The new Russian Federation was established as a constitutional republic, legitimated by democracy, where a president and a parliament would be chosen by free elections. On paper, Russia had a succession principle.
Ilyin had anticipated a different transition from Soviet to Russian power: fascist dictatorship, the preservation of all Soviet territory, permanent war against the sinful West. Russians began to read him in the 1990s. His ideas had no effect on the end of the Soviet Union, but they did influence how post-Soviet oligarchs consolidated a new kind of authoritarianism in the 2000s and 2010s.
It is impossible for a human being to do what Ilyin imagined a Russian redeemer should: emerge from a realm of fiction and act from the spirit of totality. Yet a feat of scenography by skilled propagandists (or, in the nice Russian phrase, “political technologists”) might create the appearance of such an earthly miracle. The myth of a redeemer would have to be founded on lies so enormous that they could not be doubted, because doubting them would mean doubting everything. It was not so much elections as fictions that allowed a transition of power, a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Then Ilyin and Putin rose together, the philosopher and the politician of fiction.
Democracy never took hold in Russia, in the sense that power never changed hands after freely contested elections. Yeltsin was president of the Russian Federation because of an election that took place when Russia was still a Soviet republic, in June 1991. Those taking part in that election were not choosing a president of an independent Russia, since no such thing yet existed. Yeltsin simply remained president after independence. To be sure, such an institutionally ambiguous claim to power was typical as the 1990s began. As the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself came apart, various backroom compromises, roundtable negotiations, and partly free elections generated hybrid systems of government. In other postcommunist states, free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections quickly followed. The Russian Federation managed no election that might have legitimated Yeltsin or prepared the way for a successor. In a development Ilyin had not foreseen, but which was easy to reconcile with his doctrine, the very rich chose Russia’s redeemer.
The wealthy few around Yeltsin, christened the “oligarchs,” wished to manage democracy in his favor and theirs. The end of Soviet economic planning created a violent rush for profitable industries and resources and inspired arbitrage schemes, quickly creating a new class of wealthy men. Wild privatization was not at all the same thing as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood. Markets require the rule of law, which was the most demanding aspect of the post-Soviet transformations. Americans, taking the rule of law for granted, could fantasize that markets would create the necessary institutions. This was an error. It mattered whether newly independent states established the rule of law, and above all whether they managed a legal transition of power through free elections.
In 1993, Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament and sent armed men against its deputies. He told his western partners that this was streamlining needed to accelerate market reforms, a version of events accepted in the American press. So long as markets were invoked, politicians of inevitability could see an attack on a parliament as a step towards democracy. Yeltsin then used the conflict with parliament as a justification for strengthening the office of the president. In 1996, Yeltsin’s team (by its own account) faked elections that won him another term as president.
By 1999, Yeltsin was visibly ill and frequently intoxicated, and the problem of succession became acute. Elections were needed to replace him; from the perspective of the oligarchs these needed to be managed and the outcome controlled. A successor was needed who would allow Yeltsin’s family (in both the normal sense of his relatives and in the Russian sense of friendly oligarchs) to stay alive and maintain their wealth. “Operation Successor,” as the challenge was known in the Kremlin, had two stages: finding a new man who was not a known associate of Yeltsin, and then inventing a fake problem that he could then appear to solve.
To find his successor, Yeltsin’s entourage organized a public opinion poll about favorite heroes in popular entertainment. The winner was Max Stierlitz, the hero of a series of Soviet novels that were adapted into a number of films, most famously the television serial Seventeen Moments of Spring in 1973. The fictional Stierlitz was a Soviet plant in German military intelligence during the Second World War, a communist spy in Nazi uniform. Vladimir Putin, who had held a meaningless post in the East German provinces during his career in the KGB, was seen as the closest match to the fictional Stierlitz.* Having enriched himself as the assistant to the mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin was known to the Kremlin and thought to be a team player. He had worked for Yeltsin in Moscow since 1998, chiefly as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB, the former KGB). When appointed Yeltsin’s prime minister in August 1999, Putin was unknown to the larger public, so not a plausible candidate for national elected office. His approval rating stood at 2%. And so it was time to generate a crisis that he could appear to solve.
In September 1999, a series of bombs exploded in Russian cities, killing hundreds of Russian citizens. It seemed possible that the perpetrators were FSB officers. In the city of Ryazan, for example, FSB officers were apprehended by their local colleagues as suspects in the bombings. Though the possibility of self-terrorism was noticed at the time, the factual questions were overwhelmed by righteous patriotism as Putin ordered a new war against the part of Russia deemed to be responsible for the bombings: the Chechen republic of southwestern Russia, in the Caucasus region, which had declared independence in 1993 and then fought the Russian army to a standstill. There was no evidence that Chechens had anything to do with the bombings. Thanks to the Second Chechen War, Putin’s approval rating reached 45% in November. In December, Yeltsin announced his resignation and endorsed Putin as his successor. Thanks to unequal television coverage, manipulation of the vote tally, and the atmospherics of terrorism and war, Putin was accorded the absolute majority needed to win the presidential election of March 2000.
The ink of political fiction is blood.
So began a new kind of politics, known at the time as “managed democracy,” which Russians would master and later export. Credit for the political technology of Operation Successor was taken by Vladislav Surkov, a brilliant half-Chechen public relations specialist who served as Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff. The stage management of democracy that he pioneered, where a mysterious candidate used manufactured crises to assemble real power, continued as Surkov accepted a series of posts from Putin.
During Putin’s first two presidential terms, between 2000 and 2008, Surkov exploited manageable conflicts to gain popularity or change institutions. In 2002, after Russian security forces killed dozens of Russian civilians while retaking a theater from terrorists, television fell under total state control. After a provincial school was besieged by terrorists in 2004, the post of elected regional governor was abolished. Justifying the end of those elected governorships, Surkov (citing Ilyin) claimed that Russians did not yet know how to vote. In Surkov’s opinion, Russia “was not ready and could not have been ready for life in the conditions of modern democracy.” Nevertheless, Surkov continued, Russia was superior to other post-Soviet states in its sovereignty. He claimed that none of the non-Russian nations of the old Soviet Union was capable of statehood.