RD Interview: Alena Ledeneva, Professor of Politics and Society at University College London (UCL), discusses the system of Russian power known as “sistema” and how it is evolving in response to the Ukrainian conflict and the Russian economic crisis.


"The key for the understanding of sistema is to go beyond the facades of political institutions and investigate the workings of informal power networks behind them." Photo: RIA Novosti

The Ukrainian conflict and ongoing economic crisis within Russia have triggered greater discussion about the nature of power within the Russian government and, more broadly, within Russian society. To understand better how the system of political power works within the country, Russia Direct recently spoke with Alena Ledeneva, a professor of Politics and Society at University College London (UCL) and the author of the book “Can Russia Modernize? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance.

Alena LedenevaProfessor Ledeneva answered Russia Direct questions on the political power in Russia and the effects the Ukrainian crisis and changes in domestic politics have had on the Russian “sistema.”  In her book, she explains ‘sistema’ – the network-based system of governance – as an interplay of formal and informal constraints on the sistema insiders and the role of informal financial flows, informal relations, and tacit agreements.

Russia Direct: How would you describe your concept of “sistema” to a Western audience?

Alena Ledeneva: In my view, sistema is the best way to describe the operations of power in Russia, certainly since Vladimir Putin has become the President in 2000. Some analysts refer to his governance style as neo-Soviet, but I would argue that it rests just as much on Russian patrimonial rule and on the rudimentary ways in which informal networks operate in all societies.

Strictly speaking, sistema is not Putin’s, it is shaped by a complex web of short-term, long-term and fundamental factors, with which anyone in the position of power in Russia has to deal with on daily basis. Its key features include orientation on stability, weak correlation between real power and formal status, corporate decision-making and unwritten rules. The gap between the facades and the way things are, perhaps, is the starting point for understanding informal governance

For example, what looks like a legal case against a businessman, could in fact be initiated by his competitor, for the purposes that have nothing to do with the actual violation in question. With money or political influence, it is possible to manipulate the workings of the court system so that the whole formal institutional process of investigation serves informal interest. So it’s near impossible to predict how the sistema forces would work out.

In the majority of Western publications, even when informal influence, connections, clans, cliques, clusters and other types of informal alliances within the elites are identified, the social networks that generate ‘informal power’ are not seen as intrinsic to the concept of governance.

Moreover, it is often assumed that power networks shadow formal positions of power so that a ‘map’ of a pyramid of informal ties and influences can be produced. This is not how informal power operates in my view. There is not much regularity about it.

One of the Sistema's survival skills is creating Potemkin villages, or building fake facades. Photo: AP

Besides, networks that channel informal influence function in an ambivalent fashion – they both support and subvert the existing governance model. Personalised power networks enable leaders at all levels to mobilize and to control, yet they also lock politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen into informal deals, mediated interests and personalized loyalties. This is the "modernisation trap of informality": One cannot use the potential of informal networks without triggering their negative long-term consequences for institutional development.

RD: Could you describe how the sistema works or give an example?

A.L.: You can find a perfect depiction of the workings of sistema in Russia’s 2012 National Bestseller’ novel by Aleksandr Terekhov, Nemtsy [Germans in Russian – Editor's note], that specifically focuses on the system of kickbacks backing up local governance in contemporary Russia. 

The “Leviathan,” the latest film by Andrei Zvyagintsev [the Golden Globe winner, Oscar-nominated in 2014 and recognized as the Best film in London and the Best Play in Cannes Film Festivals – Editor's note] portrays corruption, moral decay and legal nihilism in provincial Russia. It highlights the key operational principles of sistema.

First, it is the limited nature of property rights: You think you own the house, but actually you don’t. Second, it is the manipulative use of legal institutions, whereby the inconvenient for authorities people could be framed and sent to prison. Third, the double standards of the Russian Orthodox Church [criticized in “Leviathan” for allegedly meddling in politics and providing a justification for corrupt officials – Editor’s note]. In both stories, you can see the so-called bespredel – the unlimited corruption within power institutions – and the powerlessness of an individual vis-à-vis sistema.

"Leviathan" - Official HD Trailer (with English subs). Source: YouTube / PalaceFilms

RD: What should one do in order to survive in sistema?

A.L.: There are several survival skills. One of them is tacit expertise. As one of my respondents put it: “This is not a system that you can choose to join or not – you fall into it from the moment you are born – it feels natural.”

Insiders are not ordinarily bothered with reflections on sistema – they intuitively know it when they experience the "system made me do it" pressure and know what to do. When things go wrong, one becomes reliant on informal power. It is not who you are, it is rather who you know.

Another one is doublethink – the notion introduced by George Orwell and used by Alexander Zinoviev [a prominent Russian writer of social critique] and Yuri Levada [a well known Russian sociologist, political scientist and the founder of the Levada Center – Editor's note] – that serves well to grasp the ambivalence of a Russian mindset.

It is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs and not see the contradiction. In the polls, people report that state officials and policemen are most distrusted, and yet they also want their children to become state officials and go to police when in trouble. Such mentality is linked to the double standards for them and for us. 

When someone helps someone else to get a job, you see it as blat, or corruption (if the position is lucrative in some way). But if you help someone to get a job, that’s friendship. In this sense, we hate corruption, when exercised by them, but happily engage in dubious transactions, if not in corrupt exchanges, when they benefit us. The latter would then be viewed as mutual help, convenience, favours or even as ‘taking off the last shirt’ for a friend, but not corruption.      

The third survival skill is creating Potemkin villages, or building fake facades [the Potemkin village is derived from an anecdotal episode in Russian history and is primarily used to describe a fake portable village, built only to impress – Editor’s note]. This metaphor is used when describing the nature of privatization of and in rural areas or the virtual nature of politics and democracy in Russia.

RD: How does it relate to politics?

A.L.: Although all democratic institutions seem to be in place in Russia, it is the case of a democracy with an adjective: illiberal, semi-, quasi, façade, managed, or sovereign democracy – that is anything but a democracy. We do have democratic elections, but also accept the rigged outcomes [and other violations of electoral procedures].

Such Potemkin villages work, but in a limited way. On the one hand, the facades are a testimony to the control and leverage of those in power. On the other hand, they are the evidence of vulnerability of those who have taken the elected position in an illegitimate way.

RD: Is the sistema only a Russian phenomenon?

A.L.: No, sistema is not necessarily a Russian phenomenon. It is a concept that can be used in comparative way around the world. It is possible to talk of Silvio Berlusconi’s sistema in Italy and to compare it to Jacques Chirac’s sistema in France.

Former Soviet Union countries have their own versions of sistema, which in Central Asia would be representative of clanism, neopatrimonial power or patronal politics. The key for the understanding of sistema is to go beyond the facades of political institutions and investigate the workings of informal power networks behind them. 

RD: But which characteristics of sistema are unique, particularly, to Russia?

A.L.: The systems differ by the degree of personalization of power. In Russian patrimonial tradition, proximity to the body of the tsar was always a source of power and wealth. In Putin’s sistema, the proximity to President Vladimir Putin provides huge opportunities.

Besides, no other centres of power are allowed to emerge. In Russia, property rights are insecure, in the sense that all economic actors remain vulnerable and even the richest businessmen declare their willingness to return assets to the state if necessary. The situation of the blurred boundaries between the public and the private is not in itself unique, but it gives ground for unique forms of the crossover.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Federal Security Service Chief Alexander Bortnikov, right, in Sevastopol, Crimea on May 9, 2014. Photo: AP

RD: Does the Russian economy’s dependence on oil and gas have an impact on the ways the sistema works, especially against the background of the Chinese sistema that works in its own way?

A.L.: One could draw sharp contrasts but also similarities between the sistemas in China and Russia. For example, similarities would surface in the spread of corruption and informal influence, differences – in the fact that Chinese corruption does not seem to be as detrimental to regional development, small businesses, and foreign direct investments as in Russia, and takes a long-term perspective into account (as opposed to Russia’s short-termism).

Some would argue this is because China does not have natural resources. It cannot rely on oil revenue or suffer from the "natural resource curse," and thus has to work hard to produce goods and benefits. It is the case of the "enabling power of constraints," as academics would say. When you have constraints, it makes you innovate in finding your ways around them and creates the impetus to develop.

RD: So, is it not possible to reform Russian sistema without reforming its dependence on natural resources?

A.L.: It is tempting to assume that there are obvious reform measures that Russia could undertake to replace sistema with a market economy and the rule of law. It would be a mistake, however, to associate sistema with a failed state. It would be too simplistic to claim that Putin’s micro-management does not work.

Quite the opposite, it is amazing how much does get done in Russia despite the infrastructural problems and institutional inefficiencies, and the explanation lies in the effectiveness of networks and relationships. Sistema’s output is impressive because it is capable of mobilising people, of recruiting youth and of creating opportunities.

When it comes to individual recruitment, offers that came from authorities are difficult to resist and hard to refuse. Moreover, such offers are met with enthusiasm and selflessness. Businessmen rationalize their participation by future gains for business and for themselves through sistema’s promise of scale and potential, and often disregard sistema’s downsides.

If successful, their businesses will be used by sistema or appropriated through sistema raiding; if unsuccessful, a new generation of businessmen will be mobilized. Just as people exploit sistema, the sistema exploits people.

Breaking out of this reproductive circle can be assisted by integrity at individual level, the idea of common good recognised by all, equality before the law, security of property rights (which thus far have been kept unstable in order to keep asset holders in control) and accountability of the leadership’s informal governance. These things are not easy to achieve. 

Here is an example. A lot of people would argue if you pay a bribe for an urgent operation for your mother, you are a great child, and you’ve done some good. Right? But they forget about one thing: By saving your mother you kill someone else, because when she went for the operation, someone in the queue didn’t get it in time. So if one is routinely oblivious about the other, and the public good, institutions will not develop. 

Tourists hold a poster symbolically showing a Russian flag riddled with bullet holes as they pose for a photo at the place where Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, was gunned down on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 near the Kremlin. Photo: AP

RD: How will the recent international and domestic events – including the Ukrainian crisis, the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the economic crisis – change how the sistema works?

A.L.: First and foremost, the Ukrainian crisis resulted in an isolationist trend in Russia, which is pretty scary. We are at really a low point, having turned against the decades of global integration efforts. Integration was essential for changing the sistema, but in the current situation the trend is reversed. 

If before the takeover of the Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis there was the hope that Russia would develop the rule of law eventually, now it seems that the sistema has re-asserted its willingness to trade integrity for loyalty and to spread the informal ways of getting things done to the international domain.

The economic situation, soured by low oil prices, is ‘doctored’ by injections of propaganda, and this is not the first time in Russian history, so we know what’s going to happen. The West has made a lot of mistakes towards Russia, so this propaganda is not without basis, but the bottom line is: No isolationist country can survive in the modern world.

As for the murder of Boris Nemtsov, it is not only a tragedy, it is a worrying sign of the weakness of president Putin vis-à-vis the anonymous strength of sistema. Putin is not in control of sistema, he is its hostage, and a replaceable one. In other words, it is much more likely that sistema will get rid of Putin, than Putin will get rid of sistema.

It is therefore hard for me to read this act of violence as a threat to the non-sistema opposition, which is close to non-existent. I would point out its ambivalence in relation to sistema’s main hostage.        

RD: Do you think that a sistema change is possible in Russia in the future?

A.L.: If people are willing to change themselves, you can change the system. This is what I call ‘reflective modernization,’ which relates to your ability to understand your own practices and transforms them, especially if you are in the position of leadership.

Changes become fundamental only if they reach the micro-level and transform your routine daily practices. If everyone will make an inconvenient choice at micro-level – for example, not to pay a bribe to speed up things – the situation with corruption improves. If you choose your employees on the basis of their qualification, rather than recommendation of trusted friends, you can change the dynamic of your organization.

These choices are not easy to make, as the sistema logic would guide you in an opposite direction. But big changes have always started with an individual decision to go against the flow. So, if there is a practice you are unhappy with, reflect upon your own behavior and change it. In terms of political regime in Russia, that would mean that people in charge, the leaders, need to reflect on the methods of informal governance and set up a model for transformation. Reflection kills [bad] practice.