Assessing the Politics of Fear and Power
in Contemporary Russia
Branislav Radeljić 11 January 2018

The number of arguments and explanations dealing with post-Soviet Russia is continuously increasing. Scholars, journalists and policy-makers are all obsessed with its trajectory and, even more specifically, the role of Vladimir Putin. In general, while some accounts tend to discuss his icon-like appearance and superstar leadership (Goscilo 2013; Hutchings & Rulyova 2009; Orttung & Zhemukhov 2017), others are more concerned with his ruthless approach, presenting him as an authoritarian and unpredictable player (Gel’man 2015, 2017). Accordingly, investigations and reporting of the regime’s wrongdoings can be extremely dangerous, sometimes with fatal consequences (Garrels 2016; LeVine 2009; Politkovskaya 2004, 2007; Zygar 2016). However, regardless of the perspective one feels closest to, we can all agree with the idea that in the post-Cold War period, characterised by new geopolitical preferences and reconsideration of spheres of influence, the Putin regime has tried to come up with a strong system, which would make the Russian leadership matter at any point, both regionally and globally (Allison 2013; Donaldson et al. 2014; Lipman & Petrov 2013; Lucas 2014; Mankoff 2009).

This review article looks at three important volumes interested in the emergence and consolidation of post-Soviet Russia. The contributors are concerned with the Russian state apparatus and its positioning vis-à-vis other state and non-state actors. What becomes obvious is that power accumulation has undoubtedly been accompanied by a widespread generation of fear—any decision to challenge the system in place may result in threats, prosecution and total exclusion. Still, many members of the public have continued to express their admiration for the ruling elite, seeing it as truly committed and working in the best interests of the Russian people. Accordingly, the extremely relevant questions in relation to freedom, democratic change and societal transformation appear much more difficult to answer.

The Power State Is Back? is a collection of papers following the international workshop entitled ‘The Evolution of Russian Political Thought After 1991″ held in June 2015 in Berlin. As rightly observed in the Preface, in contrast to the academic community, Western policymakers have largely ignored Russia’s potential for a long time—an approach mostly due to the view that the West ‘defeated’ the Soviet Union, whose collapse was further accentuated by various political and economic crises. However, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 confirmed that Russia is ‘a colossal and enigmatic neighbour that wanted to assert its power status and with which the West had failed to create a lasting and comprehensive dialogue and a longterm strategy to face the post-bipolar world order’ (p. 14).

The development of Russian political thought in the post-Soviet era is a process affected by a range of aspects. Timothy Colton talks about individual actors who alter their political standpoint, the gradual or sudden transformation of the opinion aggregate and the issue of self-censorship. As he explains, taking all of them into consideration, individually or in combination, ‘will strongly influence not only what we conclude about trends in Russian thought but the strategies we employ, foreigners and Russians alike, to investigate and debate them’ (p. 31). These observations are nicely complemented by Stephen Hanson’s important account. In Hanson’s view, an analysis of the period 1989–2014 is an absolute prerequisite for successfully understanding present Russian authoritarianism. While looking into different schools of thought tackling the question of patrimonialism—the continuity approach, the rational choice approach and the ‘virtual politics’ or ‘manufactured truth’ approach, and accordingly the relevance of cultural, rationalist and postmodern standpoints—we can agree that it is difficult to describe contemporary Putinism as a simple extension of previous approaches dominating the Russian political scene. In fact, Hanson sees some of Putin’s ideas as quite risky, especially in the light of the alarming economic conditions.

The annexation of Crimea helped Putin to consolidate his popularity. More precisely, while before 2014 the politics of fear and repression seriously contributed to the erosion of Putin’s personal rating, which reached the lowest of his entire rule in 2013, the post-Crimea period has witnessed greater consensus between a state and society both wishing to see Russia become a true superpower. As noted by Lev Gudkov, ‘[t]he system itself (entity) has fallen apart, but separate institutes of late soviet totalitarianism—such as authority organisation, court, army, education—have turned out to be “viable” and active’ (p. 51). They sustain the privatisation of the state, a process that although characterised by mounting corruption, state-generated propaganda and human rights abuses, still manages to leave an impression that there is no alternative to the existing regime.

Alexey Miller is concerned with nation-building. For example, the Crimea issue has also accentuated the question of borders; while some would like Russia to acquire additional territories, others would like it to marginalise certain parts, such as Chechnya or even all the Caucasus autonomous republics. In addition, the relationship between the notions of rossiiskost’ (Russian citizenship) and russkost’ (Russianness) is of great relevance here. As explained, russkost’ cannot be all-embracing, because millions of Russian citizens do not want to assimilate or to identify themselves as Russians. The concept of the Russian rossiiskaya nation supports the equality of their civil rights with Russians and comfortable coexistence in the same state as Russians. All these dilemmas are further examined in Marlene Laruelle’s chapter on xenophobia in Russia, making a distinction between the so-called ‘near abroad’ (with the obvious presence of xenophobic attitudes) and Eurasia (serving Russia’s greatness and hegemony narrative). Understandably, such a division represents a major paradox in the current Russia-as-an-empire discourse and future ambitions. Mark Kramer’s contribution is about the common denominator of post-Soviet Russia—war. In his view, Russia’s involvement in the neighbourhood and, most recently, in Syria, apart from stemming from an ambitious Kremlin agenda, which helped Putin cement his power, was additionally motivated by United States interventions around the world, in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, the regime’s tight control of the media and lack of public debate led the vast majority to trust and support the Kremlin’s approach.

Putin, as suggested by Alexander Golts, has actually managed to employ the vertical power model: ‘On the top of the pyramid stands the president—who is also the commander in chief—and below—level-by-level—executive and dedicated officials, capable of carrying the will of the “supreme leader” to each and every corner of the vast country’ (p. 94). Still, Russia’s drive for territorial expansion does not come cheaply; the rapid annexation of Crimea was immediately accompanied by sanctions, isolation and economic stagnation, challenging the impression that the need for Russian natural resources could justify conflict and violation of sovereignty. Such a strategy, in Pavel Baev’s words, ‘had delivered Russia into a situation where the “hybrid” features of the conflict work more against its interests than in favour of them’ (p. 105).

Needless to say, the West is often presented as an enemy, wishing to spread different sociocultural values that would eventually erode the credibility of the ruling elite to the extent that some new figures, hopefully pro-Western, would take over.
Here, Victoria Zhuravleva looks at anti-Americanism in Russia, which was ‘used both to support a siege mentality and to construct the national idea’ (p. 113). All this is regularly used (or abused) in the debates over security and external threats. Accordingly, Olga Pavlenko suggests considering a number of levels: firstly, the socio-cultural level, which helps us understand conservative and proliberal trends; secondly the geopolitical level, concerned with questions of territory and collective identity (including the notion of neo-Eurasianism); thirdly the political-strategic level, focusing on military threats and national security; and finally, the military-technical level, responsible for the arms and military industry. However, Pavlenko insists that the assessment of different levels and the overall power and relevance or irrelevance of Russia in global affairs is not an easy job: ‘It amazes me that the analysts who do not speak Russian, have no knowledge of the traditions of the Russian political culture, its internal political landscape, and even no access to local information database, still claim to be experts when discussing the Russian politics’ (p. 134).

Svetlana Stephenson’s impeccably researched Gangs of Russia is a study of the formation, consolidation and future of the street shadow society and organised crime networks in the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan, with particular attention to its capital, Kazan. Her point is clear: ‘Russian gangs are not alien to society; they are firmly embedded in it. They include both exclusively criminal operators and people who can be respectable and hold professional jobs. … [T]hey try to create a wide web of obligations and favours around themselves’ (p. 9). She starts by outlining how young men mobilised within their neighbourhoods, mostly in peripheral zones of large urban centres. During the Soviet period, with new housing settlements but also increasing social differentiation, street organisations became even more prominent, when membership in a gang, but also wars between gangs, grew dramatically. In addition to what was often perceived as their regular activities (house burglaries and various types of theft), criminal groups collaborated with local businessmen as well as state administrators.

The immediate post-Soviet context was a period of all sorts of crises, seeing the emergence of many small, unregulated and unprotected business activities. Accordingly, ‘[e]ntrepreneurial gangs appeared in rural areas, where bands of local youths, often under the guidance of ex-prisoners, began to establish protection rackets covering local shops and kiosks, small businesses, and farms’ (p. 55). The ones who refused to pay were in serious trouble and the ones who did pay enjoyed protection. Such an arrangement helped the gangs’ consolidation and further reproduction; in fact, some of them established links and expanded into other territories, going all the way to Moscow and St Petersburg. The gangs were also interested in partnering with state-level bureaucrats, including law and police officers. As illustrated, these ‘sought cooperation with bandits to use their criminal skills and their wide contacts transcending legal and illegal societies’ (p. 77). In the 2000s, under Vladimir Putin, things started to change. State agencies became stronger, and capable of providing regulation and protection. This, however, does not mean that organised crime disappeared; for example, legitimate businesses are still forced to pay bribes to racketeers, and the police extort money from taxi drivers. Here Stephenson offers a number of useful remarks about the dynamics within the gangs in relation to ethos, gender, structure, punishment and growing differentiation, which has become the dominant feature.
She concludes:

For some, the gang provides economic opportunities; for others, it becomes more of a social club. … Young people coming from troubled and deprived backgrounds are more likely to become immersed in street criminality, while members from educated professional families are likely to be on their way to leaving street crime behind. But in all cases the connections acquired through the gang, and the violent resource the gang provides, are seen as useful in furthering every type of career. (p. 150)

The chapter on the gang in the community offers more detail about the very perception of gangs, their interaction with non-members, the surveillance of their activities and the investigation of their crimes. Some non-members, although aware of the fear and insecurity gangs tend to generate, would give them priority over the lawless state. As noted by one interviewee, ‘[i]f the gangs did not exist, there would be more violence and bespredel [lawlessness]. If there were no organized criminal groups, people would still do what these groups do’ (p. 155). Furthermore, the police employ a range of methods to deal with crimes, including monitoring, the provocation of conflicts within gangs, occasional raids, and violence, as in a case in 2012, when a police officer raped a male suspect with a champagne bottle. The suspect eventually died from his injuries (p. 162).

The book proceeds by addressing the so-called ponyatiya (rules of conduct in criminal communities), issues evolving around the moral reasoning of the gang (the code and what behaviour is seen as acceptable or unacceptable), the gang’s social order (dignity, loyalty to the gang, the subordinate position of women), and beliefs and cultural practices. Discussion of these aspects is further complemented by an analysis of gangs’ violent strategies, both conversational and physical. In any case,

the victims are construed as inferior human beings who lack the moral qualities that lads possess (self-determination, strength, control, etc.) and who have to accept their place in the lads’ order. By accepting it, they further confirm their designation. If they challenge the lads’ power in any way, by refusing to pay or not showing enough deference, they are punished. (p. 197)

Given the strong presence of gang culture at a national level, Stephenson rightly concludes her study by placing it in the wider Russian context. Many regions have witnessed a correlation and obvious similarities between the formal and informal, with lads and their logic having become an ordinary feature in public life. No matter what opinion people may have about gangs, their influence cannot be denied; in fact, even the ones who would object to their presence, often referring to them as a social disgrace, would use their language when describing everyday life in Russia and the attitude of the powerful elite. At the same time, members of the system have also embraced the lads’ unique style:

Th[e] praise for Putin is a good example of the convergence between the official and unofficial Russia. No longer do the criminal classes feel that they are in total opposition to the state. For their part, public figures similarly believe that making gestures and expressions deriving from the worlds of the street and the zona [prison or labour camp] may give them additional legitimacy. (p. 229)

Lena Jonson’s Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia is a very well-researched evaluation of the arts community and potential of counterculture to consolidate itself and confront rigid political structures. The study covers the period 2000–2013, which was very much dominated by the ambition to create a new Russian identity: ‘Putin chose a strategy of traditional, basic collective values. The aim was to promote state cohesion and to legitimise the demand for the unconditional subordination of Russian citizens’ (p. 9). In such an environment, the contemporary art scene opted for one of three ways to express its dissatisfaction—in the form of another gaze, ready to challenge the existing conceptions in a sophisticated manner; dissent art, thus openly disapproving of the official agenda; or the art of engagement, by delivering political messages in the public sphere. The author does well to remind us of the ups and downs of Russian activism throughout the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, avant-gardists used provocation to encourage independent thinking; in the 1930s they were largely marginalised and their work was removed from exhibition spaces. The 1960s brought back optimism and interaction with the international art world, with Sots-Art artists deconstructing state symbols and Soviet utopia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Actionism became the dominant trend: ‘[t]he Actionists expressed a duality in relation to the authorities. They focused their actions on the absurd realities of political life, on the one hand, while supporting the democratically elected president, Boris Eltsin, on the other’ (p. 28).

With Putin in power, the official discourse focused on state nationalism, Russia as an Orthodox nation, and a unique Russian path. Accordingly, artists as well as art critics were presented with a clear choice: they could either side with the new regime or oppose it. Indeed, the exhibitions ‘Beware! Religion’ in 2003, ‘Rossiya 2’ in 2005, ‘Russian PopArt’ in 2005, and ‘Forbidden Art’ in 2007 were provocative and inspired numerous questions about authoritarianism and free space. Indeed, ‘many artists expressed a feeling of insecurity and fear of an unidentified threat lurking in a dark and unknown space. They emphasized the fragility of life in the big cities as well as the vulnerability of individuals’ (p. 54). By looking at the works of a number of remarkable artists, it is obvious that they were also interested in the officially promoted question ‘Who are we, the Russians?’, but in contrast to the state agenda (also strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church’s common identity discourse), the artists focused on diversity and the individual.

The Church exercised its power whenever possible. For example, its reactions to ‘The Young Godless’ and ‘Do Not Believe Your Eyes’—two performances, staged in 1998 andv2000, both openly rejecting and ridiculing Orthodox symbols—escalated to the extent that their creators had to flee the country. Later, the exhibitions ‘Beware! Religion’ and ‘Forbidden Art’ caused a lot of trouble for the respective organisers: they were prosecuted and, as expected, lost the battle. The consequent trials were an indicator of the state of artistic freedom, sending a clear message to artists, ‘you are free to make whatever kind of art you want as long as it is not exhibited in public’ (p. 119). However, at this point, the process of awakening in the arts community seemed to gain momentum. The development of protest art, often in the form of parody, exaggeration and slapstick humour, was shown both in and beyond the galleries. As Jonson concludes, ‘[w]hat followed in 2010 and 2011 was a wave of art activism that expressed the anti-establishment approach. … Artists not only allowed life to influence their own activities but also wanted art to become a trigger for things to start happening in society and a movement to take off’ (p. 158). They were aware of the generally difficult conditions under Putin and wanted to challenge his way of doing things. The art of engagement as a form of counterculture manifested itself through performance and actions, documentary art, and political posters and graffiti. Amongst these, Pussy Riot received the most international attention. In February 2012, the feminist punk group entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, singing ‘Mother of God, Put Putin Away!’. They were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in a penal colony. While the Church insisted that their action had offended believers, various human rights organisations and the arts community intelligentsia supported Pussy Riot. In 2011, protests were a regular feature, consisting of media activism (via the internet) and demonstrations. Bloggers renamed the pro-Putin United Russia Party as the ‘Party of Scoundrels and Thieves’ and coined different slogans in order to attract attention. Street protests involved representatives of the creative community as well as some politicians and highly educated people. As observed by Jonson, ‘[t]his lack of respect for Putin had been unthinkable only two years earlier. The flood of jokes about Putin helped to desacralize his power. The political leadership was mocked, directly and in public, to an extent never seen before’ (p. 205). However, when Putin was elected president again in 2012, protesters and the art world were subjected to substantial pressure and existential fear, and were often labelled as indoctrinated by the West to undermine Russia. All this was blessed by the Church. In the field of contemporary art, while cultural policy took a conservative turn, generally supporting less critical artistic expressions, ‘[t]hrough its ambiguity and elusiveness, art functioned as a corrective to the new illusions of absolute and eternal ideological values and conceptions’(p. 237).

Overall, the three books presented here complement the existing scholarship on post- Soviet Russia and are of major interest to graduate students as well as a general audience interested in politics, society and the power of art. The authors’ detailed grasp of the situation is impressive. While Cucciolla’s volume is mostly about the consolidation of state power, Jonson’s and Stephenson’s analyses are predominantly concerned with the role of different non-state actors, whose position and functioning are conditioned by the system, meaning whether they side with the regime or seek to challenge it. In any case, what comes across is the existence of fear and unpredictability. Indeed, the three accounts encourage thinking about future directions of the political elite and possible public responses, including a more obvious discontent and street demonstrations.

BRANISLAV RADELJIĆ, Reader in International Relations, University of East London, London, UK. Email:

Riccardo Mario Cucciolla (ed.), The Power State Is Back? The Evolution of Russian Political
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Svetlana Stephenson, Gangs of Russia. From the Streets to the Corridors of Power. Ithaca,
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This article was published by Taylor and Francis Online on 30 October 2017
copyright © University of Glasgow reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, on behalf of University of Glasgow.