John Anderson reviews ‘Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order’ by David G. Lewis

10 August 2020

By John Anderson

John Anderson reviews David G. Lewis, Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020)

Earlier this summer, the Russian electorate took part in an ‘All-Russian vote’ on amendments to the 1993 Constitution. These amendments were sold as reinforcing traditional values (notably via the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman), introducing (allegedly) checks and balances on presidential power, providing more social guarantees and defending Russian sovereignty at home and abroad. The headline change, however, was the ‘reset of the clock’ on presidential terms, that could mean Vladimir Putin serving an additional two six year terms if he cannot find an acceptable successor. 

The ‘referendum’ was delayed by the onset of Covid-19, there was no serious campaigning, and considerably more electoral malpractice than in previous elections – my favourite image coming from a convent where the nuns lined up to vote in the sunshine on a table in front of their ecclesiastical superiors. Needless to say, the whole package was formally approved. Yet in some ways it was a rather pointless exercise, and was not constitutionally required – the amendments had already been approved by the requisite majorities in parliament – and printed copies of the approved constitution were on sale before the people had finished voting. 

All of which begs the question, ‘why bother’? David Lewis does not answer the question directly, but his book gives us another way of thinking about the nature of the Russian polity which might help us towards an explanation. He draws upon the writings of controversial German legal theorist, anti-Semite and Nazi supporter, Carl Schmitt, a man referenced by Russian ultra-conservative writers with varying degrees of approval. There are many things we could discuss in this rich and thought-provoking book, but the focus here will be on the domestic aspects, in particular on Schmitt’s thinking about sovereignty, and his stress on the ‘friend/enemy’ distinction, and the insights these offer into Putin’s particular brand of conservative authoritarianism. 

In Schmitt, the sovereign is almost above politics, the person who in times of trouble acts decisively, who takes steps beyond normal politics to defend the political community. He is the person who, in Schmitt’s words, can when necessary declare a ‘state of exception.’ Over the last decade, the word ‘sovereignty’ has featured rather heavily in the Russian political lexicon, domestically with the emphasis on ‘sovereign democracy’ and, externally, with reference to Russia’s right to act without reference to the Western powers. There has also been much talk of ‘cultural’ and ‘spiritual sovereignty’, most obvious in the promotion of ‘traditional values’ as trumping the claimed universalism of Western liberalism. This has also been evident in Putin’s attempt to portray himself as the voice of the ordinary majority, protecting the country against the alien values of a few corrupted by an external world.    

According to Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, ‘in each society there is a majority that is the bearer of general moral values and rules which secure peace and stability in that society’ and ‘legal normativity should take this into account.’ For this reason, Zorkin believes that the role of his court is to consider both ‘the spirit of the Constitution and the spirit of life.’ In practice, this means the spirit of life as interpreted by the sovereign. In similar vein, Schmitt sees the most important thing for a political community as not the sham democracy or liberal institutions, but ‘a democratic identity of governed and governing.’ In this scenario authority, ultimately resides in the sovereign, who does what is needed to preserve the political community in accordance with the spirit of the country. In the Russian case people sometimes speak of a court with Putin as the figurehead, but in official narratives it is much more personalist. Putin made much of the fact that, whilst a small group discussed the Crimean issue in late February 2014, he alone took the decision to annex the peninsula – albeit not announcing the decision till a week or so of closely watching opinion poll data on the issue. Addressing the nation ten days before the 2020 vote, Putin suggested that the absolute majority of the population would support him – perhaps seeing himself as a personification of the general will.

 For Schmitt, political communities are not formed by the state through legal citizenship, nor are they necessarily formed by ethnic belonging. Instead they are shaped by a simple binary, the identification of a distinction between friend and enemy, a distinction that weak liberal democratic states have forgotten or deny. The ‘political enemy’ is the other, the stranger, something alien and existentially different, and this has been evident in much of recent political discourse. It may be religious ‘extremists’ like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, historians not accepting the official version of history, gay activists and feminists, protestors on the streets, or investigative journalists. Each is denounced in turn and the State Duma, sometimes with no prompting from, but with de facto Kremlin support, produces laws to tackle these ‘threats’. It is also evident in the notion of the ‘fifth column’, which has variously included Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev, Boris Yeltsin, Egor Gaidar and most human rights activists who are increasingly denounced as ‘foreign agents,’ who wittingly or unwittingly work for foreign powers. 

Explaining why a national vote was necessary, Putin said it was necessary to make the constitutional changes legitimate, in Schmitt’s vision seeing it as a means of reinforcing the sense of identification with the people that he relies on. Yet many of the people, not just the usual suspects, couldn’t quite see the point of it, and analyzing the ‘results’ is an almost meaningless exercise. Officially around 68% of the electorate voted and 78% supported the changes, though one Russian analyst suggests that it could have been as low as 40% with two thirds supporting the changes to the constitution. If true, that would mean around 28% of the electorate supported the amendments. The Kremlin must know that there was no overwhelming enthusiasm for this exercise, that this was no glorious affirmation of popular unity, and this perhaps helps to explain the wave of ‘revenge’ searches and arrests following the vote. In 2017 book, The Rebirth of the Russian Leviathan, Sergei Medvedev also referenced Schmitt in explaining the Russian polity, but then came to the paradoxical conclusion that ‘the more power the Kremlin holds, the less sovereignty Russia has’. Or, as Lewis’s excellent book concludes, the attempt to construct political order ‘descended into an illusory search for absolute sovereignty that resulted both in an increasingly destabilizing Russian foreign policy and growing repression and discontent at home.’  

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