However, this cautious “deprivation of personality” of the Russian political system is important and an indication of the long-term change that Russian society is going through. The Russians today seem less impressive by showing strong leadership at home and Russian military power abroad. The demand to recognize that they are respectable citizens, and not obedient subjects, is evident in many protest movements that are willing to face the pressure of the government and the police.
The changes that the government has quietly introduced testify to the acceptance of the challenge. Few Russians may dispute that interaction with the Russian state is now much more formal and effective than five years ago.
In government service offices with one window today, citizens receive a slip, pour coffee, wait a few minutes in a clean waiting area and their requests are quickly and efficiently processed. It is far from the time when people had to bribe their way to obtain a passport or to do some paperwork quickly and easily demanded passing through an unpleasant and unexpected interaction with a rude person behind thick glass in an old government office.
It is important to understand, however, that none of this aims to make Russia’s regime less authoritarian. It is intended to make it less corrupt, messy, and personal, and therefore vulnerable to human error. Replacing people with algorithms is a correct way to achieve this goal. Mikhail Michaustin, a former technocrat who headed the Tax Service in Russia and was a senior official responsible for bringing the country into the digital age, became Russia’s new prime minister. Its mission is to strengthen the system, not to develop it.
The evaluation of family and clan values over the interests of the individual or the public has been a feature of Russian life since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, as Mr Putin’s overall goal appears to be a peaceful transition of power and wealth, he appears to be holding back the interests of clans and even some aspects of his personal rule. What does not change is the value it places on the cohesion of its ranks on any individual political position. He has always made it clear that a traitor is worse than an open enemy.
Against this background, it is even more surprising for the conservative establishment in America to discover the fact that not only a politician but a family manages the running of their country. The speed with which President Trump has transformed a political party into a clan opens his eyes. Republicans learn that in order to be re-elected, they must accept that the unity of ranks is more important than any individual political position. They now need to defend President Trump at any cost, and indirectly, to adopt Mr. Putin’s position that the traitor is worse than the enemy.
Of course, Russia is far from achieving a fully rules-based political system with the separation of powers as in the United States from decline to personal tyranny. What we see is some kind of convergence: authoritarianism in Russia has become less private as the American system of democratic governance is gaining more family and clan-based features.
At the end of the 1960s, dissident Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet physicist and dissident, was developing the theory of political convergence, which roughly means gradually between the socialist and capitalist systems. History has not proven right or wrong. The convergence we see now is of a different kind: the Russian form of civil rule upon which the family rests, and even tribal values, develops some rule-based features, while the American system, based on checks and balances, slips deeper each month. In a form of personal leadership that tests the rule of law.
Maxim Trudoliyubov is the editor-in-chief of the Vedomosti Business Journal in Moscow and editor of the Russia File, a blog published by the Kennan Institute in Washington.