“I’m against Putin”

There’s a strong tendency to blame President Vladimir Putin for repressions and rights abuses in Russia. You can see this in pieces like Robert Sauders’ in Anthropology News today:

With the rise of Vladimir Putin as the undisputed political power in Russia, the government has undertaken a vigorous and systematic suppression of social, political and environmental activists.

This is pretty representative; if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see the same trope in most coverage of political repression in Russia. (I don’t mean to pick on Sauders in particular–the cases he raises are important, and I’m glad he chose to draw attention to them!)

It’s certainly true that Putin exercises a great deal of power in Russia, and that political power there is 1) highly centralized; and 2) not institutionalized. (That is, the center of political gravity is in individuals, not their offices, as we saw during Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency: the role of Prime Minister suddenly became much more powerful when Putin occupied it.) And yet I worry that this tendency to focus on Putin himself as the master villain of political repression means we’re missing quite a lot about how repression operates, and it’s likely to lead us astray when we try to understand what is actually causing the problems activists are protesting.

I’ll have more to say on the former in the paper I’m working up for the AAA conference in November, which I’ll post about in a few weeks. The latter…will be a big chunk of my dissertation! But for starters:

— In any given case, there’s an entire apparatus carrying out state repressions. Putin’s a powerful guy, but he can only be in so many places at once. Other people run security ministries, oversee police departments, run security at prison, adjudicate legal cases, throw bodies into police vans. . . Focusing on Putin erases the ways in which a significant portion of society is complicit in these actions.

— As many of my interlocutors pointed out while I was doing fieldwork last year, replacing a single person won’t fix a whole system–especially when well-known opposition figures may not be much better. Aleksey Navalny, for example, responded to recent anti-migrant riots by calling for stricter visa regimes for people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, essentially siding with the rioters. Locating “repression” in the person of Putin doesn’t do much for us here.

— The case of Mikhail Kosenko, ordered to undergo mandatory psychological treatment after being arrested for alleged involvement in “mass disorder” at a major protest in May 2012, suggests some historical continuities as well. Given the fairly extensive history of repressing political dissent in Russia, viewing this as a fault of Putin and his particular government seems a shallow explanation.

None of this is meant to suggest that Putin and the current political elite should not be held accountable for their decisions and policies. Of course they should be. But understanding repression as emanating from a single malevolent figure is a mistake.