STOLYPIN: How many Putin’s Russias are there?

By bne IntelliNews March 12, 2015

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


“Putin's Russia” is a convenient term for today's Russia, to distinguish it from the ramshackle anarchy of his predecessor, Yeltsin, and also to name-check the man who now seems to have become synecdoche as much as tsar, the epitome of this contradictory country. And yet — and I say this as someone who has used the term many a time — it is also a dangerous expression, one that fails to capture the complexities of Russian politics. The swirling and still speculative narratives about the Boris Nemtsov murder remind us that while this may not be a political pluralism, after all, it certainly has political pluralities. 

First of all, “Putin's Russia” accepts a questionable narrative that the Kremlin itself has so often fought to impose: that Putin is the omniscient, omnicompetent father and strategist of the nation.  This is a powerful and self-aggrandizing myth that the man himself has sought to instill, from the carefully-prepared factoids with which he lards his interviews and public performances (it helps when you generally get to vet or write the questions your tame journalists will ask) to the regular set-piece interventions when he descends on some town or factory to upbraid local administrators and magically bring funds and political capital to resolve some problem.

The sky is high and the tsar is far, went the old Russian proverb, but under Putin the tsar is at once unassailable in his political commanding heights and yet also intimate in his relationship with the people, in his potential nearness. The massive bureaucratic apparatus devoted to reading letters and email from the Russian public and spinning his image to them attests to the importance of such myth making.

Putin is unquestionably the decider, the central figure in a political system that owes more to the medieval court than modern democracy. Individuals, institutions, factions, businesses, cabals and conspirators desperately seek the ear and favour of the tsar, because that can divert massive revenue streams into their pockets, make investigations and rivals disappear with equal speed and rotate national policy on a proverbial kopek.

However, Putin is just one man, and a man who furthermore enjoys his free time and his very distance from the seat of government. After all, these days he essentially reigns in state from his palace at Novoe Ogarevo rather than sitting in the Kremlin. He relies on what people tell him, a bureaucratic camera obscura that shows him a dim and often distorted view of Russia and the world. He is at once master and prisoner of the system he has created.

Thus, Putin’s very centrality also fosters a system in which interests and institutions also have massive practical autonomy. When the tsar is absent, or not interested, or not informed, then the boyars can have their fun. And ultimately, it is always possible retrospectively to gain sanction or forgiveness. 

So behind the facade of austere centralization, “Putin's Russia” seethes with all kinds of initiatives and activities that at best lack the approval of the centre and at worst actively work counter to the interests and ambitions of the tsar.

The murder of Nemtsov, or at least the circling debates and speculation about the whos and whys behind it, perfectly exemplify this.

Murder most complicated

On the one hand, there are those who believe that not a sparrow falls, but that Putin is behind it, much less an opposition politician. It was in Moscow, it was in view of the Kremlin, so of course it must have been on his orders, or at least at his encouragement.

It may be that this was the case, but it is hard to see quite why him (he was, after all, a non-person on Russian TV, of significance largely to Westerners and metropolitan liberals), why then (it made the protests larger and more serious than they would otherwise have been, and ensures his posthumous report on Ukraine will get more attention than ever), and why that way (for all the talk of the “professionalism” of the hit, it was hardly that). Of course there are limits to trying to understand any regime, not just Russia's, as a purely rational actor, but it’s probably the best analytic tool we have.

Many of the alternative hypotheses, though, focus on the multiple and often competitive forces at potentially murderous play. 

The “lunatic jihadists” line has looked threadbare from the first, especially given that the ostensible prime mover, Zaur Dadaev, was an officer in Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's security forces. Maybe Nemtsov was killed on Kadyrov's orders. After all, there was bad blood between then, and Kadyrov has been linked to assassinations in Moscow and beyond, ones that suited his rather than Moscow's interests. For example, his political-military rivals, the Yamadaev brothers, were all murdered, one of them in central Moscow. The Yamadaevs had been cultivated by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, as a possible counterweight to Kadyrov, and he was clearly having none of that.

Then there is the variant that has the Federal Security Service (FSB) aware of a Kadyrov plot but willing to let it go ahead, so that he could discredit himself in Putin’s eyes. Or rogue nationalist FSB officers hatching a plot themselves. Or ultra-nationalists. And so it goes on.

The point is that regardless of where the truth lies — and it is doubtful if we will ever know for sure — what this demonstrates is a state in which power is negotiated between interests more than simply exerted from the top.

Does this matter, when Nemtsov is still dead and Russian troops are still in Ukraine? Absolutely.

First of all, we can better try and understand Russia's likely future actions when we see it as more than just the geopolitical extension of a single ego. Putin is absolutely the decider, but it is others who define the information and advice that flows his way, the choices on which he is asked to rule.

It also affects attempts to influence Russia. Policies meant to change Putin’s mind, for example, have to be structured rather differently than ones intended to persuade and empower specific elements within the elite. I cannot help but feel there’s a confusion between the two that’s creating a degree of incoherence within the sanctions regime.

No one who knows Russia, who has had to deal with Russian companies or bureaucracies, needs to be told about their tendency to scheme and fragment. A country which has intelligence services whose responsibilities deliberately overlap, where the Presidential Administration sometimes seem to act like a shadow government, and which can even swap president and prime minister for four years without meaningfully changing the pecking order is no stranger to fluid, constantly redefined and negotiated power. When we forget that, when we succumb to the strange alliance between Putin's most devoted fans and his most rabid critics, who both elevate him to the status of the sole agent in Russia, we do ourselves and the country a disservice.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (

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