The diagonal of power in Russia

Preventing disorder: this is the watchword of Russian power, justifying all repressions and establishing a partly decentralized system of domination by fear in the hands of local criminals.

Oleg Orlov

In June-July 2023, a trial takes place at the Golovinski Moscow District Court. The accused is Oleg Orlov, in his seventies, illustrious human rights defender, and one of the great figures of theNGO Memorial. Charge: public actions aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation that protect the interests of the Federation, as with many other Russian intellectuals, dissidents and activists. His package: having published a post on his Facebook page, with the title They wanted fascism, they got it article first published in French on the blog of the Mdiapart site. As this is a repeat offense, Orlov risks a three-year prison sentence. The accusation is based in particular on linguistic expertise carried out by two experts with uncertain reputations: the mathematics teacher Natalia Kriukova and the translator Aleksandr Tarasov. The first concluded that the text fell within the propagandawhen the second considered that, to discredit the Russian army, the human rights defender had resorted to stereotypes (sic), writing in particular that military action should not affect the civilian population and infrastructure and any state whose ideology and policies amounted to fascism constituted a threat to other countries. Despite the ridiculousness of these elements, there is little doubt about the outcome of the trial.

The trial of Oleg Orlov is just one case of repression among others, a judicial repression which intensified considerably after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and even more so after the start of the open aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. Heterogeneous actors take part in it: organs of police and prosecution, of course, but also others formally more autonomous from judges, experts or even activists of the movement Vtrans from Russia who testified against Orlov. The trial is part of a varied repertoire of instruments for maintaining control of society, which also includes extrajudicial violence, blackmail, intimidation, economic pressure, censorship of information, etc. The targets of these instruments can vary from political opponents, of course, but also to homosexuals and other individuals and groups who do not meet the standards of the so-called traditional valuesiconoclastic artists, religious or anticlerical communities, foreign agents of the collective West, corrupt officials, or even drug addicts or criminals. There is, however, a structuring element which encompasses these different phenomena and orders them within the same system: these repressions are justified by the preservation of order, or rather by protection against disorder.

It is this question of order and domination which is at the center of the recent work by Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, a recognized specialist on Russia and questions of violence in this country, whether its source is the state or non-state actors. The book is far from the caricatures which represent the Russian political system as an all-powerful power exercised by a monolithic and sometimes totalitarian. But, by constructing a demonstration based on several investigations carried out by the author for more than ten years (on the police, criminal justice, the fight against corruption, privatization or even vigilantism), he manages to become more general and offers a vision of Russian society and state which articulates the vertical and horizontal dimensions of power, control, order and fear a kind of diagonal vision of domination. And this vision is dynamic, because it follows the progressive formation of the Russian state and the construction of the current political system since the beginning of the 2000s.

Dictatorship of the law and its multiple uses

The central notion is that of the dictatorship of the law, defined as the means of ensuring political domination by orienting judicial procedures and decisions in favor of power (p. 27). Proclaimed in July 2000 as an official doctrine of the Putinian system in gestation, it serves above all in practice as a justification for the exercise of political domination by the elites from the circles of the siloviki (law enforcement) domination by the law, but which also legitimizes other forms of disorder preventionsuch as extrajudicial physical violence, blackmail (the importance of which is striking), the publication of compromising information (kompromat) and bullying. The selective application of this dictatorship against actors defined as enemies dangerous to order therefore serves to ensure continued domination.

The operation of this system is partially decentralized, because it relies on the participation of heterogeneous and relatively autonomous actors, ordinary springs of the exercise of power (p. 15). Professionals from the secret services and siloviki current or retrained, bailiffs and private debt collection agents, manufacturers of kompromatjudges and prosecutors, deputies, provincial governors and underworld leaders (often converted to politics as well), non-azis, activists of the patriotic movements traditionalist activists who claim heritage from the Cossacks and other self-proclaimed vigilantes each benefit in their own way from the dictatorship of law and the political or economic opportunities it offers. A true biosphere of domination with its hierarchy, its division of labor and its operating rules.

The book is organized into four chapters, each highlighting a dimension of this system. The first introduces the dictatorship of law supposed to strengthen the vertical of powerthat is to say contributing to the concentration, arrangement and hierarchy of the different forms of power (political, economic, repressive, violence, intimidation) after the accession of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of the country and, by the way, the arrival of the former members of the KGBFSB in key positions of the state. For reasons of favorable internal and international circumstances, in the 2000s the justification of the vertical dimension of the dictatorship of the law is based on financial surveillance and the repression of corruption. Three central resources nourish the dictatorship of the law: access to compromising information, loyal media and unsuspecting magistrates (p. 60). As for the repression, it is not massive under Putin, at least before 2022, but rather targeted and demonstrative and above all serves to make the blackmail and intimidation more credible. Fear remains much more effective than violence.

The second chapter demonstrates how different actors tackle the dictatorship of the law on a daily basis in a pragmatic manner. Drawing on several examples, it highlights the social effects of this system: the consolidation of public-private links (overlapping, collusion) and the commodification of coercion (notably in economic predation), the decentralized forms of domination (p. 83) where presidential power deals with the arbitration of disputes between holders of different forms of power, or even the strategic uses of the fight against drugs.

The third chapter teaches us that the dictatorship of the law also favors (and is consolidated by) the situation where all the protagonists of the Russian political game compete to maintain or restore order in the country (p. 145). Whether they are real opponents (including Alexe Navalny) or facades (political parties represented in the Duma), or even the politicians of United Russia, we systematically find in their speeches and in their action positions emphasizing the primordial importance security questions and solutions, with an escalation caused by competition between these agents in the political field. The vigilantism of improvised wrongdoers (who make it their job by uploading videos of their often violent interventions on social networks) constitutes another form of putting security intransigence into practice.

The fourth and final chapter shows how this vertical and horizontal system of the dictatorship of law produces coalitions of public and private agents who target actors considered to threaten order in Russia: opponents, NGO and others liberals, migrants, Westerners, homosexuals. The dominants of the political field can count in their theatrical fight against these external and internal threats on numerous autonomous auxiliaries of power: patriotic movements, vigilantes and other entrepreneurs of both morality and violence.

Thus, Gilles Favarel-Garrigues paints a valuable and very complex picture of the Russian political system which relies, beyond coercive institutions classics (law enforcement, justice, secret services), on social grounds. The actors who allow the reproduction and relatively autonomous functioning of this diagonal system of fear are characterized by their multipositionality, both close to the authorities, sometimes reconverted to local, parliamentary mandate or other institutional responsibility, they at the same time keep the ties with traditionalist, xnophobic or conservative social movements.

The book ends with suggestions for a comparative study: it invites us to draw parallels between the author's conclusions on government by fear in Russia with other political contexts, in Türkiye under Erdogan, in Brazil under Bolsonaro or in India under Modi (p. 195). Perspective certainly necessary. However, the work could also benefit from a closer comparison, with neighboring Blarus for example, where we find certain homologous elements of this system of administration of society, such as the spectacular and theatrical character of the fight against corruptionthere purge systematic of political and economic leaders in the name of law and order, the measured and targeted repression against opponents, or even the role that capitalism plays in the control of society under authoritarian regime.

At the same time, other mechanisms, notably the spectacular actions of vigilantes and other patriotic movements, are used much less. This does not prevent the horizontal dimension of control from being well present, taking more insidious forms, relying on self-censorship and micro-(re)pression, such as the risk of dismissal or administrative harassment in the event of transgression of tacit socio-political rules. . Moreover, we could complete Gilles Favarel-Garrigues' analysis with that of the less active participants in this system of government by fear: for example school directors, those in charge of artistic institutions (museums, galleries, concert halls), or journalists. who suffer from this system and reproduce it in a passive manner, out of precaution and self-censorship.

More generally, the reader cannot help but draw parallels with current phenomena in Western societies, especially since certain aspects described are historically and epistemologically associated with Western contexts. This is also one of the strong points of the work which is to use these analytical instruments of Western origin to understand Russian society: hybridization and public-private collusions, horizontal dimension of control, commodification and privatization of legitimate physical violence, crusades led by moral entrepreneurs, multipositionality as a resource in struggles for social domination or security outbidding in political competition. From this point of view, the more systematic and more explicit comparison with Western contexts could serve desexotize the Russian political system and society.