Russian political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov once wrote that state power, or vlast, and not law “holds a sacred status in Russia.”  Russians, according to Pastukhov, experience state power as a “mystical entity,” a “life giving substance,” a “deity” in its own right, from whom, in times of trouble, the narod (the people) expects answers.

Anna Arutunyan, in her excellent book The Putin Mystique, is not attempting to explain Vladimir Putin as a man, but Putin as he personifies vlast in the eyes of the Russian people.  The deification of vlast, she writes, “is far from the transcendent, religious worship of something that is benevolent and omnipotent.  Rather, it is the acceptance of a force beyond influence, beyond logic.”  Sometimes Putin plays this role reluctantly, and sometimes he appears to enjoy it, but he plays it either way, accepting the attributes of a personality cult, the fawning of sycophants, the hatred of critics, and the pleas and petitions of the narod—fix their natural-gas connections, help a sickly child, rebuff a corrupt local chinnovnik, or bureaucrat, pave a road, build a school, keep a failing enterprise open—coming from all corners of the vast, ramshackle postimperial state that is today’s Russia, a state whose formal, centralized institutions mask the dysfunction and chaos that lie beneath.

Traditionally, Russia and the Russians have flirted with anarchy, a deep desire to be free of all constraints, a desire that is countered by hope for an all-powerful protector, be he tsar, party boss, or president.  When formal institutions fail, as they often do, then extrajudicial and informal mechanisms, a separate but far more permanent feature of the Russian polity, come into play.  The leader, who is not so much above the law as outside it, is expected to make use of those mechanisms to contain the chaos of Russian life.  Thus do chaos and hypercentralization coexist, one Russian paradox among many.

Putin, who once declared that he would establish “a dictatorship of the law,” has come to accept his role.  (He was said to have only reluctantly agreed to be Boris Yeltsin’s successor and has complained that he is constantly pressed for favors.)  The Putin who emerged as Russia’s “national leader” and skilled coordinator of the country’s informal mechanisms of power, ruling even when Dmitry Medvedev formally held the presidency, clearly believes that Russia cannot be managed in any other way.  The “tsar” must assume his role, the “boyars” (old Russia’s noblemen; in Putin’s case, the various strata of Russia’s elite) theirs, as the narod accept the paternal and arbitrary rule of vlast, adoring and distrusting it, standing in awe of it, fearing, idolizing, and debunking that distant power all at once.

Vlast officially idealizes the narod as the embodiment of Russianness, while simultaneously fearing the ever-present threat of an uprising, “pitiless and senseless,” as Aleksandr Pushkin described the Pugachev rebellion of 1773 in The Captain’s Daughter.  The narod must be cared for, ruled with a “strong hand,” even as the powers that be have traditionally exploited them, viewing their lives as expendable in the service of the gosudarstvo, the majestic state.

The players have taken their places and performed their roles, even though they may not rationalize or fully understand them, for centuries.

Following Pussy Riot’s performance of the blasphemous and anti-Putin “punk prayer” on the steps of the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012—an event Arutunyan casts as partly a replication of the largely tolerated mockery of vlast by Russia’s “holy fools” of centuries past—Putin unconsciously assumed a role played previously by a 19th-century tsar.

While interviewing Russia’s “first person,” Vadim Takmenev of Russia’s NTV broached the subject of the “punk prayer,” but would not use the Russian name for Pussy Riot in Putin’s presence.  (The Russian words are far more obscene.)  Putin, in an apparent attempt to underscore the vulgarity of the “prayer” and its performers, while asserting his status as “national leader,” pressed Takmenev:

“How is the name translated?”


“Yes, I know,” the presenter tried to smile, trying to nod away the obscenity.

“Can you say it?”

“I can’t say it.”

“Can you say it for your audience?,” Putin insisted.  “For people who don’t understand foreign languages?”

Instead of saying the obscenity, the presenter said something unintentionally revealing.

“I can’t say it in front of you,” he gave in.

Arutunyan notes that Putin was following in the footsteps of Tsar Nicholas I, who had the poet Aleksandr Polezhayev brought into his presence on a cold winter’s night in 1836, forcing the poet to read a somewhat crude poem he had composed.  “‘Read it out loud,’ he ordered, but Polezhayev, feeling the Tsar’s eyes on him, was petrified.

“‘I can’t,’ he said.”

Nicholas persisted, ordering the reluctant Polezhayev to read.

Nicholas then proposed that Polezhayev join the army.  As they parted, the tsar kissed him.  Polezhayev spent the rest of his life in the army, dying of tuberculosis in a military hospital at age 34.

Arutunyan illustrates the uncanny repetition of similar scenes, of roles played by czars, by the “Red Tsar” Stalin, and by Putin in the present day, including comparing and contrasting popular appeals for help addressed to Putin to the poignant story of a young girl who had written to Stalin with a plea for help after the arrest of her father, a man eventually executed in the mass terror unleashed by the brutal despot whose passing induced hysteria among many people he had spent decades terrorizing.

Arutunyan’s fundamental thesis is that Russia is afflicted with a “superb confusion” about the “role of Caesar and God,” a problem that has permeated her history.  In Russia, without a clear delineation between secular and ecclesiastical power, “there is little room for the rule of law, regardless of who assumes the role of Caesar.”  Pundit and “political technologist” Stanislav Belkovsky, for example, has written that, in the eyes of the Russian people, a legitimate ruler must have the mystique of “sacredness”—a mandate to rule that precedes law.  Arutunyan, like many of her predecessors, traces this back to Byzantium’s “symphony,” or harmony, between Church and state.  Following the fall of Constantinople, Russia took upon herself the mantle of the “Third Rome,” the rulers personifying the melding of secular and sacred power.  (We are left to wonder how she might weave in the residue of the Tatar/Mongol “yoke,” the rule of the Asiatic conquerors, which also had a profound impact on Russian history and political culture.)  She is careful to point out that it is not the Orthodox Church as such that is the problem.  The problem is that the Church does not have a separate, independent realm, from which she could act as a check on state power: “No Russian patriarch has wielded even a modicum of the influence of Roman Catholic popes.”  While popes could oppose emperors and kings, “Russian Tsars had patriarchs deposed, arrested, or killed.”

In the 18th century, Peter the Great abolished the patriarchate altogether, reducing it to a mere state body, the Holy Synod, formally merging Church and state.  The Russian Orthodox Church as an institution became a church of and for the state, a state that wielded absolute power of life and death over its subjects.

Thus, the “caesaropapism” numerous historians both Russian and Western have attributed to Russian political culture.  Yet Arutunyan acknowledges that old Russia was far from the totalitarian society that Soviet Russia would become.  Stalin, the “Man of Steel,” went beyond Peter the Great, a precursor of his, as was Ivan the Terrible, in ways hard to imagine before Stalinist ideology subsumed the Church within Soviet rule:

It would be the Bolsheviks who would achieve the ultimate apotheosis in the divinization of state power, wiping out the church entirely and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of priests.  Armed with the ideology of Communism, they set out to build a New Jerusalem par excellence, a true vision of heaven on earth; where their predecessors had failed, they would exceed both Ivan and Peter in the terror they unleashed.

Stalin revived the patriarchate in a desperate attempt to mobilize the Russian people during the “Great Patriotic War,” but the Church remained an arm of the atheist state, overseen by the secret police.

Putin is no Stalin, of course, and does not wish to be.  His is a quasidemocracy, an authoritarian system that is freer than Soviet society could ever be.  Nevertheless, Putin is, as Arutunyan writes, a “pale shadow” of Stalin in the sense that the legacy of the “Red Tsar” still has a hold on the Russian consciousness in ways that are difficult for outsiders to understand.  And the Church, though formally separate from the state, is a part of the statist political culture as before.  In recent years, for example, an image of Stalin was featured on a calendar printed and sold by a Church-affiliated printing press.  And this writer once saw marchers in a “patriotic” demonstration displaying pictures of Stalin portrayed in the iconic style, the monster at once feared, reviled, and held in reverence as a saint of state worship, which stands in for genuine religion in Russian public life.

Vladimir Putin is today depicted on calendars, T-shirts, and official portraits hung in every state office in the land, a man proclaimed by some to be God’s gift to Russia, lauded in fawning documentaries on state TV.  His image is everywhere.  His approval rating stands as of this writing around 85 percent.  Women swoon over him, and songs are written in his honor.  He is a master at navigating the truly “Byzantine” channels of Russia’s “clan” system of personal “fiefdoms,” rewarding “friends” with vast riches (“friends” who plunder state coffers and abuse their power but who remain loyal), punishing enemies (the disloyal), and playing his role of the “Good Tsar” effectively, spreading around enough of Russia’s vast wealth to pay off Russia’s army of pensioners and a vast number of state employees, punishing the odd chinnovnik, and restoring the majesty of the state to command the always conditional loyalty of most Russians.  He has established a certain equilibrium in society and bolstered national pride.  For elites, Putin is the man whose legitimacy keeps them safe from the half-wild, barbarous narod.  And even more important, he has enforced a shaky peace among the top-tier elites: No one at the top of the “power vertical” has been assassinated in years (though the February assassination of former vice premier Boris Nemtsov has shaken the confidence of the elite in that peace).

The “patrimonial” Russian state has never enjoyed a tradition of the rule of law, or of private-property rights.  Ivan the Terrible used his own precursor to the Bolsheviks’ secret police, the oprichniki, to subjugate the boyars and make them dependent on the tsar.  De facto, the entire realm was his.  The communists abolished private property altogether and atomized a vast and fragmented empire through mass terror, leaving ordinary Russians helpless before a fate they never had trusted, fodder for a greedy and corrupt bureaucracy that inherited old Russia’s habit of tolerating corruption in return for loyalty.  So the age-old habit of calling for help from “on high” persists, as does the paradox of a theoretically centralized system that is operationally dysfunctional at the ground level, disciplined only by the “strong hand” or, in Putin’s parlance, “manual control.”  A good chinnovnik is one who steals no more than he is entitled to.  Property to this day is factually, though not formally, the state’s to divide and redivide, used as a reward to loyalists, taken from the disloyal.  Contracts are difficult to enforce through corrupt courts that operate on the basis of “telephone law”: The phone call from “on high” often determines the verdict.  Criminal cases are routinely used as instruments of extortion, weapons in business disputes, and threats to those deemed politically disloyal.

Russia, a land without protective natural barriers, expanded to defend herself, always seeking new buffer zones between the heartland and a largely hostile outside world.  The ideologies of the “Third Rome” and then Soviet communism provided the rationale for the state.  The cost was a bureaucracy and a polity too vast to manage efficiently.  Only force and the “strong hand” would suffice.  The narod, which felt helpless before forces it sensed it had no control over, has traditionally hoped for a benevolent master in the Kremlin, a master whose theoretically vast powers were sometimes more apparent than real.  Those who failed were “de-sacralized” and faced an uncertain fate, whether Nicholas II, Gorbachev, or Yeltsin.  Putin will follow if he does not continue to play the “Good Tsar” role effectively.  His “sacred” status in the age of electoral politics, the internet, and the 24-hour news cycle is far more fragile than that of his predecessors, his image more accessible and less mysterious.  The masses largely view politics as none of their affair but are capable of quickly turning on leaders they may fear and respect, but also view with a certain cynicism.

This is Russia’s reality.  Vladimir Putin, though far from a perfect ruler, has in his way, unlike Gorbachev and Yeltsin, delivered.


[The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult, by Anna Arutunyan (United Kingdom: Skyscraper) 320 pp., $33.87]