Blog post

The Crisis Is Sure to Come as a Surprise

Writing in 2010, Dmitrii Furman predicted that the 'imitation democracies' set up in post-Soviet countries would not last long. 

Dmitrii Furman29 June 2023

The Crisis Is Sure to Come as a Surprise

There are powerful contradictions intrinsic to the system of imitation democracy. Over time, they deepen until they precipitate a crisis of the system, in which it is destroyed. First is the contradiction between authoritarian ‘content’ and democratic ‘form’. The system remains firmly in place so long as this contradiction continues unrecognized. But, unfolding within the framework of the system, the whole natural evolution of that system, like that of the society developing within the system’s framework, is that the contradiction increasingly ‘comes to the surface’.

The logic by which the system develops transforms the elections into a fiction, a ritual. The elections of 1991 were really free and really ‘fateful’. The elections of 1996 too could be called ‘fateful’. Although Yeltsin was objectively running as a no-alternative candidate, participants could see their own vote as the result of a free, even laboured decision. A certain spontaneity and incomplete predictability of results persisted even to 2000. But by 2004 and 2008, the elections were broadly understood not to be elections at all. Nobody could possibly doubt the outcome. They had never provoked protests, and no longer aroused any interest in anyone. Psychologically, their significance approached that of Soviet electoral ritual.

At the peak of the system’s development, the president’s popular- ity camouflages the contradiction between the very idea of elections and the actual no-alternative nature of the results. To continue in this way indefinitely, however, is not possible. The 70 per cent of votes received by Putin in 2004 and by Medvedev in 2008 is, clearly, the most a candidate could possibly receive without massive, open fraud (this only happened in certain places, like Chechnya) on a scale impossible to hide.

But the solidity of any power depends on its society’s recognition of its legitimacy, on the right of rulers to power. The senility that came over the USSR near its end grew precisely from a loss of faith in the ideology that had legitimized the Soviet system. In systems of imitation democracy, as in the democracies they imitate, power can be legitimized only through election by the people. To maintain the feeling of its legitimacy requires maintaining the illusion of election by the people. Therefore, the complete exclusion of society from the process of transferring supreme power, the ritualization of elections, and the falsification of their results inexorably lead to the delegitimization of power, and thus to the collapse of the system. It may seem to those in power that 70 per cent of the vote is better than 60 per cent and worse than 80 per cent, but the reality is that 80 per cent would mean an end was rapidly approaching.

The delegitimization process I am describing is one aspect of the system’s evolution in the descending stage. The very logic of the system’s development hastens its natural end. But this delegitimization is accelerated by processes of societal development taking place independently of the system’s evolution. If the system’s evolution leads to elections becoming ever more fictitious, then the society’s evolution will be such that the ability to perceive this fictitiousness grows all the stronger. Russian society, for now, is mainly composed of people who lived under Soviet power and grew acclimated to totalitarian conditions, who may well see an imitation democracy system that is significantly freer than the Soviet system as authentically democratic (indeed, in many cases ‘too democratic’). For many older Russians raised in the Soviet era, the ritual of voting for power has become normative, and voting for the opposition or to reapportion power is psychologically impossible. But that generation is on its way out, and the younger generations are growing up under different circumstances. They will not so readily as their parents perceive imitation democracy as real.

Thus, there are two natural countercurrents. In one direction lies the ritualization of elections, the tearing down of the system’s democratic façade, which has become less and less convincing. In the other direction lies the evolution of society to be less and less deceived by this façade. At some point, these two currents will inevitably collide, and the imitation democracy system will become impossible to maintain.

Atrophy of Feedback Mechanisms

Power’s tightening control over society also means a gradual ‘atrophying’ of feedback from society. Power continually closes off all the channels through which it might receive information about what is really going on.

The elections cease to offer a realistic picture of public sentiment. The media offer an increasingly distorted view that eventually bears no resemblance to reality at all. Criticism of the authorities in mass media becomes exceptionally rare. This has two consequences.

Firstly, the process of changing public consciousness does not immediately break the surface of public life; it takes place in the deeper layers of that consciousness, captured neither by elections nor by polls. Disappointments and irritations pile up imperceptibly, until at some point they inevitably break through the higher, ‘conformist’ layers of the consciousness – just as happened at the end of the Soviet era, when it only took a few years to transition from 99 per cent of the vote going to the ‘bloc of Communists and non-partisans’ and an overall ‘support for the Party line’ recorded in (authentic) surveys to the complete, bloodless liquidation of the CPSU and the USSR. Only a slight push is needed for a mass of individual, vague, suppressed negative feelings to suddenly find general and open expression. As the system evolves, the size of the push needed to do this continually decreases – a jolt the young organism barely feels can prove fatal for the older one.

Secondly, power is immersed in a world of illusion. All the real opponents with which it must reckon vanish (the only ones left are foreign powers, naturally increasing the sense of the outside world’s hostility). Like their Soviet forebears, those in power begin to believe their own propaganda. They listen only to the experts who tell them what they want to hear, deepening the illusion. Warning signals no longer reach them (the ones from the special services do not count – Soviet history has already demonstrated their inability to register actual dangers in the late stages of the system’s development). They can no longer anticipate the results of their own actions or sense when they may be leading toward unforeseen eruptions – like those caused by the 2005 monetization of social benefits, or the attempt in 2008 to ban right-hand-driving cars in Vladivostok – and to unanticipated international complications and economic losses, as in the gas conflict with Ukraine at the turn of 2008 and 2009. As the force needed to nudge them into disintegration decreases, the chance that those in power will produce it through their own actions accordingly rises.

Reality does manage to penetrate the minds of the rulers, but it does so in a distorted, mythological form. Power’s vague fears about uncontrolled and incomprehensible processes being played out gets enveloped in the ramped-up struggle against foreign threats and ‘subversive elements’ – threats are always less intimidating when they are external and visible than invisible, mysterious, and vaguely felt. This adds to the inadequacy of power’s response. In the Soviet period, power drowned out its fears of invisible, obscure forces by amassing missiles, waging war in Afghanistan, and ensuring it had hundreds, if not thousands, of KGB operatives for every dissident. Now power is assembling a massive OMON force against a handful of ‘dissenters’, stirring constant conflict with its neighbours, fighting in Georgia, and deploying warships to the Caribbean. Power cannot turn this natural process back, and its struggle against external apparitions and mythic threats only hastens it.

Outwardly, total control over society, the attainment of complete predictability in the sphere of formal public political activity, becomes its own opposite – a total lack of control and predictability. No one knows where or why local explosions of public protest like those in Kondopoga or Vladivostok will break out, or how real is the danger of various private and local forms of protest merging into a broader kind of ‘trouble’. No one knows what will happen in the North Caucasus. No one, including the members of the tandem themselves, knows how long it will last or what its end will be.

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Social Mobility ‘in the Bureaucratic Style’

Another natural process that weakens power and, in the end, leads to the destruction of the system is the establishment, and eventual dominance, of a specifically bureaucratic form of social mobility.

The era of ‘chaos’ from the late eighties to the early nineties was also one of new elevators of social mobility, an age of quicksilver careers and the emergence in public life of people who made it to the top neither through bureaucratic means nor at the will of the ‘bosses’ – parvenus of the most varied kinds and sensibilities (from Sakharov to Zhirinovsky, Lebed to Berezovsky). It was an era of personalities who were not always appealing, but were strong and colourful – of personalities like those on Viktor Shenderovich’s TV show, Kukly (Puppets). But it is now long past.

The establishment of power’s ever-stronger control over society is at the same time a widening of the range of responsibilities and social positions whose allocation will be determined by the higher- ups, ultimately by the president. Under Putin, the size of Russia’s bureaucratic apparatus eclipses that of the entire USSR. This is about more than just the number of officials – crucially, the mechanisms of bureaucratic mobility extend to spheres not formally related to the apparatus of the bureaucracy itself. The rectors of large universities started to be appointed by the president, as was the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Formally elected posts, like parliamentary seats, came to be de facto appointments.

Mechanisms of selection, ‘career filters’, and ‘career elevators’ under the bureaucratic system of mobility were set up quite differently than under other systems of mobility (based on the market, science, and so on) or in the system of political mobility defined by democratic competition for votes. Pleasing the bosses demands a totally different set of qualities than pleasing the people. When the sphere of public democratic politics contracts, people capable of such politics disappear from the elite. On its own, this kind of change in the elite’s dominant personalities does not always mean their deterioration in quality. Demagogue-populists, who rise high in huge numbers in young, ‘unestablished’ democracies (and in young imitation democracies), as happened here at the turn of the nineties, differ totally from bureaucratic careerists – though they are hardly better or smarter. The democratic mobility model does not presuppose the systematic elevation of increasingly intellectually and morally weak people. The demagogues and madmen that are characteristic of young, unestablished democracies and ‘periods of transition’ often disappear. But in an authoritarian society with a corresponding bureaucratic system of mobility, the principle of ‘survival of the weakest’ is constantly at work.

Bosses making appointments can never really escape the fear that their subordinates might ‘steal their jobs’ by appealing over their heads. They aim to be surrounded by compliant and controllable people, the kind who will make them look smarter and more capable by comparison. Bureaucratic social mobility therefore tends to promote more and more faceless drones to the top. The quality of the bureaucratically recruited elite steadily deteriorates, and the continued action of the mechanisms of bureaucracy has disastrous consequences for the quality of the elite overall.

This thesis beautifully illustrates the gradual intellectual and moral decline of the Soviet elite from Lenin to Chernenko.

This natural process took place again on the post-Soviet coil of the spiral under Yeltsin, who constantly ‘eliminated’ every rival or anyone capable of becoming one, or simply anyone whose personality made them uncontrollable and capable of offering resistance to any of his decisions (this was a hugely varied group – Rutskoy, Khas- bulatov, Burbulis, Gaidar, Lebed, Chernomyrdin). Under Putin, this process continued at an accelerated pace, to the point where it became apparent even to the mass television audience, sparking jokes about ‘Putin’s vegetables’ – and quite possibly stoking some anxiety for Putin and his successor. It clearly happens faster in our current system than it did under the Soviet one. This is true for two reasons: firstly, because the contemporary elite has been tremendously continuous with the late Soviet elite, leading to the inheritance of many who were already highly ‘degenerated’ by years of Soviet bureaucratic selection; and secondly, because through the Soviet period, even the late Soviet period, there remained at least some ideological motivation behind appointments and career trajectories – a motivation now almost completely absent.

The elite are deteriorating in quality not only because of the particular nature of bureaucratic mobility, but also because of the corruption that always abounds in systems of imitation democracy. Corruption plays a role in these systems different from the one it plays in real democracies and various kinds of nondemocracies (open military dictatorships, traditional monarchies, and so on) that are less marked by the gulf between legal form and illegal content. Departures from the law by those in power pursuing personal ambitions are closely tied to the very essence of the system, insofar as no-alternative power under the operation of formally democratic norms can be achieved only illegally or, at most, quasi-legally. The key form of corruption is control over the elections. But clearly, if the violation of the highest constitutional norms is in principle required for the system to function, the possibilities for limiting corruption will be minimal. It is no coincidence that corruption was steadily on the rise throughout the Putin era – it developed in parallel with the expansion of power’s control over society. The same force has driven his successor to worriedly pursue anti-corruption measures.

A docile, faceless, corrupt elite without initiative is ideal for authoritarian power acting in conditions of stability-‘stagnation’. An elite of this kind cannot become ideologically oppositional. It knows solidarity only in a weakened form. Power will always keep its individual members in check when they rebel, whatever the reason. The elite will never fail to pay their ‘tribute’ in good order (for local authorities, this means the ‘correct’ distribution of electoral results; for the owners of major media outlets, the ‘correct’ coverage of events; for judges, the ‘correct’ judicial decisions; for oligarchs, it simply means money), receiving ‘indulgences’ in return for their corruption. It is highly characteristic that Putin, having become prime minister, promptly warned his young president against making changes in personnel too quickly. However little the current elite may be to his liking, they are optimal for maintaining stability and control. And yet they are ill suited to any purpose that requires ideological motivation, dedication, discipline coupled with independent decision-making, or persuasiveness. In a crisis, such an elite is useless, eager to flee the sinking ship – to which it is bound by nothing but personal interests – as fast as it can. At the end of the Soviet period, the de-ideologized and degraded late Soviet elite mounted only the most pitiful resistance to the anti-Communist revolution and fled quickly to the camp of the democrats. The even more de-ideologized and degraded post-Soviet elite, when power faces a real threat again, will surely put up even less resistance.

The Only Ideology Is Guaranteeing Loyalty

Unlike the Soviet system, the current, post-Soviet system has no ideological (or mythological) goals of its own, like building Communism or assuring the victory of socialism around the globe. The goals that felt real at the start of Soviet development, spurring both the authorities and millions of everyday people to action, had lost their motivating significance by the end of the Soviet period. But even during this period, through sheer inertia, those same ideals gave a certain consistency and logic to the authorities’ conduct, both internally and internationally.

In the early days of the post-Soviet system, a somewhat similar role was fulfilled by the notion of building an advanced democratic market society and ‘returning to global civilization’. But the actual course of development did not lead in the direction of democracy at all, and this goal quickly fell away. The behaviour of those in power, and the course of the system’s development, were driven in practice by the pursuit of no-alternative power and the return of the order and controllability that had been lost at the start of the nineties. But once these goals were achieved, it turned out, they disappeared from the system altogether, like the prospect of development itself. There was no clear image of Russia’s political future, let alone a clear plan of action for achieving it. Power could neither claim that the system of no-alternative presidents transferring power to chosen successors was ideal for Russia (or ideal as such) nor admit that it was a faulty system careening toward inevitable crisis and fated someday to collapse and give way to actual democracy. It was doomed to inconsistency and incoherence in words and thoughts. The absence of any electoral platforms from Putin or Medvedev, along with their refusal to debate policy with rivals (or quasi rivals), symbolized not only their preference for traditional, monarchic loyalty (the tsar does not debate policy with his subjects) but also the fact that they truly had no plans for the future more concrete than warm wishes for an advanced, prosperous, strong Russia. All that motivated their actions was the simple desire for the preservation of the system, for ‘stability’, for the assurance that the future would be just like the present. This declaration of stability as a goal unto itself is what ‘stagnation’ consists of, and it emerged much earlier in the history of the post- Soviet state than in that of its Soviet antecedent.

Politics boiled down to ensuring and testing the loyalty of bureaucrats and oligarchs. The only other thing required of those groups was the suppression of any spontaneous public actions that might lead to destabilization. The president (or, now, the tandem of president and prime minister) found himself at the head of a massive ‘clan’-like system of patron-client relations covering the entire society, and his primary job was looking after its stability.

But whenever the purpose of control is to ensure stability and loyalty, it inevitably gets reduced to mere form, as happened in the late Soviet period. We see this very clearly, for example, in the Kremlin’s attitude toward regional authorities. In the late Soviet period, supreme power was totally content with the unconditional loyalty offered by the leaders of the republics, whom it thus allowed to freely build their own systems of clientelistic hierarchy. Internally independent, ‘autonomous’ systems of power arose, headed by the Rashidovs, Kunayevs, Bodiuls, and so forth. Moscow was too afraid to touch them, lest they ‘destabilize’ the situation. Precisely the same thing is happening now. Outwardly, extreme centralism is being combined with the impossibility of actual change and the no-alternative systems of Luzhkov, Rakhimov, Shaimiev, and Ilyumzhinov. Of the completely self-reliant power of the Kadyrov dynasty, which totally disregards Russian law but pledges its loyalty as Moscow’s vassal, there is nothing to be said. The position of the loyal oligarchs, who can count on the authorities to come to their rescue whenever things get difficult, is also stable – because they are already under control, and because if any of them were to fall and be replaced by someone new, there would be a risk of ‘destabilization’ and other dangers. Power is fettered by its fear of destabilizing the situation. This can be seen especially clearly now in the ‘tandem’, where Medvedev, who is working to liberalize the system somewhat, has decided he can do so only by baby steps. The total centralization and near omnipotence of presidential power, absent other goals, turns into powerlessness.

Having progressed swiftly through a romantic period of revolutionary formation, outrunning chaos, constructing an authoritarian order, and reaching maturity – that is, the state of maximum possible control – the system plunged into a period of purely inert existence, similar to the period of stagnation in the Soviet development cycle. In the second ‘coil of the spiral’, this happened much faster than it did in the first. The mature stage is followed by sclerotic senescence and the approach of the ‘final crisis’.

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The Crisis Is Sure to Come as a Surprise

As it ‘grows old’, an organism becomes increasingly fragile, less and less capable of resistance. Considering this, we can predict a future crisis with 100 per cent certainty. The idea that our quasi dynasty can continue indefinitely – A names B as a successor, B gets a majority of votes in the elections, B names C as a successor, and so on – can be rejected out of hand.

But it is impossible to predict the form this crisis will take or when it will begin. It depends on many factors we cannot calculate. There is no telling how the current economic crisis will end, or how it will impact us. (To some degree, of course, we can assume it will hasten a systemic crisis, but there is no direct connection here.) A great deal will depend on how unpredictable events unfold in the unstable sphere of Medvedev and Putin’s relations, totally concealed from the public and confined to a narrow stratum within the Kremlin elite.

The experience of other systems of this ‘species’ speaks to the eventuality of a lethal crisis that always seems to ‘creep up unnoticed’. Its unexpectedness is intrinsic to systems where power gets no feedback from the public, where false alarms ring out constantly but warnings of real danger never arrive. Nonetheless, we can say some- thing about this future crisis and the forms the fall of this system is likely to take.

The most desirable form of development, of course, would be a ‘revolution from above’ – a deliberate dismantling of the system and a managed transition to democracy similar to what Gorbachev attempted in the USSR. Hopes for such a process have been awakened by the democratic statements the new president has made. Gorbachev’s reforms by no means represented the vision of Soviet societal development likeliest to be realized, and the ‘Gorbachev model’ cannot be called a success. All the same, if Gorbachev was unable to forestall revolutionary chaos, his reforms clearly helped minimize that chaos, and saved us from more frightening possibilities. Even in the most optimistic vision of the successful and conscientious implementation of Gorbachev’s reforms, crises relating to the first rotation of power and the centrifugal processes of the USSR would have lain ahead. But Gorbachevian dismantling of the system ‘from above’ seems even less likely in contemporary Russia than it was in the late Soviet period.

The task of transition from a system of imitation democracy to one of actual democracy seems relatively simple – certainly far simpler than the transition from Communism to democracy. It requires dismantling and restructuring on a far smaller scale – the market and private property already exist (albeit in limited and inferior form), there is no totalitarian ideology to be reckoned with, and even the Constitution can be let alone at first. But we also face specific challenges here. Precisely because the task before Gorbachev was such a complex one, he could take his time dismantling and ‘restructuring’ the system, achieving and preserving tremendous personal popularity and support and encountering little in the way of active opposition. For a long time, Gorbachev’s liberalizations meant not a weakening but a fortification of his personal popularity and power (he had liberated himself from the ideological and personnel ties that had bound him), and the opposition he could not face down arose only at a very late stage in his reforms. But in the post-Soviet system, the tasks faced by a president actually trying to lead the country toward democracy would, paradoxically, be more complex than those faced by Gorbachev. In fact, the transition from a system of imitation democracy to one of actual democracy essentially boils down to the creation of, and transfer of power to, an active opposition; once the first democratic rotation of power has been implemented, the path to a system in which such rotations are the norm is clear. But the task of creating an opposition capable of taking power while wielding the very power they would take is psycho- logically unnatural. No president can create his own opposition and prepare his own electoral defeat – this runs counter to all basic human instinct. Some liberal measures, like the timid steps Medvedev has recently tried to take, or even somewhat more radical ones, are, of course, possible, and these may to some degree mitigate the severity of the future crisis. But it is tremendously difficult to imagine an imitation democracy being dismantled from above, in accordance with a ‘presidential plan’ – personally, I am unaware of any historical precedents. The most that can be expected from the president in such a system is that in a situation arising against his will and promising to threaten his hold on power, if he does put up a fight, he will not ‘go too far’ and will surrender as readily as, for example, Shevardnadze did in Georgia.

A relatively soft and orderly version of a transition to democracy may also be imagined in connection with a split at the top of the kind that was foreshadowed in 1999, when we were not so far from elections offering actual alternatives. Such a situation could, theoretically, recur. Now, for example, we’ve seen the emergence, generated by the tandem, of something like two top ‘parties’, the Putinite and Medvedevian. But it is hard to imagine the series of events that would relocate their clandestine and symbolic struggles to the public sphere, let alone electoral politics. The situation in 1999, too, arose from a rather random series of events, and its escalation to elections with real alternatives, transcending the limits of our system, would have been possible only if even less likely events had taken place. In any case, Putin has categorically denied the possibility of his running against Medvedev, clarifying that the two would decide on the next president together, with no participation by the public.

As unlikely, as practically unthinkable, as a ‘revolution from above’ or a ‘split at the top’ may be, for Russia the crises that have dismantled softer versions of comparable systems, like the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia, are no likelier (as, indeed, colour revolutions are basically unthinkable for countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan). The panicked fear of colour revolutions that gripped power at the start of this decade was quite neurotic and pathological. It compelled the creation of Nashi, a sort of post-Soviet parody of Komsomol or Chi- na’s Red Guards, to fight revolutionaries in the streets. Such a revolution requires a strong and well-organized legal opposition that can receive a majority of votes in the elections and also lead people into the streets when election fraud robs them of their victory. Back in 1996, it was theoretically possible that events would develop in this way. Now not only do we have no such opposition, but there is no chance for one to arise. Elections have essentially lost the air they once conveyed of being an important event. Our evolution toward power’s establishment of ever-greater control over society has progressed too far.

All scenarios involving a ‘gentle’, organized dismantling of the system here are thus either out of the question or profoundly unlikely. This can only mean the crisis that inevitably approaches our country will take on more unexpected, spontaneous, and unorganized forms.

In the Russian consciousness, there is a neurotic fear of anarchy and chaos that comes from our history and prompts the public to agree readily to the establishment of authoritarian power (any power seems a lesser evil compared to a power vacuum). But outwardly stable authoritarian systems lead in their natural evolution to precisely those periods of chaos Russia so wishes to avoid. We paid for the stability enjoyed by Russia’s nineteenth-century autocracy, contrasting so starkly with the turbulent history of Western Europe, with the catastrophic events of 1917. It is very likely that the cost of the Putin era’s stability and manageability will similarly be repaid through a coming period of chaos and collapse.

This is an excerpt from Imitation Democracy.

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