Staunton, November 21 – Observers who are worried about a crisis in something that never existed – liberal democracy in Russia – are missing something more significant: “the degradation of Russian authoritarianism” into “an almost classical despotism,” according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
Pastukhov, a Russian scholar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, says that this development while superficially “trivial” in historical terms nonetheless matters profoundly for an understanding of what is taking place in Russia now and for considering how things there are likely to develop (polit.ru/article/2013/11/20/authoritarianism/print/).
As the study of history shows, Pastukhov says, authoritarianism is not necessarily completely subjective or arbitrary as despotism is. Instead, it “coexists with the observation of certain albeit illiberal and not democratic but quite strict rules of the game.” In a despotic state, “the only rule is the absence of all rules.”
Ultimately, of course, that leads to “complete chaos” and eventual collapse. According to Pastukhov, “Russia today is somewhere in the middle of this process,” having begun the retreat from the authoritarian system that grew out of the events of 1953 and was expanded after 1991 as a result of the YUKOS case.
Few understood at the time just what “a tectonic shift” that case represented, with most being inclined to talk about Putin’s personal antagonism to Khodorkovsky, “the political intrigues of Sechin,” and the regime’s desire to give a nod to “populism.” But in fact, it was something more as a reconsideration of the events of 1953 demonstrates.
Pastukhov argues that after the death of the despot Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev defeated Beria in the succession because he offered an authoritarian vision rather than a despotic one. That is, Khrushchev wanted to continue to use force against society but to do so on the basis of collective decisions. Beria in contrast wanted to use less force but wanted to retain in his own person complete control over such choices.
The Russian scholar says that he is convinced that if the decision had gone the other way, the world would be talking about “the end of Russia as a geopolitical reality” rather than as a possible or even likely prospect for the future.
In the decades since, as a result of Khrushchev’s victory, Pastukhov argues, Russia moved often with great difficulty and many reverses along the path “from despotism to authoritarianism,” but under Vladimir Putin, it is now moving and moving rapidly in the opposite direction.
Because of Putin’s increasingly despotic approach, “the right to open and close criminal cases is becoming the new Russian national currency, the most convertible form of the Russian ruble.” Decisions on criminal cases have become the way in which politics is played out, as protests against them by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and others show.
History is thus repeating itself and in the classical way with the first time having been a tragedy and the second a farce, Pastukhov suggests. The current discussion about Aleksandr Bastrykin and the powers of the procuracy would be “funny if they were not so sad.”
“These local battles for participation in repression show that Russian statehood has finally taken the configuration characteristic of pre-revolutionary times.” That doesn’t mean that a revolution is imminent, Pastukhov says. “Despotic regimes are quite stable and in the absence of war or analogous economic shocks can ‘drag on’ for decades.”
But it does mean this: thanks to what Putin has done, Russia has become a country trapped in a situation from which “it is impossible to escape” without serious clashes. “Degenerating authoritarianism is doomed; everything else is a question of time.”