Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin
Review by Dr. John H. Brown
William Zimmerman, Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014 ISBN: 978-0-691-16148-8 Hardcover, 329 pp., $29.95
William Zimmerman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan, is a stamp collector, as he points out in footnote 66, page 179 of his study under review.
Indeed, there is much of the philatelist in Zimmerman. His recent book titled, Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from The Revolution to Putin, essentially consists of abstract constructs that force the messy, tragic Soviet/Russian political past into Western a priori categories, the center of too-neat geometric designs—Zimmerman’s “stamps” (with, granted, perforations).
Zimmerman’s stamp collection categorizing Russia yesterday/today has the following headings. “Democratic,” “Competitive Authoritarian,” “Full Authoritarian,” “Totalitarian (Mobilizational).” Within each heading there are subdivisions: “Status of core democratic institutions (direct restraints—rule of law) elections; status of opposition; level of electoral uncertainty; size of selectorate, possibility of successful ejectorate; regime goal.”
You may wonder what Zimmerman’s “selectorate” and “ejectorate” actually mean. The professor tells us: “Following Philip Roeder, I use ‘selectorate’ throughout the book to refer to those who select and remove the leader by established procedures. I term those who have the power to remove through extralegal means such as rallies and coups the ‘ejectorate,’ ” a perhaps appropriate word which reminds me of saliva in a spittoon.
But to get to the main point of this review: Zimmerman—for all his admirable gifts as an indefatigable researcher and his mastery of the USA academic scholarly literature on Russia/USSR—is intellectually straitjacketed by his essentially ahistorical philatelist paradigm (the “Western” academic stamp). So he doesn’t deliver an engaging, original human narrative that sheds memorable light on the unpredictable nature and development of politics in a unique, complex, and tormented country, Russia.
Let me list the headings (many of them jaw-breaking) of Zimmerman’s chapters: “From Democratic Centralism to Democratic Centralism”; “Alternative Mobilization Strategies, 1917-1934; From Narrow Selectorate to Autocracy”; “The Great Purge”; “From Totalitarianism to Welfare Authoritarianism”; “Uncertainty and “Democratization”: The Evolution of Post-Brezhnevian Politics, 1982-1991”; “Democratizing Russia, 1991-1997” “The Demise of Schumpeterian Democracy, the Return to Certainty, and Normal (‘Full’) Authoritarianism, 1998-2008”; “The Return of Uncertainty? The 2011-2012 Electoral Cycle”; “The Past and Future of Russian Authoritarianism.”
In plainer words: Zimmerman—few among his ideas can be called new—suggests that, for all the statements of Russia’s leaders for the need of “normalcy” in Russian life (zhit’ normalno), it has never been, and unlikely will ever be, a “normal” nation. The country has failed to meet (especially in Stalinist times) Schumpeter’s criteria for democracy: “largely free press, freedom of discussion, and all serious [election] candidates competing.” What comes close to an exception to this non-“Western” pattern: the not entirely “clean” Russian presidential election of 1996, thanks to which Boris Yeltsin held on to power. Today Putin’s Russia offers little hope for democracy. Here’s Zimmerman’s prediction for the immediate Russian future, presented in his often-turgid prose:
[U]nless there are far more by way of elite defections than we have thus far witnessed in the aftermath of the 2011-12 electoral cycle, the policy of selective repression of potential leaders of the opposition and an occasional demonstrator, when coupled with payoffs to those mass publics, organizations, and elites who have been or might be recruited into Putin’s support base, will be adequate to prevent the mobilization of a serious opposition in 2018.
Zimmerman’s volume belongs to a long tradition of studies by Western ivory-tower pundits (many of them safely tenured at American universities) on the political system of Russia/USSR, notably Merle Fainsod’s How Russia is Ruled (first edition 1953), and Jerry F. Hough’s How the Soviet Union is Governed (1979), an update of Fainsod’s book. In an article written over 30 years ago (Slavic Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, Sep., 1980), when Russian/Soviet area studies were, arguably, flourishing in U.S. academe thanks to extensive USG funding meant ideologically to “win” the Cold War, Zimmerman wrote (p. 482) that “generalizations in the social sciences… usually have short half-lives. The relevance of the paradigm epitomized by Fainsod’s work began to diminish almost simultaneously with the book’s publication.” In the same article, Zimmerman says of Hough (whose How the Soviet Union Is Governed is not cited in Ruling Russia’s “Selected Bibliography”):
Hough would be as likely as anyone to realize the hopes created by the publication of a … revised version of How Russia is Ruled. Regrettably, these hopes have not been realized by How the Soviet Union Is Governed.
Regrettably, if I may repeat Zimmerman’s adverb, and with all due respect to a distinguished emeritus professor, his sad words about intellectually unfulfilled scholarly hopes regarding understanding Russia could be said of Zimmerman’s very own recent book.