Empire of improvisation
August 22, 2022
  • Gleb Pavlovsky

    President of the Foundation for Effective Politics 
Gleb Pavlovsky describes Russia as an improvising state in which process matters more than result. In the current context, the upshot is that while many conflicts have begun impromptu, the conclusion of war can’t be improvised.
Leaders of the Soviet Republics sign the Belovezha Accords, 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
The armed catastrophe unfolding in Europe has been discussed in various lights. As missiles fall on Odessa, people are searching for a political configuration for Russia that would exclude bloody excesses. But now everyone wants more robust guarantees: the Russians have gone through many regimes over the last century, each one leading to something unthinkable.

The Russian System stands on three pillars: Putin, a deal with the masses, and improvisation. The first two are often taken up by the press and experts – I would like to explore the third. All politicians improvise, but Russian improvisations are something special. After all, the Russian Federation is itself a remake.

Russians really don’t appreciate reminders that their country is a recent invention. But this is a fact that can’t be refuted by references to antiquity – 30 years ago our state didn’t exist. The USSR collapsed with historic swiftness. Half a year before the RSFSR declared itself sovereign (June 12, 1990), in democratic Moscow there was not so much as a thought of a Russia within the borders of the RSFSR. The state of the Russian Federation (RF) was a hasty improvisation with great implications. Further state building looked all the more like a cascade of improvisations.

In Russian translation “sovereignty” means autocracy

The improviser uses a standard, a model that guides him. The ideal West became such a model for the early RF. By importing the processes of the market and democracy, they learned how to hack them. Russian hackers emerged almost earlier than in the West.

Without seriously seeking order Yeltsin proclaimed the slogan “Order in government – order in the country.” Memoirists admire the punctuality of the first president, who appeared as if on a stopwatch. Boris Yeltsin was never late for meetings, but no one could guess how the meeting would end.
His aide Sergei Shakhrai recalls how he and Yeltsin together wrote the Constitution (his memoirs, How I Wrote the Constitution of the Yeltsin and Putin Era, were released last year). For the institution of the presidency Shakhrai says he took as a model "a Russian version of the English queen." But during discussions Yeltsin voiced his wish for "the right of the president to issue decrees with the force of law" (p. 76). Which was immediately granted by the founding fathers of the RF. Thus, the president, placed over all branches of power, turned into an autocratic lawmaker. Improvisation transformed the “English queen” into King Charles I.

Sometimes fresh emigrants ask me whether it's dangerous to go back to Russia for some time. But the Kremlin's well of risk is unpredictable: it doesn’t know when and for whom things are dangerous – for enemies or loyalists? Our Leviathan is sometimes benevolent, but for how long? The Kremlin loves the word “sovereignty,” but in Russian translation it means autocracy, i.e. the sovereign making state decisions at his sole discretion. Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, according to Klyuchevsky, did good deeds only if they "made him feel good." The improviser's motives are random, like a quantum.

The process is what matters, not the result

In a state that emerged from nothing, it seemed natural to start all over again. An improvising state prefers process to rules and results. Because of this quality, I once called the Russian System the “jazz state.”
The authorities zealously defend any excess without answering the question of its goal – it’s more important for them to evade threats in time. The process is what matters, not the result. The security of the regime has been ensured by its perpetual resourcefulness and nimbleness – something like the modern term agility. Since the 1990s, they’ve been talking not about reforms but the “process of reforms” without laying out a timetable for results. By improvising, the regime avoids collapse, making the state something fluid.
"What is the 'Russian world' in the Kremlin's view? It is extraterritorial Russia in a fluid condition."
For Donbas to be inside Russia they risked the entire colossal state. Russia is thus just a risked asset.

Note that the condition of perpetual liquidity severely strains the front-man president himself. Each improvisation should be more radical to seem successful – the gamble grows, and the players aren’t getting younger. And one day they choose the wrong time for a showdown – the finale of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades.

The phenomenon of imperial breakdown is well known, but its personal origins are less studied. What does it do to a person? What breaks down: state interests or the leader himself who can’t reconcile them anymore? Tsar Nicholas Romanov’s hesitations ahead of August 1, 1914, represented flight from a rational decision. He knew that Russia wasn’t ready for war and didn’t want to fight Germany. But a confusion of motives tore him apart until Chief of the General Staff Yanushkevich yanked the telephone wire out of the wall, preventing the tsar from canceling the mobilization.

Today, Russian society is passive in the face of the regime’s improvisations. The 30th anniversary of the RF overshadowed questions about the reasons for everything – arrests, pension reforms, war. They are all ad hoc events, the fruit of fortuity in the rulers’ minds.

The public consensus in Russia has developed around a sense of emergency. Being personally conservative (Putin is extremely conservative in his habits), the Kremlin needs a tone of the extraordinary. Russian emergency isn’t the howling of sirens but rather a stubborn slipping toward extremes. The extraordinary environment rescues the government from unattractiveness and unpopularity. The gap between myth and ratio isn’t the effect of propaganda but its source.
Putin: “We will overcome the difficulties that we have so readily created for ourselves in recent times," 18 March 2015. Source: YouTube
Improvisations, habitual but unpredictable

Overall, Putin is something to be played. He is given to games in which he himself is not a player. He uses anomaly, he’s an inhabitant of the extraordinary world. Having grown accustomed to his improvisations, we don’t know how to predict them.
Moving away from development through a combination of market freedom and legal institutions, the Kremlin has resorted to ersatz development programs and national projects. This or that multibillion project is explicable only by autocratic decree – a combination of self-interest and fortuitous goodwill toward a lobbyist.

The Russian environment is formed by the absurd together with the rational. Faced with anomalies, the improviser is concerned with one thing: how to use the complexity of this environment. How, for example, to ignite the explosive mixture of the remnants of electoral democracy and the wreckage of the USSR? Why should the Kremlin get rid of the electoral machine? The relic of democracy comes with its advantages while the disadvantages are easily eliminated by police means. The Russian state is like Borges' The Garden of Forking Paths.

Anything can happen here, but nothing logically follows from anywhere. Anything can be a trap. Thus, dozens of citizens were thrown in jail just because they naively tried to participate in elections in pointless, powerless municipalities.

A gem of the anomaly of Russian politics was Putin's slip at a rally outside the Kremlin on March 18, 2015. The rally took place after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, almost at the same place. Putin seems to have been shaken by the assassination and wasn’t seen for two weeks. I don't think it was an act – even Mussolini was shocked by the assassination of the liberal Matteotti, committed by his fascists. Putin, however, coped and calmed down. On Red Square he told the country: “We will overcome the difficulties that we have so readily created for ourselves in recent times.” Can there be a clearer oath to the policy of improvisation?

The initiator of the war sees no path to peace

It is often thought that improvisation is ideal for war. An improviser doesn’t need a strategic plan as long as he is lucky. Many wars have begun impromptu, but none have ended in that manner. The end of a war can’t be improvised. Achieving peace means a technically complex multilateral negotiation process. The Russian “jazz state” has more than once improvised small wars from which others, from General Lebed to Sarkozy, struggled to extract it. But Surkov failed: the Kremlin was unable to profitably play the Minsk agreements that were favorable to it. Everything won by the Russian “jazz state” has been obtained by way of insolence in peaceful circumstances. But today the initiator of the war sees no path to peace. Its improvisations are indistinguishable from escalations – a professional disorder of the Kremlin jazzmen.

Sometimes ad hoc decisions improve the art of command, for example in military affairs. When the Kremlin impromptu slipped out of the Donbas impasse and into Syria in 2015, it gained the unique experience of waging war in the Middle East – but that experience has turned out to be useless in Ukraine.

The ”fluid state” as an ideology

Not every improviser ends up as an aggressor. But inside every improvisation there is a scale of aggression, from simple high-handedness to unmotivated war. No ideology is needed – the “fluid state” itself has become an ideology in and of itself.
"Over the years, improvisations have changed the life of the ruling center. The Kremlin has become a cloud of activity incapable of orderly decisions."
In Russia, a regime has formed with a blurred source of power. For the chief of the cloud, his team is just a keyboard to play on uncertainties. He sees anomaly as security. In a game with unpredictable goals, his inner circle must remain uncertain at the same time that it holds all the power in the country.

The dictator-improviser is peculiar. His dictatorship is the dictatorship of the accidental, often inexplicable for himself. By announcing “I decided” he doesn’t clearly dictate anything. He is in a conspiracy with a silent society that doesn’t ask him any questions.

Military experts are excited – how many hands are on the bloody nuclear button? Which is tantamount to asking how many presidents are in the Kremlin. The scenario of an elite cleavage is technically impossible, however, as the boundaries of competencies are blurred. The front-man president only authorizes anonymous decisions from the authorities for the population, while the observer in vain tries to ascribe authorship of them to Putin.

This is why it is so difficult to calculate the level of risk. The Russian System is unable to calculate the likelihood of its end. The policy of improvisation technically allows for risks that rational politics preclude entirely.

With all the zigzags, from crisis to boom then war, the regime of improvisation looks rather stable. It got out of every situation before. And if one day it doesn’t get out of one, the mystery will remain how powerful the leftover potential of Russian anomaly is. Indeed as the next statehood emerges, the skill of improvisation will remain, meaning fresh mutations in the world order.

Everything will pass, of course. But until Day X (which will also be someone else's improvisation) the “jazz state” will continue. Initially sophisticated improvisations have nurtured cadres without a backbone or views for 30 years. This nomenklatura is ready in advance for any Russia of the future, beautiful or nightmarish.
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