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Opinion: The doomed past and uncertain future of Russia's elite A member of the Duma explains how the authorities must change, if they want to survive

Source: Vedomosti
Photo: Vladimir Mashatin / TASS

Since New Year's Eve in 1999, Russians have been living in a political era dominated increasingly by Vladimir Putin, who today has been in power for nearly 16 years, keeping him on track to spend more time as Russia's leader than Leonid Brezhnev had as head of the USSR. If Putin is reelected in 2018 to another six-year term, his era could stretch 25 years—just four short of Joseph Stalin's reign. As Putin and Russia's elites age, reflections on the country's turbulent past, and speculation about its political future, have grown. In a recent opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov assessed the crisis he believes Russia's modern-day elites face. Meduza translates that text here.

It's fairly obvious that no society can exist without an elite, but this concept begs at least two questions: what is the elite exactly, and under what conditions should its members give way to the new generation?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple: the elite is composed of those who have the ability to influence the life of the country. This isn't just the politicians and the businessmen of various ranks and sizes, but also the creative intellectuals and scientists. For this conversation, though, it's the first two categories that are of interest: their influence has an impact on the "here and now," and the gap between their actions and the consequences of those actions is virtually nonexistent. This is precisely why politicians and businessmen have to be responsible for their actions.

But that's only true in an ideal world. Where we live isn't just the real world—it's Russia, where sudden displays of good, if they don't make you laugh, are certainly a surprise.

And then there's the second question: under what conditions should members of the elite give way to others? What can and should serve as a call for change, ushering a new group of students into history class? Take note that we're not talking about morals here. Morality and history, regrettably, have nothing to do with each other. (Otherwise, you can bet that Stalin would never have lived to the ripe old age of 74.) So the question we should ask is this: under what conditions can members of the elite retire safely?

In fact, the entire history of the 20th century is one big example of how not to solve this puzzle. Time and time again, history has held Russia back, whether it's because we can't hear the teacher from the back of the classroom, or for some other reason. Whatever it is, we haven't learned the lesson. Judge for yourself: in the past century, there wasn't a single generation of Russian elites that left power voluntarily, that wasn't killed, supplanted, exiled, or—at best—marginalized with contempt.

Now you're remembering, of course, it was all upheavals. The elite, you recall, basically resets to zero every 20-25 years, starting over with a clean roll call. Before long, spilled all over that list, is either red ink or blood. I suppose it all started back then, after the October Revolution, when the old elite—after being branded "gilded officers" and told to get lost by Mayakovsky—all at once lost its main quality: the ability to influence the life of the country. Those events reflected and still reflect the fate of all future generations of the Russian elite.

Is there really any difference between Count Vladimir Frederiks, Tsar Nicholas II's Imperial Household Minister, and the Russian President's chief of staff today? Frederiks counter-signed the Tsar's decree of abdication, and later the Soviet authorities sent him to Finland, where he soon died in obscurity. Ivan Shcheglovitov, the Chairman of the State Council (what would be the Senate Speaker in Russia today), was shot in 1918 as part of the "Red Terror." Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov was executed by the Cheka the same year. I could go on with these examples. Those lucky enough to survive managed to emigrate, like Duma chairmen Alexander Guchkov and Mikhail Rodzianko, who died nursing dreams about restoring Russia to its Tsarist days.

Big businessmen who enjoy the favor of the authorities can't assume it will last forever, either. Consider the fate of Vyacheslav Tenishev: a remarkable man, a philanthropist, and an industrialist who thankfully never lived to see the October Revolution. In 1917, however, his body was pulled from its coffin in Smolensk by peasants, who desecrated it, and his family's estate, Talashkino, the heart of Russian culture, fell into disrepair.

The merchant Grigorgy Eliseev lived out his days happily in emigration, even managing to hold onto his capital. But when it came time to distribute his far-from-modest wealth, the Soviet government seized all the inheritance meant for his relatives still living in the USSR. (Though his granddaughter was ultimately allowed a small fraction of the money—enough to buy a Soviet GAZ-M20 Pobeda automobile.)

17th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Sergey Kirov
Photo: Izvestia, CPSU Central Committee / Wikipedia

History, incidentally, didn't spare the new Soviet elite, either. The Bolsheviks who came to power scarcely had time to celebrate their triumph at the Congress of the Victors before they were mowed down to the root in 1937. Then, in the late 1950s, things changed again, and it was the turn of the "Stalinist hawks" to find themselves looking in from the outside, as they lost their place to a new political generation, which generally and importantly offered nothing in the way of "genetic continuity."

Next came the Brezhnev era of stagnation, when the system's key feature became its fragility. And then the catastrophic erosion was accelerated again, this time by Perestroika. Just look at the cosmic speed with which the old tribunes and arbiters of our fate stepped down from the stage of history. Who today, except for the graying members of Russia's Communist Party, remember someone like Yegor Ligachyov? And what about Viktor Chebrikov? Once the all-powerful head of the KGB, Chebrikov was working in private security by the time he died. These men and many others like them—once the people who determined the country's very fate—could only cling to decorative posts for a short while, before retiring into political and historical obscurity.

And history is already quietly reaching the desks of figures from the Yeltsin and Putin eras, too, though they're too self-satisfied to notice. The first heads have already started to roll, tangled in their own scarves. 

I'm sure every generation of self-appointed gods thinks, this time, things will last forever. They think Jupiter was talking precisely about their regime, when he said in The Aeneid, "For these I set no limits, world or time." But time catches up to everyone. Just ask Khrushchev, who toddled off to work his garden as a pensioner, and was lucky for it. 

Can we even compare Russia to the likes of the United States, where political and business dynasties maintain a firm grip on their elite status for decades (and soon centuries)? If the US is too dissimilar, then we can instead consider the other BRICKS nations—the same countries to which Kremlin-friendly analysts so enjoy comparing Russia. But the stability of India's political life, its continuity, for instance, is already light years more developed than Russia, with its constant upheaval. 

What's wrong with us and what's the reason for this—pardon the phrase—historical diarrhea? Why can't a single generation of elites hold on long enough to pass its influence to its own descendants (both in blood and in spirit)? The elites can't even manage the simple process of securing their own children's future in Russia. Just look at the fate of the heirs of the "Soviet nobility" and you'll understand. Stalin's granddaughter now owns a vintage clothing store in Portland; Khrushchev's son is a scholar in Rhode Island; Mikhail Suslov's daughter lives peacefully in Austria; Brezhnev's niece is in California; and his grandson is involved in various shady political projects. And these are the stories that turned out happiest.

Sergei N. Khrushchev in his office in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Photo: Rick Friedman / Corbis / Vida Press

Do today's rulers at the helm think it will be any different with them? Do they think they're to Russia what the Kims are to North Korea—generations that have finally taken root in the Russian soil? I fear that instilling that kind of Juche in Russia won't work. It would require recreating the elite from scratch, and raising the new one to be slavishly devoted to a single master, with nothing to its name but the gifts of that master. But over the past quarter century, we've built a market economy of sorts. Too much, fortunately, has been privatized (though that process was hurried and often dishonest).

That's why North Korea and its quiescent elite can't exist in Russia. Instead, gradually (and we can already see it happening now), that lovely word "elite" is coming to signify bulldogs fighting under a carpet, and soon enough it will be spiders packed in a jar. This perhaps is where we exit the senseless and bloody lessons of the 20th century. The problem for Russia is that the West, with its entrenched elites, ultimately relies on the people as its source of authority. An obvious bond forms in the West: the people (and not just in the United States) become the source of authority for the elite, who in turn influence the people. And so you get both unity and struggle. In our country, the people have never been a source of authority for the elites. Even in Sergey Uvarov's Triad ("Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality"), there wasn't so much as the concept of the people. 

In Russia, the source of authority is something else entirely: in rough times, it's weapons, and on brighter days, it's oil. But it has nothing to do with the people. As a result, there's no feedback. So, when one resource is exhausted, like we're seeing with falling oil prices now, the authorities have no alternatives to which they can turn. You can't form a civic bond with oil prices.

All this leads to a very simple conclusion: if today's elite wants to survive, it must change. It's no wonder that all the world's successful developed nations arrived at one or another form of democracy, whether it's a parliamentary republic or a constitutional monarchy. With democracy, humanity has stumbled onto a certain universal law, not unlike the discovery of the periodic table. Are you committed to sustainable development? Would you rather not end up suddenly swept away in some meaningless, merciless revolt, or in a meaningful, but nonetheless very unpleasant, palace coup? Take a cue from the real leaders out there (and I don't mean Mr. Putin). Then it becomes clear that surviving peacefully in power and quietly, gradually withdrawing into retirement is possible only with functioning democratic institutions.

If Russia refuses to learn this lesson, the next hundred years are as good as written. History might even get bored of holding back a slacker like Russia and sooner or later just expel it from class altogether. The choice is simple.