Streetwise Professor

December 26, 2015

Is Russia Like the One Hoss Shay?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:59 pm

This piece in War on the Rocks challenges seven common beliefs about Russia. Two were of particular interest.

The first challenges the view the Russia is brittle. As someone who long ago advanced this hypothesis, I challenge the challenge. The basic problem is that I don’t think author Michael Kofman really understands the concept of brittleness. Here’s what he says:

With each new outbreak in what has become an almost routine series of political, economic, or foreign policy crises, a segment of the Russia-watcher community invariably begins to make predictions of Putin’s imminent demise. Unfortunately, the science of predicting regime change seems to lag significantly behind astrology. We should remember that few predicted the Soviet Union’s rapid demise, the start of the Arab Spring, or anticipated the rapid fall of Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine following the start of the Maidan.

There are two ongoing case studies on the merit of such predictions. The first is Pakistan, a country that by the same theory should have collapsed long ago under the weight of its many problems. The second is North Korea, which soldiers on despite decades of predictions and estimates of the regime’s imminent implosion. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on our ability to predict the nature and location of the next conflict, “our record has been perfect” given that “we’ve never once gotten it right.” The same should be said of our ability to judge regime brittleness. The point is not that neo-Kremlinology or assessments of political stability are a waste of time, but that this is a single layer of analysis that should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The point about brittleness is exactly that the process is not linear and that collapse occurs suddenly and unpredictably. Brittle systems survive most things, but when they fail, they fail completely and suddenly . . . like the USSR, Arab regimes, and Yanukovych.

Brittleness arises from coordination games in authoritarian regimes. Preference falsification is one mechanism. Coercive mechanisms and social pressures induce people to claim allegiance to an authoritarian regime, or remain silent, even when they don’t like it. This can be self-reinforcing, because people don’t receive contradictory information, and think that their own dissatisfaction is not widely held, and thereby remain silent (or feign support) which convinces others that their dissatisfaction is not widely held, and on and on. This system is stable, until some shock (a military adventure gone wrong, for instance, or an economic calamity, or an incompetent response to a natural disaster) induces enough people to express their opposition to convince the remainder that their dissatisfaction is indeed widely shared. The equilibrium then flips from uniform support or acquiescence to widespread opposition.

Preference falsification is a brittleness mechanism that works through the broad populace. Natural state mechanisms work through the elite. Elite support for the regime is predicated on the beliefs that it commands control over enough resources that can be distributed to the elite, and that this control will endure for some time. When an adverse economic shock reduces the stream of rents that is used to buy elite support, or if the durability of the regime comes into question (due, for instance, to a health crisis at the top of the regime), the elite can suddenly withdraw support or challenge the existing leadership, leading to regime collapse.

Both of these mechanisms are non-linear. Small shocks can lead to large changes. Since the shocks are unpredictable, the shattering of a brittle regime is unpredictable as well.

Highly personalized and institutionally impoverished systems tend to be more brittle, in large part because these systems are more dependent on the vagaries of individual health, personality, and sanity. In this respect, it is interesting to consider the case of Stalin. The Soviet system survived Stalin’s death in part because it did have developed institutions that facilitated succession. Putin, in contrast, has followed the more traditional authoritarian approach of becoming the indispensable person. Such as system is inherently more brittle.

The second point I’d like to challenge is related to the first, namely, whether Putin (and the Russian government generally) is obsessed with regime survival. Kofman argues that this is an empirically empty hypothesis.

This is incorrect. Putin is clearly obsessed with regime change. Look at his rhetoric on color revolutions and the Arab uprisings. He sees dark plots everywhere, most of them emanating from the US. His fears are matched by actions. Putin’s resumption of the presidency, and the relentless campaign to control civil society and eliminate independent media especially in the aftermath of the late-2011 protests are the clearest examples domestically, and the hysterical response to Ukraine, Syria and even backwaters like Montenegro are the foreign policy manifestations of this fear. The obsession with stability at home and abroad is also symptomatic of of concerns about regime survival.

The domestic reactions are classical authoritarian responses to anxieties about brittleness. Controlling information enforces the preference falsification equilibrium. The confident don’t fear open expression of discontent. Those who know that stability depends the shared belief that the regime has near universal support, do.

Obsession with regime survival is an acknowledgement of brittleness: that’s why these concepts are related (though Kofman does not connect them, which is revealing). Michael Kofman may not believe that Russia is brittle, but Putin’s behavior strongly suggests that he does.

Again, the whole point about brittle regimes is that the timing of their demise is almost impossible to predict, as that brittleness is a non-linear process that involves the risk of a large and sudden change in equilibria in response to a modest shock. Non-brittle systems muddle along. Brittle regimes don’t: they sometimes fall to pieces all at once, like the one hoss shay.

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  1. there is a difference between an isolated cult like North Korea and an aggressive Russia. If Russia is simply weakened to the point where it is no longer capable exert external influence its already a ‘fall’ of the regime. The entire ideology around modern Russia is that it is relevant. You take that away and they might zombify their own people but who cares about them.

    Comment by d — December 27, 2015 @ 12:57 am

  2. SWP:

    Just finishing up a Christmas gift: Red Notice. Powerful read. Particularly relevant to the lack of belief that Putin heads a thug-ocracy, when in fact, it turned out that that was EXACTLY what was happening.

    Have you read it?

    Evil does exist in the world.


    Comment by Vlad — December 27, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

  3. A grizzled old oilfield hand once told me that a sure sign you are in a brittle regime (he used the term “shithole that could collapse tomorrow”) is pictures of the political leader plastered everywhere. The more you see, the more brittle the regime is.

    In other news, it turns out doping is rife in Russian sport. Who would have though it?

    Comment by Tim Newman — December 28, 2015 @ 2:57 am

  4. @Professor, Montenegro is much bigger on the Russian map than you may realize. It’s where many pieces of shit instrumental in building putinism tend to retire, not very eager to wait until whay they have built collapses onto their heads. One of the current top talking heads of putin-TV has recently been found to be a citizen there. So their emotional response to what’s happening at their dacha is understandable.

    Comment by Ivan — December 29, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

  5. @Ivan
    A few years ago I know Deripaska and a Rothschild had a partnership to open a superyacht facility in Montenegro but haven’t followed the story.

    Comment by pahoben — December 31, 2015 @ 2:50 am

  6. This is a very, very interesting post, SWP. I have been struggling for years to understand why, in the post-sovok era, countries like Ukraine and Georgia and Russia became sovok mafia states, while countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have managed to get rid of the sovok shell. Even Georgia has managed it, to some extent.

    Orlando Figues wrote a book called “The Whisperers,” which documents one of your points – widespread fear among society, and distrust, with huge disinformation by those in power (sralin).

    I had been developing the theory that, in Ukraine at least, what was developed was a company town/Tammany Hall system, multiplied to the nth degree. When Akhmetov owns the steel mill, or the coke plant, and your house or living quarters, and your livelihood, and there are no alternatives, you’re stuck. Same thing with Pinchuk or Kolomoisky or a number of others.

    It’s like the Tennessee Ernie Ford song: “you dig sixteen tons, and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt, St. Peter don’t you take me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store”

    So your post has been a light bulb for me, to a certain extent

    It also appears to me that one thing that people do when faced with a company town/Tammany Hall situation which is multiplied to the nth degree, as in the sovok union or thereafter, is to develop an underground economy – which, of course, is not really legitimate government.

    We all remember, I think, the shift to the bartering system, via bottles of vodka as currency, in the sovok union.

    And all sorts of other means to get around the system, which is still prevalent in Ukraine and Russia.

    Methinks that an underground economy might also be a sign of brittleness.

    In Ukraine, with EuroMaidan and the Revolution of Dignity, people decided that “they no longer wanted to live in this kind of country” – hence, as you mention, the toppling of Yanukonvikt.

    It the Russian Federation, Putler has decided to redouble his efforts to prevent any sort of critical mass from forming against his regime.

    But as with the sovok union, it seems that he will be powerless to stop a collapse.

    Comment by elmer — December 31, 2015 @ 8:41 am

  7. Thanks, Elmer. Glad you enjoyed the post, and found it informative.

    Your company town analogy is a good one. Another one is feudalism. Akhmetov, Pinchuk, et al are like medieval barons who dominate their territories, and whose fealty to the central authority is purely formal. In fact, just like a medieval king, the Ukrainian central government has to go on bended knee to the barons. The people, of course, are just sheep to be shorn.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 31, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

  8. Professor, the feudal analogy was used by Ukrainians themselves, including but not limited to those in government, such as the current PM Yatseniuk.

    There was even a video of one of the post-sovok mafiosi joking about the “right of the first night” (I have omitted the Latin term), which refers to the supposed right of the lord to have sex with any bride on the night of her marriage.

    Only one problem – the concept of medieval feudalism was a 2-way street, to a certain extent. Just as those in fealty had duties to the lord, the lord actually did have duties to his underlings, for example, but not limited to, the duty of protection.

    In the post-sovok states, it was all corrupted into a 1-way street, such that the feudal lords in Ukraine killed their underlings with impunity in various ways – with high-speed expensive SUV’s, with guns, etc.

    That included, for example, one of these sovok feudal lords shooting a guy in front of his family and children because they had “trespassed” on the sovok mafioso’s lake. There were plenty of such other examples, including the shooting of a 55-year old who had dared to take a shortcut across an open field to go home where he lived with his mother. The sovok feudal “lord” – and his supporters – claimed it was “self-defense” and that the sovok feudal “lord” should get a medal. The sovok feudal “lord” was in a jeep with the local sheriff at the time, and the 55 year old man was unarmed. It was just like a safari, as it turns out.

    There are many, many more examples of murder by “lords.”

    The people, as you mentioned, were just there to be shorn.

    Many commentators had the thought that Ukraine had become a territory with 2 countries which had only the territory in common. One country was for the “lords,” the other for the sheeple.

    Comment by elmer — January 1, 2016 @ 11:12 am

  9. The feudalism analogy is not quite right. Russia never had proper feudalism as understood in the West. Russian “vassals” were technically employees of the ruler, serving at will and paid in shares of the rent streams. I discuss this system in an old post – click on my name for the link.

    Comment by Candide III — January 3, 2016 @ 9:09 am

  10. @Candide III. The issue is not whether Russia was historically feudal, in the western European sense. I was using feudalism as an analogy to describe the system in Ukraine today. Like any analogy, it is imperfect, but it does capture salient features.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 3, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

  11. […] of thing bears watching because Russia’s government is brittle.  As Streetwise Professor helpfully explains, brittle does not mean weak: it means collapse, when it happens, occurs suddenly and […]

    Pingback by A Video Worth Watching | White Sun of the Desert — January 11, 2016 @ 2:36 am

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