New Left Review 37, January-February 2006


Georgi Derluguian on Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics. Techniques of political legerdemain in the former Soviet states, and the swerving trajectories of its intelligentsia practitioners.




Anyone looking for a contemporary example of the silent gravitational pull of an ideological hegemony would do well to take the political scientists and economists who, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, continue to frame their inquiries into the region in terms of so many transitions to democracy and a market economy. The results are not merely odd, but often downright embarrassing. The accumulation of awkward, indeed generally dismaying, facts at variance with this conception has required the introduction of a panoply of theoretical epicycles such as ‘challenged’ or ‘stalled’ transitions, blamed on ‘legacies of the Communist past’, popular apathy, lack of civic instincts, atavistic yearnings for a ‘strong hand’ and ‘bad old habits’ of despotism and corruption. It is a more than revealing historical irony that the contemporary problems in the neoliberal project of global transformation, which Hobsbawm pointedly calls the ‘last Great Utopia of the twentieth century’, have come to resemble the discursive contradictions of its vanquished predecessor—Marxism–Leninism.

The ‘transitions’ debate is now recapitulating the various moves to be found in the erstwhile attempts of progressive intellectuals to explain away the ‘deformations’ of Eastern socialisms, invoking quite similar factors: inherited obstacles, unfortunate choice of leaders, unspecified backwardness, insufficiently conscientious peoples. In both historical instances, for the duration of socialisms and after their disappearance, analyses of East European politics and societies remained stuck in what Pierre Bourdieu derided as a normative–juridical approach. The East was, and remains, measured against the teleological claim of what these countries should—and what their rulers declared them to—become, rather than trying to understand the actual evolutionary emergence and metabolism of these political species and their proper place in the world’s comparative taxonomy of states.

Andrew Wilson’s book makes a hole in the logjam, which is its principal merit. Admittedly, Wilson has simply described with a wealth of detail how elections of the last decade were actually run in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But the state of the field is such that even a mere depiction, of minimal theoretical ambition, can yield shattering results. Let us consider, for example, my old friends and favourite opponents Andrei Illarionov—who recently resigned as President Putin’s economic advisor, after boldly denouncing the Yukos takeover—and Michael McFaul, who spent the nineties as the neoliberal International’s resident commissar in Moscow. Their ideological convictions are no less deep or sincere than their insider knowledge of post-Soviet politics. Neither would find anything new in Wilson’s description of these. Very likely, they could tell us even more about ‘faking democracy’ in Russia and elsewhere. In fact, McFaul admits as much in his own praise for Virtual Politics, which he reviewed in the Moscow Times in September 2005. Yet they both regard the hijacking of post-Communist elections by venal operators as an outrageous aberration rather than a central object of study—as it ought to be—of what became of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Wilson’s book is squarely an exposé. Its main thrust is to reveal the dirty mechanisms and actors behind the façades of the electoral process in the post-Soviet republics, mainly in Russia and Ukraine (Wilson’s most recent data have gone into his companion volume on Ukraine’sOrange Revolution). Other republics like Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Belarus also feature in his account, though to a much lesser degree. Wilson’s central claim is that in post-Communist politics things are not necessarily what they seem. The political arena is saturated with decoys, fakes and impostors: ‘Parties and politicians . . . launched as tv projects . . . who have a double life as virtual objects that have little or no relation to their real selves. “Virtual politics” therefore seems an appropriate metaphor’. Perhaps Wilson’s most provocative claim is that no answer exists to the famous question, ‘Who is Mr Putin?’ Thus he writes: ‘As a virtual object, Putin was not a politician, not even a human life history as such, just a template’—even if, later in his book, he seems to recognize that Putin has become more real as a ruler as he has slowly pulled on the reins of power.

Virtual Politics offers a cornucopia of detail, whose sheer volume must delight an expert but risks overwhelming the uninitiated reader; the book carries far in excess of a thousand endnotes, if mostly references to newspapers and websites which could themselves be suspected of engaging in virtual intrigues. He describes particular manœuvres, ploys and tricks used in various electoral races, and in the post-election wranglings for the distribution of parliamentary and ministerial portfolios. The tactics are grouped and described according to their key tools and purposes. First and foremost is the ‘administrative resource’, in other words, the typical power of incumbency. Adminresurs has many uses, beginning with old-fashioned ballot forgery. The prime example is Yeltsin’s constitutional referendum of December 1993, supposedly intended to bring stability and entirely revamp the political spectrum in the wake of the bloody dismissal of Russia’s last Supreme Soviet in October. On that occasion the forgery was rather amateurish, allowing a few inquisitive statisticians to demonstrate without much trouble (but equally without much effect) that less than the fifty per cent of voters required to approve the document came to the ballot box. Many Russians at the time felt baffled and bitterly disillusioned by the increasingly Bonapartist Yeltsin and his totally discredited promise to normalize life through shock therapy. But the West had no compunction about upholding the result as a bulwark against the menace of a Communist restoration of Russian fascism (Yeltsin’s Russia being then compared to Weimar Germany); and this bogey would subsequently become a fixture of Russian elections for the rest of the nineties, artificially reducing the choice to either Yeltsin or horror.

The several million ‘dead souls’ that appeared in December 1993 in the last couple of hours before polling stations closed salvaged Yeltsin’s ultra-presidential constitution. What might seem more puzzling is the well-founded allegation that these additional votes also served to nearly double the representation of Zhirinovsky’s outrageously mislabelled ‘liberal democrats’ in the new/old State Duma (the latter name conveying, of course, a very virtual continuity with pre-1917 traditions). In effect, the first Russian president dealt a covert coup against what was ostensibly his own team, led by Gaidar, and nudged Zhirinovsky’s impostors towards triumph. Like many commentators before him, Wilson believes that in December 1993 Yeltsin sought to liberate himself from a too elitist and ideological neoliberal intelligentsia and, just in case, to obtain a clownish and less legitimate parliament that would be easier to disband.

Other uses of adminresurs followed. Local authorities arbitrarily increased rents for the buildings of unwanted newspapers and political groups, barred entry to premises for violations of the fire code, and switched off the lights at the rallies of opposition candidates. By contrast, favoured candidates got every organizational assistance, not to speak of covert funding, from the local bureaucrats. Tax inspectors demanded payments (naturally, excluding the better-connected businessmen) months in advance, in order to help the incumbents disburse pensions among elderly voters who always diligently showed up at the polls. Judges and ultra-rigorous electoral officials conducted cleansing sweeps of the rolls to leave the field clear for the right candidates. In 1999 Russia’s former Prosecutor General (or, since this was never proved, rather ‘a man bearing close resemblance to the former Prosecutor General’) was shown on late-night tv frolicking with two prostitutes, and subsequently removed from the ballot for lying; in papers submitted to the electoral commission, he had failed to disclose that he possessed the rank of law professor.

In the mid-nineties new and arguably more inventive, one might even say artistic, experts in electoral manipulation entered the scene. The chief value of Wilson’s book is its portrait of this breed, which granted him extensive if rather self-flattering interviews. In Russian, they came to be called—the fashion for American business jargon being now pervasive—piarshchiki from the English acronym pr or, as they preferred to style themselves, ‘political technologists’. The transparently mercenary nature of their craft calls for euphemisms, philosophizing obfuscation and invented lineages—which these former intelligentsia peculiarly adapted to new market conditions have generated in abundance. Perhaps the most famous example is the Moscow political consultancy ‘Nikkolo M’, which claims a Florentine descent, and whose elaborate website in Russian, English, Spanish and, for some reason, Portuguese can be accessed at

The central chapters of Virtual Politics describe these personalities and their deeds, which they at times confessed in Wilson’s collection of interviews with almost boastful candour (a braggadocio no doubt serving at once as another line of ‘image defence’ and as an advertisement for the firm). First and foremost, there is a flamboyant native of Odessa, Gleb Pavlovsky, a former dissident turned publicist whose Foundation for Effective Politics—also fep in Russian—dominates at least in the index of scandals and, possibly, in the pr market (though wouldn’t we expect these sort of business ratings to be virtual reality?). Wilson provides us with information on the occupational backgrounds, career trajectories and types of symbolic capital held by the known masters of this guild. Among them we find elements of the Soviet aristocracy such as Viacheslav Nikonov, grandson of Stalin’s first lieutenant Viacheslav Molotov and himself a former Komsomol leader at the generally liberal history faculty of Moscow State University. Or we might mention the liberal publicist Mark Urnov, whose brother on the cpsu’s Central Committee used to direct aid to South Africa’s liberation movements. In August 1991, when the cc was being dislodged from its imposing Art Nouveau building on Staraya Ploshchad, one brother left and the other moved in. Cynicism aside, politics runs in these families as their primary form of social investment. We find another sort of pedigree in Piotr Shchedrovitsky, son of a semi-underground Soviet philosopher whose public lectures in the sixties and early seventies enjoyed a cult status in Moscow comparable to that of Michel Foucault’s Parisian appearances.

Others came from the middle ranks of the Soviet-era intelligentsia, mainly with educational backgrounds in the humanities, which during and after perestroika they transformed into personal political capital. Such are social psychologists such as Igor Mintusov of Nikkolo M (whose initial consultation over lunch, says Wilson, even a decade ago cost some 2,000 Deutschmarks); Aleksei Sitnikov, head of the firm Image-Kontakt; or the well-groomed linguist-semiotician Yefim Ostrovsky to whom Wilson ascribes an ‘almost Nietzschean’ conception of freedom in shaping political and cultural identities, including his own. Sergei Markov, today often regarded as a key confidant of Putin’s administration (but, again, who can tell in this kingdom of mirrors?), used to live in an austere dormitory and studied Scientific Communism before becoming a democratic activist during perestroika and subsequently being drawn to both riches and the Russian imperial idea.

With the arrival in the mid-1990s of this former intelligentsia, bringing with it their distinctive aura of provocation, factionalist intrigue and bohemian nihilism, Russian politics grew dirtier, more theatrical and less comprehensible than ever. Essentially these men and a few women established and immediately monopolized a profitable market of make-believe projects in the place where the new democratic politics was expected to grow. Their inventions included the creation of ephemeral parties, consisting of paid actors and advertising agents, to supply their paying clients with an easily defeatable opposition, dilute and discredit potentially dangerous genuine rivals, or spread covert supporters and lobbyists across ostensibly alternative party lists. Among the grubbier little pranks described by Wilson are phoning voters well past midnight on behalf of one’s opponents, or affixing fake versions of their leaflets with superglue to cars and freshly painted doors. Let me add my own favourite example at a cosy provincial level: the spreading of rumours that a candidate for the Ukrainian parliament, a local official, repaired a suburban railway with radioactive gravel from Chernobyl—and used the money thus saved to buy a mansion on the French Riviera (pictures available in the newspapers thanks to a few thousand dollars paid to complicit journalists); let the same official now answer at every campaign stop how many rides on his track would guarantee cancer.

Yeltsin’s re-election campaign of 1996 signalled the breakthrough for this market. In January, pollsters scrambled to detect any respondents above the margin of error in favour of Yeltsin’s remaining in office for another term. In July, the miracle of democratic victory over Communist reaction could be celebrated. Wilson provides only elements of an explanation for this turnaround—essentially, rumours and opinions from Moscow’s political salons. But how could a full and verifiable account ever be compiled? There was a massive tv propaganda campaign and a spate of ‘active measures’ to discredit and disqualify any potentially threatening alternatives (such as the social-democratic Yavlinsky). Then there was the sudden leap to prominence of the recently retired General Lebed, whose only visible assets were his super-gruff appearance and soldierly humour, but who was transmogrified into a credibly patriotic, yet sufficiently moderate and even liberal, candidate garnering 15 per cent of the vote and third place, after Yeltsin and the Communist Ziuganov, in the first round of the presidential election. Then, however, Lebed began to acquire a wide popularity of his own, especially after his daring conclusion of peace with the unbeaten Chechen separatists. With the joint effort of Yeltsin’s team and its Communist opposition, Lebed was struck from all sides and subsequently removed from Moscow into a consolation (or trap) governorship in Siberia. In the second round, one of Wilson’s interviewees frankly admits, Ziuganov actually won—but in the end adminresurs got the result right. Strangely, Wilson does not attempt to explain the odd behaviour of the Russian Communists who meekly accepted the fraudulent outcome and kept silent at a time when Yeltsin was totally incapacitated by his health problems, the regent was the ultra-unpopular Chubais, they controlled more than a quarter of provincial governorships, various civilian protests were rocking the country and army units, withdrawn in humiliation from Chechnya, were defiantly flying the red flag of the Soviet Union over their tank turrets. Perhaps these were not Communists whom Lenin would have recognized as such?

With this we arrive at the underlying weakness of Wilson’s exposé: focused on the flickering surfaces of virtuality, it lacks an account of the deeper political configuration after the collapse of the Soviet state. Such explanation could only be provided by theory. In its place, Wilson falls back on two lines of reasoning, neither of them consistently theoretical, whose alternatives he tries to reconcile without much success. On the one hand, he vaguely attributes the virtual politics of the nineties to the postmodern virtualization of reality. This ‘globalizing’ argument is supported with an assembly of quotes from all the usual suspects: Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard, Eco, Castells, Beigbeder, as well as the Russian post-modernist authors Pelevin and Prigov, and the Ukrainian Yuri Andrukhovych. On the other hand, Wilson pursues a more historical and localized argument. Here he notes that frauds and provocations have been integral to politics since Renaissance Florence at least and were certainly nothing new in Russia, with double agents like the sr terrorist leader Azef, the trade unions created by the secret policeman Zubatov, or the ‘active measures’ of Stalin’s nkvd and later the kgb in their long and ultimately futile fight against Zionists and dissidents.

Fortunately, good empirical sense saves Wilson from paranoid conspiracy theories—in this area, a major plus—or dismissal of all politics as fake. The concluding chapter clearly indicates the boundaries of the ‘virtual’—it doesn’t always work. In fact, manipulation more often than not proves a huge waste of money, ‘laundered’ in the process by swarms of unscrupulous polittekhnologi. Moreover, fraud can backfire. The Ukrainian ‘Orange Revolution’ provides a case in point: many forces tried to instigate it, and many no less wealthy and potent forces tried to suppress it. Money, deceit and dirt abounded on all sides. But the reality of a sustained, amazingly disciplined and cheerfully optimistic popular uprising, lasting for almost a whole month, proved to be beyond anybody’s predictions. Wilson quite compellingly shows that the rapid explosion of ‘virtual politics’ in the late 1990s was akin to a financial bubble accompanied by dizzying inflation. The hidden cost of Russian presidential elections, estimated in billions of dollars, may have exceeded even the combined costs of presidential campaigns in the United States. Then there were gubernatorial and parliamentary races where dollars were counted by the million and box-loads of cash went unaccounted for. The market was driven by the supply of ‘consultancies’ that created, for a brief while, fabulous opportunities for enrichment for the few actors who managed to monopolize the new business niche because they were the first to start it, or because they were positionally best located to benefit from it. But this market very rapidly got saturated as suppliers started overshooting wildly. Moreover, as Wilson demonstrates, it threatened to implode because there exist, after all, limits to the effectiveness of communicative technologies in channelling anger and hope or concealing the misery of real life.

In considering the politics of the countries of the former Soviet Union, the real question to start with should be this: what produced the revolutionary mobilizations of the perestroika period so rapidly, and why did they subside so suddenly and completely? A lesser question is then why the revolutionary upheaval was not followed by dictatorship, as in so many previous revolutions, but rather led to the emergence of various strains of plebiscitarian presidentialism faking their strength through bureaucratic coercion, bribery and virtual technologies while oddly continuing, even in Putin’s Russia, to preserve democratic forms and be fraught with internecine conflicts?

Answers to these questions would have to move back to the overarching structural contexts, domestic and global, of the late eighties and nineties. The central reality of this period was the drastic loss of social power suffered by the post-Soviet population of Russia and its ‘near abroad’ with the massive crisis of de-industrialization that followed the end of the ussr. It was this more than anything else that destroyed the tremendous surge of enthusiasm unleashed by perestroika. For it shifted the whole centre of gravity of the economy—and therewith of both material and symbolic power in society—from production to exchange, or simple plunder. Helpless witnesses of the cannibalizing of former Soviet assets by the elites, ordinary citizens understandably fell into apathy, allowing the predators to sort out their intrigues behind closed doors. On the other hand, just because these elites faced no urgent threat of internal uprisings, or of external conquest, they proved unable and unwilling to submit to any unified state authority of a draconian stamp. Instead they continued to bicker over the ex-Soviet spoils in a way that has maintained a degree of sometimes acute competitiveness in politics.

In the world at large, the countries of the former ussr take their place in a wider set of semi-peripheral and peripheral states, whose security and financial foundations do not depend on their own coercive or fiscal capacities, but rather on their fitting into the global order, which guarantees compliant states against conquest (assorted with hegemonic policing operations for those who do not fall into line), and provides access to global markets for primary commodities and credits, which become the source of wealth for the rulers. In the former Soviet zone—as distinct from areas like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia—freshly won victory in the Cold War has made electoral contests an ideological requirement for the West, which in the absence of much risk of popular unrest the elites have no strong reason for resisting. So elections go on, and can sometimes even be brutally competitive—one of Wilson’s interlocutors tells him that for incumbents every poll is like crossing a minefield. But since the competitors are unable and unwilling to mobilize any degree of genuine support—which might just get out of hand—they prefer financially expensive but politically cheaper ways of getting or holding onto office. The story Virtual Politics really tells is of the ways in which demoralized or amoralized elements of the former intelligentsia, with political experience gained during perestroika, offer their consultancies—for a hefty fee—on the promise of getting their clients across the minefield. What are the prospects, domestic or global, of overcoming this sort of historical morass? To consider them we need a new and more realistic agenda for studying the aftermath of state socialism, and mapping future possibilities in the region.


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