Nearly eight years ago my essay “Neo-Feudalism Explained” argued that Putin’s Russia resembles a feudal state, with an “aristocracy” that has become hereditary and ruling clans that have tightened their grip over economic, social, and political life.1 In recent years this has become only more obvious as the scions of Russian ministers and deputies have flooded the top levels of the nation’s bureaucracy, with some even emerging as new members of the government.
But the feudal system as it existed for centuries was not merely about hereditary principles or centralized power embodied in a hierarchical system of subordination. It presupposed also the concept of “nobility” possessing the “natural right” to govern, as well as a stratified mass of serfs who were fully dependent on their masters.2 And while in Western Europe the liberation of villeins (not “bad guys,” but feudal tenants subject to a lord or manor to whom they paid dues and services in return for land) and serfs started as early as in the 14th century, in Russia serfdom was abolished just four years prior to the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Moreover, Russian serfdom grew steadily more entrenched through the end of the 18th century, with the obligations of Russian serfs and the power of Russian nobles both steadily increasing even as feudalism steadily diminished in Western Europe.3 Therefore the elements of feudal subjugation are much more deeply rooted in Russia, and the restoration of feudal practices inside the national elite has produced ripple effects across other social strata.
It is crucial to distinguish between two types of elites: the old Soviet nomenklatura4 and today’s Russian spetssub’ekty (“special subjects,” or those possessing a special status that makes them immune to arrests, police searches, or cases brought by ordinary prosecutors). The former were entitled to some financial or material benefits, while the latter are explicitly singled out for immunity in Russia’s Criminal Procedure Code. According to article 447, the category includes all deputies, judges, prosecutors, investigators, governors, mayors, personnel of the accounting chamber and electoral commissions, and a few other categories of public servants. Unlike the Soviet nomenklatura, today’s spetssub’ekty lie officially outside Russia’s declared system of laws.
This group is often colloquially referred to as the “new nobility,” a term first invented by employees of the Federal Security Service (FSB) to designate themselves as the crème de la crème of the current elite.5 In a broader sense, the “new nobility” has come to signify Russia’s multilayered bureaucratic and paramilitary elite. Yet there remain clear stratifications within this elite that bear close resemblances to those in traditional feudal society. Today’s Russian elite has its equivalent of the noblesse d’épée and the noblesse de robe, or strongmen and bureaucrats. It has a well-structured hierarchy, with clear lines of authority; the old medieval rule that “my vassal’s vassal is not my vassal” works quite well in Russia these days.
At the same time, the supreme ruler administers the system via his Praetorian Guard, namely, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Criminal cases against FSB officers are opened around six times less frequently than against police officers and prosecutors, and around 30 times less frequently than against other spetssub’ekty, as official Supreme Court statistics show. This Praetorian Guard has become the real source of power in Russia, and it is organized along the lines of a medieval military order.
In short, in today’s Russia all the elements that existed in ancien régime France seem to have been restored: There are noblesse (d’épée and de robe) and clergy, and both are becoming increasingly powerful. As of 2016, there were approximately 200,000 FSB employees in Russia, more than 400,000 officers in the Ministry of Interior and other security agencies, up to one million civil servants in “significant” positions, and around 100,000 clerics and monks. This approximates the demographic makeup of pre-revolutionary France, with its 140,000-150,000 nobles and 120,000 priests, together constituting a little over 1 percent of the population.6 But Russia’s main problem is not that it resembles the France of 250 years ago—the country that nurtured Voltaire and Diderot. The roots of its feudal pathologies run much deeper.
As everyone knows, feudal society is comprised not only of noblemen, but also of serfs, villeins, bondmen, state peasants, and many others who may be collectively called not so much plebeians as thugs and rabble. If today’s Russia were 18th-century France, it would be divided into nobility and the troisième état. The real situation, however, is much more complex. To understand it one must dig deep into Russian judicial history, such as it is.
In the mid-11th century, the Kievan prince Yaroslav the Wise and some of his heirs produced the first Russian legal code, widely known as the Russkaya Pravda, or “Russian Law.”7 In many aspects it resembles early European codes like the Lex Salica. One of the most important features of the Russkaya Pravda was a detailed description of levies (wergeld) imposed upon murderers. As in most European codes of that time, such levies were to be paid in silver or gold to the victim’s relatives, but what is remarkable is the multitude of different penalties assigned, each corresponding to the particular social status of the victim. The crucial point is that in the Russkaya Pravda “there is no wergeld for a kholop,” or slave. In practice this meant that a master could kill his serfs and slaves at will, since they were not considered people. If another person killed a master’s kholop, he would pay not a wergeld, but a penalty as if he had killed cattle or destroyed property. Kholops were in Russia not subjects but objects of property rights who might be sold or exchanged both domestically and internationally.8
Such a legal norm was not unknown to the Europeans; the Lex Salica says precisely the same about slaves, who possessed no legal rights and were treated as a kind of livestock.9 The difference is that the Russkaya Pravda was written five centuries after the Lex Salica, and its norms remained incorporated into Russian law centuries after both slaves and serfs had disappeared in western Europe. In other words, the institution of extreme serfdom—kholopstvo or “bondmanship” in Russian—was not an historical accident but rather a fundamental element of the Russian state system. It was officially reconfirmed and described in great detail in the Sobornoye Ulozhenye, or Council Code of 1649,10 and was abolished only in 1723, two years before Peter the Great’s death and two years after Russia was proclaimed an Empire.
Moreover, kholopstvo was not only a legal status attributed to those who were partly slaves and partly serfs, but a category widely used even among the higher strata of Russian society. This practice became especially widespread after the Czar of Moscow retook Russian lands from the Mongols to become the undisputed ruler of the country. The noblemen considered themselves kholops while addressing the Czar from the end of the 15th century until the reforms of Peter the Great.11 What we see in today’s Russia—and what characterizes it much more than banal corruption or the absence of the rule of law—is the rebirth of the kholops’ attitude to the state and to its ruler, and the reconstitution of a multilayered, highly stratified social structure. So much, then, for the 70-year effort to create the classless society and its “new man.”
In today’s Russia one can see the restoration of “feudal” practices in at least two different ways. First of all, a system of wergeld similar to the one described in the Russkaya Pravda is returning to everyday life, even if it is not strictly codified. The existing system presupposes that the life of a state servant is worth more than that of an average subject, a view that differs markedly from the custom in most Western societies. The latter respect the life of military personnel or police officers, but their citizens believe these people take their risks voluntarily and are well rewarded for their service. Therefore, for example, if a U.S. soldier falls in action or a police officer is killed in the line of duty, their families typically get an average compensation of $100,000 (in the former case) or $350,000 (in the latter). By contrast, survivor benefits paid for civilian casualties—whether arising from terrorist attacks, medical malpractice, or managerial faults—tend to be much higher. Thus, the relatives of 9/11 victims earned an average payout of $2.1 million; medical malpractice claims have been settled for as much as $74.5 million; and the families of those who died in the 2018 bridge collapse in Florida were paid $15 million per victim.
In Russia, contrariwise, the life of an ordinary subject is cheap: The standard compensation for a death caused by an industrial accident does not exceed ₽1 million, or roughly $15,000 at the current exchange rate. The figure may be much lower when it comes to local accidents that do not attract much public attention. The relatives of seven victims of a boat crash in the Southern Urals last year, for instance, got ₽100,000 ($1,500) for each deceased person. The compensation climbs if the case is considered damaging to the authorities; thus, the relatives of the 64 victims (most of them children) of a recent shopping-mall fire in Kemerovo got ₽5 million for each deceased. The largest payout for medical malpractice in Russia was ₽15 million ($230,000), in a case where a newborn child was mistreated and died two years later after intense suffering, while his mother became disabled. Most cases of the kind are settled at around ₽1-2 million ($15,000-30,000), or even smaller amounts.
But if an officer is killed in action, the payment rises to ₽3 million in most cases, and for an FSB employee it may be significantly higher. Moreover, one can see the practice of wergeld restored in its purest sense, with the amount depending on the social status and professional affiliation of both the victim and the killer. For example, in 2017 in the center of Moscow, a car supposedly registered to the FSB hit and killed a police officer who was checking the documents of a passing driver. The driver of the FSB vehicle was taken away by his colleagues and no criminal case was ever opened, but the family of the police officer was immediately paid ₽2 million by the Ministry of Interior, while the FSB contributed ₽4 million and a three-bedroom apartment in Moscow for his widow, valued at around ₽10-13 million.
One can compare this case with dozens of road accidents across the country when an ordinary subject (or kholop) is killed by a drunk police officer or a bureaucrat. Such cases once attracted a lot of public attention, as happened in 2005 when the son of the then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov hit and killed a female retiree with his car. But they have since become everyday, run-of-the-mill news. In September, the speaker of the Tyumen City Chamber of Deputies was found guilty of killing two people in a frontal crash, but had to pay a penalty of only ₽160,000 ($22,000). A police officer in Buryatia, meanwhile, was never sued, nor was his driving license revoked, in a similar incident. In most cases the victims are declared responsible for their own deaths, while the driver is set free without any charges after the case becomes classified. Many of these cases have inspired popular protests and petitions in the past ten years, but none have resulted in jail sentences for high-ranking officials.
The general disdain of the “new nobles” for the “new kholops” is clearly on the rise. Ordinary Russians these days are absolutely defenseless if they are confronted by those identifying themselves with the state. Russian writers are increasingly turning to such themes for inspiration. One of the bestselling novels published in Russia in 2017, Dmitry Glukhovsky’s The Text, tells the story of a wrongly accused individual who gets out of jail, kills the low-ranking FSB investigator he believes is responsible for his arrest, and, stealing his smartphone, manages to cause huge problems for his ill-wishers just by sending text messages to some of the influential people on the contacts list.12
Vladimir Putin’s recent speech about the upcoming increase in the retirement age showcased similar themes. Mentioning the incredible misuse of funds by the bureaucrats managing the State Pension Fund, Putin said that it was nonetheless irrational to try to save money by cutting back on bloated expenditures. Even if corruption were successfully extirpated and “we channel all the money into pensions, we will be able to pay them for just another six days. So this is not an option either.” This statement, more than any other, captures the prevailing attitude of the ruling nobles toward their “kholops.”
The second important trend may be seen on the regional level. The feudal system, after all, was based on several layers of subordination, and it is in Russia’s regions where contemporary practices most resemble the medieval. For one there is the obvious negligence of meritocratic principles seen in the appointment of regional governors (even since their “election” by local citizens was restored in 2011, not a single case of the Kremlin candidate losing has been recorded). Much more important is the changing attitude of the local masters as to the opportunities their positions open for them.
For centuries in Russia the government service was considered to be a so-called kormleniye: “feeding,” to put it literally—meaning the possibility for a bureaucrat to enrich himself while holding his position. In short, officeholders treated their posts as private fiefdoms. Before that the Russian czar awarded his outstanding servants and loyalists with pomestya (estates), making them landlords for life but not allowing them to pass the land to their heirs. The practices of the early 2000s resembled this picture, as local governors focused on amassing money in one way or another skim off the budget or take bribes from large industrial companies. The situation later changed as regional administrators began to build full-scale “business empires” that in some cases effectively owned the whole region or town.
Such cases are numerous and well-known in Russia. When Alexander Tkachev was elected governor of Krasnodarskiy Krai in 2001, he and his father owned an agricultural farm of about 12,000 acres they were lucky enough to privatize in the early 1990s. By the time he moved to Moscow 15 years later after having been appointed Minister of Agriculture, he was the largest landlord in all Europe, with more than 1.15 million acres of arable land under his direct control, equivalent to 9 percent of the entire territory of the province he used to govern. After being fired from the federal government earlier this year, he returned to his native region as chairman of the gigantic enterprise he had created. (During his tenure as governor, Krasnodarskiy Krai became infamous as the place where anything goes when it comes to building huge agricultural “business empires”; one of the local landlords, close to Mr. Tkachev, was accused of commanding local gangsters to kill at least twelve people in just one incident in 2010, after they rejected offers to sell their land. This case garnered tremendous public attention, and some of the lower-ranked people involved were jailed.)
Similar business empires can be found in the Republic of Mordovia, where governor Nikolai Merkushkin ruled for 17 years, or in the Moscow region, where the current governor Andrei Vorobyev controls the better part of the flourishing construction industry; the region leads all others in residential construction by a significant margin. Some cases are simply unimaginable in the Western world. For example, when the former Altai governor Alexander Surikov was appointed Russian Ambassador to Belarus, the first thing he did was to strong-arm local carmakers into supplying parts and assembly-line equipment to a factory in his native Barnaul. This was one of many properties he acquired during his tenure there, thus keeping this profitable business running for more than ten years despite his diplomatic status. In September, at the age of 78, he was removed from Minsk, and is now returning to Altay Krai to resume running his business there. Some Russian Mayors, meanwhile, control up to half of all the commercial real estate in their cities. For example, the resort town of Gelendzhik on Russia’s Black Sea coast, which became very popular among top Russian officials after many of them were banned from foreign travel, is home to dozens of hotels belonging to the closest relatives of Viktor Khrestin, who has been the town’s Mayor since 2008.
The emerging trend in Russia is toward the transformation of entire regions from pomestya (estates) into real votchinas (patrimonies, or allodia), which were common prior to the 16th century as a kind of absolute hereditary possession that could be transferred from the older to younger generation without restriction. The Russian leadership, by all appearances, has encouraged this trend. It is no coincidence that those local bureaucrats who amass property in their regions or invest huge money into local businesses are doing quite well, while those who still act by the 1990s playbook, trying only to steal budget funds and channel them into offshore accounts, are much more vulnerable (the cases of Sakhalin Governor Alexander Khoroshavin and Komi Republic Governor Vyacheslav Gaizer, both arrested and fired in 2015, are good examples).
Such encouragement from the top is perfectly in line with the policy of the “(re)nationalization of elites” announced by Vladimir Putin soon after his return to the Kremlin in 2012, which manifested itself in a nominal ban on the appointment to public office of individuals who directly or through family members own real estate, commercial assets, or even bank accounts outside Russia. Now it is much more rational for elites to keep funds in Russia, since feudalism at home is more acceptable than participating in capitalism abroad. In short, the “feudalization” of the country is proceeding apace, reinforced by both the Kremlin’s foreign policy and, unwittingly, by the sanctions and other restrictive measures imposed on Russia by Western powers.
In sum, Russia’s drive to establish what amounts to a neo-feudal order has made enormous progress during the past ten years. In the late 2000s such an order seemed to manifest itself in the existence of an elite that was neither elected nor selected according to meritocratic principles, and that showed some signs of becoming self-reproducing and closed to potential newcomers. Today we are witnessing the restoration of very old Russian habits throughout all social strata; coincidentally or not, this trend has evolved as political leaders, from President Putin on down, have increasingly praised Russia’s “traditional spiritual and moral values” and called for the restoration of the “historical roots” that made Russia great and mighty.13 This kind of traditionalism has become the major ideological tool for the Kremlin to justify Russia’s return to semi-medieval practices—though of course it does not call them that.
From the outside, what is going on within Russia’s political economy is describable as kleptocracy, and insofar as Russia shows its face to the West, that label is apt enough. But it falls vastly short of capturing the reality of the situation, which manifests itself in ways that, for most Westerners, are simply incomprehensible.
As Russia continues its process of de-modernization—or perhaps its escape from modernity—two trends are equally important for understanding the country’s future.
One is the ongoing stratification of current Russian society into those who are considered gosudarevy lyudi (Czar’s men) and those who are counted as kholopy. This is not the kind of income inequality that has been intensively analyzed as the crucial problem endangering the stability of Russian society; rather, it is a status inequality, with not bourgeois but distinctly feudal roots and causes. Contemporary Russian society has become a complicated system where legal norms are not so much neglected as entirely irrelevant if the parties to any dispute belong to different social strata. Laws are respected only if the parties to legal proceedings are “equal” in terms of the implicit hierarchy. This stratification has also become the fundamental pillar of a new system of social management, which nurtures not so much totalitarian attitudes on the upper level but omnipresent servility attitudes on the “lower” one, making Russian society hopelessly un-modern. What we can expect from this is by no means a return of totalitarianism in its 20th-century meaning, but rather the creation of an absolutist system similar to those common in Europe two or three centuries ago. The ideology of such a system consists of “stability” and it is oriented only on the stable and unchallenged rule of the kholops by their immediate masters and by the “new nobility” as a consolidated social class. It’s not about economic development but social control.
The second trend is a rather new phenomenon: the institutionalization of massive property under the control of local bureaucrats, which is distinctly different from the construction of nationwide “oligarchic” empires in the 1990s. Property in Russia is now divided into that of “national” importance (which, even if formally private, can be nationalized at any given moment) and “regionalized” property, which in large part belongs to the regional administrators who constitute the new feudal class. This situation doesn’t resemble the feudal disunity of Europe in the early Middle Ages, bit is much more akin to the 17th and 18th-century versions of feudalism, with the provincial aristocracy perfectly controlled from the top, the local lords exercising authority vested in them by the supreme leader. Therefore, the system is solid and durable, able to withstand both outside pressure and deep isolationism—so long as the goal remains control and not development. Russia’s leaders, it seems, are as confident in their system after the second war of Crimea as their predecessors were in the wake of the first.
How long can the new Russian feudalism survive? It will likely take decades to exhaust itself. Like any other classic feudal country, 19th-century Russia was a productive society that may not have been competitive with its neighbors, but had no alternative to encouraging population growth, implementing new production techniques, and establishing balances between different social classes. By contrast, contemporary Russia is a rentier economy with about two-thirds of its exports consisting of energy and commodities produced by less than 3 percent of its active population. In such conditions the ruling elite will never experience enough pressure from below to force significant changes to the system.
The best the Western world can do is to await the exodus of those who feel themselves people of the 21st rather than the 16th century. Exodus from Russia will eventually ruin the system: Unlike the omnipresent feudalism of old, after all, the new version is contained only within one particular country. (Odd, is it not, how the idea of “socialism in one country” has given way to “feudalism in one country”?) But while waiting for the second death of this zombie, the West must prevent neo-feudalism from spilling over Russia’s borders to infect the modern part of the world.
2See, for example, Marc Bloch, The Feudal Society, Volume 1: The Growth of Ties of Dependence (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), pp. 256–66.
3The historical and geographical reasons for this divergence in development are complex, some particular to Russia and others common to much of Eastern Europe. For one treatment, see Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 373-401.
4For greater detail see Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class (Doubleday, 1984).
5See Andrei Soldatov and Irina Bogoran, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (Public Affairs, 2010).
6See John Shovlin, “Nobility” and Nigel Aston, “The Established Church” in William Doyle, The Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Régime (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 113 and 293–94.
7See “The Pravda Russkaya: The Expanded Redaction,” in Daniel Kaiser, ed., The Laws of Rus’, 10th to 15th Centuries (Charles Schlacks Publisher, 1992), pp. 20–34.
8For more, see Alexander Zimin, Kholopy na Rusi s drevneishikh vremen do kontsa XV veka [Kholops in the Rus’ from the Earliest Times to the End of the 15th Century] (Nauka Publishers, 1973), pp. 38–9 and Piotr Melgunov, Ocherki po istorii russkoy torgovli IX-XVII vekov [Essays on the History of Russian Trade, 9th-17th Centuries] (Sotrudnik Shkol Publishers, 1905), p. 40.
9See Loi Salique, Paris 4404, title X.
10See Mikhail Tikhomirov, and Pyotr Yepifanov, Sobornoye Ulozhenye 1649 goda [The Council Code of 1649] (Moscow State University Press, 1961), section XX [in Russian].
11Andrei Yurganov, Kategorii russkoi srednevekovoy kultury [Categories of the Russian Medieval Culture] (Miros Publishers, 1998), p. 218 [in Russian].
12Dmitry Glukhovsky, The Text (EuropaVerlag, 2018) [in German]. The English edition will appear early in 2019.