Staunton, Aug. 22 – Authoritarian rulers are doomed to make “fatal mistakes” by the system they have created or exist within, according to Grigory Golosov, the head of the political science department at St. Petersburg’s European University. They may appear to go from success to success for a long time but eventually history shows they will make such errors.
The Russian political regime today is “a personalist dictatorship,” the political scientist says. “This means that all important strategic decisions by the state are made by one man,” in this case, Vladimir Putin, an arrangement whose dangers Lord Acton famously described as the opportunity for absolute corruption (holod.media/2022/08/22/golosov/).
From classical times on, this danger and the danger that a single dictator will make horrific and often self-destructive mistakes have been recognized by philosophers, Golosov continues. Those who acquire absolute power not only assume that they are always right but also that they have no need to listen to others – and so arrange things so others can’t correct them.
That is certainly the case with Putin who at the end of 2014 even said that during his years in power, he had not made any mistakes although he conceded there had been some “rough patches” (rg.ru/2014/11/23/stenogramma.html), a turn of phrase that recalls those in other systems who say “we may make a mistake sometimes but we are never wrong.”
Dictators, of course, have no monopoly on mistakes; but the leaders of other systems are constrained from making the kind of mistakes that often become fatal, some by elections as in democracies, some by tradition as in monarchies, and some by their fellow rulers, as in the case of military juntas.
But all authoritarian regimes have “the potential to degenerate into personalist dictatorships” and thus to make the kind of fatal mistakes such regimes are almost inevitably the victim of. That is what has happened in Russia after the failure of the attempt to set up a democratic regime in the 1990s.
Putin did not become a dictator immediately. At first, he was surrounded by those who had reached near the top under his predecessor; and at the same time, he was constrained by the need for popular support. But over time, he ousted the first and arranged things so that the second was no longer required, at least as expressed by elections.
He has now made what appears to be a fatal error, the invasion of Ukraine. But correcting this situation without destroying Russia as a whole won’t be easy, Golosov says. There aren’t enough institutions to prevent the rise of another Putin should he be removed; and thus there is a danger that he will be replaced by someone like him if not immediately than in time.