Likewise, as political analyst Leonid Bershidsky noted in a recent commentary for Bloomberg, the government isn't bothering to enforce many of the new laws the Duma has passed, leading to some angry exchanges on the floor of parliament. "In the current state of suspended animation the executive branch
resembles a mammoth embedded in ice: You can examine it but cannot see
any movement," political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky recently told the daily Nezavisismaya Gazeta.
Medvedev himself has become something of a punch line and a punching
bag. There have been not-so-subtle jokes on television about not being
able to remember the prime minister's name as well as persistent regular
barbs from former ministers like Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, and
The degradation of Russia's formal institutions is an outgrowth of how the country has been governed for the past decade. Under Putin, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Duma, and the courts have
largely been elaborate window dressing, a form of kabuki theater where
stage-managed political set pieces were played out for public
consumption. The important decisions were made by an informal super
elite of about a dozen people -- a cabal of political, security, and
business insiders with Putin serving as its front man and decider-in-chief.
Kremlin-watchers have given these shadow rulers different labels, such
as the Collective Putin to Putin's Politburo. I prefer to call it Russia's Deep State. By whatever name, it is a central feature of Putinism.
For the Putin elite to rule this way, it needs to preserve the illusion
that the formal institutions are effectively fulfilling their
constitutional functions. In this sense, the Deep State needs the fake
state to look real -- or at least plausible. And it doesn't anymore.
The Mask Comes Off
For Putinism to work effectively, not only does the fake state need to look real, but the Deep State needs to remain deep. And this ceased to be the case on September 24, 2011,
when Putin and Medvedev announced their fateful "castling move" -- with
Putin replacing Medvedev in the Kremlin and Medvedev taking over the
prime minister's post from Putin. Once that happened, once the mask came off, the degradation of Russia's
formal institutions -- from the rigged elections, to the puppet Duma, to
the technical government -- was only a matter of time.
"The Deep State worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it
was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians,"
longtime Kremlin-watcher and New York University professor Mark
Galeotti, one of my co-hosts on the Power Vertical podcast, says. "Putin made the presence of the Deep State so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
In addition to exposing the facade, the castling of September 2011 led to a crisis within the Deep State itself
-- with the elite's technocratic wing favoring a thaw to accommodate a
changing society and the "siloviki" wing advocating a crackdown on
dissent. And since that time, the Kremlin's efforts to put the old system back together again have only exacerbated the crisis.
The Fading Putin Majority
For much of the past decade, Putinism was based on more than repression.
And the continued rule of a few dozen insiders was propped up by more
than a facade of hollow state institutions. Putinism at its high point was also based on a broad consensus, a social
contract, an unwritten compact between elite and the governed. The
Kremlin provided stability and ensured rising living standards, and in
exchange the population gave its loyalty.
It worked well after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s. But it also had an expiration date. "Last winter's crisis exposed the disintegration of the pro-Putin
majority, a kind of pro-authoritarian consensus that had become
established in the first half of the 2000s," political analyst Kirill
Rogov wrote recently in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It became obvious that the old paradigm is coming apart at the seams,
that it does not suit the most advanced and dynamic strata of the
population, and in the context of falling economic growth rates it is,
moreover, losing the support of ordinary people and of the regions."
The Kremlin's reaction to this, Rogov argues, has been to build "a new,
much more conservative, Putin majority" on the ashes of the old. "In order to shape such a majority it was necessary to convince [the
Kremlin's] ideological competitors that they are marginal and to
convince ordinary people that they don't need these groups," Rogov
wrote. "It was necessary to exploit issues that, on the one hand, arouse and
outrage the advanced community, but which, on the other hand, are alien
and incomprehensible to ordinary people."
Thus the antigay legislation. Thus the fealty to the Orthodox Church and
the battle against blasphemy. Thus the xenophobic measures, like
prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans and the attempts to
purge the Russian language of foreign words.
But the plan isn't working. "This strategy turned out to be a trap for
the Kremlin. A conservative majority simply is not emerging, and the
hysteria goes on and on," Rogov wrote. And as a result, the country's institutions look increasingly absurd and
the formal state looks increasingly fake. And with much of the elite
uncomfortable with the strategy to begin with, the Kremlin's efforts are
leading to even more intractable divisions and clan intrigue inside the
Which brings us back to that mysterious Medvedev video that appeared online last week and what it appears to signify.
In the late 1990s, as the ruling elite fractured and the Yeltsin regime
entered its crisis phase, the public airing of "kompromat," or
compromising material, among warring factions became increasingly
commonplace. One of the most memorable was a video clip that aired on state
television in March 1999, that purported to show "a person resembling"
the prosecutor-general at the time, Yury Skuratov, cavorting with a
prostitute. At the time, the phrase "Человек, который похож на Скуратова" ("a person
resembling Skuratov") entered the political lexicon as a catch phrase, a
punch line, and a symbol of the authorities' bankruptcy.
We're not there yet, or course. But we seem to be headed in that direction.