Staunton, October 19 – “The construction of authoritarianism is a less ambitious task than the building of communism,” Andrey Kolesnikov says; but it is still large an enterprise for even someone like Vladimir Putin to achieve by himself. He needs willing supporters, and many of these are with regard to this task “more Putinist than Putin himself.”
Again and again, the Moscow Carnegie Center analyst continues, lower-ranking officials and politicians try to guess what Putin would want and act on the basis of their conclusions even when the Kremlin leader has given no orders or may even want something different but has not yet expressed his position (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/198030?fcc).
These thousands of “little Putins” who are guided not so much by directives from above but by their sense of the direction things are moving in are simultaneously driving policy by creating, as the diplomats say, facts on the ground, and also generating a climate of fear in which such things are an entirely rational move by those who engage in them.
Kolesnikov says he very much doubts that Putin has given direct orders to politicians like Konstantin Klishas or officials like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov for many of the things they do or to local courts to investigate student attitudes at Moscow universities or others take down plaques to victims of Stalin’s terror.
In all these cases, he argues, Putin almost certainly did not give a direct order, although it is entirely possible that he “had something like this in mind,” and ministers, deputies, senators, prosecutors, and residents of a house on Rubinstein Street were able to guess” what the leader really wants.
This phenomenon is quite typical of authoritarian states on the way to totalitarianism as Victor Serge brilliantly showed in his classic novel about the rise and spread of Stalinism, The Case of Comrade Tulayev. But it has at least three consequences that Kolesnikov doesn’t mention but that deserve to be the focus of attention.
First, it means that those who back Putin and wish to gain his backing are quite prepared to act on their own far ahead of what he has said, relying not on direct orders but rather on the implications of what the leader has said and done and thus moving the country even further along the authoritarian road than he may have intended in any particular case.
Second, it means that Putin himself always has the opportunity to disown the actions of his subordinates, purging them and thus appearing to escape responsibility at least in the eyes of many in Russia and the West who can reasonably say he didn’t order this or that even though his system led his agents to do what they did.
And third, and perhaps most important, it means that Putin like any authoritarian leader who creates such a system is driven toward ever greater authoritarianism, even totalitarianism, if he is to avoid having his regime fall apart from such independent actions by his subordinates and thus personally remain in power.