Sunday, May 22, 2016

‘Did the Russian State Die -- Again -- at a Moscow Cemetery?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – The events a week ago at the Khovan cemetery in Moscow prompt one to ask “whether the [Russian] state has died [for the second time in two decades] and was buried” there, according to Valeriyan Kaplin who then observes that “revolutions arise where there is no justice, but they succeed only where no one needs the [existing] state.”

            When people feel they have no opportunity to have their grievances attended to by the government and thus decide to take up arms, as did the cemetery workers in Moscow eight days ago, the Russian commentator says, that raises the question: What if the state has already died and its mortal remains are already buried” (

            Kaplin says that he is not in a position to give a legal analysis of what happened at the Khovan cemetery but simply wants to call attention to “the fact that in the country a situation has arisen when active and decisive people … encountering serious economic problems seek to solve them by using force” rather than turning to government institutions.

            The reason this is happening, he suggests, is that “the contemporary democratic state has three main functions: the creation of guaranteed rules of the game, public assistance, and security.” That means it doesn’t need to have an ideology and “must not be involved with business” to earn money for itself.

            But that is not what states have always been and it is not what Russia appears once again to be on the way to, the commentator argues.  Another kind of state, which one can call “the corporate state,” is one in which specific people who have power use it to acquire wealth from the rest of society and do what they must to ensure they’ll be able to continue to do so.

            Such a state, Kaplin says, “simply has no other basis” for existing or resources to “occupy itself with anything except this.”

            In Russia today, “many have already begun to suspect that for our elite … the true traditional values are not family, labor and love for the Motherland but the right of the powers that be to ensure that they get what income they want” while keeping the rest of the population under control.

            The response of the population to such an elite strategy eventually becomes “the wild self-organization of people” who use force to achieve their goals wittrhout any reference to the state.  A state without resources or commitment to behave like a modern democratic state then tries to impose an ideology requiring the population to put up with what the state is doing.

            That works for some people some of the time, Kaplin says, but when the state makes it increasingly clear that it is indifferent to the population’s suffering, it does not work forever. And this shift in views of the Russian population about the Russian state is what was on view at the Moscow cemetery.

            Russians are increasingly fed up with a state that offers to “improve the situation” by depriving the unemployed of medical help, making divorce more difficult, checking the health of those entering a marriage “and so on and so one and so on.”  At first, such things produce laughter. Then, they produce outrage and actions.

            Especially since Russians have a relatively recent experience with a state that couldn’t control the situation and didn’t do anything for the people: the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin when the standard of living collapsed, the rich seized the wealth of the country, and the government seemed powerless to do anything about it.

            Kaplin concludes his article with the warning that “revolutions arise where there is an absence of justice but they win out only there where no one needs the state” because it isn’t performing its responsibilities to the population and where the population decides that it can act on its own and use force to get its way.

            Although few wanted to use the term at the time because of the questions it would raise about control over nuclear weapons, Russia in the 1990s was certainly on its way to becoming a failed state in that regard. (For a discussion of this, see my “Russia as a Failed State: Domestic. Difficulties and Foreign Challenges,” Baltic Defense College Review, 12: 2 (2004) at

            Since he came to power, Vladimir Putin has made the overcoming of the legacy of the 1990s his central goal, strengthening the state at home and Russia’s position internationally.  But the events at the Moscow cemetery show that now at least in some respects, his Russia may be acquiring some aspects of a failed state because he has not chosen to make it a modern one.

            That may not herald a new revolution of the kind Kaplin thinks is ahead, but it almost certainly means that there will be those among Russian elites who will conclude that Putin has failed in his mission and that others are needed to ensure that happens. If so, the basic conflict in Russia is likely to be between them and a population that has concluded the same thing.



No comments:

Post a Comment