Vladimir Putin and ‘the dictatorship of the law’


When Vladimir Putin first ran for President of Russia in 2000, he promised to establish the “dictatorship of the law.”  That would have been a great achievement if he had managed it.

What I take this to mean, and I think what most Russians took it to mean, was the opposite of the principle of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the old Soviet Union was that there need be no limit on Communist Party power because that power was supposedly exercised on behalf of the working class.   Any idea of holding the Communist regime accountable for its actions was treated as an attack on working people

The idea of the “dictatorship of the law” is just the opposite—that everyone, high and low, is subject to the law.   It is that nobody is too powerless not to have the protection of the law, and nobody is too powerful not to be subject to the law.

Putin would have been a great statesman if he had achieved this.  But the reality that Russia is run by patronage networks.   The system is set up so that it is impossible for the best-intentioned honest citizen to live within the law.  What matters is whether you offend powerful people, and whether you know other powerful people who can protect you.

Last week I read the following description of the system in the London Review of Books, by Peter Pomerantsev, a documentary film-maker who worked in Russia.

When I arrived in Moscow to work as a TV producer my initiation took the form of a driving test. I would never pass, my instructor explained, if I didn’t pay a bribe 500 dollars, but soon to double; I should get a move on.

When I protested that I wanted to pass the test for real he said the traffic police would fail me until I paid up.  He was a friend of a friend of my parents and I was told by everyone I knew that he was trustworthy.  I gave him the money and he made the deal.

I had assumed I would receive the license in an envelope. To my surprise he told me to go to the traffic center to take the test along with everyone else. The theory exam was held in a large, bright room with brand-new computers.  There were around twenty of us working through on-screen simulations of various driving scenarios.

I now decided, rather relieved, that my bribe had been lost in the works and set about using my common sense to get through the test. I got a handsome 18/20, enough to pass.  Later I realized that every computer in the room had been rigged for an 18/20 result: everyone had paid.

via LRB.

The same principle operates on all levels of society.

A successful young businesswoman called Yana Yakovleva … … founded a pharmaceuticals company that imported and sold industrial cleaning agents to factories and military bases.  One morning she woke up to find herself under arrest: the Federal Drugs Control Service had reclassified her cleaning agent, diethyl ether, as a narcotic.  She was now a drug dealer behind bars, awaiting trial.

RUSSIA_CORRUPTIONShe assumed it was a case of reiderstvo, the most common form of corporate takeover in Russia with hundreds of reported, and probably tens of thousands of unreported cases a year, earning an estimated four billion dollars in profit. 

Business rivals or bureaucrats – long since interchangeable – pay for the security services to have the head of a company arrested; while they are in prison their documents and registrations are seized, the company is re-registered under different owners, and by the time the original owners are released the company has been bought, sold and split up by new owners.

The usual way out is a bribe and there is a whole industry of pay-offs.  Good ‘lawyers’ are not the ones who can defend you in court – the verdicts are pre-determined – but those who have the right connections and know who to pay off in the judiciary and the relevant ministry.

via LRB.

What Pomerantsev described is not unique to Putin’s administration or to Russia.  It is typical of an autocratic government in decay.

In a decaying autocracy, the ruler has almost unlimited power to wage war and crush dissent.  What the ruler doesn’t have the power to do is to make the government work effectively.  When the mildest of reforms is attempted, there is hidden resistance and the orders are never carried out.

This was true of the Roman Empire before its collapse.  It was true of the French and Russian monarchies before their revolutions.  It was true of the would-be Communist reformers before the collapse of that system.

And the way the United States is headed, it is becoming true of my own country.  But we’re not there yet, and I believe there is still time to reverse course.  We Americans could take Russia as a warning of a dystopian future we want to avoid.


Diary: Sistema, the full article by Peter Pomerantsev for the London Review of Books.

Cannes 2014: ‘Leviathan’ – a new Russian masterpiece, a review of a movie about corruption in Russia by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.  I thank my friend Oidin for the link.

Putin is not the equivalent of Stalin.  Andrei Zvyagintsev would not have been able to make his movie nor exhibit it abroad if he were.  But that not a justification of Putin.  His regime is bad enough.


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One Response to “Vladimir Putin and ‘the dictatorship of the law’”

  1. Gunny G Says:

    Reblogged this on BLOGGING BAD w/Gunny G! ~ (Attn: "CLINGERS").


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