Staunton, March 13 – Thirty-three years ago, Soviet commentator Fyodor Burlatsky published an article entitled “Interregnum” in “Novy Mir.” Ostensibly about what had taken place in China during changes from one dynasty to another, it was in fact a description of what was occurring in the USSR of his times.
As Burlatsky pointed out, people living during an interregnum think and act differently than they do when there is an established order. Because the usual rules are in abeyance, everything seems equally possible or impossible, leading to wild speculation on the one hand and a search for the means for survival on the other.
Today, when it is not clear whether Vladimir Putin is ill, dead, or has been pushed aside by a palace coup, Russia has entered another of its periodic interregnums; and in assessing what is being said and done, it is important to remember three other important facts about interregnums in general.
The most important of these is that once large numbers of the elite begin to think that they are in an interregnum, the power of the person on the throne slips away. The incumbent may be able to recover: it has happened. But the ruler’s task has changed: he no longer can act in the same way and must focus on his survival more than anything else.
The second of these, as Burlatsky pointed out, is that interregnums, the period between two dynasties, seem to open all kinds of possibilities, but most of the time, they simply lead to a reshuffling of the portfolios of the elite. Many of the same people remain, and consequently, the hopes or fears that this is a revolutionary situation are dashed.
And third, as interregnums in China demonstrate, these periods can be long or short, they can under certain conditions lead to a radical change of course, and they can even open the way to the dissolution of the state into feuding parts. That may appear to some to be an end, but in fact, the reconstitution of the former whole ultimately becomes the task of the new rulers.
Not everything is equally likely in any given interregnum, of course, but the hopes of many that it will open the way to a solution for all problems are typically misplaced. More often, as Burlatsky wrote a generation ago, such periods open the way for what Russians call “a time of troubles,” in which there is much suffering but which leads to the reconstitution of the regime.
Fear of an interregnum and even more fear of a new time of troubles help to explain why so many Russians defer to their leaders lest things get worse. But once they or at least key members of the elite decide that they are in an interregnum, those fears do not disappear, but many of the constraints on actions do.
Thus, if indeed the Putin era is passing as it may very well be, there is the possibility for change for the better or one in an even worse direction than the one he has led his country on. And there is also the possibility that the situation will not be nearly as different as some hope and others fear.