In his seminal essay on hegemony, State and Civil Society, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci summed up the post-WWI revolutionary convulsions with the following:
“In Russia the state was everything and civil society was primordial and gelatinous: in the West there was a proper relation between the state and civil society, and when the state trembled the sturdy section of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which was a powerful system of fortress and earthworks.”
I was reminded of this passage as I tried to mentally sum up Putin’s first year of his third presidential term. The Russian state is once again suffering from tremors, the climax of which—Putin’s formal return to the presidency and the Bolotnaya “riots,”—will be a year ago next week. And though it’s a stretch to apply Gramsci’s analysis of the Russia of 1917 to the Russia of 2012-13, how Putin has dealt with this newly diagnosed epilepsy suggests the calculation of hegemony has moved demonstratively toward force. At the moment, the Russian state may not be “everything” or its civil society “primordial and gelatinous,” but they are both increasingly farther away from what Gramsci calls a “proper relation.” This turn to force—and to be clear, by force I mean Putin’s reliance on coercive measures rather than soft, inclusive power—is making the ground under Russia’s body politic fragment.
Faculty Spotlight on the University of Pittsburgh’s historian of Russia and Central Asia–James Pickett.