The armed catastrophe unfolding in Europe has been discussed in various lights. As missiles fall on Odessa, people are searching for a political configuration for Russia that would exclude bloody excesses. But now everyone wants more robust guarantees: the Russians have gone through many regimes over the last century, each one leading to something unthinkable.
The Russian System stands on three pillars: Putin, a deal with the masses, and improvisation. The first two are often taken up by the press and experts – I would like to explore the third. All politicians improvise, but Russian improvisations are something special. After all, the Russian Federation is itself a remake.
Russians really don’t appreciate reminders that their country is a recent invention. But this is a fact that can’t be refuted by references to antiquity – 30 years ago our state didn’t exist. The USSR collapsed with historic swiftness. Half a year before the RSFSR declared itself sovereign (June 12, 1990), in democratic Moscow there was not so much as a thought of a Russia within the borders of the RSFSR. The state of the Russian Federation (RF) was a hasty improvisation with great implications. Further state building looked all the more like a cascade of improvisations.In Russian translation “sovereignty” means autocracy
The improviser uses a standard, a model that guides him. The ideal West became such a model for the early RF. By importing the processes of the market and democracy, they learned how to hack them. Russian hackers emerged almost earlier than in the West.
Without seriously seeking order Yeltsin proclaimed the slogan “Order in government – order in the country.” Memoirists admire the punctuality of the first president, who appeared as if on a stopwatch. Boris Yeltsin was never late for meetings, but no one could guess how the meeting would end.
His aide Sergei Shakhrai recalls how he and Yeltsin together wrote the Constitution (his memoirs, How I Wrote the Constitution of the Yeltsin and Putin Era
, were released
last year). For the institution of the presidency Shakhrai says he took as a model "a Russian version of the English queen." But during discussions Yeltsin voiced his wish for "the right of the president to issue decrees with the force of law" (p. 76). Which was immediately granted by the founding fathers of the RF. Thus, the president, placed over all branches of power, turned into an autocratic lawmaker. Improvisation transformed the “English queen” into King Charles I.
Sometimes fresh emigrants ask me whether it's dangerous to go back to Russia for some time. But the Kremlin's well of risk is unpredictable: it doesn’t know when and for whom things are dangerous – for enemies or loyalists? Our Leviathan is sometimes benevolent, but for how long? The Kremlin loves the word “sovereignty,” but in Russian translation it means autocracy, i.e. the sovereign making state decisions at his sole discretion. Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, according to Klyuchevsky, did good deeds only if they "made him feel good." The improviser's motives are random, like a quantum. The process is what matters, not the result
In a state that emerged from nothing, it seemed natural to start all over again. An improvising state prefers process to rules and results. Because of this quality, I once called the Russian System the “jazz state.”
The authorities zealously defend any excess without answering the question of its goal – it’s more important for them to evade threats in time. The process is what matters, not the result. The security of the regime has been ensured by its perpetual resourcefulness and nimbleness – something like the modern term agility
. Since the 1990s, they’ve been talking not about reforms but the “process of reforms” without laying out a timetable for results. By improvising, the regime avoids collapse, making the state something fluid.