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Three Regimes in Russia
Revolutions and the deficiencies of political taxonomy
Revolutions can be tricky things. Often, they are fairly obvious and hard to miss - the Bastille is stormed, the Tsar is placed under house arrest, or the British are forced to leave the Atlantic seaboard in disgrace. The political and societal churn that accompanies such dramatic state upheaval provides catharsis for angry populations, avenues of ascent for the ambitious, and the climactic “year zero” of the new state, society and man, who is permitted to believe that everything really has changed. These sorts of revolutions feel good - at least for a time.
Paradoxically, however, the most successful political revolutions tend to be the ones that nobody notices.
Consider, for example, the curious case of England, where a decade of civil war, regicide, and a brief interregnum of rule by Oliver Cromwell failed to resolve the tensions between the Crown and Parliament. Within a few years of Cromwell’s death, the restored monarchy had issued a Sedition Act which made it a crime to even suggest that Parliament could rule without the King’s assent. Monarchs continued to veto acts of Parliament, right up until 1708, when Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill. Since that moment, no British monarch has vetoed an act of Parliament - but why? Nothing about the legal mechanism was formally changed; no heads were chopped off. Under Queen Anne’s successor, George I, royal power gradually diminished and the guiding animus of the state concretized around a cabinet led by Lord Robert Walpole, who became the de facto first Prime Minister.
Cromwell’s revolution did not last. Neither did the counterrevolution of the restored monarchy. Walpole’s however, did, and it happened gradually and almost indiscernibly to the common people of England - like the proverbial frog that is slowly brought up to boil.
Americans, similarly, like to speak of their “Revolution”, naively believing that there was only one. In fact, America has undergone no less than four revolutions. The first, most famous, and only openly acknowledged one ended British rule, but the subsequent, unseen revolutions changed the American system of government no less than the first had.
The American Civil War forced the state to expand its capacity to deal with the strains of war - the state sold bonds and levied income taxes for the first time, created new agencies like the Bureau of Pensions and a primitive Department of Agriculture, and government contractors exploded as the government vacuumed up weapons and supplies. The rapid expansion of the federal bureaucracy also spawned a patronage system, wherein jobs and sinecures were distributed as political favors - a concept that is very familiar to modern Americans who are used to seeing the revolving door between Washington DC and the defense contractors in Baltimore and Northern Virginia.
Subsequent American revolutions occurred in the 1930’s, when the Great Depression provided screening for FDR’s New Deal and the further metastasization of the federal bureaucracy and its powers (Wickard v. Filburn), and again in the 1960’s, when Civil Rights added a new dimension of litigiousness to society. The Civil Rights movement sought to overturn a democratically established system of legal oppression in the South - a worthy cause, perhaps, but to accomplish this, the federal government needed to empower judges and bureaucrats against southern state governments, creating, in effect, a weaponized federal apparatus that did not simply disappear once segregation had been dismantled.
The point of this admittedly rather long detour is not to air the laundry of Anglo-American political history, but rather to make what I think is an important point: the political system of a country can be radically remade without the accompanying bloodshed that we typically think of as characterizing revolutions.
Such “silent revolutions” have occurred countless times in countless places, but here I would like to consider the ways this has occurred in Russia.
Civil War Without Revolution
One of the defining periods of Russian history is the so-called Time of Troubles (in Russia, simply “Смута”, or “the Troubles”). This was a fifteen year period of civil war and general societal upheaval which took place between 1598 and 1613.
The causes were myriad. Underlying the whole situation was a general exhaustion of Russia’s security and economic model. The Tsar granted landed estates to the military class in exchange for their service, but by the late 1500’s the country was short on both productive agricultural land and peasants to work the fields. As a result, military servitors found it ever harder to meet their expenses (some even sold themselves into temporary slavery), and the peasantry was ever more harshly oppressed by their landlords. Simultaneously, Russian urban areas were becoming depopulated as residents fled to avoid taxes (one peculiarity of the Russian state at the time being the fact that the tax burden fell almost exclusively on townsfolk). The whole concoction was very dangerous - a resentful and oppressed peasantry, depopulated and impoverished towns, and a military servitor class that was barely hanging on.
The extinction of the ruling dynasty provided the match to light the whole explosive mixture on fire. The Tsar, Feodor I, was mentally handicapped (some now suspect Downs Syndrome) and unable to produce an heir, and his death sent the country spiraling into a cataclysmic civil war which ravaged the land. The Troubles live up to their name in every way - the country was subjected to the bizarre spectacle of a series of imposter tsars, who all claimed to be “Dmitri”, the supposed long lost son of Ivan the Terrible. Every time a Dmitri was killed, a new imposter would materialize claiming to have miraculously escaped death. Eventually, Russia was invaded by both Poland and Sweden, while much of the country became the domain of armed bandits. Moscow was finally liberated after an extended Polish occupation by an army of patriotic Cossacks and militia.
The Time of Troubles fits the conventional profile of a political revolution. The ruling dynasty went extinct, and the subsequent unrest and civil war saw mass participation from virtually all strata of society. The end result of the troubles, however, was the total reset of political system to its pre-Troubles form. Michael Romanov was chosen to become the new Tsar, and his coronation and reign were carefully choreographed to signal continuity with the old dynasty (to whom he was related). Despite the fact that the liberation of Moscow and the enthronement of the Romanovs was made possible by the lower classes - especially the Cossacks - the reconstituting Romanov state was built around the high born princes and aristocrats (boyars), and expended much of its energy putting the Cossacks back in their place.
The result was a Civil War which ended in a political settlement wherein nothing changed. The desire, after so much disorder and death, was only to put everything back the way it was before, and the first Romanovs presented themselves as a continuation of the interrupted old Tsardom. Power continued to be concentrated in the aristocratic families that swirled in constellation around the throne… at least for a time.
The Rule of Strong Men
Peter the Great was born in 1672 into a very confused political situation. He was the son of Tsar Alexei by his second wife - the first having died after giving the Alexei several children. As the child of the second marriage, Peter’s position in the hierarchy was not ideal, but each of his half siblings had problems that helped his case: the eldest boy, Feodor, was extremely frail and chronically ill (and would indeed die shortly after taking the throne), the second, Ivan, had some undiagnosed but extreme mental handicap (he allegedly sat still staring blankly into space for hours), and the rest were girls and thus unable to take the throne.
Given the confused state of the court - and the activities of ambitious and conniving aristocrats who were always seeking to aggrandize themselves - Peter spent his formative years shuffled off to the side, where he began to do what many young boys have done throughout the ages: he played soldier. As a royal son, however, Peter had the power to recruit local boys, requisition real weaponry, and hire foreign instructors to drill them. Peter’s famous “toy army” became his adolescent preoccupation - but it was also the embryonic form of the Guards Regiments that would become a crucial arm of the state.
From a group of boys drilling in the woods outside Moscow, Peter’s regiments were gradually transformed into bona fide military units, which were formally christened the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiments. The regiments fought with distinction in Peter’s wars against Sweden, and when he built the new city of St Petersburg on the Baltic and moved the capital there, the Guards Regiments became a sort of gendarme, permanently posted in the heart of the court.
Alongside his overhaul of the military and the formation of the Guards, Peter famously engaged in a concerted effort to whip the nobility into shape (sometimes literally). For centuries, the Russian aristocracy had been governed by a system known as Mestnichestvo (“Position Rank”), which placed all the aristocratic families in a tightly regulated and choreographed hierarchy based on family pedigree, and determined which men could be appointed to which positions. This system was a bulwark against meritocracy, incentivized jealousy, and stagnated the ruling system. According to the iconic Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky:
"You could beat a boyar up, you could take away his property, you could expel him from government service, but you could never make him accept an appointment or a seat at the tsar's table lower than what he is entitled to."
In place of this sclerotic system, Peter instituted a famed “Table of Ranks”, which assigned hierarchical preeminence based on service to the state - it further equivocated between service in the civil government, the military, and the court. For example, a State Councilor in the civil government (usually a vice-governor or the vice-director of a government bureau) was equivalent to a Brigadier General in the Army, or to a Cup-Bearer in the court. The Table of Ranks was intended to jolt the aristocracy into action, creating a competitive drive to serve the state in order to enhance their ranks.
The Table of Ranks did not eliminate Russia’s hereditary aristocracy. Most high positions continued to be filled be the sons of old and great families - but the reforms did create the necessary incentives to drive better state service from these men, as well as create avenues for ambitious and competent low-born men to rise. The frenetic activity of Peter’s reign allowed a coterie of key functionaries to coalesce around him. Some, like Boris Sheremetev, were the scions of old aristocratic families; others, like Alexander Menshikov - “The Prince from the Dirt” - were commoners who came from nothing.
The ingredients of Peter’s silent revolution begin to come together. The Guards Regiments mill about their barracks in the heart of the Saint Petersburg palaces - a potent armed force in direct proximity to the halls of power and free access to the rooms where secrets are whispered. Menshikov and Peter’s other “New Men” - men who enjoyed a meteoric rise by participating in Peter’s numerous reforms and projects, who would militate to protect the new system. Finally, we add in the simple fact that Russia had no concretized system of succession. Peter favored a system of designation, allowing the reigning Tsar-Emperor to choose their heir, but he never exercised this prerogative himself - famously writing ‘leave it all to” on his deathbed, and falling unconscious before he could complete the sentence.
No sooner had Peter the Great died than the system he built sprang into action to defend itself. Menshikov convened the rest of the inner circle in a room down the hall from the Tsar’s body, and they agreed that Peter’s second wife, Catherine, should become Empress. Menshikov summoned the Guards Regiments and appraised them of the situation. The Guards then paraded out into the grounds of the Winter Palace and acclaimed “our Sovereign Lady and Empress Catherine.”
For the entirety of the 18th Century - beginning with Peter the Great - power in Russia was settled by the will of strong men in Saint Petersburg. Catherine I was chosen in 1725 by Peter’s men, and her ascension was made real by the Guards Regiments. In 1730, Anna (a niece of Peter’s) was then similarly chosen by Catherine’s privy council. The childless Anna designated her infant nephew as her heir, but the child and his parents were soon arrested by the Guards Regiments, who instead acclaimed Peter’s daughter Elizabeth as the Empress. Finally, Elizabeth’s own nephew (another Peter, and a particularly lousy one) was himself arrested and murdered by the Imperial Guards, who favored his wife (another Catherine, and a particularly great one).
All the transitions of power between the death of Peter the Great and the time of Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century were decided almost entirely by the Guards Regiments and the strongmen at the highest ranks of the state at the time. This has at times been characterized as Russia’s age of Praetorian Rule, recalling the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire, which both murdered and selected emperors seemingly at will. The Guards were the creation of the Emperor, but over time the Emperor (or Empress, as the case may be) seemed to increasingly be the creation of the Guards. Catherine the Great in particular, as a foreigner, owed her reign to the support of the Guards, and her two most famous lovers - Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin - were both Guards officers.
Because the Guards and the strongmen of the nobility were the crucial determinants in any transition of power, they necessarily became the base of power for the monarch. The entire guiding animus of Peter’s reign had been to modernize Russia by goading the elites into action; crafting carrots and sticks that would force a lethargic, sclerotic, and corrupt hereditary aristocracy into rendering better and more dynamic state service, wedding them to Peter’s project of modernization.
Peter’s silent revolution was to elevate strong men to the heights of the state and nurture a prestigious and politically invested armed force in the heart of the court. This created a self-perpetuating Petrine machine that drove Russia’s ascent to preeminence; the machine conscripted peasants to build new cities and man the army, creeping like slow moving lava over weakened neighbors like Poland and the decaying Khanates of Central Asia, reaching an apogee under Catherine the Great, who conquered Crimea from the Tatars and settled the steppes of Novorossiya with Russian peasants, founding the cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, Sevastopol, and Mariupol. When the ruler faltered - either by dying, or by being weak - Peter’s Praetorian Machine sprang into action to select and install a new Emperor or Empress that would safeguard and advance its interests.
All of this was undone by one of the most ignominious and unappreciated of Russia’s rulers - Tsar Paul, son of Catherine the Great. Paul ruled for only five years, and had the bad fortune of being the link between his famous mother and his son Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon, making Paul himself look rather lame by comparison. He also had the even worse fortune of being assassinated, which virtually ensured a negative popular image, since assassins are rarely induced to speak well of their victims.
Paul spent most of his life languishing, waiting for his mother to die so that he could rule (not unlike King Charles III). Paul resented the fact that his mother - who was not Russian at all - had, in effect, usurped his father and generally considered Catherine to have unjustly occupied throne. Paul could not go back in time and begin his reign earlier, but he could prevent the same injustice from befalling his descendants - so, one of his first acts was to promulgate a formal succession law dictating that the throne should pass down by strict male primogeniture. This, with a single stroke of the pen, neutered the Praetorian State by denying the Guards and the Aristocrats of their power to influence the succession.
Paul was not done. He was a man with strong military inclinations - not in the sense of craving war or violence, but in his love of the predictability, discipline, and hierarchy of the army. He therefore attempted to force the Russian aristocracy into a more intense and disciplined service to the state – what one historian has called Paul’s attempted “militarization of government”. He had little sympathy for the liberties that the nobility had enjoyed under Catherine, and encouraged provincial governors to pressure aristocratic sons into state service. It has been suggested that Paul suffered from what would now be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder: he was extremely preoccupied with rules, cleanliness, and predictability, and he imposed these principles on his environment by attempting to create a more rationalized government that ran according to routines and procedures. This led him to lean on professional administrators rather than a loose coterie of aristocratic administrators.
Paul’s twin attempts to both neutralize aristocratic privileges and force the nobility into more intense state service naturally made him unpopular with those same aristocrats (his paranoia and mercurial manners did not help), and in due time he was assassinated in his bedchamber. But the succession law stayed, and his son Alexander took the throne. From that point on, the throne passed cleanly down the male line.
Paul’s descendants steadily moved the country towards a cabinet style government, with successive advances under Nicholas I, who established a multi-department Chancery that ran most affairs of state, and Alexander II, who abolished serfdom. The end of serfdom was a great moral victory, but it also forced a radical reorganization of the country’s administrative life. The relationship between landowner and serf was an oppressive one, but it was also the basis of the state’s functionality. Landowners acted as conscription agents, tax collectors, and police on their own estates - lightening the administrative burden on the state and distributing responsibility for keeping law and order. With serfdom ended, this relationship was severed, and the state was forced to radically expand its footprint in order to take up the administrative and policing duties that had previously belonged to the aristocracy.
By the late 1800’s, the power structure in Russia had been radically changed, and the old cooperative arrangement between the aristocracy and the monarch had gradually given way to a bureaucratized autocracy where the Tsar wielded unconstrained political power (in theory, at least) enforced by a thinly stretched administrative police state.
The Russian state underwent two systematic restructurings under the Romanov dynasty. The first was inaugurated by Peter the Great, who tried to break apart the stale and calcified old feudal rank system and reinvigorate the aristocracy with new incentives and a powerful Praetorian Guard to safeguard the machine. The second began with Paul, who in turn neutralized the political power of the Guards to control the succession process, and continued by his sons and grandsons, who pushed Russia further away from aristocratic oligarchy towards a bureaucratic-administrative state. Both of these revolutions were essentially silent, in that they occurred by the gradual action of political mechanisms, and without major social unrest or civil war. Even the abolition of serfdom was achieved bloodlessly - no small feat indeed.
The Age of Party Rule
Of course, not all revolutions are bloodless and quiet. Russia’s most famous revolution was born in a world war and became a civil war which left untold millions dead. This is not the place to adjudicate or discuss the events that led to Bolshevik rule in the lands of the Russian Empire. Instead, let us make a brief meditation on the political fruits of that war and revolution. The Bolsheviks crafted something entirely new and undeniably innovative: the party-state.
The defining structural feature of the Soviet state was innovative party-state dualism. The Bolshevik Party, later renamed the Communist Party, remained a nominally private organization that was institutionally separate from the state. It wielded power by virtue of personal union with the state, rather than legal or institutional union. That is to say, the Communist Party ruled the Soviet Union because every member of the state’s organs - every bureaucrat, policeman, the head of every trade union, the manager of every factory, the director of every collective farm, and every commissar (equivalent to a minister or secretary in western parlance) was a member of the Party, and was duty bound to obey party dictates. The state had a Council of People’s Commissars, which on paper was a fairly typical cabinet style government, whose chairman was the equivalent of a prime minister. Yet decision making did not occur on this council; it occurred in the Politburo, which was the highest decision making body of the Party.
Virtually every institution in the country became statized, after the abolition of private property, and the nature of party-state dualism dictated that party organizations should proliferate and dominate inside all institutions. The result was something akin to a theocracy. The state, with its bureaucracy, police force, factories, farms, and intelligence services provided the the musculature and the organs of the Soviet Union, enabling it to move and act in the world - but the party provided the skeleton and the nerves, binding all the variegated parts together and ensuring that it acted with a single purpose.
The Party, in turn, was governed by the Secretariat and the Orgburo, which made personnel decisions, disciplined party members, and distributed rewards like jobs, apartments, cars, and vacations. These organs controlled the party “apparatus” - the administrative web of party committees and organizations staffed by “apparatchiks’’, who were party members that worked full time for the party and did not hold outside posts (a powerful but narrow minority of the party’s full membership). The focal point of this control system was the Nomenklatura (“System of Names”), which consisted of those party members that were elevated to state positions - factory managers, university administrators, bureaucratic posts, and high office.
The consolidation of the party-state dual structure was achieved under Stalin, whose massive appetite for work, administrative prowess, and political acumen gave him the skillset needed to tame an entirely new sort of state structure and force it to do what he wanted. Any suspicions that the party-state was a manifestation of Stalin’s will were put to rest after his death. Lavrentiy Beria and Georgy Malenkov, two crucial members of Stalin’s inner circle at the end of his life, both had technocratic tendencies - which is to say, they favored empowering the state organs and reducing the overt influence of the party. They were defeated in the post-Stalin power struggle by Nikita Khrushchev - a party man par excellence whose base of power was precisely the apparatchiks whose influence Beria wanted to curtail.
Ultimately, the party state was undone by its final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who disastrously opted to neuter his own administrative system. In many ways, he faced a problem that was intimately familiar to Peter the Great: an elite that had become sclerotic, corrupt, and - as Gorbachev saw it - simply incapable of doing what needed to be done to carry the country forward. Gorbachev desperately wanted to be a reformer - he earnestly desired to be a second Lenin, who could reinvigorate the socialist system and push a stagnating superpower to new heights. But the party was a problem - as the source of all political power in the country, he needed the party to implement reforms, but the party apparatus was viewed as an obstacle to those very reforms.
Gorbachev believed that he needed to jolt the party into action and break through the opposition of the party apparatus. To do this, he neutered the secretariat - the same administrative body that was his own source of power. He distributed the secretariat’s duties to other bodies, drastically reduced its staffing, and stopped convening meetings, before neutralizing the party’s political power altogether with changes to the constitution. Having emaciated the powers of his own party, Gorbachev jumped to a new office - “President of the Soviet Union” - and attempted to use this new position to wield power.
For Gorbachev - a committed communist who idolized Lenin - to intentionally destroy the party’s hold on power seems bizarre, but it makes good sense given his own presuppositions and logic. He believed that the sclerotic USSR needed reform, and he viewed the party - especially the apparatchiks - as a barrier to reform. But the idea of party-state dualism gave him an out; he could weaken the party while empowering the state, so that the state could do the work of reform that the party seemed unable or unwilling to do. What he did not understand (shockingly) was that it was the party that held the entire construct together. Without skeleton or nerves, the Soviet Union collapsed into an unseemly pile of formless flesh.
Regimes and Revolution
On a sojourn through Russian history, one can identify several discreet regimes, three of which we have discussed at length here:
Praetorian Rule: rule by the monarch, through the Guards Regiments, strongmen, and aristocratic allies - animated by the reforms of Peter the Great.
Bureaucratic Monarchy: rule by the monarch through the bureaucratic, administrative, and policing organs of the state. The transition towards this regime from the Praetorian regime was begun by Paul I changing the succession law, and concretized by his successors.
The Party-State: a dualistic structure where the ruling party remained a private organization, institutionally separate from the state, but controlling all political and bureaucratic matters through its control of state personnel.
The comparison of the current Russian government to praetorian rule is obvious - Putin is surrounded by so-called “Siloviki”, or “Strongmen”. This is a government amply staffed with current and former personnel of state security agencies. Putin himself is a former head of the Federal Security Bureau, and the most powerful men in Russia are by and large “securocrats.” While some have tried to call Russia a de-facto single party state, given United Russia’s supermajority in legislative bodies, the comparison is an atrocious one. There is no omnipotent party apparatus controlling all things behind the scenes, and the bureaucratic reach of United Russia as such is miniscule and unworthy of comparison to the Communist Party in its heyday.
In any case, the long arc of Russia’s history should give us pause before we seek to speak of its political system with broad, blunt categories. This is a civilization which marks its progress in centuries, and from its medieval past, to its Praetorian apogee, on down through the rise and fall of party rule, it has always been defined by tenacity and clever mobilization of resources. Putin is only the latest in a long line of Russian leaders to confront the problem of mobilizing indigenous resources while in a state of civilizational siege. Whether the securitocracy, this neo-Praetorian state can successfully manage the current crisis remains to be seen.
One thing that is clear from history, however, is that the state structure changes and adapts to face challenges - silent revolutions happen gradually, under the surface, as the state grapples with new challenges, fights to either reinvigorate or purge sclerotic and decaying elites (oligarchs, anyone?) and seeks new ways to defend itself and exert power. This applies to Russia’s competitors no less than it does to Russia herself. So for those hoping for spectacular regime change - be it the fall of Putin, or the collapse of dominant western institutions - you may be disappointed. Sometimes the revolution is quiet.