Russia Recalls France's Revolutionary Slide

Chasms between classes. Croneyism. Critical leaders. A spirit of unrest. Russia in 2011 looks an awful lot like France in 1789.

On November 11, 2011, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin met with foreign participants in the Valdai Discussion Club’s annual conference to answer questions about Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. Paul Saunders took part in the conference and the meeting with Mr. Putin this year for the third time and shares his impressions.

Few settings could have been more fitting for a nearly three-hour discussion with Russia’s prime minister, the country’s past and likely future president, than Cheval Blanc (“White Horse”), an impressive French restaurant nestled in an exclusive equestrian club about ten miles west of the Kremlin.

The restaurant was simultaneously located in the countryside and isolated from it by gates and guards, occupying a portion of the landscape without being connected to it, in the way that the country’s bureaucratic and economic elite sits both inside and outside Russian society. Indoors, tapestries depicted French nobles who became similarly detached from their fellow citizens before the French Revolution swept away the ancien régime.

While Mr. Putin’s country does not appear to be on the verge of widespread protests, much less revolution—on the contrary, Russia looks fairly stable—many elements of France’s slide toward revolution are visible in twenty-first century Russia. Alexis de Tocqueville compellingly recounts the growing separation between the aristocracy and pre-Revolutionary France’s other social classes in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in which he describes how members of the nobility were relentlessly drawn from provincial estates to Paris, weakening the capacity of France’s regions to manage their affairs, and how the nobles’ privileged status in the legal and tax systems alienated other social classes. These developments have their own parallels in today’s Russia, where Moscow exerts a similar pull and many ordinary citizens resent highly visible privileges like the migalka, a flashing blue light atop some official vehicles, also available to the economic elite for the right price, that is essentially a license to ignore traffic laws. Over dinner, Mr. Putin himself acknowledged that one of his goals was to develop a closer contact between ordinary Russians and “the authorities.” He said he wants more opportunities for “feedback.”

Russia’s combination of semi-authoritarian rule and pervasive corruption would have looked familiar to the French scholar-official as well. Describing eighteenth-century France, de Tocqueville wrote that “despotism alone can provide that atmosphere of secrecy which favors crooked dealing and enables the freebooters of finance to make illicit fortunes.” He added that “rulers who destroy men’s freedom commonly begin by trying to retain its forms . . . they cherish the illusion that they can combine the prerogatives of absolute power with the moral authority that comes from popular assent.” But, de Tocqueville continued, more darkly, “almost all have failed in this endeavor and learned to their cost that it is impossible to keep up such appearances for long when there is no reality behind them.”

Over dinner, Mr. Putin sought to dampen thoughts of public discontent by setting out the country’s economic gains under his leadership and that of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (who, according to the club official leading a brief tour through the stables, has six horses at the club). During the last ten years, the prime minister said, incomes had increased 2.4 times and pensions 3.3 times, and the size of Russia’s economy nearly doubled. While he acknowledged that Russia’s political system is not perfect—adding that no nation’s government is perfect—Mr. Putin compared managing Russia’s political evolution to producing an English country garden, joking that it would require only two hundred years of watering and mowing.

Importantly, however, Russia’s relative prosperity makes the country even more like France of the late 1700s, about which de Tocqueville wrote that “steadily increasing prosperity, far from tranquilizing the population, everywhere promoted a spirit of unrest.” Unlike in eighteenth-century France, however, Russia’s economic growth and government budget is uniquely dependent on energy revenues and therefore vulnerable to external shocks. Mr. Putin acknowledged this and argued that the government had been trimming spending, which now requires an oil price of $108 per barrel to balance Russia’s federal budget. Further, he said, the country’s reserves would allow the government to manage prices as low as $93 per barrel.

Yet Russia’s prime minister seemed unconcerned at the observation by the Brookings Institution’s respected economist Clifford Gaddy that separately from the oil shock of the 1970s and early 1980s, oil prices during the last decade have been radically higher than real prices since 1880, with today’s oil prices roughly four times higher than the historical average. A return to prices consistent with these historical levels could be devastating for Russia’s economy; the fall in prices after the earlier shock arguably contributed more than any other single factor to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Taking into account that fear of “peak oil” (peaking production, leading to shortages) has been widespread for most of oil’s history as a commodity, Mr. Putin was remarkably sanguine—though he would be understandably wary of admitting to such worries if he had them.

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