Manual Control

Russian political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov once wrote that state power, or vlast, and not law “holds a sacred status in Russia.”  Russians, according to Pastukhov, experience state power as a “mystical entity,” a “life giving substance,” a “deity” in its own right, from whom, in times of trouble, the narod (the people) expects answers.

Anna Arutunyan, in her excellent book The Putin Mystique, is not attempting to explain Vladimir Putin as a man, but Putin as he personifies vlast in the eyes of the Russian people.  The deification of vlast, she writes, “is far from the transcendent, religious worship of something that is benevolent and omnipotent.  Rather, it is the acceptance of a force beyond influence, beyond logic.”  Sometimes Putin plays this role reluctantly, and sometimes he appears to enjoy it, but he plays it either way, accepting the attributes of a personality cult, the fawning of sycophants, the hatred of critics, and the pleas and petitions of the narod—fix their natural-gas connections, help a sickly child, rebuff a corrupt local chinnovnik, or bureaucrat, pave a road, build a school, keep a failing enterprise open—coming from all corners of the vast, ramshackle postimperial state that is today’s Russia, a state whose formal, centralized institutions mask the...

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