Category Archives: politics

Putin and property – a ‘boss’ but not an owner

After Repin. ‘They weren’t expecting him’.

I was reluctant to write about Navalny’s return to Russia. Partly because so much attention devoted to this figure in the ‘West’ does neither him, nor the breadth of political opposition in Russia any real favours – witness some of the naval-gazing attempts to tie Russian protests to BLM and other issues in the US that really have little to do with the Russian context and even less to do with Navalny’s case. Anyway, what did catch my attention was Putin’s unprecedented response (in that normally he pretends that N. does not exist) after the YouTube expose of what is alleged is Putin’s Black Sea palace. Second, I thought it worth underlining a point I’ve made before in this blog – that Navalny still fails to cut through as a national political figure, even though his videos and campaigning have fundamentally changed the political atmosphere. Also, unlike even at the time of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 (which he should have rightfully won), pretty much all my research participants (in deindustrializing Kaluga region) are now aware of him.

So the post is in two parts –today, on the fickle meaning of ‘private property’ in Russia and later I will talk about some ‘on-the-ground’ responses to Navalny’s arrest and the 23rd January protests.

So, Oliver Carroll tweeted the strange phrase from the short interview Putin gave rebutting the allegations: ‘“Nothing described as my property belongs to or ever belonged to me or my close relatives. Ever” [ничего из того, что там указано в качестве моей собственности, ни мне, ни моим близким родственникам не принадлежит и никогда не принадлежало.]

Carroll commented: ‘A strange turn of phrase that doesn’t deny existence of palace resort or the fact that it was being guarded by the presidential security service.’ Then Timothy Frye responded that ‘Property rights are often seen as three separate rights: rights to use, to obtain income from, and to transfer an asset. Better to ask did you use the property or allow others use it than did you own it on paper.’ Frye has a book on property rights in Russia that I’m looking forward to reading. From a quick browse Frye asks the chicken and egg question about property rights – do people in developed economies abide by contracts because of social trust, social networks or effective courts? Interestingly he’s implying that our understanding of ‘good institutions’ in ‘the West’ is too simplistic and that social norms play more of a role than we would be comfortable admitting. Frye goes on to talk about the importance of informal institutions in Russia that provide their own ‘rules of the game’ in terms of widely understood sanctions for actions like reneging on informal agreements. In some business contexts, the rule of law can sometimes be a worthwhile recourse – legal dualism results. Later in the book I can see Frye has collected interesting survey data on the prevalent feelings of illegitimacy surrounding privatisation even 25 years on – particularly linked to perceptions about benefits to private individuals and the loss of public goods. “In a word, everyone hates privatization”, but not private property, write Frye.

My own research has not really looked much at property rights – only obliquely do I talk about corporate raiding (reiderstvo) and how its violence in Russia affects ordinary people. What was clear is that uncertainty and disputes of ownership of plant and land continues to create high levels of palpable risk even for ordinary people as it can result in catastrophic ‘externalities’ like pollution, violent crime, and the disruption of utility supply (p. 236 in the Conclusion linked above). It also results in a particular Russian anomaly – property that doesn’t belong to anyone. Famously the lack of ownership of graveyards has been widely discussed, but less well studied is the problem of roads and utility networks that jurisdictions fight over in order NOT to take responsibility for them. This was a running theme in my research on Izluchino in my book and many informal solutions of ‘devolved’ governance were found that would confound any traditional perspective on property relations.

In response to Carroll’s comment on Putin’s language – his disavowal of ownership of the palace – I was reminded of the literature on ‘private property’ in the USSR and in particular a discussion in a forthcoming book by Xenia Cherkaev that contains long discussion of ongoing significance of Soviet ‘property’. Usufruct looms large – ‘use’ stressed over ‘possession’ (vladenie) in the Soviet system where ‘private’ property was taboo, but still a reality, and thus had to be fudged in various ways. Putin is probably telling the truth that there isn’t a deed of property with his name on it. But that’s of course disingenuous because Navalyni makes the point about endless intermediaries himself (and points out that they are quite revealing of the relative narrowness of Putin’s trust circle).  By relying on old acquaintances from St Petersburg, if anything Putin is shown in quite a sorry light – he doesn’t have very extensive social capital – revealing his rather parvenu origins and unimpressive career prior to the later 1990s!). But I guess the point here is, how much ‘capital’ does Navalny really have – in Russia? Maybe by his public act of self-sacrifice this will be his moment to become at least a powerful political symbol – if not political leader. Or will this gamble mean that he’ll eternally be known domestically as an ‘avantiurist’ or traitorous dupe. That’s for a later post.

Now, Cherkaev’s book is not in print yet and I don’t want to steal its thunder. However, some of the book’s arguments are visible in two articles – unpaywalled here  and here.

Cherkaev writes: “Coming from the study of Soviet civil law (see Cherkaev 2018 [Russian text]), I am especially interested in nonprivate ownership, in what happens to the idealized triad of full and complete ownership rights—usus (to manage), fructus (to benefit from), abusus (to dispose of)—when property is collectively held.” In the 2018 Russian article, Cherkaev discusses ‘dignity’ as personal property in the USSR. In the book, Cherkaev builds on the distinctions between personal and private to show how the former served as a substitute for the impossibility of the latter in the realm of ownership. The Soviet solution of “Personal property” posed no threat to the Soviet monopoly on property “because it was essentially usufruct: the right to use and benefit from a share of socialist property, without alienating it from the commons”. This led me to reflect further on another discussion – linked to ownership, that Cherkaev makes – that of ‘хозяйство’ – (khoziaistvo)  – which can translate economy, household, property, house, establishment.  Traditionally, ‘the economy’ in Russian is essentially ‘narodnoe khoziaistvo’ and more recently ‘natsionalnaia ekonomika’.

Cherkaev draws on Stephen Collier who notes that khoziaistvo actually refers to any nexus of production, so is not just ‘the economic’ – “as a noun, [it] can refer to a farm, a household, or virtually any nexus of production and need fulfilment—that is, to almost any unit of substantive economy. But khoziaistvo can not imply the formal meaning of ‘economic’” (Collier, 2011. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Page 81). This led me to reflect about Putin as the ultimate ‘khoziain’ – an owner-in-charge contrasted to owner-as-possessor – and that this also captures his managerialism, as opposed to entrepreneurialism as leader. Russia’s economy is also easily seen as a khoziaistvo rather than a legal-contractual system of possessions exchanged. Khoziaistvo as dominion shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s ‘sistema’ (informal governance system) as it relates to the economic. From this meaning of khoziaistvo, Cherkaev marks Russia’s relationship to property as different to that of the ‘market economy’ . ‘Ekonomika’ is a formal space of circulation with equal and self-interested actors. But Putin as ‘khoziain’, shows the ‘substantive’ — in anthropological terms — meaning of his clientelist regime. We normally think ‘substantivism‘ as a ‘positive’ thing (after Polanyi), but why not avoid psychologising Putin as ‘avaricious’ (which may be true) and instead see him as product of a ‘self-provisioning’ system where actors are embedded (actually trapped) in a personalistic webs of mutual aid.

This is what Navalny’s vid shows very clearly – remarkably even – the same young-old faces at St Pete City Hall who start off writing bribe amounts in the 10s of thousands of dollars sheepishly on bits of paper and then – almost by accident – end up running a petro-economy where the opportunities for graft are endless. Ironically Putin is entirely unremarkable and his ‘khoziaistvo’ also. What’s clear is that his version of ‘gosudarstvennost’ (stateness – building a strong state) is subordinate to his ‘feeding’ system (the devolved form of governance allowing levying tribute and keeping part of it inherited from the Mongols). In some respects he’s never evolved from Soviet manager mindset – his idea of ‘initiative’ is personalised negotiation and accumulation – not according to market utility maximisation or even profit motive, but as a defensive and even ‘ethical’ protection of the team (this self-justification of course is part of Alena Ledeneva’s explanation of how ‘connections’ known as ‘blat’ in Russia work – by misrecognition as part of one’s ethical self that helps others out – Cherkaev also discusses this at length).

Of course in 90s/2000s this ‘mindset’ (that trust is personalised, limited in scope, conditional, and that there is no alternative to embedding oneself in a chain of mutual ‘aid’) spirals out of control and creates obscene wealth and inequality. Nonetheless the tacit (or not so tacit) acknowledgement of Putin as ‘khoziain’ of Russia Inc. means even Navalny’s latest will not cut through quite as well as we might think. No one likes obscene wealth in Russia, but most people have lowered their expectations after 30 years of no one wealthy really getting their just deserts (Khodorkovsky excepted – in that most people do think he got what was coming to him). Envy-culture (hatred of real entrepreneurs) is real. But again, this plays to Putin – as he’s not an ‘oligarch’, but khoziain. Despite Navalny’s revelations, Putin is still implicitly compared (by ‘ordinary Russians’) to another ‘khoziain’ who famously lived frugally – Stalin. He too secured resources through formal and informal means, determined entitlements according to a different kind of ‘economy’. Now I don’t agree with these people, but you have to admit Putin is successful (for now) in projecting himself as the arbiter of national khoziaistvo. In part because most people’s individual wealth is derived from personalised networks of trust no less than Putin’s own.

Final points – the irony of the Kremlin today saying they cannot name the true owners of the palace as they are entrepreneurs and therefore their transactions in the sphere of private property are to be respected.

People are much more critical of the authorities than ever before. People are cynical. People – thanks to Navalny – cannot ignore the vast scale of corruption in their own country, BUT! They were really uncomfortable with the ultimate upping of the anti by Navalnyi – maybe it was true – that the corruption extended to Putin himself? However, Putin’s response reassured them. If he was denying it then it required less cognitive dissonance to believe stories about Navalny being a stooge of the West and the whole story as some kind of slander on Russia. From there it’s not so hard to believe the current propaganda – that ‘foreign elements’ are paying protesters, etc, etc, to explain the Saturday protests in support of Navalny. Interestingly here, the message coincides with another one – of protecting youth from bad influences – which also gets a very sympathetic hearing among a majority of Russians.

Next post will offer some wide-ranging reflections on Navalny by my research interlocutors – young, old, rich and poor. Has his time passed – ironically at the time of the greatest international attention to him? Does he have a message beyond anti-corruption that is wide enough to cut though? Is his ‘reach’ to ordinary Russians over-rated to the Twitterati? Can there really be an opposition leader in Russia while Putin is in charge – or is that to miss the point – that Navalny’s strength is to serve as a hybrid figure who can channel various political imaginations that have been repressed for so long?