“Writing in 1990, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky could already see how the next decade would be one of chaos and contradictions, but he also understood the close connection between chaos and political power, at least in Russia: ‘This chaos and these contradictions are, in fact, a guarantee of the stability of power that is attempting to create order out of chaos and to find solutions to problems.’ He also noted that the last days of the Soviet Union could not but become an object of universal fascination by the way they evidenced an existential truth. In a world bereft of the power of revealed religion, we have to face up to the fact that no one knows how to live. Some will settle on some routine or other and never ask the question of how they should spend their limited years on this planet. The political regime under which they live, including democracy if that is the case, will push or tilt them in a certain direction and provide comfort that whatever life one leads is as close as possible to the ideal. Brodsky thought that it was to the credit of the dying Soviet government that it did not even try to evade, simplify, or disguise the question. There was no answer, there was no meaning to life, and people had simply to live with that. As the novelist Victor Pelevin puts it in The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, the substance of human life actually changes very little from culture to culture, but human beings require a beautiful wrapper to cover it. Russian culture, uniquely, fails to provide one, and it calls this state of affairs ‘spirituality’.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a student dissident in Soviet times who became a key advisor to Putin in the management of Russian public opinion, notes in a recent book how the founder of the current Russian system, Boris Yeltsin, was someone psychologically predisposed to love surprises and, perhaps more importantly, to profit from them. This characteristic became a more or less permanent part of the system. His carefully chosen successor, while developing a whole technology to manage surprises, knows that they are indispensable. Every fast and unexpected action leaves the public stunned and reinforces the distinction between rules and ruled, a distinction that European democracies have been trying to do away with for a long time. Hierarchy is defined with reference to rules, but it is not defined by the rules. What establishes your position in the system is the way you relate to rules, whether you must follow them at all times, whether you are allowed to break them, and finally, whether you can act in full indifference to the rules. In general, decisions are not taken under a norm, but concern what to do with a norm.
At the top of the pyramid rest those who make the rules. In Russia, strange as this may look to Western eyes, those who make the rules would not survive if they were not allowed to break them—and if they did not survive, there would be no rules at all. At the very bottom of the pyramid, or rather below it, one finds something infinitely more interesting than the visible rulers or ruler. European democracies are based on a system of rules, and these rules form an impenetrable membrane, so that you always find yourself under some rule. The Russian system is based on the extreme case; when the rules cease to apply, the curtain of order is pulled aside and the naked spectacle of the power that makes the rules becomes suddenly and unexpectedly visible. ‘The West is governed by rules, Russia makes the rules. Ergo, Russia should rule the West.’ This is how Vladislav Surkov—with Pavlovsky, one of the two halves of the famous Kremlin political machine—once explained his worldview to me.
Pavlovsky notes that the Kremlin does not have to wait for these extreme conditions to materialize. It can organize or manufacture them. The classic case, explored in political literature since the Greeks, is that of a prince who organizes a conspiracy against himself, so that he can draw out his enemies and destroy them in a public display of the uselessness of rising against the state. More generally, if power thrives on vanquishing opposition, and if, like the human body, it needs to be exercised, it would be dangerous to allow oneself too much of an easy life. Power is born out of the effort to create order out of chaos, and if chaos is in short supply, power itself must provide it in adequate doses. We know that Putin thinks like this because on at least one occasion, he did not shy away from proclaiming it. Addressing the crowd during a festive concert on Moscow’s Vasilyevsky Spusk square marking the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he re-asserted his view that Russia and Ukraine are one people, before turning to the challenges facing Russia. He then added: ‘We ourselves will continue moving forward. We will strengthen our statehood and our country. We will overcome the difficulties that we have so easily created for ourselves over these recent times.’
Those who, like Pavlovsky, know from the inside how the system works, those who have seen the beast form close quarters, come back impressed by its chaotic nature. It is certainly not the case that President Putin has established a clear power channel by which decisions are transmitted down to the lower levels of the state. He has no incentive to do that. Every decision is a hostage to fortune: the clearer it is, the easier it will be to show that it was mistaken when things take a bad turn. Putin prefers to send ambiguous messages. He will have everyone guessing at the meaning of his words. In the case of things going wrong, it was simply because this meaning was not accurately interpreted. Under these conditions, chaos is bound to grow, but it is seen as productive and capable of reinforcing state power.
Part of the problem is that a country subject to a strong from of personal rule cannot rely on a stable, predictable framework. It is hostage to the variable states of mind of its leader or leaders. As novelist Vladimir Sorokin writes, ‘the wheel of unpredictability has been spun; the rules of the game have been set.’ Putin has become the ‘capricious, unpredictable Queen of Spades’. More importantly, a system that failed to incorporate a dimension of chaos, that pushed the irrationality of the world to the outside, would become vulnerable to that very chaos irrupting from the outside. Finally, power is not power if it is not exercised and the greatest power must be exercised against the greatest opposition, the greatest threat to political order. Power becomes all the more terrible if it is able to hold in place the permanent threat of chaos, if those under it know that, were that power to be removed, the world would immediately enter a time of unimaginable trouble and turmoil.
That is why politics in Russia can be precisely defined as the management of chaos.
—Brunco Macaes, The Dawn of Eurasia; on the trail of the New World Order, pages 196-199