Putin’s manual guidance
At every political, social and even religious level, the direct line of command has become increasingly important for Putin and his inner circle, as the main propaganda tool to convey the image of a super-efficient president, close to everyone’s problems, invested even with a divine mission, which the country cannot do without.
The three months of war in Ukraine have clearly highlighted the totalitarian nature of Putin's power system in Russia, not to mention the unrestrained and "missionary" claims of the ideology of the Russian World.
All this finds expression not only in the well-known notion of “power vertical”, which began with Putin’s first presidency in 2000, but also in the idea of “manual guidance" or “manual regime” by which he rules the country and controls the military, directly making every decision as commander in chief, thus humiliating everyone in a middle rank position.
Throughout the Kremlin, officials know the expression "the president is currently at the front”, as if he really wanted to emulate the last tsar, Nicholas II, who tried to stay at all costs close to the troops engaged in the First World War, so much so that he did not notice that the revolution was breaking out in Petrograd.
Putin is not interested in either the economy or domestic politics. He has his eyes and thoughts only for the Donbass, his hands firmly on the wheels of the war machine, while others take care of the rest of the government.
The notion of Putin’s “manual leadership" of power has been spreading since 2007, against the backdrop of that year’s global financial crisis.
In October of that year, the president explained at a press conference that, “We are emerging from a serious systemic crisis, and are thus forced to do a lot in manual regime,” he said. “Once we have a more consolidated and stable legal, economic and social foundation there will be no need for the manual regime.” Since then, the expression has been used more and more by Russian media.
Manual regime means that the supreme leadership also deals with all the problems that in a normal situation are automatically solved by the state apparatus, through laws and regulations.
A manual regime means recognising the weakness and lack of flexibility, or perhaps even the powerlessness of the apparatus, which must be continuously corrected and refocused.
Such a direct and authoritarian way of ruling also refers to those areas that theoretically should not interest the head of state:
In June 2009, when Putin was prime minister, he went to the provincial town of Pikalyovo in the Leningrad Oblast (region), where some factories had shut down over unpaid debts and hot water was cut to homes, sparking street protests.
Putin forced the deputy prime minister, the minister, the governor and the managers of the state-owned companies concerned, as well as the owners of some private companies, to sign a number of deals before a TV camera bringing a resolution to the problems.
On that same day, the striking workers got their wages, thanks to the “mandatory” agreement imposed by the prime minister on the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, bypassing all the normal bureaucratic channels.
This continued in the following years, when Putin, as prime minister and then again as president, closed down dumps and landfills, inaugurated railway lines and new train models, and personally picking the names of study centres and hospitals.
His famous “direct lines” on TV multiplied thereafter, during which he engages in Question-and-Answer sessions for hours with ordinary people. As a wink to what happened in Pikalyovo, these shows came to be popularly known as Pikalevke.
In 2019 presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, whose role has grown in the era of manual guidance, explained that "the president personally deals with the thorniest issues that affect citizens, because for him the relationship with them is the most important thing, and he takes their suffering as his personal problem.”
In the 19th century, this type of relationship was called the imperial narodnost (national populism), whereby the tsar played the role of batyuskha, of “father”, to his people. The end of tsarism began on the infamous Bloody Sunday, 22 January 1905, when the crowds led by Pope Gapon came in front of the Winter Palace asking to see Tsar Nicholas II.
All he had to do was to show himself from the balcony, or even better go into the streets, to calm the protesters, but the tsar's advisers convinced him to play it safe in the distant palace of Tsarskoe Selo, and then fired on the crowd. At that point, the trust the people had in their tsar-batyuskha was broken, and Russia slid towards revolutionary catastrophe.
Narodnost must be supported by autocracy (samoderzhaviye, vertical power) and Eastern Orthodoxy (pravoslavie) to create the "triad of power", according to the theory enunciated by the Minister of Education Sergey Uvarov in the 1830s.
Putin's manual guidance has also become visible in religious matters, especially after Patriarch Kirill expressed his dissent over the symbolic annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The following year Putin imposed his "spiritual father" Tikhon (Shevkunov) as auxiliary bishop of Moscow, and in 2016 he had him appointed head of the patriarchal department of culture, from which Tikhon explains the deep reasons for the president’s moves with greater solicitude than Peskov himself.
The patriarch tried to free himself from Tikhon and Putin’s clutches. In 2019 he elevated Shevkunov to the post of metropolitan in the distant city of Pskov to remove him from the Moscow monastery in the former KGB buildings, which he had himself restored in the 1990s and where he had befriended the future president.
But even this move backfired, as it freed Tikhon from any responsibility in breaking relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople over Ukrainian autocephaly, one of the symbolic reasons for the current war.
It is no coincidence that Tikhon remains sheltered today in Pskov, where he has been able, alone among Russian Church hierarchs, to better manage the pandemic, and from where he can more closely controls events in neighbouring Belarus and Ukraine, without the need to get his hands dirty.
Kirill remains confined in the bunker next to Putin's, and is charged with preaching “holy war” from Moscow cathedrals, preferably from the Cathedral of Victory, the monstrous war church imposed on him by the Kremlin.
In short, Putin’s manual system has become increasingly important in political, social and even religious terms to the president and his inner circle, as the main propaganda tool that must convey the image of a super-efficient president, close to everyone’s problems, even invested with a divine mission, which the country cannot do without.
One of the main supporters of "manual guidance" is Vyacheslav Volodin, a former first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia and now chairman of the State Duma, who summarised the concept in one sentence: “Without Putin there is no Russia”.
Putin himself demonstrated the propagandistic nature of his conception of power when in 2012 he was filmed flying a motorised hang-glider in Siberia leading cranes and storks in the right direction.
The prestigious Vokrug Sveta magazine edited by the Russian Geographical Society refused to publish a report on this event as requested “from above”, and its editor-in-chief, Masha Gessen, got sacked, which made her one of Russia’s best-known journalists internationally.
Putin then invited Gessen to the Kremlin, to explain that the “crane flight” was all a stunt to "raise awareness of the problem" of protecting birds and the environment.
In another major press conference in 2019, Putin himself complained about the toll manual guidance was taking on him. “You can’t imagine what sacrifices we have to make; it is the most demanding system of government that exists; we have to take care of everything and we can trust no one.”
In reality, the president has the least complicated and most rewarding part, that of going on television and telling millions of citizens the decisions made by the "father of the Fatherland", something that has become even more routine and sensational in this period of war, when Putin shouts in front of the cameras at the bigwigs of the Kremlin and the military for not understanding his instructions right away.
It remains to be seen how effectively Putin himself makes all the decisions, especially after so many reports about his poor health.
The rhetoric of the “dying madman” who throws bombs of all kinds following uncontrolled tantrums is convenient to shift onto him responsibility for failures or total defeat in the Ukrainian war.
One wonders if someone else is not pulling the strings from behind, using the propaganda of Putin the puppet to operate the “manual guidance”.