The problem of power in Russia

  • Themes: Russia

Russia has never quite reconciled its traditional culture of ‘joint responsibility' with the rule of law.

russian farmers
russian farmers

The open, flat heartlands of northern Eurasia were both Russia’s burden and her opportunity. Once a major European state, as distinct from a nomadic confederation, was established there, it commanded an area so immense and so richly endowed with natural resources that its population could survive disasters that would engulf a more modestly provided polity. They could retreat almost endlessly, bide their time almost indefinitely and probe the weaknesses of their adversaries without being destroyed by their own.

Yet at the same time those heartlands suffered from grave disadvantages. They were open to attack from outside, remote from the seas and major trade routes, mostly relatively infertile, situated in an agriculturally marginal area of sometimes extreme cold, and their internal communications were cumbersome. All these factors made mobilising the resources of nature and population extremely difficult. Add to that the fact that the huge territories were inhabited by very diverse peoples, with different languages, customs, laws and religions, and it will be seen that any state ruling over them had a very difficult and complex task to accomplish. That is the basic problem which Russia’s successive rulers have had to solve.

In actual fact, the Tsarist Russian state coped with it very well, especially considering the relatively primitive state of its political development and the enormous distances over which it had to rule. The key to success was the symbolic projection of strong state authority through the imagery of Tsar and Orthodox Church, combined with strong local communities able to fulfil the tasks which in most European countries fell to intermediate institutions.

Tsarist Russia was a patrimonial monarchy in which the ideas of ownership, obligation and power were mingled. Authority was mediated downwards through persons rather than institutions, from the fifteenth to seventeenth century through boyars (‘big men’) to the peasant communities under their patronage, later through the dvorianstvo (nobility) or through non-Russian tribal chiefs. This was a kind of feudalism, but whereas in western Europe feudalism went with the dispersal and fragmentation of power, in Muscovy/Russia it was an instrument for the concentration of power. The result was serfdom, which gradually took shape from the late fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, and lasted till the mid-nineteenth century: an informal social institution never defined by law, it was an almost pure expression of personal power, but it was nevertheless a key mediator when it came to mobilising revenues and recruits for the needs of the Russian state.

Village and urban communities had to carry out many of the functions of the state, which the state itself was unable to accomplish because of poor communications. They had to keep the peace by policing their area, curtailing feuds between families, apprehending, judging and punishing peace-breakers and criminals. (Mir – peace – was used as a term to designate village communities right into the twentieth century.) Under the system of krugovaia poruka (joint responsibility), they had to act together to ensure that taxes were paid and recruits delivered as necessary to the army. If one household failed to pay its taxes the others had to make up the difference; similarly, if a recruit from one household deserted or proved unfit for military service, a young man from another household had to be sent instead. The forum in which decisions were taken was the skhod or village assembly, in which each household was represented by its head, usually an older male. One of them would be elected as the starosta, the ‘elder’, responsible for seeing that decisions were implemented, and for conducting relations with the ‘big man’, or more usually his steward. Under the supervision of the local ‘big man’, village communities thus delivered basic state functions at minimal cost to the state. The essence of the system was joint responsibility plus the mediation of authority through powerful persons.

In order to ensure that every household had enough resources for subsistence and for the discharge of these obligations, it was the custom in many regions of Russia for the skhod periodically to redistribute all or some of the strips of land at the disposal of the community. Families that had grown in size would receive more land – but also pay more taxes; families whose members had died or left the village would have land taken away – but would also pay lower taxes.

The system had many advantages. Joint responsibility (krugovaia poruka) minimised risk in a part of the world where agriculture could be marginal. It enabled the Russian state and the service nobles to carry out their functions with minimal expenditure and without even, in most cases, providing granaries and other facilities for times of dearth. On the whole it also guaranteed Russian peasants a modicum of land and kept them reasonably well-fed. The British Empire, by contrast, was built on a system of individual responsibility and individual property which worked out badly for the poor, many of whom were deprived of their land in the enclosures and some of whom finished their days in the workhouse.

Joint responsibility had profound implications for Russians’ outlook on most aspects of life: economics, law, property and authority. It encouraged a mentality which prioritised the minimisation and redistribution of risk and entailed a considerable degree of mutual dependency. The sense of private property and of individual responsibility before the law was weak. Villagers took a direct interest in each others’ affairs, since deviant behaviour in any one household might affect all the others. This had its good and bad sides. On the one hand, they would offer aid to a household going through a crisis – an illness, a fire, theft; on the other, they would maintain a constant background of inquisitive and sometimes malicious gossip. Deviations from the norm were regarded with suspicion, since they might get the whole village into trouble. Peasant households were not equal, but the more affluent had to share much with the poor, and there were many functions of rural life which compelled them to cooperate: access to common lands, the pasturing of livestock, social welfare facilities, the upkeep of roads, bridges and stores. Both poverty and wealth were frowned on: the indigent were a burden on the community, and the wealthy were suspected of having no real stake in it and of engaging in crooked practices which might cause problems for them all. As a popular saying had it, ‘Wealth is a sin before God; poverty is a sin before one’s fellow villagers.’

This system was remarkably successful. The basic functions of government were carried out. Non-Russians could be integrated into the empire by utilising their own personal power structures; often the indigenous elite would be coopted into the Russian nobility. The Russian Empire was one of the largest and most diverse in the history of the world. And Russia avoided the fate suffered by China, India, the Ottoman Empire and Persia of becoming dominated or even ruled over by Europeans.

From the mid-nineteenth century, however, starting with defeat in the Crimean War, the disadvantages of the system became more apparent. Other European nations had laws that better protected the individual, while their governments ran more penetrative and efficient systems of administration and taxation; they were industrialising and urbanising nation-states, able to mobilise potentially all their young men for war and provide them with the latest weapons. Russia seemed by contrast backward, its laws and institutions haphazard, its industry under-productive.

The reforms introduced by Alexander II in the 1860s aimed to make Russian society more like those of Europe. The keystone was the abolition of serfdom. This gave peasants new rights, for example, to engage in the market, to hire out their labour power, to buy and sell property and to participate in local government above the level of the village. It also, however, deprived the nobles of their power over the peasants, which had hitherto been a vital link in the empire’s capacity to mobilise resources. The government tried to fill that gap by creating law codes and new institutions – elected local government, law courts, schools and universities, a relatively free press, a conscript army, a national bank, a stock exchange. This was modernisation, and it meant urbanisation, industrialisation, the spread of a monetary economy, and conspicuous social polarisation. These abrupt changes provoked powerful demands from below, from workers and peasants, who valued their new opportunities, but were also vulnerable to exploitation in the more active, market-driven society created by the changes. They were glad to buy and sell land, yet they also assumed that a basic minimum of land was their birthright, a resource to fall back on in times of crisis. They were trying to rediscover a lost social solidarity and to re-affirm their human dignity in a new world where traditional forms had been fatally disrupted. These challenges could no longer be contained within the framework of the tsarist state – though it took a world war to weaken it fatally.

In 1917 the Bolshevik revolutionaries encouraged workers, peasants and soldiers to overthrow the exploiters who had done so well out of the post-1860 arrangements, and to recreate their own self-governing institutions – now in the form of Soviets – and to run their own affairs. At least they did so as long as was necessary to ensure the overthrow of the old regime and its shadowy successor, the Provisional Government. Then, however, the Bolsheviks, now renamed Communists, imposed their own power network on those new institutions. Paradoxically, in the name of modernising, the Soviet Union restored the practices of personally mediated power, albeit in a very different form from those which had existed prior to the 1860s.

The foundation of the new ‘power vertical’ (as President Putin would later call it) was the nomenklatura system, under which all senior and responsible appointments were made in the state, the party, the armed forces, the professions, industry, agriculture, education – in fact in every branch of the economy. Party committees at all levels were instructed to keep up-to-date lists of employees suitable for responsible positions when they should fall vacant. That way the party could control all significant personnel appointments.

The core of the nomenklatura network consisted of Bolsheviks of worker-peasant origin, who had given their lives to the party and had formed their closest personal ties during the revolution and civil war. The comrades with whom they had shared broth round a bivouac fire became their closest associates in civilian life too. When a leading Bolshevik was appointed to a responsible administrative post in party or state he naturally invited his comrades to join him for advice and support, as the people he knew best and trusted. The nomenklatura system offered the perfect instrument for that purpose. Over the following decades party committees at all levels appointed their own associates and clients to all responsible positions, including those that were nominally elective. In essence, this meant that the local party secretary appointed his own favourites, though always with an eye to the information on those nomenklatura files, some of which came from the security police. The upper-level official networks formed in this fashion symptomatically became known as ‘cadres’. Lower down, aspirant young people who needed higher education and a first job had to work hard at assigned politico-social tasks and fill in forms presenting their biographies in as attractive a light as possible, ready to go into those card-index files.

The Communist Party general secretary thus presided over the apex of an elaborate complex of card-index files reaching down to small town and village levels, whose information was constantly being replenished. The Communists might be trying to create a great new society, in which poverty and oppression would be forever eliminated. But they could not manage without personal fiefdoms reminiscent of Tsarist serfdom. The contrast between the great aim and the humble, even sordid means, helped to generate the supremely destructive crisis we normally call the ‘great terror’. Stalin as general secretary could not personally oversee all responsible appointments throughout the Soviet Union. For all his efforts, party secretaries lower down were busy filling the posts under their aegis with their own cronies. In the absence of any autonomous institutions effecting independent scrutiny from within their localities, together they were diverting funds to build themselves pleasant apartments and woodland dachas, to provide themselves with high-quality cars and a regular supply of good food – all this at a time when housing, transport and bread were desperately scarce. Such local power cliques were not oppositional, but they did want to protect themselves from the perennial and apparently ineradicable shortages afflicting everyone else, and they had a shared interest in putting up a common smoke-screen to shield themselves from the prying eyes of their superiors.

In 1936-9 Stalin endeavoured to re-establish control by unleashing the NKVD on these local patron-client networks – and on some of their supreme patrons at the apex of the hierarchy too. This was a fundamental reason for the great terror, which soon took on a dynamic of its own. Rival patron-client networks fought each other with the weapons of police terror, which included prisons, labour camps and murder in the cellars of the Lubianka. Stalin exercised general supervision over the whole process, and often determined individual victims by signing lists brought to him each morning. But it transpired that he could not eradicate the recalcitrant networks, since they were inherent in the Communist system. He could murder individuals, but he could not overcome the paradoxical and destructive dynamic of personal power harnessed to a messianic cause. The nomenklatura elite as a body ultimately defeated and outlasted him.

As a result, everyone had to find a place, however modest, on the nomenklatura ladder, or be condemned to poverty and utter marginality. The various places of employment – factories, workshops, schools, collective and state farms, shops, transport undertakings, state and party offices – became nodes for the distribution of life opportunities. One’s housing, health care, recreation, the education of one’s children, even the supply of goods in the local shops, depended wholly or in part on the relationship with the monopoly employer. Yet that employer also depended on his workforce to fulfil the output plan laid down by the state. This was, once again, collective responsibility plus the mediation of authority through powerful persons: krugovaia poruka in a new form. Intermediate institutions were weak or non-existent, and the defence of individual freedom through the rule of law was as deficient as ever.

The post-Stalin leaders decided to downgrade the role of terror in political control and instead to give the mass of the people a greater stake in the system. Khrushchev went so far as to denounce Stalin’s terror as itself a deviation, caused by the ‘cult of personality’, from which the country was now returning to the ‘correct’ Leninist path. There were two main prongs to the desired transformation. One was to satisfy the people’s material needs, above all by putting more food in the shops, providing more consumer goods and building millions of individual family apartments. The other was to encourage the ‘withering away of the state’ by fostering ‘social self-administration.’

The key role in ‘social self-administration’ was to be played by the kollektiv, the workplace collective – and in the case of communal apartments the domestic collective too – each headed by its own aktiv of zealous, competent and public-spirited individuals. The kollektiv was to do the job of enthusing its own members and monitoring their conduct and performance. ‘Comrades courts’ were to take over from the judiciary the task of dealing with minor crimes and misdemeanours, imposing fines or unpaid labour in place of prison sentences. ‘People’s patrols’ (dobrovol’nye narodnye druzhiny) were to relieve the police of some of their burdens in preventing street ‘hooliganism’ and providing cover for big sports events. In this way terror was to be replaced by the social pressure of neighbours and colleagues.

Instituting this system meant that the Soviet leaders had accepted a measure of defeat in their efforts to control the activities of the population, or even of their own party-state officials, through coercion and terror. They had decided to hand over much of their authority to the collectives of ‘joint responsibility’ which their regime had inherited and had inadvertently consolidated. Surveillance would now be mutual rather than hierarchical. Since the primary collective continued to provide access to the scarce material benefits of life, it could easily regulate much of the behaviour of its members and discipline or extrude those who did not conform. This applied throughout the social hierarchy, from collective farms to the departments of research institutes. Aleksandr Zinov’ev, a mathematician from the Institute of Philosophy, characterised the resulting communal way of life: ‘At the level of the primary collective people not only work, they spend time in the company of people they know well. They swap news, entertain themselves, do all kinds of things to preserve and improve their position, have contacts with people on whom their well-being depends, go to innumerable meetings, get their vacation vouchers, living space and supplementary foodstuffs.’ Such a collective could be relied on to keep its members in order and to discipline or even expel those who did not fit in. The security police (now known as the KGB) was still needed as a back-up, but no longer as an automatic first line of defence, which it had been under Stalin.

The measures the leaders considered necessary to end mass terror thus did not consolidate the rule of law, but rather strengthened ‘joint responsibility’ once again. To obtain the good things of life, one went not to the market, which could not deliver, but rather to one’s friends and colleagues, or one appealed to the ‘big man’ at one’s workplace. One secured one’s future and defended one’s interests, not through insurance contracts, bank deposits or law courts, but by the same personalised methods.

That is the system which collapsed with the end of the Soviet Union. Yet parts of it are still recognisable, and are even being propped up and restored as the men from the ‘power ministries’ take control of major sectors of the economy. Once again power and ownership are poorly demarcated from each other, and employees look to the ‘big man’ to protect them and secure them life’s benefits.

Today, however, this is not the only game in town. Russians are incomparably more open to the outside world than they were fifteen years ago. Many of them have travelled abroad and taken employment there. They are much more accustomed to financial and legal instruments and to concepts associated with the rule of law. Banks and law courts are beginning to function ‘normally’, at least where the direct interests of the ‘power ministries’ or the business oligarchs are not at stake. The tension between ‘joint responsibility’ and the rule of law is being played out right now, and the outcome will determine Russia’s future.

This essay originally appeared under the title Power and the People of Russia in On Russia: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2008


Geoffrey Hosking