Vigilantism, faith and power in Russia

Do you feel any safer now?

Some years back I wrote a piece called ‘Private security and public insecurity: outsourced vigilantism in modern Russia’ for David Pratten and Atreyee Sen’s collection Global Vigilantes (Hurst, 2007). In it, I argued that Russia was heir to a long legacy of vigilantism, but one which took a variety of forms, samosud lynch law of the tsarist village being subsumed into Comrades’ Courts and informing on annoying neighbors in Soviet times. In post-Soviet Russia, I suggested that the rise of the private security industry as well as a continuing willingness to regard organized crime as an acceptable alternative to the structures of law and the state also reflected this tradition. I suggested that this emerged from three main drivers: (1) a fragmenting social dynamic requiring groups and individuals to seek their own protection; (2) deep-seated mistrust of the authorities’ will or ability to provide protection; and (3) a cultural bias towards self-help and summary justice that may reflect moral values but not necessarily the letter of the law.

I was thinking about this as I listened to the most recent of the ever-thought-provoking RFE/RL Power Vertical podcasts, in which Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin discussed the “culture wars” between the rising urban, cosmopolitan middle class and a traditional Russian conservative identity. It is interesting how, as the Kremlin appears less confident, certain and powerful than for a long time, various symptoms of vigilantism seem to be bubbling forth, from a renewal of calls for liberalizing gun control laws and a continued rise in the private security industry, through events such as the Sagra case, to the new appeals to the use of Cossacks to help police Russia’s border reasons and most recently, plans to put Russian Orthodox vigilante patrols drawn from Dmitry Otrakovsky’s “Holy Rus” movement onto Moscow’s streets to deal with “blasphemous, offensive actions and statements against the Orthodox religion and our people.”

Otrakovsky (left) and his merry men

The Orthodox vigilante plans have proven controversial. Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations, whom Time called “the Orthodox point man with the Kremlin“, has endorsed the proposals, calling them “a step in the right direction.” (I wonder, with some alarm, quite what he feels would be the destination: a Russian Inquisition?) The Moscow police have dampened speculation from the Church that joint vigilante-police patrols would be mounted (which would have given them official legitimacy and arrest powers).

Their beards and black skull-and-dagger “Orthodoxy or Death” t-shirts imply something between Iran’s morality police and the Hell’s Angels. Nonetheless, they raise an interesting point. Governor Tkachev, who wanted to hire a thousand Cossacks, is not exactly a man without means or options. The Russian Orthodox Church is hardly a marginalized institution. In other words, at present it is individuals and institutions of power who are looking for extra-judicial and extra-state agents to provide security and assert their authority. Conversely, it is people who might be considered on either the liberal or anti-Kremlin wings (for the two overlap but are not the same), from Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to Memorial’s Lyudmila Alexeeva, who have been most critical about such efforts to bypass the formal agency of the state — the very state to which they are often opposed.

This could be explained simply as another expression of what Richard Sakwa calls the “dual state” whereby a formal, law-based one is complemented and often trumped by an informal, patrimonial one. But then why now?

I’d suggest that this reflects the growing crisis of what Brian Whitmore and I have taken to calling the “deep state,” the inner decision-making elite and the machinery of power they have constructed to allow them to run the country. So long as the key power blocs within the Russian state and the constellations of individuals and groups who control them felt happy and secure, they were comfortable with the status quo. However, it is a mark of the essentially feral self-interest which motivates these political entrepreneurs, that as soon as they become uneasy, they look to creating their own sources of economic, political and even coercive power. And, unlike the radicals, let alone ordinary Russians, they have the means to do so.

Let’s go back to those three drivers I raised at the start:

(1) a fragmenting social dynamic requiring groups and individuals to seek their own protection: that certainly seems a growing concern amongst these elite interests as protest emerges and, perhaps more importantly, the state seems uncertain how to proceed.

(2) deep-seated mistrust of the authorities’ will or ability to provide protection: again, yes: while they were happy to sit back and let the authorities look after them, that never translated into a faith that this would continue for ever (witness all that illegal capital flight — salting away funds Just In Case).

(3) a cultural bias towards self-help and summary justice that may reflect moral values but not necessarily the letter of the law: absolutely. Time and again, the elite’s willingness to go beyond the law in its own self interest has been made abundantly clear, from waving away the consequences of auto accidents all the way to complicity in the plunder of the economy.

Thus, the more we see powerful interests trying to raise muscular political movements, endorse vigilantes, create parallel policing and control structures, establish security agencies and woo non-state actors, the more we will actually be watching a deep state surface and break apart…

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