Can Russia Modernize? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance

The Chinese call it guanxi; the Russians, sistema. It exists in one form or another in most countries. It is the informal, sometimes illegal way things get done through connections, bribes, and favors. It is one thing when the phenomenon of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” propels political life but stays within a formal institutional framework. But when that practice supplants constitutional institutions and processes, it is quite another -- and that is what has happened in Russia. The Russian system is an immense web of illicit networks. Ledeneva has studied them from the ground up in earlier works; in this book, she inspects them from the top down. These “power networks,” as she calls them, form a dense maze rather than a neat hierarchy and thus belie the notion of President Vladimir Putin as an untrammeled autocrat. Unlike in a spider web, however, their lines are motley, blurred, and fluid. Most of the book explores in depth how the networks function, but Ledeneva’s larger conclusion stresses the paradox that necessary as these informal clusters are to the functioning of the Russian state, they also pose a significant barrier to its modernization.

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