Afanasyev Yuri Russian historian

Illusion of Elections

12 January 2012, 08:30

Many discussions and debates now taking place in Russia are focussed on the word ‘elections’. I must say that, unfortunately, both average Russian citizens and those who write and comment on the public sphere in the mass media lack a proper understanding of the fact that today Russia has no stable institution of elections.

Pre-election virtual reality is reported vigorously and sometimes aggressively, contributing to the myths already residing in mass consciousness. People justify and rebut different views on what those who want to adopt a “civic position” should do at a particular polling station on election day. Various strategies and ideas have been proposed: Boris Nemtsov and Dmitry Bykov's “nakh-nakh”, Alexei Navalny's “anything but United Russia”, Garry Kasparov's “written protest” and finally the call from the ruling party to vote “only for us – that means happiness for all”.

Every day TV channels broadcast a range talk shows on these topics and news programs feature top leaders of the state, the ranking leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, noted writers, pop stars, politicians and political experts. Emotions are high, and people worked up. Two “oligarchs” even went as far as start punching each other on live television. “Interparty dialogs,” “history trials,” “frank Mondays” – the list goes on and on.

Meanwhile, Russians have neither elections nor choice. But in this virtual reality, “elections” stand side by side with the “belt of the Holy Mother of God,” “political parties” and Putin who dived into the sea and came up with an ancient vessel miraculously found on the sea floor in each hand. In general, the gloomy first days of December were graphic proof of Aleksei Losev’s dictum: “To a mythical subject, this is the true life complete with all its hopes and fears, expectations and despair and with all its real everyday routine and purely personal interest.” However, the “election” itself is just a part – albeit, ideally, a very important part – of the entire political space which today is already “cleansed” of Russians. They proved to be unnecessary here as in other spaces, superfluous as social subjects, independent individuals and free people.

Here they turned into contemporaries and, “at best,” passive observers or thoughtless accomplices to the removal of such institutions as distribution of power, courts, prosecutor's offices, independent mass media, NGOs and self-governing political parties.

All of the above statements might appear invented and improbable, but these are our political and social realities which unfortunately have a very pragmatic and palpable foundation. They are a hard economic, financial and now also quasi-legal foundation. It is hard and at the same time exceedingly brittle and lifeless. But so far, all of Russian society miraculously sits a top it.


The brittleness and lifelessness of this foundation are due to the fact that during the absolute rules of Yeltsin and Putin, most Russians were in essence forcibly denied – even if only through economic, financial and administrative measures – access to profitable resources such as land, rivers, lakes, forests, oil and natural gas. Access to these resources means having institutions and organizations, beliefs and values, as well as activity that secures this access. It also means having the concepts of freedom, government, private property, law and justice. It also means trade and industry, public administration, healthcare, education and what political scientists call the justice system, law enforcement and “power structures.”

After voucher privatization, mortgage auctions and subsequent hostile takeovers and redistribution undercover and with the involvement of “power structures”, nearly all of Russia's key resources, including land and mineral deposits became inaccessible to most of the population in an open and competitive fashion. The next logical, or natural, step along this line was to render political life void and to reset it to zero. It was in fact imitated, because the entire space it had was taken up by political dummies. All social structures of Russian society became artificial entities. It was restructured top to bottom through crime, corporate clans and corruption.

This is the essence of our society now. Science has yet to come up with a name for this Russian chimera, but in everyday life it is sometimes called “capitalism for one's own people.” In other words, only the ruling “elites” have privileged access to resources that remain inaccessible to all others. These elites are those who wield power at the moment. In actuality, if we look at real life, the real economic system and the structure of society as it is rather than at formal definitions in political economy or political science, we will not see any capitalism whatsoever in Russia. After all, capitalism involves regular investment of income in means of production for the purpose of generating more profits and expanding and upgrading production itself.

Instead, what we see here is direct parasitic devastation of land and degradation of (Soviet) capital assets which are used exclusively for personal enrichment. Government bureaucracy and the “businessmen” it appoints tend to monopolize lucrative industries. They channel profits offshore rather than to Russia and to Russians in order to receive annuity from assets accumulated here in Russia at the cost of exploiting Russian material and human resources.

The other side of this coin is that by denying the population access to resources, Russian authorities placed themselves outside the law. However, it is important to keep in mind that power in Russia – at any point in history and today – is represented by more than the government alone. In addition to the Duma, the courts, the president, his administration and the executive government with its ministries, power in Russia belongs to individuals, organizations, corporations, associations, various political and analytical institutes, and so on, which enjoy privileged access to resources, whether these privileges are open or concealed. Alternatively, they secure this access based on the principal-agent model where the principal is an owner, lessor and user of the resources and the agent is a lessee, manager and user. In practice, this system of government is much more sophisticated and varied than any other type or than the ideal model. But this variety rests on one two-part foundation: a) access to resources based on personal, intimate relationships; b) the non-formalized and arbitrary rather than legal nature of these relationships.

“Government outside the legal framework” – that rings a bell, doesn’t it? Think of the two Chechen wars and the Georgian war, Kursk and Beslan, YUKOS, the Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev cases, Ozero Cooperative Society, Baikalfinansgrup, Gunvor, Sibneft, and the murders of Sergei Magnitsky, Stanislav Markelov, Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev – the list goes on and on. The Berezovsky vs. Abramovich case in a London court, Deripaskva vs. Potanin in Switzerland, the Tajik migrants – there is no end to these, either. These are the tragic marks of our post-Soviet reality that point to a criminal government that has absorbed millions and millions of Russians through lawlessness and corruption. It is the criminal government of a criminalized society.

As it often happens at critical turning points in history, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s sociocultural foundations experienced a third wave of regression. (The previous two came in the early 17th and the early 20th century.) Society was transformed to the point at which there was no distinction between good and evil and where animal instincts raged unbridled. In essence, as a human society we reverted to the very origins of the Russian state, i.e., to the 15th century, as far as the deepest, key foundations of our life are concerned. The two most stable, unvanquished, matrix-type foundation rocks of this statehood have cropped out and become relevant today: pre-feudal in-kind rent and a personified approach to granting access to it. In other words — taking the law into one’s hands rather than treating resources and their ownership in keeping with the law.


What elections can we speak about given these matrix-type foundations of our social order? They are a means of democracy and open society only when they secure free activity, political competition among parties and NGOs and, on this foundation, open access to vital resources for a majority.

The vector of Russia’s political and social dynamics goes in the opposite direction today. Two decades of conscious, goal-oriented and persistent efforts by the Yeltsin-Putin governments led to an unprecedented polarization of society. Moreover, now the social division thus engendered and the existing form of government are further reinforced through equally targeted and careful political actions with police support. Boris Yeltsin’s Constitution of 1993 has already proved to be a firm guarantee of autocracy and the rule of constitutional principles for perpetuating precisely this type of government.

However, even if we hypothesize on the possibility of change, something the opposition is timidly and largely inefficiently pursuing now, this change will remain under the current Constitution embedded in the same autocratic System.

Dozens of laws have been passed over the years – on political parties, referendums, rallies and manifestations, cancelling elective governorship, voter turnout threshold, extremism and terrorism, NGOs, education, the election system, etc. As a result, Russia’s population is now being squeezed on completely “legal” grounds. Worse still, it is denied the opportunity to freely engage in economic, political, education and religious activity. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev take turns to announce, almost on a daily basis, the coming increases in salaries and pensions paid to government employees, officials and pensioners. Unlike for other categories, financial provision for government employees, the military and special service employees is going to increase many-fold. How much more money will flow from the state budget to employees in the privileged sectors (in terms of access to rent) – the Ministry for Emergency Situations and gas, oil, defense, financial and security corporations – is a question that calls for separate treatment.

Importantly, the government puts all the above in the “middle class” category and proudly announces its key achievement in the past two decades: “We have created it! We have it!” So far this class accounts for 20% of the total work force but is set to reach the 30% mark soon. This means that, in addition to legal mechanisms used to fix perennial misery and riches, the government is using social engineering to cement the monstrosity of the chimera state it has brought about.

When you write or say that a totalitarian regime in Russia is a fait accompli, the first and quite natural reaction you receive is indignant denial. The reason is that people are used to watching developments without delving deeply into their nature. Instead, they prefer to make comparisons with past examples. After all, they are not killing or imprisoning people en masse now, as was the case under Stalin. We do not even have a GULAG. Nor are Jews being destroyed in the millions, as was the case under Hitler. That is, people understand totalitarianism only as unobstructed mass murder, total repression, total surveillance and keeping the entire population in fear, on a thin line between life and death. Their prime example is racially motivated Nazi inhumanity. As they seek to pinpoint the essence of today’s Russian social order and public administration, political scientists exclude totalitarianism and are searching for softer and somewhat vague labels such as soft authoritarianism. But no, it is rather a hard than soft version, or perhaps even a police state. Anything goes as long as descriptions stay far away from analogies to Stalin and Hitler. These political scientists fail to see that the inhumanity of Russia’s social order manifests itself in total denial of open and competitive access to resources for all Russians and in curtailment of freedom of association. This possibility no longer exists as such. Everyone without exception finds himself in clearly specified, preset conditions which they did not desire or were able to freely determine in the first place.

Categorizing Russia’s social order as totalitarianism would help people understand why and how what we have had in the past 20 years has not been an upward movement but increasingly deeper regress into the past. People will also grasp the ways in which the government is trying to perpetuate this archaic state as it attempts to cement the products of many years of decay and disintegration. On the one hand, there was the historically recent case of decay when the Soviet order in all its manifestations – economic, political and social – decomposed. On the other hand, the products of tsarist, pre-Soviet Russia’s decay are also as large as life today.

Many have been saying recently that the Russian Federation is past the point of no return, and we are headed for an explosion, a revolution, an uprising or a coup. I will not deny it. May this cup pass away from us, but this miracle might as well happen. However, I have great doubts it will happen any time soon. I believe things will continue as they are now: slow demise against the backdrop of Russia’s divided and fragmented state and a disjointed Russian spirit.

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