Power Broker

putin throne
Source: New Times

It is fitting to learn that, with allegations that “RC Fogle” attempted to recruit an FSB officer to spy on Russia, clandestine intrigue is alive and well in today’s Moscow. It is easy to picture the be-wigged Fogle slipping into a back alley along the embankment, using his compass to make sure he doesn’t accidentally fall into the river or run into a random birch tree.

Yet, it is laughable to learn that, if these allegations are true, contemporary American espionage techniques more closely resemble a gmail instruction manual.

Clandestine intrigue is a good backdrop to re-post a review of Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy’s newish book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, which appeared in The Economist recently. The book characterizes the ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin, as a man whose mores were shaped by the stuff that Spy vs. Spy fantasies are made of. The result is a man “who could disappear in a crowd of two,’ a man who is an outsider to the social and cultural moments that shaped Russia in the late 1980s, a man who views his portfolio as president like a case officer reviewing a dossier.

But the detailed book also raises many questions. If Putin the ‘operative’ had a symbiotic relationship with patrons in the 1990s (people like Chubais, Kudrin, or supposedly even Berezovsky), can we identify similar symbiotic structures in today’s Russia? Some, for instance, pointed to Vladislav Surkov as an ideological grey cardinal vital to political structure in the Kremlin, but if the grey cardinal is now dispensable, does that mean that Putin, the operative, has created a vacuum around himself? And what comes after Surkov?


One of the most important questions raised by Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin is ‘so what?’ So what if he is the chameleon that Hill and Gaddy posit he is? And while initially I was puzzled by the inclusion of Ledeneva’s book Can Russia Modernize? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance alongside Mr. Putin in the Economist review, the question of ‘so what’ bridges these two works, one of biography, and one of sociology.

For Putin is a man, and only a man. And to answer the question ‘so what?’ we must look deeper to where Russia has come from, and where it is headed. Ledeneva’s book puts this in context, beyond the corruption that many view as a hallmark of post-Soviet Russia. Putin has created a sistema in the Kremlin, based on patronage and supplicantism, that shapes the fabric of Russian political and economic life. Sociologists may take this a step further and say that Putin’s rise is due to successful brokerage across multiple networks (siloviki, the St. Petersburg administration, liberals like Kudrin, oligarchs), and an even deeper analysis would ask what further brokerage will look like as post-ideological Russia moves further away from its historical lode stars.

I think the answer lies in two ideas:

(1) Ledenev, in describing sistema, writes:

sistema is complex, anonymous, unpredictable and seemingly irrational, but it serves to glue society together, it contributes to both stability and change

I think that sentence can be replaced by one word: “organic”. Sistema is organic, and that is why its emergence today is so noteworthy. The history of Russia, a land of rich natural beauty, of slippery river embankments, mirthless birches, and winter suns, is a history of the contrast between an organic evolution and human attempts to create a totalizing, inorganic artifice within society. Where the birches give way to skyscrapers, where samogon competes with state-produced spirits, and where rational ideology has struggled with vibrant individualism for centuries.

(2) Further, Ledeneva describes the trajectory of sistema:

the modernisation of sistema should start with the modernisation of the networks it relies on

But, let’s recall, what is the origin of those networks? The ones identified above (siloviki, oligarchs, etc.) emerged directly as a consequence of the Soviet collapse, and the atomization communist-era networks. In other words, these networks are a response to disintegration.

What is the opposite of disintegration? Re-integration. And a growing body of academic work is passing around integration in Eurasia as a buzzword to replace the pathetic graspings of Dmitri Medvedev’s ‘modernization’ (Россия, вперед!), and the beginnings of a new post-Soviet reality.

To me, the most interesting questions are about the pace and the character of this re-integration, and what post-Putin networks will dominate sistema:


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