Two primaries

May was primary season in Russia. For the first time, some Russian political parties have adopted the American practice of holding primary votes to select their candidates for the forthcoming general election. The idea, supposedly, is to involve citizens more deeply in the democratic process, and to ensure that candidates have popular support and are not just the appointees of party leaders. So, how has it worked out?

For the country’s ruling United Russia party, the answer is pretty well. About 10 million people are said to have participated in the party’s primaries. The party’s opponents have since claimed that the votes were nothing more than a ‘PR stunt’ involving considerable electoral fraud in order to ensure that the leadership’s preferred candidates won. But in fact, the primaries produced a number of upsets. Unofficial results suggest that about 50 serving MPs lost their elections, most notably the Chairman of the Duma Committee on international Affairs Alexei Pushkov, who was standing to be the United Russia candidate for the Perm region. Candidates from the All Russian Popular Front, a collection of non-governmental organizations, are said to have fared particularly well, suggesting that the primaries have provided civil society with an opportunity to make its voice heard in the political process. The think tank Rethinking Russia thus concludes that the voting ‘was undoubtedly a success.’

By contrast, the primaries for the liberal opposition party PARNAS were a farce. As RT reports:

The file containing logins and passwords of everyone who had taken part in the primaries was posted on the PARNAS website on Sunday afternoon. The data was real and allowed anyone to see full details of any voter – including name, emails and phone numbers, as well as the people they voted for.

In consequence, PARNAS has had to suspend all voting. Well known blogger, and one-time PARNAS collaborator, Aleksei Navalny urged the party’s leader Mikhail Kasyanov to resign, and prominent party member Ilya Yashin pointed the finger at Kasyanov’s one time mistress Natalia Pelevina, saying that the leak came from within the party and ‘I have a lot of questions for that woman.’ The scandal has worsened the already great divisions in the liberal camp.

Perhaps even more embarrassing for PARNAS than the leak of personal information was the revelation of the total number of voters – about 4,000. The contrast with the 10 million for United Russia could hardly be more striking.


Friday book #20: Russian Revolution

Next on my shelf is a small book (84 pages) by Richard Pipes, entitled Three Whys of the Russian Revolution. The questions which Pipes asks are:

  • Why did Tsarism fail?
  • Why did the Bolsheviks triumph?
  • Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?

Roughly speaking, his answers are as follows:

  • The Tsarist state was weak and unable to cope with the strains of the First World War.
  • The Bolsheviks didn’t triumph because they had majority support (they didn’t), but because they were more determined, more organized, and more ruthless than their opponents.
  • Stalin’s ascent was inevitable. Rather than distorting Lenin’s legacy, Stalin carried it to its logical conclusion.

three whys


As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. In this Tuesday’s Power Vertical podcast, REF/RL’s Brian Whitmore noted that some of the people who phoned into Vladimir Putin’s recent televised question and answer session have ended up worse off as a result. For instance, after workers of a fish processing plant complained to Putin that they hadn’t been paid, government inspectors descended on the plant and laid criminal charges against its management. As a result, the plant is on the verge of bankruptcy and the workers may lose their jobs. Whitmore says that the case shows that Putin ‘seems powerless’ to fix even small, local problems, and that this is a sign that the Putin system ‘is breaking down’.

Where I would agree with Whitmore is in recognizing that despite all the talk about Putin’s autocratic power, in reality the Russian president’s ability to influence events within Russia is highly circumscribed. What Whitmore gets wrong is in believing that this is somehow a new phenomenon and an indication of a system on the verge of collapse. In fact, it is a problem which has been endemic to Russia for centuries, and which Putin himself has complained about for years.

Unable to get the machinery of state to do what they wish, Russian leaders have tended to blame the bureaucracy for ignoring their instructions, deliberating obstructing them or, at the opposite extreme, implementing them in an overzealous fashion. Soon after becoming president for the first time, Putin declared on 22 March 2001 that, ‘It is very difficult to fight the Russian bureaucracy’, and on 26 September 2001 he called for ‘low taxes and de-bureaucratization’. Fifteen years later, he hadn’t made much progress, remarking on 4 September 2015 that  ‘Our general line consists of not simply burning our reserves or using budget resources to support branches of industry or individual enterprises, but the de-bureaucratization of our economic system.’ Having demanded in December 2014 that government regulators reduce the intrusiveness of their inspections of small businesses, a year later he lamented that all the necessary decrees had been issued, but without any effect – inspectors were continuing to behave exactly as before. Consequently on 17 December 2015, he said, ‘We must continue to work on perfecting mechanisms for managing the economy, for its de-bureaucratization, for the creation of the most attractive conditions for business.’

Putin’s repeated calls for de-bureaucratization reflect a belief he expressed on 18 December 2012 that, ‘The less bureaucrats interfere in decision making, the better’. Many of Putin’s predecessors shared his frustration with his inability to get the Russian state to bend to his will. They addressed it in different ways. Stalin’s approach was to try to bulldoze his way through opposition, if necessary by arresting and shooting public officials who appeared to be resisting his will. Gorbachev tried a different path – faced with what he considered bureaucratic resistance to the economic reforms of perestroika, he decided to put public pressure on recalcitrant officials through means of glasnost, and when that still didn’t work he attempted to bypass them entirely by democratizing the Russian political system.

Stalin’s approach was only partially successful and came at a huge cost. Gorbachev’s was a disastrous failure. Putin’s is a bit more subtle – while retaining control of the political system, he has sought to co-opt civil society by means of the Public Chambers and the All-Russian Popular Front, institutions which bring together nongovernmental organizations, businessmen, and political activists to cooperate with the Russian state in pursuing each other’s objectives. Putin has also to some extent reverted to the style of Russian Tsars, trying to get around the bureaucracy by appealing directly to the people. But the fact that he continues to express his frustration about alleged bureaucratic resistance suggests that he has not been very successful in overcoming it.

Part of the problem, I think, may be that bureaucratic resistance isn’t the main problem. That does not mean that it does not exist, but sometimes there may be good reasons for it, or there may be other factors which determine why centrally-dictated policies are not achieving their goals. The failure of Soviet industry to meet its targets wasn’t due to sabotage and couldn’t be solved by shooting managers – the targets were unrealistic and the entire system of central planning inherently inefficient. The failures of perestroika owed more to the ill-conceived nature of the reforms than to actual resistance. And, if nowadays fish plant workers aren’t being paid, it is probably because their plant isn’t profitable. Sending in government inspectors isn’t going to solve that.

In other words, although a recalcitrant bureaucracy provides a useful scapegoat for government failures, in fact inappropriate policies and ignorance of local conditions by the central authorities are probably more important. I suspect that Putin will still be complaining about the bureaucracy right up until the day that he finally leaves office.

Bandwagon of errors

The Ivan Ilyin bandwagon continues to gather passengers. The latest on board is historian Timothy Snyder, who delivered a lecture last week to the Watson Institute at Brown University in which he sought to explain Russian foreign policy through an analysis of the philosopher’s writings. The lecture promotes a familiar theme, namely: Vladimir Putin cites Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore Putin and the regime he leads are fascist. Needless to say, I have a few problems with this, and Snyder’s lecture forces me to return once again to the topic of ‘Putin’s philosopher’, even though it means repeating myself somewhat.

Snyder begins his talk by saying that Russia’s problem is that it isn’t a real state, in that it has not worked out a system of succession of power. Instead, its leaders have deliberately chosen to falsify elections and leave Putin in power almost indefinitely. At the same time, Snyder sees the war in Ukraine as an effort to break up the Ukrainian state and prevent the European Union from becoming a state. To explain Russian behaviour, therefore, Snyder suggests that we need to find ‘an idea which is comfortable with the lack of a state’ (11.00 minute point in speech). That idea is ‘fascism’. Thus Snyder argues that it is no coincidence that the war in Ukraine has coincided with the revival of ‘a fascist geopolitical thinker’, namely Ivan Ilyin.

Next, Snyder relates favorable comments Ilyin made about Mussolini and Hitler, and after the Second World War about Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. According to Snyder (23.50 minute point), Ilyin ‘equates Jews and Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Jews, and therefore approves of Hitler’s discrimination against Jews’. Snyder says that Ilyin was (35.50 minute point) ‘a Eurasianist who says we’re all basically fascists’. The message he sends is that ‘we [Russians] are innocent’ and anything which goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault (mainly the West’s). (42.00 minute point)

My purpose here is not to defend Ilyin. I’m personally of a liberal and democratic inclination. Instead, my concern is the overly simplistic theme espoused by Snyder and others: Ilyin = fascist, therefore Putin = fascist, therefore we all need to be very scared.

In my last post, I said that the ideas of Eurasianism and Alexander Dugin were just several among many influencing Russian policy makers, and even then in a highly bowdlerized way. The same could be said of Ilyin’s ideas. It’s highly debatable whether Ilyin is really as influential as Snyder makes him out to be. But even if I’m wrong about that, Snyder presents only a fraction of what the philosopher’s ideas are all about.

It is indeed true that Ilyin said some positive things about fascism. But he was hardly alone in a lot of this. Winston Churchill, for instance, praised Mussolini in a 1927 speech, saying that fascism ‘has rendered service to the whole world’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Italian Duce ‘that admirable Italian gentleman’. And David Lloyd George described Hitler as ‘a born leader of men, a magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’ But we don’t generally call them all fascists.

Moreover, although he supported authoritarian rule, Ilyin was simultaneously a trenchant opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, which he described as ‘godless’. And contrary to Snyder’s depiction of Ilyin as an anti-Semite, the Nazis actually dismissed him from his job teaching in Berlin for refusing to preach anti-Semitic doctrine. In the end he had to flee Germany.

If Snyder is right that fascists are happy with a lack of proper states, then Ilyin can’t possibly have been a fascist since the establishment of a strong, law-based state was one of his most strongly expressed principles. Ilyin placed an extraordinarily high importance on the law and on the development of ‘legal consciousness’ (pravosoznanie), things which are quite incompatible with fascism (which Snyder admits is associated with ‘arbitrariness’). Ilyin also repeatedly said that the state must be limited, that it must not intrude into people’s personal lives, and that the people must enjoy freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and so on. Rather than saying that everything was somebody else’s fault, in his book On Resistance to Evil by Force Ilyin emphasized that those who fight an external evil have to accept that they are themselves partially responsible for it. Bolshevism, he wrote, was merely the external manifestation of the internal spiritual failings of the Russian people. He did not, as Snyder claims, say it was something imposed on Russia by the West (although he certainly viewed Marxism as a Western, not a Russian ideology).

Next, when you look at the bits of Ilyin which Putin has quoted, they are definitely not the more authoritarian ones. In 2005, for instance, Putin cited comments by Ilyin about the need to limit state power; and in 2014 he cited a statement by Ilyin about the importance of freedom.

In an article entitled ‘The Complex Legacy of Ivan Ilyin’, American scholar Philip Grier describes the philosopher’s thought as being often ‘paradoxical’. Snyder, however, seems to prefer simplicity to complexity, and so misrepresents both Ilyin and modern Russia. Clearly, Ilyin wasn’t a pro-Western liberal democrat, and if you think that Russia ought to be a pro-Western, liberal democratic nation, then Ilyin is not the philosopher for you. But it’s a step too far to go from there to saying that current Russian foreign policy is fascist in orientation.