The mass protests in Russia against efforts by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to maintain its control and return Putin to the country’s presidency through electoral fraud are reminders of the fragility of political legitimacy. Legitimacy is especially fragile in a “top-down” political system, where authority has not grown up from civic cooperation among individuals and institutions, but has been imposed from the top down. The old Russia came into existence as an empire, with political power radiating out from the czarist center. Even in a society of landowners and serfs, this was a precarious system, for all of its apparent absolutist grandeur. Industrialization and the creation of the railroad infrastructure in the late nineteenth century freed individuals from that rural basis, producing an anomic and alienated revolutionary elite. Unable to withstand the pressures of World War I, the czarist government collapsed, leaving without leadership a vast geographic territory that had been united from above.
The Bolsheviks managed to step into the empty spot left by the czar for three reasons. In that highly centralized nation, they managed to grab control of St. Petersburg and Moscow. They offered initial false promises of land to peasants. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the conspiratorial structure of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party gave them tight coordination. Stalin’s administrative craftiness enabled him to take control of that structure by placing his own cronies in strategic positions and to purge rivals, at first primarily by bureaucratic maneuvering and then by systematic terror. Terror, as a means of maintaining power, probably explains why Stalin moved from killing his political competitors to shooting his best military leaders. Slaughtering good generals may not be the best way to prepare for war, but it is a pretty effective way to eliminate a possible alternative power base.
The gradual diminishing of Stalinist terror, from Khrushchev’s secret speech onward, left the Communists with another option for maintaining legitimacy: delivering the economic goods. This option is not inconsistent with authoritarian systems. The Nazis attempted to maintain high domestic consumption even as Germany went to war in order to keep up popular support for the regime. The nominally Communist Chinese government maintains its grip on power in part because of rising standards of living in China. But high living standards are hard to maintain in a relatively unproductive state-controlled economy such as existed in the Soviet Union, especially when the geopolitical competition of the Cold War diverts much of the limited surplus to military spending. The Soviet Union essentially collapsed because it went bankrupt.
The sudden disappearance of the state machinery of economic direction left Russia open to markets, but with no social institutions on which to base markets. The era of Boris Yeltsin gave rise to a society that was freer politically, but chaotic socially and economically. The old Communist commissars had advantages in seizing privatized assets, and Russian citizens saw a market oligarchy replacing the socialist oligarchy, with none of the latter’s guarantees of modest entitlements in housing, food, and other resources.
Putin established his claim to legitimacy on the order and relative prosperity that followed the Yeltsin years. The order came from a revival of a much milder form of the old bureaucratic manipulation that recognized the limits of electoral politics. However much Putin and his cronies managed government behind the scenes, they made careful efforts to keep up an image of democratic procedures. The prosperity came largely from the regime’s use of Russia’s enormous natural resources, especially its petroleum.
Now Putin and United Russia face consequences of their own success. The prosperity has fed the growth of a Russian middle class. The problem is that this middle class is an economic category, with limited civic institutions. Heir to centuries of highly centralized power, Russia still has only weak local participatory organizations. The mass movements in Moscow and other major cities certainly may move Russia in a more democratic direction, but they should give us some pause precisely because they are mass movements of disparate democrats, nationalists, and neo-Bolsheviks brought together in urban control centers solely by their common opposition to the regime. Masses, even when they are not so ideologically divided, do not provide a very good foundation for a stable and legitimate bottom-up political order.