15 September 2022
by Sergei Lukashevsky, acting director of the Sakharov Centre and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
After the Russian army’s massive defeat in Kharkov Oblast, “ultra-patriotic” Telegram channels have spewed out heart-rending indignation at the regime’s actions and ferocious criticism of the political and military leadership, up to and including Putin. Meanwhile, the official propaganda on federal channels has continued to radiate self-confidence, as if nothing special had happened. This kind of polyphony, if I may put it that way, demonstrates an important characteristic of the Putin regime’s makeup.
It is not totalitarian. It brings together a chaotic web of diverse actors and groups that have come to serve it for the most diverse reasons. Some out of careerist and selfish considerations, and some have their own ideological and even political agenda they hope to push through once they insert themselves into administrative, media, and other structures of the regime. To one degree or another, this applies to many of the regime’s components. This kind of approach has allowed it to react flexibly to challenges and avoid the rigidity that brought down the USSR.
Generally speaking, Putin creates the impression of someone who has precisely articulated the mistakes of the Soviet regime for himself and does not want to repeat them. After his own, dictatorial, fashion, of course.
We see a rational financial policy, preservation of market relations, at least at the lower level, as well as the absence of a rigid ideological skeleton and the presence of flexible propaganda. His flexibility has been provided by, among others, a “swarm” of outsourced bloggers. From individuals to Prigozhin’s “troll factories.” Strict control over them is impossible, not even suggested.
When the situation was relatively calm, when the regime was steadily chewing up everything alive, free, and independent in the country, that kind of system worked beautifully. In a crisis situation, the system’s internal contradictions cause imbalance and intensify the crisis.
The simplest solution for Putin seems to be a shift to totalitarian methods of governance. Which is essentially what the “ultra-patriots” are fighting for, calling on him to switch the country to mobilization rails. In reality, though, this can’t be done.
Originally, Stalin built Soviet industry like a war machine. The Party’s pervasive power (without it, total control over society is impossible) got put into place gradually, over a course of at least 10 years.
And what is possibly most important is that a system like that could be directed only when administrative processes were simpler. It’s one thing to oversee a dozen workers at a workbench — to issue a piece of metal and measurements and collect the finished details. It’s a completely different thing to have the same number of IT specialists supporting a modern information system.
A shift to totalitarianism is also a reform. The principles of governance and oversight change. Any massive reform is fraught with disorganization. While that is going on, changes cannot be made throughout the organization of the country and society all at once. Consequently, the system’s “new” elements will come up directly against the old ones and inevitably conflict.
Nonetheless, Putin could decide to take that step. Or separate steps. Under pressure from the military, law enforcement, “ultra-patriots,” or his own fear. More than likely, this would mean the beginning of the regime’s swift end.
However, it is much more likely that he will continue to act within the framework of the familiar system. So that “ultra-patriots” can expect ever increasing disappointment. And what’s important here is whether they will decide to move into consistent opposition and start planning an uprising or something similar. And whether Putin will be able to cope with this threat to his authority, i.e., start repressions against a segment of his base. It is also likely that radical imperialists and nationalists will find that their public support is much lower than they imagine it in their fantasies. The reaction of the “squishy” loyal segment of society to calls for mobilization have been more than negative.
Actually, I don’t feel sorry for Putin or the radicals. I feel sorry for the ordinary people (even if they are behaving like conciliators when it comes to war). But they’re all going to have to confront the inevitable.
Of course, another scenario is still possible. The system could hold on to the end of military action, after which a period would ensue of slow-downs, degradation, and gradual “totalitarianization” under China’s protection. But after recent events, that scenario seems increasingly less likely to me.
Translated by Marian Schwartz