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Intolerable competition What fuels the Russian authorities’ perpetual legitimacy crisis

Source: Meduza
Sergey Karpov / TASS

The Russian authorities’ designation of various nonprofit organizations, news outlets, and even individuals as “foreign agents” is part of a broader process that the state initiated long ago to reorder society. For years, officials in the government and law enforcement have meddled in the ownership of disobedient companies, swapped out elected politicians for political appointees, and tried to organize what once organized itself. Meduza “Ideas” editor Maxim Trudolyubov argues that the Russian authorities have effectively set out to make any grassroots enterprise a government department, hoping to transform the whole country into a managed administrative utopia.

Grassroots social movements, political associations, and other free associations are possible if participants are united by common goals and mutual trust. They can choose their own leaders and bestow on these individuals certain competences that might be described as power. 

Writers with large audiences or experts whose knowledge is useful to the public can gain influence, and this, too, approaches something like power. Over time and with enough hard work, journalists can gradually gain the public’s trust, as well. The same goes for doctors, teachers, pilots, auto mechanics, lawyers, and really any specialists whose services are needed by others who lack their training.

The process of strengthening these independently operating relationships (in other words, the creation of institutions) occurs in Russia like in other societies, but it also collides with an artificial, contradictory process directed from above in opposition to what’s happening below.

All the keys

For many years now, Russia’s political managers have labored to break grassroots groups and replace them with a wide variety of administrative entities. The individuals behind this work are constantly changing their tactics, attacking property owners, social activists, and journalists, buying what can’t be suppressed by force, and trying to take charge of whatever they refuse to tolerate.

Independent groups, grassroots initiatives, any private business — these are all living forms of social capital. Whether they’re policy chiefs in the Kremlin or the representatives of state corporations, whoever launches campaigns to impose the status of “other” (be it “foreign” or “undesirable”) on independent organizations has never created any social capital themselves. Without this experience, they perhaps believe that power and influence come from somewhere higher, which is how they got theirs, after all.

The engine of influence

It would have come as an enormous shock to the publishers of Vedomosti if someone in the 2000s had ever accused them of coming to Russia in order to wield “influence.” Working with the Dutch publisher Derk Sauer, the newspaper’s co-founders — the “Pearson” company (then The Financial Times’s publisher) and the “Dow Jones” company (which owned The Wall Street Journal and Independent Media) — launched the project with the simple aim of making money in Russia’s promising media market. 

Over the years, Vedomosti built up an audience of engaged, prosperous readers, making it possible for the newspaper to earn money and even profit from the sale of advertisements and subscriptions. As a participant in these events, I can attest that the newsroom dedicated itself entirely to creating a high-value product. Vedomosti’s mission wasn’t self-expression or reproducing someone’s thoughts but supporting an enterprise that operated in the service sector. It was the business of asking questions.

Over time, someone good at asking questions can even become an arbiter of editorial practices elsewhere. In the same way, the experts these publications feature in their specialized sections gain clout and influence all their own. This is precisely why the reputations of certain journalists and experts often become significant factors in the public sphere. This is how influence is created.

At Vedomosti, these people were squeezed from their newspaper before officials designated their next publication, VTimes, as a “foreign agent.”

Most likely, however, Russia’s authorities understand that they try to build manageability into everything and everyone, in as much as they understand manageability. A neutral business owner (including in the media industry) is traded for a loyal one. An elected university president is swapped out for an appointee. They endeavor to take over and co-opt any grassroots initiative (such as the St. George ribbons handed out on Victory Day, or the Immortal Regiment, which was once a popular movement). At all levels of government, from federal to municipal, the same logic guides the replacement of elected officials with appointees.

Even sports couldn’t escape the attention of Russia’s political management, which ensured success in the Sochi Winter Olympics. In fact, it would be strange to expect the authorities to stage an event as “irresponsible” as a fair competition. The 2014 Winter Games naturally became a project to guarantee Russia’s Olympic victory. And we know about this only thanks to Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory who defected to the West. 

The authorities’ fixation with control is also evident in their efforts to manage the software and applications that power today’s personal electronics. Ideally, they’d like to have the “keys” to all programs and every social network now active inside Russia. Pressuring online news aggregators to make selection algorithms more manageable is part of this process. After all, the entire Russian Internet needs to be manageable. 

But a total shutdown isn’t the aim here. The authorities would rather win access to a particular process than prohibit it outright. At heart, they’re always trying to replace anything autonomous or objective with something administered. 

Looming threats 

Needing the keys to all these processes and the power to stop or start them as they wish, Russia’s authorities can’t operate routinely. In other words, the authorities need society to accept that there’s something wrong with the way things are. They need people to believe that they’re living in an emergency. 

But emergency power is usually temporary and it must be justified somehow, whether by the threat of war, natural disasters, or the activities of saboteurs and other domestic enemies. The nation must be in peril, and its leaders must act in accordance with the logic of “national salvation.” It’s no coincidence that Russian political rhetoric is riddled with talk of threats. Reminders about the threats and hard times the country endures are the foundation of the political leadership’s legitimacy. To sustain this authority, the threats must loom always and the times can never be anything but “hard.” After all, nobody needs emergency powers in easy times.

The Russian state is perpetually developing the mechanics of “emergency manageability.” This is one of the authorities’ biggest projects (you might call it their ideology). It’s tempting to say that the state is doing nothing, for example, when a road somewhere falls into disrepair. In fact, the authorities are merely otherwise occupied. Russia’s economy may be stagnant, but the authorities are always busy orchestrating and administering.

The authorities invest enormous amounts of energy into their fight against threats. Whatever happens — whether it’s an election that doesn’t unfold quite as planned or an unpleasant investigative report — they present everything to the public through the prism of threats. Under this umbrella, the security sector expands its powers and the authorities strengthen the nation’s physical, media, and digital borders in various ways.

Authority bestowed from above

When subjugation fails, the authorities simply remove the obstacle in their way, firing people, depriving them of rights, expelling them, complicating their activities however they can, and designating them as “agents,” “undesirables,” and so on. The examples are plain to see: from the human rights group Memorial to Alexey Navalny’s political and anti-corruption network. To complete the picture, recall a recent story from an entirely different sphere of life: the rebellious Schema-Hegumen Sergii — whose movement neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor the state could subdue — was punished along two lines simultaneously (at the altar and in the courts).

More about Schema-Hegumen Sergii

The exorcist How a confessed murderer became one of Russia’s most famous priests, took over a convent, and started cursing the Church and the state

More about Schema-Hegumen Sergii

The exorcist How a confessed murderer became one of Russia’s most famous priests, took over a convent, and started cursing the Church and the state

Churches and theocratic regimes are our most rigidly organized hierarchical structures and it’s perfectly fair to compare them to the state. Nearly 100 years ago, in 1922, the German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt proposed the concept of “political theology,” arguing that an individual’s consciousness changes slowly, that outwardly secular claims like sovereignty and rights have religious derivations, and that people still see higher powers behind institutions like parliaments and presidents. 

Authority in structures that resemble churches is bestowed from above — it’s transferred through consecration to new successors from those who already possess power, who were once themselves successors (hence the significance of “successors” in Russian politics). Somewhere at the base of this chain are the structure’s divine founders. Belief in the founders ensures the legitimacy of power.

But that’s churches, where there are dogmas and congregations waiting, as you’d expect, to take it all on faith. Whether you’re being welcomed into this frame of reference (or being excommunicated), it’s a well-understood and widely accepted act. Modern states, meanwhile, are the result of a long process of secularization and the rejection of traditional legitimacy in favor of democratic authority. Despite the enormity of the Russian authorities’ powers, it’s hard to imagine them managing somehow to inscribe the sacred origins of their legitimacy into the Constitution. 

They would like very much, however, to do exactly this. Vladislav Surkov, one of the men who created Russia’s modern political system, has made this clear. Back when he was the president’s deputy chief of staff, Surkov said Akhmad Kadyrov’s election as Chechen president was special. “He wasn’t selected by some human resources department. There were no questionnaires or interviews. There was no ‘president wanted’ ad printed in the newspaper,” explained Surkov. “God put this nation on Earth for however many centuries. In its hour of need, He sends those who lead their people out of trouble.” Akhmat Kadyrov was such a person, Surkov said, adding that he believes “fate and the Lord” sent Vladimir Putin to Russia at the country’s “time of need.”

In essence, Surkov’s comments represent a theological understanding of politics that grants emergency authority to the ruler. 

Society is no congregation

How far can the authorities go in their project to expand “manageability”? How might Russian society push back against all this turbulence? The various grassroots initiatives described at the start of this essay already represent an important response. Doctors heal people, teachers teach, pilots fly their planes (which is why standard aviation and medical protocols can still get in the way when the authorities want to kill someone), attorneys defend their clients, mechanics perform repairs, social organizations operate, and independent journalists and analysts manage to continue their work. All these groups face incredible challenges from administrative meddling, but people know they could plunge society into chaos if they fail to uphold professional and ethical standards. 

Of course, arrests, prison sentences, fines, and being labeled “agents” are thoroughly real, and it would be both impossible and wrong to dismiss this as a mere hassle. The authorities can take things far, but they will never go all the way. There are too many interactions and processes in Russian society today to make total control possible. Achieving a complete administrative “singularity” is impossible simply because the state would need to manage everything all at once. 

When Schmitt was writing his book a century ago, he didn’t yet know that his ideas would become one of the foundations for the totalitarian systems of the 20th century or that violent secularization (which Russian society endured at an accelerated pace in the Soviet era) was even possible.

The “theological” logic of power relies on the public’s willingness to accept it on faith, but society isn’t a congregation and the authorities aren’t the only ones active in Russia’s complex, highly organized public life. The passivity needed for managed administrative utopia just isn’t there.

Essay by Maxim Trudolyubov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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