By John Lloyd
Published: December 8 2006 16:12 | Last updated: December 8 2006 16:12
In a broadcast in 1939, Churchill told his audience: â€œI cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.â€ This, mind you, was when the Soviet Union was under the thumb of the Communist Party and the Communist Party was led, with no fear of competition, by Joseph Stalin. Now, when there is no Party spine holding the place together, and its leadership, for all its authoritarianism, cannot control the many layers of authority, military and police forces and secret service covens, its actions are as much an enigma as ever.
There has been progress: the enigma is not further wrapped within a dogma. Russiaâ€™s democratic development has never, in the past 15 years, been other than rackety and it is now part-suppressed: yet the freedoms of belief, speech, press, travel, consumption and choice of work are real, if partial and damaged. Russia is not lost to freedom, because where only the idea existed under Party rule, now some of the practices have taken root.
But they have not taken root in ways recognised by John Stuart Mill or approved by Friedrich von Hayek. Russia has ever been the land of two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa), and it is harder than ever to know which way the steps are tending. We need guides. Fortunately, at this time of alarmed pessimism on Russiaâ€™s future and our relations with it, such a one, as careful as it is brilliant, has appeared. It will not tell us who killed Alexander Litvinenko, but it can tell us a good deal about - as its title plainly promises - How Russia Really Works.
Alena Ledeneva has in her decade of study and teaching in Britain produced a wealth of material on post-Soviet corruption, business crime, informal links and blat - the intricate network of favours, coercion and solidarity which has underpinned pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet life. In this latest piece of work, she gives an account of the new mysteries, riddles and enigmas of post-Soviet Russia, some of these just like the old, but most creative adaptations.
Post-Soviet Russia has been, and in many places remains, a more Darwinian place than it was in late-Soviet times. Party control of all aspects of life was generally predictable. When I lived there, an acquaintance spent an evening detailing for me a scale of crimes and punishments which one could, with some precision, expect: an over-critical article could result in the withdrawal of foreign travel privileges for a year or so; the signing of a protest could mean suspension from work without pay; open contempt for the countryâ€™s leader, the loss of a job...and so on. In Putinâ€™s Russia, there are also crimes and punishments which are not on the statute book - but as Ledeneva reveals, these are bewildering in their novelty. They include the instance of a woman who, appointed as director of a bank branch and anxious to be honest in her work, ended up on the wrong side of the complex strategies played out by her superiors and their associates, and found herself sentenced to two yearsâ€™ hard labour.
Party rule was stable, if masked under formal state institutions: the new democratic institutions are not. Justice was, in the end, Party justice: now, it might be fair or it might not. The multiplicity and confusion of laws means that the authorities always have some excuse for punishment; and these authorities are themselves under constant threat of retribution - â€œno equality in the face of the law can be observed, laws are not enforced universally and little respect is paid to the law...state institutions are used selectively and manipulatively to keep businesses off balance, whereas businessmen protect themselves from the exploitative system by layers and layers of clever scheming...organisations continue to rely on clandestine means of accounting in which information diverges substantially from that required for external use... the state reserve[s] the possibility of an assault on the oligarchs, thus creating informal leverage against them.â€
In the universe described by Ledeneva, its masters are those with the connections, cunning and courage to fashion fiefdoms of profit and influence, strong enough to treat with the state and its agencies - especially the omnipresent secret services, whom the new masters often suborn or employ. The victims are those who do not understand the new rules, and above all those who try to work decently: she has some terrible case histories of such people. Here, every freedom is attended by its subversion - as seen in the operations of a freed press, whose underpaid journalists are then enrolled by the oligarchs and the secret services in endless Russian-doll strategies of kompromat - the building and destroying of reputations, the creation of scandals, the stoking of panics.
From this murk spring the alliances, feuds and plots that often end in murder: of bankers, businessmen, politicians, journalists and secret agents themselves - though usually in Russia, and not in London sushi bars, and usually with a bullet, not with rare radioactive material. All of the circumstances of the murder of Litvinenko, we assume, are meant as messages. But from whom, to whom, with what consequences are likely to remain riddles within mysteries wrapped in enigmas. Who crossed whom, when and on what cause becomes a matter of attempting to untie Gordian knots, there being no Alexander the Great to slice through them. And let us hope there will not be: Stalin was one such knot-slicer. Out of the murk, sooner or later, might come the institutions that really can sustain the liberty that most Russians still want.
â€œHow Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Businessâ€ by Alena V. Ledeneva is published by Cornell University Press at $22.95.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006