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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 34-36
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Russia Under Putin
The Feudal Analogy
Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.
Comments On "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"
In his account of the rise of Vladimir Putin, Michael McFaul displays, as always, an intimate knowledge of Russian events, a willingness to report both sides of the ledger, and keen judgment. He does not, however, probe as deeply as he might into the nature of the political system that is evolving.
Among the interpreters of contemporary Russia dismissed by McFaul are those who have "likened contemporary Russia to feudal Europe." Yet McFaul seems to misunderstand the purport of this comparison, as indicated by his remark that "such historical analogies . . . suggest that no change has occurred in Russia over the last decade or the last 400 years." No one thinks that the Soviet system was feudal, and only Marxists call the Russia of the Romanovs feudal. The analogy with feudalism has been used, both by many observers within post-Soviet systems and by a few Western analysts, with almost the opposite intention. The feudal analogy is a fumbling attempt to find some label for a set of fundamental, sudden, and baffling political changes that appeared unexpectedly during the "transition" away from communist rule. One key change, of course, is the shift to democracy; McFaul has treated this quite adequately and with the necessary qualifications. Much more surprising has been the quick transformation of an overly strong state into a number of states that are almost all weak. This change was not any sort of reversion. The Czarist state showed its strength in carrying out decisions, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, against the interests of the most powerful social groups.
Many different factors are clearly at work in the weakening of specific post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, weakening of the state has occurred in a very large number of former communist areas with widely differing [End Page 34] histories and cultures. Leaving aside the Baltic states, the only post-Soviet republics that seem to be maintaining strong states are Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In this quarter of the globe, the danger is not only authoritarianism but a democratic state too weak to protect individual rights, enforce the law, or conserve the public patrimony.
This problem is of wider theoretical interest for the understanding of regime transitions. Most transitions away from authoritarian rule in the last two hundred years, however revolutionary or disorderly, did not weaken the state. If they did not issue in democracy, a strong authoritarian regime usually emerged, sometimes after a brief period of anarchy. (Fifteen years after the beginning of perestroika, this anarchy does not seem brief, or diminishing.) Because of this historical pattern, eminent Western experts on democratic transition did not anticipate the emergence of weak states after communism. In the "third-wave" transitions in Southern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia, departing authoritarian governments handed down an intact state apparatus to their successors. If we look to history, the most striking case of an over-whelmingly powerful and intrusive state succeeded by very weak states was the downfall of the Roman Empire in the West. For this reason, early feudalism becomes an interesting pole of comparison.
Another unexpected feature of the post-Soviet transition was the change from a system preoccupied with an unpopular version of the public interest to one dominated by private interests. The loss of public spirit pervades Russian life from top to bottom. The last area of the modern state to be invaded by private interests is usually the army. At a minimum, the army seeks to defend the collective selfishness of its community against the collective selfishness of other groups, and its soldiers are united by their dependence on one another for survival ("unit cohesion"). Before the second Chechen war, however, there were a number of documented cases in which officers and enlisted men sold their own comrades-in-arms to Chechen kidnappers. In the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade in Buinaksk, one of the most important posts in Dagestan, a ring involving at least one officer and...