Russia, the Patrimonial State, and Its Future

April 20, 2015

Western scholars habitually view Putin’s Russia as an authoritarian state. While this is true; it reflects political science’s methodological urge to compare phenomena and validate theories rather than to grasp the Russian state’s real nature. Russia today remains, as it was under Tsars and Communist rulers, a patrimonial state, much as Max Weber defined the term a century ago. The state and property belong to the Tsar as his personal property and he or his subordinates can expropriate anything they want to. There are no property rights, the historic basis for all human and civil rights, and there is neither the rule of law nor the accountability of any government official to anyone except his immediate superior. State service is obligatory for those who want to hold property (or in extremis for everyone) and its popularity among the young as a path to riches is growing since they fully grasp this dynamic. In many respects this model goes far beyond the authoritarian model, though it overlaps with it, not least because the patrimonial state can freely borrow elements from Fascism and Socialism or Communism just as Stalin and now Putin have done.

Indeed many attributes of prior Russian formations are easily discernible in Putin’s Russia. In the last few years decrees and “legislation” have actually curtailed the rights of several categories of the population to travel and increased the parameters of compulsory service to the state in one form or another. Much as in Tsarist times, businesses are often compelled to remit resources back to the government, ostensibly in the name of charitable or social projects much as Tsarist officials commandeered funds centuries ago ostensibly for similar purposes or the Communist regime forced unpaid labor on people. Psychiatric prisons have come back, dissent has been criminalized, and the unity of the church and state, or rather the full subordination of the church to the state and its continuing infiltration by the regime’s police agencies, has reappeared.

Similarly the tentacles of many, often shadowy, internal military and police formations which encompass several hundreds of thousands of men in a vast expansion of the Tsarist and Soviet practice have mushroomed. As Luke Harding has suggested, Putin may also have been inspired by the STASI’s through penetration of East Germany for the resemblance to that regime is also telling. Indeed, before 2009 these formations actually received more funding than the Russian Army signifying the regime’s perception that the main threat is internal dissent.

Although the Army has eclipsed these services in funding since then; they nonetheless continue to batten off the state budget, reflecting the enduring threat perception of the internal threat. Like the Communist regime, Putin’s has embraced a Leninist threat paradigm, namely that Russia is threatened on all sides from without, and from within by people who dissent and who are paid by those outside enemies. Therefore they are “national traitors’ rather than lackeys of imperialism or capitalist elements. The class ideology is gone but the mentality of unremitting political war has again become engraved in the minds of contemporary Russians.

As long as Putin remains in power these trends can only persist. He and his regime, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “is so steeped in blood that to go o’er would be as tiresome as going back.” The legislation giving the state ever more control over property, enlarging the restrictions on citizens right to travel, and expanding the parameters of compulsory service and the assault on civil liberties through the state’s takeover of the Internet continue to grow.

Naturally along Putin’s system has restored the traditional pathologies of patrimonialism: pervasive lawlessness, corruption, and endemic backwardness. In view of the present trend that predated the invasion of Ukraine to isolate Russia from the global economy and culture, not least scientific progress, we are seeing a relapse into phenomena of the late Stalin or Brezhnev periods that displayed similar tendencies. Consequently Russia is consigning itself to long-term backwardness and inability to compete. The government, as in classic Tsarist and Soviet style, is divided into warring factions that reproduce feudal patronage networks of patron-client relationships all the way down the line and has an inertia towards nepotism to ensure that the elite’s children retain their parents’ privileges.

In its foreign policies we see not only the traditional insistence on a status that is neither deserved nor sustainable as well as the resort toward war as the rationale of the regime. Putin clearly sees himself as a gatherer of Russian lands or at least wishes to pose as such. Since his regime has instituted a state of siege at home against dissenters and can only justify itself by imperial policies in its peripheries this is increasingly a state optimized for war. The ensuing burdens that Russia is accruing are already unsustainable and the crises engendered by the war in Ukraine only make things worse as Crimea can only be sustained at the cost of old age pensions and curtailed infrastructure projects at home. Moreover, defense spending, as in previous regimes, now has an apparent absolute priority as its defenders will not relax their hold on Russia’s resources.

This is not to say that Russia is a medieval or early modern country and society. But it does have a state that incarnates the vital aspects of that Muscovite Tsarist and patrimonial paradigm that reproduces traditional pathologies in ways that almost certainly ensure that Putin’s successor, if not Putin himself, will face a major and quite traditional form of Russian crisis that could well lead to an explosion. Professor Daniel Orlovsky of Southern Methodist University once remarked to me that Russia is what the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called a frozen culture. In many ways that is an apt analogy for Russia. But in an era of accelerating political and climate change that frost is not sustainable for a long time in historical terms. And when it thaws, it might either melt or, if enough heat is applied, it could become incendiary. Then Putin’s legacy and his sneer of cold command will be like that of Shelley’s Ozymandias, “Look on my works ye mortals and despair.”