While Putin is unquestionably the most powerful figure in Russia, it is clear that he does not entirely lay claim to the aura either of an absolutist tsar, as projected by his supporters, or of an autocratic despot, as proposed by his detractors. Instead of an Olympian throne, it would seem that Putin sits at the nexus of modern-day boyar clans in perpetual conflict over property, policies and perks, a new version of the Soviet Politburo, in which decisions were taken by consensus and powerful interest groups balanced each other’s potency.

The plethora of competing interest groups in the Kremlin often resembles a medieval court. While bickering, fighting and (literally) backstabbing, they can fall into line when their collective interests are threatened, and then go back to fighting again after seeing off the intruder. Ideology plays little role in elite battles – one frequently finds liberals and conservatives in the same political clique, and groups of hardliners on opposite sides.

The pluralism at the centre of Russian autocracy has been a common feature of the state for centuries. Indeed, Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan argued that the analogy to medieval court politics was appropriate up until the modern era in his classic article ‘Muscovite Political Folkways’, which showed that the notion of an omnipotent, autocratic tsar has largely been a myth throughout 500 years of Russian history. Keenan outlined instead the ways in which rule has been by a system of Kremlin court politics within which the guiding principle is consensus. Clan politics within the Kremlin, he wrote, was ‘symbolically expressed in a kind of self-imposed fictional subservience to an autocratic tsar, and ensured by the awareness that the fiction was the central element of a conspiracy against political chaos that would ensue if clan were to be set against clan’. Keenan’s conclusions appear every bit as valid today as they did 30 years ago.

In the case of Putin, his direct authority over his most senior lieutenants has been questioned by a number of analysts who argue that, rather, the president has to tack politically between these competing interests, obeying a strict balance, in order to preserve his neutrality. His political authority rests on his being primarily a problem solver and adjudicator in elite disputes. Ideology is always subservient to these more paramount considerations of elite power dynamics.


Putin’s authority appears to rest more on the wilful suspension of disbelief of his upper-echelon elite – on their general collusion in a spectacle of awesome despotic power. The reality may be more complex: cliques and clans more or less free to challenge each other and push boundaries in a complicated and extemporaneous political theatre, with few rules and a script written by collective effort. ‘The Kremlin has many towers’, according to the well-worn saying.

—Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 295-96.

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