Soon, Muscovites will get to choose the location of an enormous, 24-meter tall monument of Prince Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler in the East Slavic world. They will be able to vote via a smartphone app between three different locations in the capital. Two other options on the ballot, “Experts should decide” and “I don't know,” basically mean "Leave it to the authorities." The choice "Don’t put it anywhere”  is conspicuously absent.

In July the Russian leadership commemorated the millennium of the death of Vladimir in 1015 with a grand reception in the Kremlin and a four-point presidential decree, in which the last two points were classified as secret. Evidently, the Russian authorities want to erect the monument to Vladimir on Lubyanka Square, the location of the headquarters of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. He will rise in the empty space once occupied by a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky that was, until recently, being readied for his reinstatement. 

In the same month a group of senators from Russia’s upper house of parliament submitted a draft law to parliament instituting two new commemorative dates: April 19, the Day of the Accession of Crimea, Taman, and Kuban into the Russian Empire (1783) and September 9, a Memorial Day for the Veterans of the Crimean War (1853-1856). 

The accompanying commentary to the law explains that the dates reflect “authentic geopolitical events" which compelled Catherine the Great to bring these territories under Russian rule on the request of their citizens and that this "became the legitimate form of the accession of Crimea into Russia." 

The two key concepts here are “authenticity” (the events really did take place, they weren’t just some fantasy) and “legitimacy” (Crimea was brought into the empire at its own request, it was not just seized by force). Of course 1783 should really read 2014: the April date was selected for its proximity to the so-called Crimean Spring, and “Catherine the Great” is a stand-in for an entirely different Russian leader.

In the same way, everyone can see that Vladimir the Great is also a stand-in for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian elite really wants to honor him with monuments and feast-days but it has to do so in roundabout fashion. 

Why is it that Russia cannot erect a rotating monument to Vladimir Putin, just as Turkmenistan did for its first president, or rename St. Petersburg University Putin University, just as a major university in Astana has been named after Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev? 

In Russia, everyone knows that adulation of this type is impossible. Indeed, the bureaucratic machine would view someone who proposed this initiative as a provocateur.

The prohibition is both obvious and hard to formulate. 

First of all, Russia's rulers are acting in a special-ops style because most of them are themselves siloviki, or members of the security forces. For them an element of secrecy and surprise is key to all political decisions. The truth should never be expressed in public, even when doing so is beneficial, and all maps must be printed with errors so as to mislead potential spies.

Under this special services logic, this year a presidential decree instituted February 27 as a Special Operations Forces Day holiday. Why this date? The government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta told its readers, “Just recall what happened where this time last year, and how it ended.” The new holiday is a not-so-subtle celebration of the Crimean takeover.

This rather strange nod-and-wink routine in official commemorations makes Russia's state and citizens co-conspirators in unspoken truths.  There is nothing new here. Russian émigré author Vladimir Nabokov wrote that when radical thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky spoke in the 1860s about the Italian resurgence, “he kept adding in brackets, with drilling insistence, after practically every other sentence: ‘Italy,’ ‘in Italy,’ ‘I am talking about Italy.’ The already corrupted reader would have known that he was talking about Russia and the peasant question.” Soviet theater goers would learn to read between the lines in similar fashion. 
Hints, insinuations, and doublespeak are the weapons of the weak. When a powerful state resorts to such technique, it creates a somewhat warped but strong bond between the government and its citizens.

The phenomenon of what we can describe as Russia's "authoritarian bashfulness" can also be explained by political theory. Professor Barbara Geddes, a prominent researcher of authoritarian regimes, classifies Russia as a "personalist autocracy," as distinct from a single-party or military autocracy that exists elsewhere in the world. This concept is regarded critically (why can’t Russia rely on its laws and institutions rather than on one-man control?) or with pride (Russia needs a heaven-sent leader), but no one denies that this is how the country is run. 

 Most personalist regimes are less durable than single-party dictatorships and more susceptible to economic and exogenous shocks, because a “heaven-sent leader" must continuously prove his ability to turn water into wine and multiply loaves of bread or fish. Any difficulties must be temporary in nature. Also, personalist regimes need to continually buy off their elites: when the rewards for loyalty run out, the ranks of supporters suddenly evaporate.

However, there is a subtle but important internal contradiction in this Russian regime. Even if autocracy here is centered on one leader, the legitimation of authority is still procedural, in other words, power is acquired and transferred through elections and the interpretation of written law. Bureaucrats, not revolutionaries, are the custodians of authority.

This does not mean that the government abides by its own laws, but it must at least pretend to abide by them, and it violates them only within certain limits (in fact the laws are often written to allow for this eventuality). The fact that the authorities feel the need to falsify elections or bend the constitution is a perverse proof of this.

Russia's leaders seek legitimation by means of procedures to make them less vulnerable to external and internal shocks. They can answer criticism by saying “The laws are the same for everyone,” or “If you don’t like it, take us to court.” 

The real risks come when a regime of this type exhausts its legitimacy and misses the moment when a transfer of power can still be carried out through procedures that are ostensibly legitimate, even if inherently flawed. After that point, the regime begins to morph. The head of state has to behave like a revolutionary leader--even if he isn't one-- accomplishing great feats, vanquishing enemies, conquering new lands, discovering treasure. A charismatic leader must live by cult of personality alone, because he has no other legitimate grounds for holding his office.

Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist

  • Yekaterina Schulmann