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Unity and Division as the Social Roots of Authoritarianism


Authoritarianism is usually associated with repression, clientelism, co-optation, and the problem of collective action. As researchers have shown, in many countries, autocrats buy people's loyalty and quiescence through material giveaways while harassing and imprisoning their political opponents to consolidate and retain power.​ People, in their turn, distrust each other and have difficulty setting aside their private interests for the sake of coming together to topple the dictator.

This book will argue that this picture is not what happens in Russia and other countries with historically strong states. Russia is far from being a deeply divided society in which everyone cares only for their own interests. Quite the contrary: in Russia, the pursuit of private interest to the detriment of collective one has been considered morally wrong for centuries. And Russian rulers have usually capitalized not on social divisions but on social unity.


In this book, I show that the mechanisms that rulers must use to stay in power in societies, which I call statist and anti-statist, are different. Whether a society is one or the other depends on the people's view of the state. In statist societies, the state possesses group authority, i.e. people view it as speaking on behalf of the whole society and accept the state's right to limit their private interests. In this case, they easily cooperate with the state when it appeals to the idea of the common good. A ruler in such an environment can build ramified top-down organizational structures, which help to control society and monitor dissent using overt repression only as the last resort. Such a solidarity-based political machine is resilient at the time of economic decline as long as the ruler maintains people's faith that he continues to care for the common good.

In anti-statist societies, however, the state has not been historically successful in monopolizing group authority. A significant part of it stayed with non-state groups (ethnic, cultural, local, religious, etc.), which usually compete with each other for access to public resources. The resistance of these groups to state authority and the existing divisions make the ruler resort to bargains, co-optation, and other means of divide-and-rule politics, which have been well-researched in political science. During the economic decline, such division-based political machines are much less stable performers than the machines built around the idea of solidarity and the common good.


Russian society as a whole leans towards the statist pole of the continuum, but some regions have been historically a lot more resistant to the state than others. Using the quantitative analysis of the regional variation of regime resilience and the studies of four contrasting cases (Kemerovo region, the Republic of Tatarstan, Rostov region, and the Republic of Altai), I show that the different views of the state lead to different structures of grassroots-level public organizations (e.g. youth, educational, pensioners, or various NGOs). In the cases of Kemerovo and Tatarstan, where the state has a strong group authority, I found highly centralized state-controlled organizations penetrating society to the bottom. In the cases of Rostov and Altai, where the state does not enjoy the same kind of authority, the organizations were decentralized and a lot more autonomous from the state.


Since the mechanisms that sustain authoritarianism in statist and anti-statist societies are different, the path to democratization should be different too. Russia's problem does not lie in widespread clientelism and lack of generalized trust in society. Rather, the problem is that society is not autonomous enough from the state. The social solidarity, which is easily activated by the state when it appeals to the common good, fails to work on its own for the purpose of keeping the state accountable to the public. Learning to activate solidarity to counteract the state and institutionalizing such accountability mechanisms is what Russia needs to democratize.

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