‘Il Principe’ or ‘Prezident v zakone’? Putin, power and being the pivot

The Decider

The most recent podcast from the ever-excellent RFE/RL Power Vertical series dwelt on Putin as the ‘indispensable man’ in Russian politics, and the nature of power. An interesting difference of nuance between Brian Whitmore and his co-host Kirill Kobrin came over what was more central to the present system. Brian seemed to suggest that it was political power, an asset which could then be converted into economic power; Kirill, by contrast, stressed the importance of economic power, and the extent to which the system was built on control of the economy. Obviously political and economic power can be converted into each other, but I confess I am minded of Machiavelli’s dictum from his Discourses: “gold alone will not procure good soldiers, but good soldiers will always procure gold.”

Economic and political power are fungible, but the exchange rate between the two will vary from system to system, from time to time. I am probably closer to Brian, in that I feel that in modern Russia, political power can make you obscenely rich (if that’s what you want — there are also many within the upper elite who clearly lead very privileged lives but are less interesting in swelling their bank accounts than others), but economic power does not automatically make you that powerful. It certainly does not make you secure: today’s oligarch can too easily become tomorrow’s zek if he falls foul of the political elite. The super-rich are super-rich because they also know how to operate within the political environment; but the politically powerful need not also be personally wealthy or economically savvy.

That leads me to the issue of Putin’s role within the elite and the nature of the ‘power vertical.’ This is not and has never been a ruthlessly monolithic hierarchy in which all actions reflect orders cascading from below. As Sean Guillory rightly noted in an interesting post on his blog, if he had been able to create “a functioning and omnipotent power vertical” then Putin would have “been able to do what Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and even Stalin failed to do.” Instead, Brian perceptively characterized his role as being the essential arbiter, the figure with the trust and the authority within the upper elite of the Russian ‘deep state’ as to be able to bring together, guide, balance and control the various interest groups and individuals.

I was inevitably reminded of the role of the vory v zakone (‘thieves within law’ or ‘thieves within the code’), the key authority figures within the Soviet underworld during their ‘glory days’ of the 1930s-80s, before they were marginalized by a new generation of avtoritety (‘authorities’) who were less interested in tradition and consensus than money and power. The vory did not necessarily run their own gangs, nor were they always the toughest, richest or most ruthless gangsters around. However, they reached this status, ‘crowned’ in a ritual underworld ceremony, by the acclamation of their peers and typically on the basis that they were true to the code of the vorovskoi mir, the ‘thieves’ world.’ In other words, they had shown themselves to be ‘honest thieves’ who met their obligations, showed no mercy to those who crossed them but conversely never broke their word, had served their time uncomplainingly in the toughest prison camps, knew the argot, lore and laws of criminal society and were willing to pass them on to a new generation.

As authority figures within the underworld, the vory v zakone were often called on to resolve disputes between individuals and gangs and broker deals, sometimes between gangs and at other times between gangs and corrupt elements of the Soviet state. They could do so precisely because:

(1) they were personally trusted and respected to do the right thing,

(2) they took that responsibility seriously, knowing that if they became regarded as abusing it then they faced losing their status and brutal and bloody retaliation, and

(3) they represented something greater, a common understanding that sticking to the thieves’ code was in the criminal elite’s best interests, as it minimized internecine conflicts and the kind of divisions which would make it easier for them to be destroyed by the state or hungry younger criminals.

Without wanting to push the analogy too far (it’s not useful to use ‘mafia state‘ as an analytic tool to understand modern Russia), Putin’s role as ‘the decider’ is strikingly similar. His authority is personal, not institutional (if it was simply vested in the position of the presidency, just think what Medvedev could have done), but nor is it unconditional or vested in some divine right. Putin is listened to because he is Putin — but more to the point because he has demonstrated an ability to balance rival factions, hold back common threats and embody the general interests of the elite. However, this is something he has to keep demonstrating, and the elite have to continue to believe that he is operating in their best interests.

The vory declined (and are now just a caricature of their old selves) to a large part because the world changed around them. Precisely because things went so well for them (Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign enriched them just as Prohibition invigorated the US mafia in the 1920s, the Soviet economy tanked and the state’s ability to police declined with it, etc), the elite became disunited. More to the point, a new criminal class arose: not the tattooed hard men of the Gulag, for whom spells in prison were badges of honor, but smart, often well-educated criminal-businessmen, who were interested in money, security and the good life.

The ‘deep state’ emerged in very particular times. On one level, the elite felt beleaguered after Yeltsin’s aimless years had seen the country drift towards anarchy and neo-feudalism. Like Boris Godunov in the 16th century Time of Troubles, Putin is a boyar turned statebuilder with energy and ambition but no real legitimacy. The upper elite have appreciated all he has done for them, but yesterday’s successes do not guarantee loyalty tomorrow. After all, their world has been changing, too. Massive opportunities, but also new challenges. In particular, the rise of new elites and social groups who are less enamored of the status quo. From the middle class protesters of Moscow, to the cultural critics of the Kremlin (most notably Ksenia Sobchak), to regional elites eager to maintain their political autonomy and economic opportunities, there are myriad new forces who do not necessary look to the prezident v zakone to protect their interests and embody their values.

So if Putin is likely entering a time when he can count much less on his ability to rule through being the pivot, the man on whom all the real movers and shakers rely, how will he respond? Kirill suggested in the podcast that he is trying to move from a collective to a more individual basis of rule; I’m not sure if I have yet seen signs of this (if anything, he seems of late to have been strikingly absent from domestic political calculations, allowing various agents like the Investigations Committee freer rein), but I can’t help but hope that he also hasn’t read Machiavelli’s The Prince, where the consummate political analyst counsels:

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved… Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; … for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

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1 Comment

  1. There is a lot of talk about Putin as the guy who balances rival factions. Actually I seem to remember the same being said about Yeltsin. I don’t necessarily disagree, but it would be really nice to see some concrete examples proving a) that these competing factions exist, and b) that Putin has been balancing rival factions.


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