The cycles of state failure and reconstruction that make up Russian history in the twentieth century have created a paradox. The failure of the state and the brutality with which the state has tried to reconstruct Russia in the past has lead many Russians to distrust the state, to see it as something alien and predatory that has imposed new ways of life on them against their will. The very idea of state power was not legitimate in the eyes of many Russians for much of the twentieth century and as Russia enters the twenty-ﬁrst century, popular esteem for political institutions is at what might be its lowest ever ebb. Many Russians prefer private life to the vicissitudes of public life and are loyal to family and networks of friends and kin rather than to the state. However, despite this, and as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new President, has noted, Russians expect the state to play a larger role in public life than might be common in established liberal democracies and expect it to take the lead in solving Russia’s political, economic and social crises.1 This is not as surprising as it might seem at ﬁrst glance. The brutality of Russia’s rulers has destroyed public institutions and eroded faith in public life to the point where the only body left that might act for the collective good is the state, or some part of it. Moreover, Russians are right to want action from the state since only a reconstructed state in Russia can provide the public goods (goods that all citizens share equally, that no one in a society can be excluded from enjoying) necessary for a decent, peaceful and prosperous life. Only the state can provide for the rule of law across Russia, for a relatively stable currency that is honoured throughout the country, for security of property rights, and the enforcement of contracts whether they are between businessmen, banks and their clients, employers and employees, or welfare recipients such as pensioners and those agencies responsible for paying them. If the state’s role is desired and also necessary to the reconstruction of
public life in Russia, how can we explain the failure of the Russian state in the past and its current weakness? There are two common explanations for Russia’s problems that appear in the media when Russia has a crisis, or that are often to be found in the academic literature on Russia: the argument that Russia’s problems are historically inevitable, and the argument that
Russia’s problems are culturally determined and hence unavoidable. Neither of these arguments is very good. The causes of state failure in Russia have been different at different times. It is not simply a matter of state weakness and failure explaining state weakness and failure ad inﬁnitum. Variously, different combinations of personality, ideology, the pressures of modernization and international forces have caused state failure in Russia. A history of state failure does make constructing a stable polity and economy more difﬁcult. Each failure means that a state and nation lags behind its competitors and is overtaken by emerging powers. Consequently, there is further to go to deliver comparable standards of living and security, to produce goods of a comparable technological level and quality, etc., and it is harder to attract investment, capture markets, or command respect and project inﬂuence in international politics. Nevertheless, failure, whilst it may get harder to avoid, is not inevitable. Structural factors (which states cannot easily change or avoid because they are beyond their individual control) such as international competition, the health of the global economy and one’s position in it, or the fact that society and economy are agrarian rather than industrial, or industrial rather than post-industrial, are important inﬂuences on the outcome of state building projects, but they are not necessarily decisive. Success and failure are contingent on many things and the inﬂuence of structural factors can be mediated by how politicians approach them. Nor is failure to be surprised at or despised. State failure is more common than success; very few states had stable political systems over the course of the twentieth century and the majority of states that appear to be most stable and most successful have only recently so become.2 The lessons of history are the same for Russia as for any other state: failure is not surprising, nor is it inescapable. Arguments that assert that the failure of the Russian state over the last
century is explicable by reference to culture are not much better. The Russian state does not fail because it is Russian; past and present crises of political authority and state failure have not been caused by something intrinsic to ‘Russianness’ or the Russians. Certain common Russian traditions and attitudes have not helped state building in Russia. However, these traditions and attitudes are often themselves the result of state failure and can be amended by fresh state building projects, or serve as their basis or inspiration. It is therefore inappropriate to blame culture for all of the failings of the Russian state, especially if this means that factors speciﬁc to a particular moment at which the Russian state failed are not given their proper due and explanatory weight.3 To put it another way, why say a crisis is due to some vague quality of ‘Russianness’ if it is better blamed on some clearly visible combination of poor leadership, economic crisis, international apathy or hostility and inadequate institutions, each of which has a form unique to its own time of crisis? The cultural argument is also contradictory; it blames state collapse and failure of ‘Russianness’, but also argues that Russians have a cultural afﬁnity for order and discipline, two features of any well-ordered state.