‘If the Russian Elite is to Preserve Itself, It Must Change,’ Gudkov Says

November 5, 2015
Yegor Ligachev

Staunton, November 5 Many commentators are speculating on whether Russia’s elite groups, now threatened by Vladimir Putin’s policies, will find a way to remove him from office and install someone more to their liking. Andrey Piontkovsky has focused particular attention on this issue.

But this is only part of a larger issue, Dmitry Gudkov suggests in Vedomosti. The real question, he says, is this: Can Russian elites transform themselves in such a way to transfer their positions and influence to their descendants or will they like their predecessors be cast aside and the system start over from square one?

Under what conditions, the Duma deputy asks, can representatives of one generation give place to those of another? Or, as this question is posed by Russian realities, “under what conditions can the elite retire with security?” Russian history in the 20th century, he says, is “an example of the incorrect answer to this task.”

During that century, he says, “there was not a single generation of the elite [in Russia] which retired voluntarily and was not killed, imprisoned, exiled or – in the best case – cast aside with contempt.” Indeed, “every 20 to 25 years, the entire elite in practice was reset and began again from a blank slate,” a pattern that has kept Russia from evolving.

The 1917 revolution and Stalin’s times provide the clearest evidence of this, Gudkov suggests, but perestroika has the same effect, casting into the outer darkness people who had played a central role in the country only a few years earlier. “Who, besides elderly members of the KPRF now recalls Yegor Ligachev?”

Every leader and every elite imagines itself as immortal, but in fact, the evidence in Russia is that few leaders can do anything to maintain their influence or hand it off to their children, the Duma deputy and commentator writes. Consider for example the case of the offspring of the Soviet elite.

Stalin’s granddaughter owns a store in Portland, Khrushchev’s son is a scholar in America, Suslov’s daughter lives in Austria, and a relative of Brezhnev’s lives in California, he points out.

“Do any of the current people deciding the fate of the country think that everything will be otherwise with them?” Gudkov asks rhetorically. Do they think they will go on and on like the Kims in North Korea? There is little reason for them to think so, and that explains their fear of taking the first step toward change.

Members of Russian elites can see how different things are in the West where political dynasties are the norm and where those who served in office often retain influence and standing long after they leave it. But few of them recognize the reason that this is the case: in the West, the elites rely on the people as their source of power.

In the Russian system, on the other hand, “the people have never been the source of power.” Instead, power has been based in arms (“in bad times”) or on oil (in better ones), “but this does not have any relationship to people, and that means there is not feedback loop.” Consequently, when the chosen resource runs out, so too does power.

There is an obvious and simple conclusion from this, Gudkov suggests. “If the current elite wants to preserve itself, it must change” the basis of its power and rely on the support of the people via a democratic process. Only if it moves in that direction, he says, can the elite hope to peacefully stay in power and, when the time comes, peacefully and with dignity, exit it

If Russian elites don’t decide to move in that direction, he says. “the days of the current era are already numbered” not just for the supreme leader but for the elites around him.