View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. International
18 March 2024updated 19 Mar 2024 1:08pm

Only violence rules Russia

Vladimir Putin's presidential election victory is not a demonstration of his popularity but the extent of his control over the Russian populace.

By Bruno Maçães

It seemed puzzling at first that so many were talking about the Russian election when the results were announced on Sunday (17 March). At that point, I still did not know who the other candidates were, and now it seems pointless to type the question into a search engine. Putin won with nearly 88 per cent of the vote. There was never much question this would happen. Anything less would raise questions about where exactly might those votes be going and why.

Putin made sure that would not happen by imprisoning, exiling or assassinating every opposition figure and by sending the police and the army around the country with instructions to help prevent surprises. Nevertheless, every Western mainstream media still chose to speak of an election and to give it pride of place on their newscasts, web pages and print editions. Why?

What I found absurd is the use of the term election. The event on its own was newsworthy, but not as an election result. It demonstrated not Putin’s popularity or political legitimacy but the extent of his control over the Russian populace. The need to demonstrate that control is why neither he nor many other autocrats will want to get rid of these public displays. Their purpose, however, is the exact opposite of an election. They are meant to be an exercise of power rather than its source. What happened over three days from Friday to Sunday was not an election but an acclamation, a public ceremony allowing the ruler to showcase the extent to which his subjects accept his rule.

In the Byzantine Empire acclamations took a formal and pompous character: the Emperor would enter to worship in the Church and the assembled congregation would sing the Polychronism. The Emperor would gently waive the kerchief. Then they would sing again: “may God prolong your rule” and other wishes of the same kind. Of course, in a country as populous as Russia and without the same strict hierarchy, acclamation takes a different form, which includes pieces of paper and ballot boxes, but the purpose is the same.

One question remains and it might be the critical one: why was Putin acclaimed as ruler? He is not the heir to an imperial or royal dynasty. His power, now that acclamations have replaced elections, has one source only: violence. He was acclaimed because every potential rival has been brought down by the successful use of state violence. 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

As other sources of legitimacy wane, violence grows. Today it is violence that rules over Russia. Putin is merely its agent. There is violence in the mobilisation of a million soldiers to fight and die in Ukraine. There is violence in the army against those who call attention to its failings or failures. There is violence against everyone deemed to exhibit political ambition. Some have started using the state apparatus to eliminate rivals. It is said that certain assassinations of Russian businessmen abroad may not have been decided by Putin as much as orchestrated by opposing interests in Russia. Once unleashed, violence grows because the only way to contain it is with yet more violence.

So Putin received his acclamation. It was a successful acclamation, with only some relatively minor incidents clouding the exercise. The newspapers were right to report on the event, although a mention on page three might make more sense than a front-page splash. A headline seems inappropriate because the acclamation is a mere symptom of something else happening behind the curtains, a violent struggle for power where everything is becoming more intense. There is blood in the water. That is never good news for a ruler.

[See also: The West is revealing its hand to Putin]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU