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OPINION

They are from the Soviet Union: How Putin's elite nomenklatura origins led to war

Putin's elites are nostalgic for the Stalin-Brezhnev ideals, because most of them made their careers in the Soviet Union: 60% of Russia's top leadership comes from the Soviet nomenklatura, while the share of the Chekists in power has increased several times over. This has made not only a dictatorship but also a war inevitable, because the Soviet-educated elite believes Moscow can lay claim to the entire post-Soviet space. This means that not just a change of government, but a full-fledged lustration is necessary to deter Russia's external aggression.

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The terrible war the Kremlin has unleashed in Ukraine has shocked many. Why is the Russian regime doing something that from the outside looks insane? What does the Kremlin want? Does the regime have values, or an ideology?

Many analysts have been trying for decades to understand what drives the Kremlin, to predict its actions. But analyzing the processes going on in Putin's head is an unrewarding task. To understand the nature of the Russian regime, one should look at its constituent parts, objectively measurable indicators, including the composition of Putin's elites.


Who rules Russia today?


The parallels between the Putin regime and the Soviet system are obvious. It is not just a symbolic matter, such as the return of the Soviet anthem, portraits of Stalin, and Putin's remarks about «the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.» Parallels can also be traced in the personnel management methods and the organization of local administrations. Also recognizable are the rhetorical devices and Soviet propaganda cliches that the authorities use to fight dissenters.

Is this similarity purely aesthetic or is there a deeper reason for such parallels? We studied the career trajectories and biographies of the families of the top 100 Putin elites. First of all, we were interested in their relation to the Soviet nomenklatura - the class of political managers in the USSR, which included all significant positions in government agencies and state enterprises, as well as in the cultural, media, educational and other spheres. We used two approaches to forming a sample of elites - positional (based on the official position held in the system) and reputational (based on expert assessments of their place in the system). We classified a particular person as a member of a group with a nomenklatura past, if he or she had been moving up the nomenklatura career ladder at the time of the collapse of the USSR or if his or her parents were members of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The results are impressive. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than half - 60% - of Putin's top 100 elites have ties to the Soviet nomenklatura (either through families or through their own career tracks). We also analyzed the variation over time - for 2010 and 2020. The figures in both cases were about the same, with a slight decrease in the share of people with «nomenklatura origins» in 2020, mainly due to natural causes.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, former Soviet state officials or their relatives are a majority among Putin's elite

The current Putin elites are predominantly male (no more than 5-8% of the sample are female), born in the 1950s-60s (i.e. of the same age as Putin). Most of them had already made a career in the nomenklatura via the Komsomol or other career paths by the time the USSR collapsed. For the most part, they were associated with the lower and middle tiers of the Soviet nomenklatura, not with the top (the people in and around the Politburo).

Our data allow us to look differently at the trajectory of the Russian political system over the past 30 years. Where did such a huge number of people with nomenklatura roots at the top of the Russian system come from in the first place? In the early 1990s, many researchers pondered the degree to which the former Communist leaders managed to stay in power in their respective countries. Even at that time, compared to other countries in the region, the political elites of the new Russia had particularly close ties to the previous regime. In 1993, for example, according to some estimates, former party members accounted for 80 percent of the political elite in Russia; less than a third in Poland and Hungary; 44 percent in Estonia; 67 percent in Latvia; and 47 percent in Lithuania. The continuity of the elite under Yeltsin was especially noticeable in the presidential administration, the government, and the regional leadership, where 75-80 percent came from the Soviet nomenklatura. Yeltsin himself belonged to the top nomenklatura, having held the posts of Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and First Secretary of the Moscow City Committee of the CPSU by the collapse of the USSR.

Compared to other post-Soviet countries, Russia's political elites had particularly close ties to the previous regime

These figures lead us to the conclusion that the collapse of the USSR did not lead to a change of the elites. And here is why. In the late 1980s in Russia, unlike many Eastern European countries, the driving force for change was not a liberal-democratic mass movement from below, but the middle and lower nomenklatura. That social group was extremely dissatisfied with their career prospects in the late Soviet Union, the gerontocratic system with no career growth opportunities and leaders dying of old age, as reflected in the phrase «bring in the presidium.»

As Lev Gudkov writes, it was the average Soviet bureaucrat (the pro-government «intelligentsia») with no prospects for prosperity, career advancement, or vertical mobility in a «closed» society, who became the active driving force behind perestroika. But as soon as «the old Soviet nomenklatura was dismissed from power and replaced by representatives of the second or third echelon of the bureaucracy, there was an immediate «backpedaling» and resistance to radical reforms. Having ousted the Soviet party-economic nomenclature, part of this middle bureaucracy calmed down and moved to conservative positions.

According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the subsequent changes which occurred in the political system between 2000 and 2008 can be seen as a process of resovietization: the elimination of alternative centers of power, the reordering and subordination of all elements of the state apparatus, a return to the principles of state governance typical of the late Soviet period, but in a modernized and technocratic form. Hence the aforementioned parallels between the Putin regime and the late Soviet Union, because today's Russia is largely ruled by the same people who ruled the USSR.

Alas, in 20 years Russia has not seen the emergence of alternative drivers of liberalization. Since the early 2010s we have seen the gradual formation of an urban middle class (entrepreneurs, journalists, etc.) demanding freedoms and democratic change, but alas, it is still too small and not powerful enough to resist re-autocratization.


In tandem: nomenklatura and security services


Until very recently, studies of Putin's elite have focused for the most part on the «siloviki» - namely, on the sharp increase in the share of members of security agencies, especially the FSB, in Putin's leadership. According to some estimates, by 2005, their presence in the government had already increased nearly seven-fold, and nearly twelve-fold in the highest government levels. The total share of security officials may have increased from 4% in 1988 to 32% in 2008. We were also interested in the extent to which the members of nomenklatura we identified in the system overlapped with the siloviki. To find this out, we estimated the share of siloviki in elite samples.

The results are curious: according to our estimates, the share of security officials among Putin's top 100 elites was approximately 30-37%. This figure is high (and, incidentally, comparable to other studies). However, it is almost half the estimate of the nomenklatura's share in the system. At the same time, the security forces and the nomenklatura overlap by only 20-30%, that is, for the most part, they are different people.

In other words, the Putin elite is an explosive mix of the Soviet nomenklatura and the siloviki. Where the political elite has been renewed in the Russian system of power, it has been due to the influx of the security and law enforcement elite. That's how the nomenklatura/power vertical was formed.


What does this have to do with the war in Ukraine?


Some will object: «But Russia today is a personalist regime, and the only opinion that counts for anything is that of Putin.» This is partly true, but elites are also important; their positions, values, and views either constrain or push the supreme ruler to take certain steps.

First of all, people socialized in the Soviet nomenklatura system are proponents of a strong state, not liberals. They do not value democracy; their system of values prioritizes service to the state, to the vertical of power. During the Soviet era, discipline and loyalty were key elements in the functioning of the nomenklatura. In the post-Soviet period, in those countries where the nomenklatura was able to retain power, these qualities became an important factor in the reconsolidation of new autocracies.

The nomenklatura background of the Soviet elites also gives us an idea of their foreign policy views. From the period of harsh confrontation between the USSR and the United States during the Cold War, when most of the elites of Putin's regime were undergoing social growth, comes the notion of an inevitable aggressive confrontation between Russia and the West, which in this worldview necessarily wants to destroy Russia, to split it: «if we don't defeat them, then they will defeat us, there is no other way». There was also the view of the entire post-Soviet space as a zone of Russia's special interests, and of Ukraine as a «sub-state,» an artificial construct which the Bolsheviks allegedly invented. Finally, the constant refrain of Putin's elites to the effect that, after Ukraine and Belarus, they will try to take over Moldova and, if they are lucky, the Baltics, is also suggestive of dreams to restore the sphere of influence on the territories of the former USSR.


What is to be done?


The conclusions from our analysis are, on the one hand, disappointing. In fact, there was no change of elites in Russia with the collapse of the USSR. The same people remained at the helm, which means that an autocratic backlash and a new revanchism of Russia on the international stage was historically inevitable. Perhaps that is why Russian liberals should not torment themselves with the question of «how we lost Russia», because they never really had their own Russia.

Another important conclusion is about Russia's future. If Russia ever has a new window of opportunity, the task of the reformers will be to lustrate the elites. People who socialized in the leadership of the previous system should not be allowed to remain at the head of the country.

If Russia gets a new window of opportunity, the task of the reformers will be carrying out lustration

And finally, the good news. Our analysis of the composition of Russia's elites shows that in many ways we are back to the situation that existed in the late Soviet Union, where party gerontocrats ran the system with no career growth opportunity and died of old age in their posts. This leaves hope that due to their natural departure people born in the 1950s and 60s will gradually be replaced by an elite group with different views. And that Putin's grassroots elite, frustrated by the lack of career prospects amid a stagnant economy due to sanctions, might re-launch processes of liberalization similar to those that took place in the late Soviet Union.

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