Staunton, December 14 – Russia today faces a stark and for many unwelcome choice, Vladimir Pastukhov says. It can remain an autocracy and face inevitable disintegration over the next two or three generations; or it can create “genuine federalism” and thereby eliminate the autocratic elements that have shaped the state historically.
Choosing the latter will be enormously difficult given Russia’s unique historical experience, the St. Antony’s historian says in recent remarks; but if Russia chooses the former, the future like the past will be bleak, filled with alternating periods of repression and collapse (polit.ru/article/2015/12/11/autocracy/).
“The nation state is the biggest Russian political long term construction project,” Pastukhov says, a combination of the fact that “there has never been and is not now any Russian nation in the precise (European) sense of the word” and that the Russian state has faced certain unique challenges which have mitigated against the formation of a nation.
“Subconsciously,” he continues, “few in Russia believe that the establishment of a nation state is possible,” something that is true even among those Russians who say they have made “a European choice.” Achieving it require the completion of an as-yet incomplete Russian revolution.
But until that happens, Pastukhov argues, whatever state Russia forms be it “soviet, liberal, oil and gas or criminal” will end up as before as an empire because throughout Russian history there has been one constant: autocracy. Those opposed to any given Russian regime blame that for everything, but they seldom reflect on why such a characteristic is always present.
“Autocracy” was Russia’s response to the challenges of controlling an enormous landmass. “Perhaps it made Russia an invalid but at the same time only thanks to it could [Russia] survive as an independent and sovereign state over the course of several centuries,” the historian suggests.
“One must not ignore the fact that the Russian Empire is a unique one by its size, by its variety of conditions over a space not divided by oceans, and by the depth and intensity of cultural interaction among the ethnoses populating it.” Its “main distinguishing factor,” the historian says, “is the lack of clear borders between the metropolitan center and the colonies,” something that has promoted a “unique” form of assimilation among its peoples.
“The Russian empire,” he continues, “is one that arose not thanks to something but inspite of something,” in this case, the unique challenges that its geographic and geopolitical circumstances left it in. The Russian “response” to these challenges was “the super-centralization of powers,” the concentration of all decisions at one point and often in one person.
“Super-centralization,” of course, “is autocracy,” but “the Russian state cannot be a nation state while remaining an autocracy and thus is deprived of historical prospects.” Its essence is in the lack of the division of powers, in the first instance between the civil and the religious but also among the components and levels of the state.
To make this arrangement last, the Russian state needed a unique police force subordinate only to the top leader. Otherwise, Pastukhov says, the state would have degenerated into chaos in three generations. That special police has taken various forms, from the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible to the KGB to the special criminal arrangements now.
Putin has been restoring autocracy according to the principle that whatever was should be. His first act was to “restore the unity of secular and spiritual power.” As a result, “Putin’s Russia is not a secular but a latently theocratic state; and perhaps already not a latent one.” Then he created a 21st century oprichnik system, based not on ideology but on criminal arrangements.
Putin’s state is thus condemned “historically,” but it is not clear just how long that process will take. It “could be eternal if all its constituent elements weren’t fake,” but they are and so “post-communist autocracy is decorative” rather than real “autocracy,” and the weaker for it.
“The post-communist empire most probably is a temporary phenomenon,” one that can be held together by “domestic terror,” a factor, Pastukhov suggests, that should not be underrated. And analysts should remember something else: when times get worse, that makes political change in Russia less likely rather than more as people circle the wagons.
Today, he argues, “the greatest threat to the regime is the building of irrationality and unpredictability in public life. One therefore cannot exclude that the post-communist empire, having defeated all enemies will die in the flower of its years from an accidental infection.” But even that will not end the problem of autocracy.
The only way to do that is to end the hyper-concentration of power by creating a genuinely federal state. But because many assume that any shift of power to the regions will lead to the dis-integration of the country, many will oppose that, thus deepening Russia’s long-running tragedy.