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
– 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.