Russia Has Never Had A State In The Western Sense – OpEd


Western analysts and those Russians who follow their lead get themselves into immense difficulties when they analyze Russian poltics by using terms drawn from Western experience that simply do not apply in the Russian case, according to US-based Russian historian Irina Pavlova.

In a new blog post entitled “Is the Russian Leviathan Weak?” (, she points to a recent interview Mikhail Yampolsky gave ( as an example of this approach and of the serious errors in understanding it simultaneous reflects and gives promotes.

Among Yampolsky’s observations, the Russian says, are the following: the majority of the Russian population “doesn’t support the policies which Putin is carrying out,” “there is no ideology in general,” “the state in principle no longer exists,” and “Putin is absolutely impotent and can do nothing.”

Yampolsky, a professor comparative literature and Slavic studies at New York University, Pavlova continues, thus “offers in this interview the typical view of an intellectual who looks on Russian reality through the prism of understandings of Western culture and Western political science.”

In this, he is hardly unique or the first. In the early 1990s, when Western researchers gained access to Soviet archives and saw the extend of disorder, crime and theft under the CPSU, they concluded that what they had found was “testimony to the ineffectiveness and weakness of Stalin’s power and its inability to impose order in the country.”

But their conclusions and Yampolsky’s reflect their use of Western concepts like “state,” “institutions,” and “defense of property rights,” all terms that do not apply to the Russian case, she argues.

Thus, it is not the case that “the state does not exist anymore,” as Yampolsky suggests, but that it never existed in Russia. That country was only beginning to construct a state “in the Western sense” of agreement of various social strata and groups, “a state as the civil service,” at the end of the Imperial period. But everyone knows how this ended in 1917.”

“In Russia,” Pavlova argues, what arose historically was not ‘a state’ but ‘a power,’ power as a demiurge not responsible before the people inhabiting the country; and if it does something for this population then it is acting only on the basis of its own pragmatic considerations.”

Moreover, she continues, “the power itself creates the social space which it then manipulates for its own purposes.” That is exactly what the power in Putin’s Russia is doing, and therefore it is a mistake in principle to talk about the collapse of institutions of various kinds “if they were never there.”

Yampolsky’s conclusion that “the powers … can’t do anything,” she says, is “completely inadequate.” “This is the same thing that Western historians wrote about Stalin, but can one consider the Stalin power weak, given that it moved tens of millions of peole and forced them to change their traditional way of existence.”

“Any wise individual even today will not deny that under Putin over the course of the years of his rule, enormous changes have taken pace in the country. Not simply changes but modernization … but in a direction which the current regime needs to secure itself from any threat both within the country and from outside.”

The problem, however, is that “this power has different priorities” than those Yampolsky and those who share his approach assume. On the one hand, the priority of the Putin power is to secure its own strengthening and to ensure its domination of the people.” Putin has done what Stalin did and even more effectively because he hasn’t needed to use mass repressions.

And on the other, Pavlova says, “the priority of a regime of this type is the establishment of military industry which gave and gives it the chance to carry out its designs for the spread of its influence and the affirmation of its status in the international stage.” It needs the people only to follow its orders to make this possible.

What has happened to the people is not so much “the degradation of civil society,” as Yampolsky imagines but rather a display of the fact that “there was never a genuine civil society in Russia. The Russian people was and remains a state people, completely dependent on the powers.”

But today, just as in Stalin’s time, the people are not simply dependent.” They display a slavish attitude to the powers “as the result of the re-Stalinization that has been practically completed.” Never in the history of post-Stalinist Russia has there been a ruler in the Kremlin who so openly celebrates Stalin.

More than that, she says, “never has there been an elite” in Russia which considers “modernized Stalinism” as a worthy goal in opposition to the West. “And finally never has there been such a high percentage of the Russian population which displays such a positive attitude toward Stalin.”

All this makes sense if you view Russia as a country ruled by a demiurge-power. It only confuses those who think that the powers that be there are a state in the Western understanding. And all of this leads one to conclude that the Putin regime is more powerful than people in the West imagine instead of being on the brink of collapse as the Yampolskys would have it.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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