberalism as this term is understood in the West.

The Art of Being Abrupt

When Kennan spoke about the origins of Soviet conduct, he was actually focusing on the conduct of the Soviet Union’s strictly vertically integrated bureaucracy. His analysis of Soviet bureaucratic conduct sheds light on the similarities to and differences from the post-Soviet Russian System. For example, Kennan said nothing about Soviet abruptness because this skill had not yet developed at that time. A Soviet civilian was not required to be impetuous. That directives-run society did not tolerate any spur-of-the-moment improvisations at meetings of communists.

The System appeared suddenly, born of the fortuitous idea of a new sovereign Russia, which was invented in time for the elections to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in the spring of 1990. Later, on June 12, 1990, Russia announced its state sovereignty within the USSR. That unforeseen claim to independence reflected the impact of Boris Yeltsin’s personality, as he loved surprises. Yeltsin became Russia’s president because he cultivated impetuousness. This was the foundation of his tactics: political zigzags, or the politics of “flourishing,” made for unexpected double maneuvers. Yeltsin used to create serious threats and then cast himself as the “last hope” savior, converting a political crisis to his personal benefit. This politician became the beneficiary of all profits and losses of the game—and then left it all to an equally skilled successor, Vladimir Putin.

The Struggle with Norms and Normality

The Russian System has been engaged in a struggle with normality from the very beginning. Ordinary life existed beyond Russia’s borders, - in the West and in Europe. Russians got used to visiting normality as tourists. At the same time, Russia completely relieved itself of ordinary obligations. Since 1993, the Kremlin has developed modes of conduct that bypass normality, falsifying it to more easily reach its targets. Though those targets were mercenary, the Kremlin was motivated by the idea of achieving normality in the future by merging with normal (Western) nations. 

The rejection of “normality” started as a technology, but eventually it became part of everyday life, later growing into contempt for the norm within Russia. The System easily overcomes norms, and makes this fact known. The conduct of the Russian military and the judicial establishment with respect to their political opponents, for example, amounts to blanket show of contempt for the state norm. The clear message articulated through their behavior is the irrelevance of the law when it comes to people or organizations included on the System’s stop-list.

If the System suddenly decides to follow its own rules (at least for 30 days!), the military and judiciary will need a special primary order, as well as enormous efforts at self-control.

Leader on behalf of the Majority

The unexpected radical turn of 2014–2015 came most suddenly. How could an institutionally weak power act radically and unexpectedly? It happened partly because the System pursues undemocratic modes of conduct, leaning on the notion of a future majority.

The idea of marshalling “the majority” appeared in Russia as an outgrowth of the idea of having a leader rule on behalf of this majority. The mandate of the majority leader after elections does not depend on the particular electoral majority. Even when it is difficult to round up this majority, and the majority is not very stable, – the leader’s mandate is unlimited.

The System has one more mandate - this one coming from the outside world. It is a mandate for embracing the “reform process,” “transition,” and “modernization”—in short, for pursuing a global legitimacy. This mandate is separate from the electoral mandate and does not depend on elections.

The Kremlin Team acts on behalf of “progress” and secures the right to protect the elite from “nationalism” or “regional separatists.” It has a huge collection of mandates, each endowing it with special permission to act on behalf of progress, and to act radically.

Since the authorities can act radically and at a large scale, they do not in fact require any advanced reforms. The scale of available actions by itself presents an opportunity to marshal the majority. Every abrupt, unexpected action leaves the general public stunned and in admiration—apart from any particular victims, of course.

Waiting for the Extreme

The System is activated by extreme conditions. But this does not mean that the Kremlin has to wait for the right context to develop. The Kremlin can “organize” these extreme conditions. The potential for extremism builds up within the System and emerges from there every time the Kremlin does a zigzag. Internal zigzags sometimes discharge into the outside world, creating an international challenge.

The Kremlin Team

The Kremlin Team was historically formed at the foundations, which were later forgotten. But clearly the personalities and prejudices from these foundations have remained in the System and have moved with it from one stage to another. The Kremlin Team is more or less steady enough to support the stability of the System as a whole. Its stagnant structure generates a feeling of stability. The Kremlin Team has apparently been exercising a monopoly over Russian resources so that it can sell its services on international markets.

The Roots of the Kremlin Team

In 1990, a group of people, who were forced to imitate the normal bureaucracy of a normal state, appeared in the Kremlin. Playing this imitation game later became one of the main duties of the Kremlin Team, and particularly of President Yeltsin’s administration. The main advantage of this group was the members’ direct contact with Yeltsin. It helped them win over more experienced players, who lacked that advantage.

The new Kremlin Team created new rules for others, rules its members themselves did not intend to follow. That is how the first gap appeared. They had to be free of the rules of conduct in order to succeed.

At the start of the new Russia, there were large groups of people who behaved appropriately, but differently from Soviet conduct. They used practices that were not allowed in the USSR.

The consolidation of the active groups, who started to call themselves the “elite,” occurred much faster than the development of new rules and procedures.

Russia is too large and too diverse for the equal development of opportunities in each of its parts. This makes a group with access to global markets very exclusive. As soon as the Kremlin Team gained access to world markets, finances, and media, – it cut the population off from all those resources, and later, from the political realm as well.

What is the Purpose of the Presidential Administration?

The Presidential Administration is an institution whose scope exceeds that of all other organizations, institutions, and laws in the country. It is a gateway to a parallel politics, and to huge opportunities.

Any important Russian organization, whatever its purpose might be eventually transformed into an institution, in the event it is not shut down before then. The Presidential Administration’s expediency has never been challenged since it appeared in 1991, and all of its reforms have only led to its expansion.  

The Presidential Administration emerged as a body to protect the Russian president from other Russian constitutional institutions. At first its existence was justified by the archaic constitution of the Soviet Russian Republic, the communist threat, and confrontation with the Supreme Court of Russia and the old parliament. But even before Russia’s new constitution was adopted in 1993, the main purpose of this administration became clearer: it was a legal dualism. When the Russian people turned away from politics, the Presidential Administration gained a virtual monopoly on all political activities.

The Presidential Administration is a system of top-down control of all branches of government. This type of control is just as illegal today as it was in 1991. From here anyone can begin any risky operation, basically changing the regime within the country.

Medvedev’s Government

The System has a reserve, the name of which is “Medvedev’s government”. The administration’s attitude toward this reserve government is divided. Medvedev’s government is like a September turkey, hoarded so that it can be served when needed. But the government does provide services nobody else can provide. The Kremlin does not want to be left without a government because it knows that any new one would take shape under pressure from different lobbying groups and crazy billionaires.

Without the Politburo

The Soviet Politburo was very effective, being positioned – at the top of the Communist Party, which governed both the country and the government. Everybody in the Politburo had real power, power that reached vertically from the top to the very bottom. Members of the Politburo knew that, if they lasted long enough, they would be able to select the country’s new leader—the General Secretary of the Communist Party, who also controlled the Soviet government.  Nobody on Putin’s team can pretend they will have this opportunity. They can’t even joke about it. The System does not have a built-in mechanism of succession, and this is a fatal weakness under the current circumstances. The Kremlin Team does not know how it can hold on to and sustain its power. It has to retain its monopoly on power, but anybody outside the inner circle is not very keen on the Kremlin Team. The general antipathy toward the team also destabilizes the System.

The Kremlin on Alert

The Kremlin Team is always on the alert for global force majeure situations. It is always on the hunt for an international crisis capable of distracting its opponents’ attention from Moscow to other targets. At home, anti-Russian sanctions have transformed the country into a testing ground for severe trials. So where is there hope?

One model for ginning up some hope appeared in the autumn of 2008 with the dual miracle surrounding Obama’s election, when a global economic crisis and the crumbling of Bush’s foreign policy distracted the West from the Russian-Georgian war. Can the success gained from waiting be repeated? Yes, it can—under certain conditions.

First, the Kremlin must keep its independence within Russia, even though the sanctions are biting its main social base. Second, it has to dismiss any idea of the Kremlin Team’s resignation or re-orientation in a Western direction. 

The new order for running the country under the international sanctions has yet to be found. Some world players are interested in Russia, but they cannot be persuaded to invest any money, even modest amounts, in the country. China has no incentive to support Russia as prolongation of the sanctions actually serves Chinese interests. However, Beijing categorically does not want the Kremlin to surrender to Washington. We can expect a lot of encouraging moves from China toward the Kremlin, but none of them will be strictly or irreversibly anti-American.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Editor's Note: This piece is excerpted from "The System of the RF" (Sistema RF, 2015). Gleb Pavlovsky is a seasoned political campaign manager who was active as a Kremlin adviser between the mid-1990s and 2011. His insights may sound enigmatic, but they are invaluable. Pavlovsky said in his previous book that Russia’s political system “is immune to peace and is ready to fight.” The book appeared at the very beginning of 2014, before the annexation of Crimea. As Russia continues to keep its immediate neighborhood in the state of alert and has become a campaign issue in the United States, a deeper look at Russia’s politics is in order. "The System of the RF" that is excerpted here was published in the summer of 2015 – months before Moscow's military campaign in Syria was launched. 

About the Author

Gleb Pavlovsky

Political campaign manager who was active as a Kremlin adviser between the mid-1990s and 2011
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more