Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk—
Over the last few weeks Russia has been rocked by demonstrations in a number of regions. One of the key points of contention has been the dismissal and arrest on July 9, 2020, of the popular governor in Khabarovsk, Sergei Furgal. Local protesters have rallied around Furgal as a strong local leader who can stand up for regional interests. Here and elsewhere protesters have reacted to Putin’s practice of appointing Kremlin loyalists, often referred to as Varangians, the Russian word for Vikings who came from the west to rule the Slavic tribes. The current conflict in Khabarovsk points to a general problem in any authoritarian regime. Leaders identified too closely with the center may be reliable from the regime’s point of view but may find it harder to win the allegiance of the local population and of local elites, an allegiance they require if they are to rule effectively. How much autonomy should an authoritarian regime grant its regional leaders?
The answer to that question may be quite surprising. Consider the Soviet Union—one of the classic dictatorships of the twentieth century—as an example.
Most people think of Joseph Stalin as a power-hungry dictator who was unable to tolerate independent centers of power. Yet in the years after the Second World War, rather than fostering weak regional leaders whom he could easily subjugate, he encouraged powerful ones—substate dictators—who, for fixed terms, were allowed to rule in their own right. Stalin did this because he recognized that in order to govern effectively and to achieve the goals mandated by the center, these leaders required as much power and authority within their own enclaves as they could muster.
Stalin retained certain institutional controls such as fixed terms, party elections, and the occasional use of central control agencies to police the outer limits of the substate dictators’ behavior. Beyond these, however, Stalin gave these leaders carte blanche to rule as they wished. The challenges facing these substate dictators were in many ways similar to those that Stalin himself faced. In order to consolidate their power at the regional level, they had to find ways of winning over local elites and preventing popular revolts. Their tactics differed from Stalin’s, however, in one crucial respect: they could not use repression, at least against other local leaders. Their methods ranged from conventional ones such as co-optation (rewards in proportion to one’s position in the hierarchy) and an emphasis on seniority, to alternative approaches including the use of kompromat (governance through blackmail), overpromotion, and formal and informal exclusion. Stalin’s delegation of authority kickstarted processes of institutional change. Substate dictators won over local elites by protecting them from state repression and by opening up channels for dialogue. Thus measures for tempering the worst excesses of the Stalinist state normally associated with the post-Stalin regime—such as curbing repression against the elite and opening a space for consultation—were actually started under Stalin.
Like Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev also encouraged substate dictators. Unlike Stalin, however, Khrushchev had a poor understanding of how large organizations work. He loaded ever more power onto regional leaders but stripped them of the institutional controls, especially the use of central control agencies, that Stalin had built. The result was rampant opportunism and the biggest data-fixing scandal in Soviet history, the Soviet version of Enron and the fall of Lehman Brothers all rolled into one. Unlike either Stalin or Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev adopted a new course by lessening the pressure on regional leaders. In addition, and unlike either Stalin or Khrushchev, he appointed local leaders from within the regions and, in an extension of a policy that had been tried out in the Soviet Union’s national republics, he extended indigenization—the cultivation of homegrown native elites—to the Russian provinces. The result was long tenures, regional cults of personality, the emergence of forms of homeland nationalism, and the entrenchment of regional nepotism and corruption, all of which would play a part in the eventual collapse of the USSR.
The autonomy granted to regional leaders relates closely to institutional change. In most dictatorships institutional change is associated with exogenous shocks such as revolution, war, coups, or the death of a leader. By contrast the form of institutional change in the Soviet Union was gradual and slow-moving and rose from the bottom up, cutting across the changes of administration in the Kremlin. It is akin to a form of institutional change known as conversion, the redeployment by agents of existing rules for new goals, functions, and purposes, which one finds in many democracies. One advantage of this form of incremental change is that it may lead to institutions that are better adapted to conditions of local rule.
Although some commentators have come to question whether there is a hard and fast distinction between dictatorship and democracy, the distinction still has value. Democracies are regimes where rulers come to power through competitive elections, whereas dictatorships refer to all other regimes. For all the changes that have occurred over the last thirty years, the current Russian regime is by this definition still a dictatorship. The events of recent weeks will serve to remind Putin that he needs to treat his regions with care. While the demands of the protesters have varied—the removal of a Varangian in some, anger over rubbish heaps or plans to bulldoze city parks in others—the need to bind local elites and win over local populations remains the same. One of the lessons of the Soviet era is that the center will require the support of regional leaders to maintain order, to implement policy, and to provide information on political conditions in the provinces. Another is that this will need to be balanced against a small number of fine-tuned institutional controls rather than ham-fisted ones such as the arrest of Furgal. Ultimately, however, it will need to afford regional leaders considerable leverage to rule their own domains, a fact of political rule in Russia that is unlikely to go away.
Yoram Gorlizki is professor of politics at the University of Manchester. Oleg Khlevniuk is professor of history at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (Russian Federation) and the author of Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator.