Book review: Samuel Greene, 'Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia'


Russians pride themselves on their capacity for state-building, but their idea of the state is not one that the West would recognise, or was hoping for…



Rodric Braithwaite
2 December 2014

Sam Greene is the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. He lived for thirteen years in Moscow, where he was a visiting professor of political science in the New Economic School, whose board contains some of Russia’s best-known liberal economists. He was also Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, which produces some of the most sober and objective commentary around on Russia’s domestic and international politics. Both were ideal places from which he could study his main interest, the shifting relationship between state and society in Russia. Moscow in Movement is about how Russians see their relation to the state, the emergence of ‘non-governmental organisations’ with political or quasi-political objectives that – apart from what Greene calls ‘corners of opportunity’ – was impossible under Communism, and their fitful persistence through the Putin regime despite steadily increasing pressure from the government. 

Moscow in Movement is primarily directed, it seems, at an academic audience. Greene can write clearly, and he seeks his way with some skill through what he colourfully and accurately calls ‘the babelisation of the social sciences.’ All professions adopt obscurity, as doctors used to adopt Latin, because that increases their prestigious mystery in the eyes of the laity. Social scientists are not alone in hoping that their obscure jargon, set about with thickets of insignificant and often irrelevant cross-references and citations, will enhance the ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ nature of their work (and perhaps ward off accusations of plagiarism). Greene is not responsible for these unfortunate conventions. But they mean that his book is not always easy to read.

He begins with a substantial theoretical chapter, in which he traces ‘the remarkable evolution of a beleaguered idea,’ the idea of civil society.' He surveys the idea as it has evolved from Cicero, through Locke, Hegel, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Weber, and others, and concludes with an account of the current state of the debate in somewhat confusing detail. For the lay reader his story picks up when he moves on to describe, with a welcome sprinkling of anecdote, the scene in Russia today.

His story picks up when he moves on to describe, with a welcome sprinkling of anecdote, the scene in Russia today.

After the Soviet collapse the West attempted to help the Russians rebuild their state on modern democratic lines, where the rule of law and liberal capitalism would prevail. In some ways this attempt to reproduce in Russia a system with which we ourselves were comfortable was self-serving and marred by triumphalism. Some of the advice handed out by Western ‘consultants’ was ill-informed, arrogant, and inappropriate. But on the whole the attempt was genuine. It was fuelled both by real sympathy for the Russians who had been dealt such a dreadful hand by history, and by a sensible understanding that a prosperous and contented Russia would be much easier for the rest of us to live with.

In a better world the enthusiasm of Russia’s new NGOs would have found Russian donors to fund them. But Russia’s newly rich were slow to adopt the idea of charitable giving. Most had little interest in promoting the ideas of ‘civil society.’ The new NGOs had little choice but to turn to the West for financial support. They then found themselves devoting far too much time and nervous energy putting together voluminous grant applications to satisfy the absurdly convoluted bureaucratic requirements of Western donors, which made no allowances for the inexperience of small numbers of dedicated people trying to run their little organisations in an increasingly hostile environment.

Things became increasingly difficult for them as Putin promoted his claim to be building a patriotic state based on traditional Russian values, something quite different from the ‘alien’ values of the West. His increasingly paranoid narrative portrayed those who promoted ideas of civil society, political and economic liberalism, and the rule of law, as working for foreign interests out to prevent the re-emergence of Russia as a powerful and independent player on the world stage.

Paranoids have enemies too. Putin had overheard Americans boasting of the millions of dollars they had poured into Ukrainian non-governmental organisations to promote Western political ideas during the Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2005. (He had of course done the same, but his intrigues had failed). He was determined not to allow that to happen in Russia, and drew the conclusion that any NGO with foreign connections was a potential enemy to be crushed. He did it not by directly brutal action, but by the death of a thousand cuts – raids by the tax authorities, smears in the press, and legislation, which defined the NGOs as ‘foreign agents,’ a phrase with menacing undertones from the Stalinist past. 

Paranoids have enemies too.

Russians pride themselves on their capacity for state-building. By that they do not mean the creation of independent institutions balancing one another through the deliberate division of power, but of a central authority capable of imposing order at home and respect abroad. In this view concepts like the independence of the law, or the rights of the citizen against the sovereign, are at best an irrelevant abstraction. The Soviet system, like the Tsarist system before it, did possess strong institutions able to maintain the power of the state – until they disintegrated in revolution. Putin has done almost nothing to strengthen the institutions he inherited. The primary vocation even of the Russian secret police is no longer to defend the state, as in the past, but sustain the power of Putin and his cronies. Greene calls this phenomenon ‘the deinstitutionalization of power.’

Greene believes that the Russian people are less passive than they are too often portrayed. Putin’s system is not totalitarian, he argues. Rather than seeking to control every aspect of the citizen’s life, the Russian state today seeks to control only those things that need to be controlled to protect the power and wealth of the ruling clique. Meanwhile, people find informal ways of organising themselves to put pressure on the authorities. They demonstrated against cutbacks in social welfare payments in 2008 and forced a change in policy. They protested over the authorities’ failure to master the peat bog fires in 2010 whose smoke blanketed Moscow for days on end. The motorists’ protest movement against a ban on importing of cars from Japan and resentment at the gross misuse of flashing blue lights by elite drivers to crowd ordinary motorists off the streets, culminated in 2012 in demonstrations on the streets of Moscow. 

Greene believes that the Russian people are less passive than they are too often portrayed

Two things were striking about all these events. The protesters were able to organise themselves because their gadgets allowed them to bypass the state-dominated media and systems of communication. And they were driven above all by resentment against the apparent determination of the elite to corner the benefits of the consumer revolution for themselves: ordinary people wanted to secure their share of the benefits of modernity. And they found ways of doing so without falling back on the old methods: the ‘Red Cockerel’ of fire and mayhem. 

Greene ends on an upbeat note, with the wave of protests which began in late 2011 and lasted on and off until 2013; these protests were driven primarily by the Moscow middle classes, and their slogans were primarily political: against corruption, against electoral fraud, against the cronyism of Putin and his entourage. Putin has moved against these people with skill and cunning, the legal constraints on NGOs have been further tightened, the Ukrainian adventure has sent his stock rocketing up amongst among ordinary people, and the protests have died away into apparent impotence. At first sight, Greene looks too optimistic. People may have been able to combine effectively against particular abuses. But they have made little dent on the system – or lack of system. 

And yet there is something febrile about Putin’s apparently dominant position, about his shrill denunciations of internal enemies and his tirades against the West, about the steamy nationalist rhetoric of the ideologues who support him. In the real world outside the rhetoric, his problems are multiplying. In the years since he came to power his popularity has largely rested on a rising standard of living fuelled by energy exports. But now the price of oil is going down and he has failed to provide for an alternative. The domestic afterglow of the Ukrainian adventure is likely to dissipate as the body bags come home from ‘Novorossiya.’ He has almost no friends in the outside world. His new chums, the Chinese, have made it quietly clear that they can take him or leave him, and that though they may share some of his dislike of American power they see no point in challenging it directly.

So Putin’s power is almost certainly more fragile than it looks. When his position begins to crumble – as it surely will in the next few years – the diffuse forces and groupings identified by Greene may after all turn out to be the basis on which to build a more liberal system, Russian style. But there is a long way to go yet, and meanwhile, many unforeseeable and no doubt unpleasant twists and turns on the road ahead. 

Sam Greene's 'Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin's Russia' is published by Stanford University Press 

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