What will be the finale of the Russian System?
November 1, 2022
  • Gleb Pavlovsky

    President of the Foundation for Effective Politics 
Gleb Pavlovsky is the author of the "System RF” concept, which suggests that the Russian Federation dating back to 1991 is a unique state entity unlike any previous Russian statehoods. In this article he reflects on how the System might end.
Nations don’t like to discuss themselves anew, as if from the beginning. That would undermine the sense of the continuity of life. Everyone angrily rejects the news that “the end is near,” except for those who have been very offended or conversely those who are well entrenched. Of course, the Russian Federation (RF), having arisen by chance before everyone’s eyes (in the late 1980s there was not a single political program entailing such a scenario), arbitrarily appropriated the emblems of all the past Russias. But why dwell on that? It’s simpler to assess the role of chance in the country’s development. To try to connect the oddities of the Russian Federation’s configuration with the circumstances of how it came about. And here we arrive at the problem of the finale.
Boris Yeltsin became the first president of independent Russia, which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
Abandoned nation-building

The political and international conditions amid which the Russian Federation emerged prevented the birth of a Russian nation. What political scientists call nation-building was a task of last order for the new democratic government in the entity that remained after the USSR. And the thousands of little things that the leadership faced – maneuvering between the demands of swift reforms, quick prosperity and democratic identity – weaved a web of relations between citizens and the authorities under the umbrella of the “Russian Federation.” Whether it was a state at all remains unclear. The dispute about national identity – whether it is Russian in sense of rossiiskii or russkii – went into dissertations. And I still remember the times when you could make Putin laugh by asking him what he thought about the national idea.

I use the expression “Russian System” or “RF System” not to stand out, but to preserve the space for understanding. The statehood that we have dates back to 1991 – sometimes as a nation state, sometimes as a group of aggressive realtors that managed to get their hands on a valuable piece of property, i.e. the Kremlin. “This is some property we snatched up!” is the well-known exclamation attributed to various Yeltsin associates when they took over Gorbachev's office; yet the fact is undeniable, as Boris Nikolaevich sternly objected: “Not just property – the whole farm of Russia.”

The first decade of the new Russia was accompanied by a chorus of assurances that the end was near. With every bout of hyperinflation, street shootout or default, the theme of “the end of Russia” was resurrected and renewed. In 1999, Thomas Graham, a keen observer of Russian politics, gained fame for his essay “World without Russia?” It made him a name, and Graham became an adviser on Russia to President George Bush Jr.

The fear of the finale of the state haunted the Russian authorities until Putin scared away the ghost. If you ask today what everyone was so afraid of back then, most will flatly refuse to admit it, while others can’t remember what the fear was about.

But at that time that fear was a real factor. Without it, one can understand neither Yeltsin's refusal to keep Boris Nemtsov as his successor, nor the Second Chechen War, even crueler than the Beria’s deportation of the Chechens in 1944. The finale of Russia didn’t take place, though it became an integral part of state rhetoric about national threats.

The Russian Federation is an internally complete entity, though the nature of this state hasn’t been unidentified yet. What is important is that it’s complete, that the System has a coherence without which the new Russia couldn’t have existed even for a single year. Its 30 years are full of the most incredible improvisations – at first condemned by Western observers, then recognized as rational costs of modernization. As a British traveler to Red Russia once said: there I saw Utopia, but it works!

However, clearly there is a system. The administrative, social and state resources accumulated by the Russian Federation have a certain coherence, which is now undergoing a severe test by the war it launched. The discourse about the Russian finale should proceed from the fact that it is coherent.

A model unsuited for transition

In the Russian Federation, the future isn’t analyzed, but used to scare children. There is always an appreciative audience for “post-Putin horrors” – e.g. Putin will go and the terrible siloviki will come along. There will be a massacre, a civil war. Of Russia only a tiny Muscovy Tsardom will be left. All this apocalypse is just literary exercises – daily life in Russia keeps away serious debates about the future. Social reality and the real economy have become akin to pornography: they aren’t talked about out loud.
"The fear of the future has forbidden us to deal with the experience of the past – there is zero readiness in the System for the finale."
And pondering over “Moscow's plans,” let's remember that the results of previously made moves have never really been discussed.

The finale of the System has always been about the model by which it would transform. The transformation itself could provoke the finale, though it could also help the System move away from the worst-case scenarios.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 killed the chances of de-escalating the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Source: Wiki Commons
Back in the crisis year of 2014, it was clear that the System tried to take a step back in Ukraine but failed – it lacked the skills of moderation. The de-escalation in the Donbas that had begun secretly in summer 2014 resulted in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the taking of Donetsk and a counteroffensive near Mariupol, risking a major European war.

The appetite for escalation inevitably leads to radicalization, and the Kremlin has succumbed to radicalism. By resorting to escalation, Moscow prohibits itself from weighing risks. That is why it can’t become a stable authoritarian regime. Previously, these qualities ensured the general effectiveness of the System.

The regime has triple uncontested control: over Russia’s operation on the global market, over its nuclear weapons and over its population – the monopolies in these spheres have merged indistinguishably into a single power structure. It is more flexible than the Soviet ideocracy, though the price of this flexibility is the prohibition on any normalization. Rent-seeking aggregates of the regime have ad hoc taken the place of institutions, appropriating state prerogatives.

The finale reveals the unsuitability of the ad hoc model for the transfer of power. It will fail to solve simple problems, but there is nothing to replace it with. In the finale, the toolbox of the System will turn out empty, without the political tools needed for maneuver. The lack of instruments pushes the Kremlin into spasms of radicalization during the moment of “singularity.” But the screen image of Russian singularity isn’t interstellar. Beyond the event horizon, pastures unfit for life await Russia amid its exposed weaknesses and the serious threats facing it. This will be its first transitional state.

Anyone who wants to prepare for the future must conduct an audit of future deficits that are already visible in today's Russian reality. It will be too late to look for them tomorrow.

The discussion of censorship in the Russian media has perpetuated the illusion that the solution lies in abolishing it, but that isn’t the case. Even before Putin became president, Russian TV had been transformed into a tool for managing pressures, and since the late 1990s it has firmly remained in this mode. The “Kremlin propaganda” about which there is so much talk satisfies the demand for “hate vision.” Propaganda in Russia just services power politics: for everyone who wants to support the regime it hints at the right words and emotional motivations.

The propaganda market in Russia is primarily a buyer's – not a seller's – market. In the finale, the demand for hate vision will persist, and there will be many who want to satisfy it. The new propaganda cadres will turn into democrats as long as there is demand. In the finale, the media will offer the audience the best targets for hatred: angels of “evil” against the backdrop of new "forces of light.” Again, it won’t be about the concept of reforms, but about leaders.

Trauma of leadership

Exiting the System, Putin leaves a deep, traumatic mark on it. Having replaced the state with himself, Putin has created a taste for unfair, but talkative authority. Yet he spoke only about the problems for which he had a solution, and more often he offered himself as a defender against the insoluble troubles. This mark will remain on post-finale Russia. Ending its existence as “Putin's regime,” the Russian System will retain the standards of policy and methods to solve problems developed under Putin.

Another trauma of the finale is the role of the leader of the Russian Federation as the master of the social sphere and its guarantor. The leader is at once the distributor of resources, the supreme controller and, most importantly, the insurer of payments. In the finale, the main struggle will be around this unannounced role. The idea that the role of supreme distributor can be depersonalized with a parliamentary model will be rejected. Left without a leader-guarantor, the population will demand a successor-guarantor. It doesn't matter what it’ll be called – it's the urgency of the role that's important, and politicians will key on it.

It's easy to predict how dangerous radical reform projects – entailing transformations that require strong executive power and mass support – will be in the finale. Up until now, all critically important issues in Russia have become a legitimate justification for the use of violence. "Revolutions from above" have galvanized demand for extraordinary power.
"A strategic center of power that is popular and fluid like mercury – not bound by rules, borders or laws – was an innovation of the System but became a disaster leading to the finale."
Attempts to contain the regime have invariably missed the mark, as the Kremlin manipulates the population’s extraordinary emotional states. But while promising to protect voters from catastrophe – real or imagined – the Kremlin itself has always teetered on the brink of normalcy. Now that function has undermined the possibilities for the leadership group.

The invulnerability of the center, among other things, is related to the “Russian question,” which hasn’t been resolved in any form of the Russian state. The Center compensated for moving away from building a russkii/rossiiskii political nation with a unitarity that imitates national unity. Russia's political religion has become exclusive loyalty to Putin's Kremlin. As local ethnocracies rise, the Kremlin’s unitarism is set to act as a line of defense for Russian interests. Yet in the finale the power of ethnocracies will grow, and they will turn into quasi-movements with diasporas instead of networks. The consolidation of ethnocracies will be accompanied by the deconsolidation of Russian lands; meanwhile, the formation of “Russian [russkii] movements” has neither diaspora nor state support.

The Western policy of sanctions is effective, but not where it was expected to be. The idea of anti-Russia sanctions has cemented the world myth about Putin's personality as the cause of everything and anything in Russia. The debate about sanctions revolves inexorably around the question of the resources Putin has left – money, missiles, loyalty. But the System is almost invulnerable in the places where weaknesses are looked for. Having combined features of previous Russian states, the regime in Russia has taken into account the mistakes of an empire that is squeezed between the population, bureaucracy and Europe.

The crisis state of the RF System is beyond doubt, but does that point to its end or is it just the norm? Will the finale be similar to the discussed scenarios or a simultaneous explosion of the System's attributes, suicidal and homicidal?

The discourse about finale scenarios for Russia revolves around the false idea of the country’s uniformity, as it considers already achieved what Russia has yet to create: a state-consolidated space. But the System hasn’t integrated the country – it has “conquered” it, relying on global instruments. Keeping Russia in a Reconquista regime, the System has united the space by absorbing it.

The Ukrainian spasm of the Russian System knocked it off balance, and the System is trying to regain balance. What was it: a suicidal move or a perplexing risk in search of survival? A risk without which the System doesn’t know how to prolong itself?

Enjoyment, exhaustion, anguish

Today, all groups that inhabit the System, as well as its entire life support infrastructure, have been overloaded. Is a complete depletion of the System's resources likely? The risk is that neither the Kremlin, nor the elites, nor ordinary people will be able to continue to enjoy anomalous life in the System. It has become depressing.
"Emotional poverty amid the lack of resources is leading the System into decline, though after that we will see its reincarnation."
German troops at the Soviet state border marker, 22 June 1941. Source: Wiki Commons
When the inhabitants can’t be entertained by world catastrophes, the System will resort to its last card – it will begin a radical reform. For a short time, an era will come where everyone enjoys everything, until the warehouses run out of food and medicine.

We’re entering a zone the rules of which are unknown. The zone of the System's future that is conceivable only through an audit of its attributes in shortage. It’s not only and not so much about resources; among the deficits is the inability – on the part of both Russian society and the establishment – to conduct serious negotiations and build strong coalitions. And that deficit is far from the only one.

Here we “hover” in front of a necessary hypothesis about the Greater System – about the wider System and the accumulation of surges within it that can explode at any point. The reader is waiting for an answer to the direct question of what the future Russia will be – even though the former Russia is now heading toward the finale, causing waves of uncertainty across the world and provoking other constructors of the world order into counter improvisations. Given that situation, where will we be in a year or two? Here the author is forced to limit himself to several dogmatic assertions that he has nothing to back up.

First, the RF System goes into a regime of “indestructibility” “at five minutes to midnight,” on the verge of total catastrophe. At that point, it looks like easy prey, while its leader is in despair, like Stalin on June 22, 1941.

Second, it is impossible to measure in advance the strength of the bond of Russians to the center of this eternally unfinished state. That force fluctuates, sometimes dropping to almost nothing, but even then it is dangerous to delude yourself.

"Since the System contains a global and European core – which it itself rejects – it harbors an explosive potential on a global scale."
However, as it’s not a source of values, this core of the System is connected to the hinge of its mobility, to the Russian “antifragility” – starkly different from the antifragility of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – which I call “agility.”

Fourth, I will put forward a counter-thesis: I believe that the model of indestructible agility that has developed over the course of three decades since the collapse of the USSR has also exhausted itself. Gone are the most important types in the System, its load-bearing roles: the Russian European, the Kremlin globalist, the enterprising revolutionary-rogue, the big-eyed Russian Lefty, a thievish genius peering at Western novelties.

What is the finale of the System? Looking closer at the previous collapses of Russian statehood, we don’t see a mechanical inevitability of the finale. And in 1917, and in 1941, and in 1991 there are bunches of scenarios; the outcome in all three cases could’ve been different, though not necessarily more favorable for Russia. Alternative scenarios of the past have always attracted visionaries of "parallel history.” The finale of the System is a state of suspense that brings joy and sorrow to the population at the same time. Emotional confusion, shifting the scale of the real with the imaginary, the dangerous with the fascinating. Each of the abovementioned episodes led into the future, often into one that most wouldn’t have wanted had they known about it in advance. But was a bleak future predestined?

I don’t know how to look beyond the horizon where all the previous Russian empires lay. What if there is something unusual there – for example, a normal Russian state?

In the meantime, the sanctions, along with Putin's strikes, are eroding the world order. They are conditioning the global world to emergency as the norm, a path that the Kremlin intends to follow to the end.
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