Alexander Ovchinnikov: “They have elections, while we — feasts…"

How do elections in the US differ from elections in Russia?

Alexander Ovchinnikov: “They have elections, while we — feasts…

In Russia, elections resemble a mass holiday-feast, says Candidate of Historical Sciences Alexander Ovchinnikov. In the column written for Realnoe Vremya, he compares the voting process in the United States, where there has recently been a sharp struggle for the presidency between Trump and Biden, and in Russia. According to the historian from Kazan, the specificity of the Russian electoral process is an indicator of the preservation of archaic institutions in the country.

The last few months in Russia and abroad have been marked by mass voting, in some of which Russians could legally participate (in the poll on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation in the summer and local elections on September 13), but they only had to watch the presidential elections in Belarus and the United States. Even an inexperienced layman in politics noticed the differences in the electoral processes in our country (including Belarus) and “their”.

It seemed that the same events of democratic life were taking place on different planets. On the one hand, we could see the “yawning heights” of stable and concrete predictability, a kind of theatre where everyone plays their role, and tough measures against those who doubt the sincerity of the actors and want to rewrite the script, and on the other — real competition, live debates between applicants, the decisive (and not static) role of the people, an unpredictable result. These contradictions need explanations, and not mythical ones — they say, different “mentalities”, “civilisations”, “cultural and historical codes”, etc., but scientific ones, when the qualitative characteristics of objects are compared.

The last few months in Russia and abroad have been marked by mass voting, some of which Russians could legally participate in

Far far away…

Let's start with a childishly simple question — how does Russia differ from the United States? Putting aside the ideological “husk”, we can state that the American state is 214 years older than the Russian one. Since its formation, the United States has managed to implement many of the principles of the ancient polis democracy: electability and changeability of authorities, the sanctity of private property, the decisive word in the politics of the people — demos, and so on. It is the demos that are mostly the middle class, whose representatives live off small and medium-sized businesses, which, in turn, form the basis of the American economy. This reality has led to the development of logical thinking that contributes to the preservation of democratic institutions (within this type of thinking, it is justified that “two times two is four” and that laws must be enforced, and the constitution must not be changed to a new one, despite the circumstances and the wishes of those in power; it is not superfluous to recall that the West, led by the United States, is the locomotive of world science).

As a result, the American state is strong in terms of ensuring human rights and weak in terms of the total ironing of everyone and everything that is familiar to Russians. When our countryman first finds himself in the United States or any other developed Western democracy, he is surprised to find almost complete, by Russian standards, absence of the state. In fact, the entire American state as such is concentrated in a few buildings in a small Washington (it is home to about 700,000 people, i.e. half a million less than in Kazan...). The state becomes only one of the public institutions, a kind of intermediary firm, to which other socio-political and economic groups delegate the powers of an arbitrator (even the possibility of legal violence on the part of the authorities here is actually limited by law (namely, the right, not the permit to carry weapons).

And in our country…

In the young Russian state, everything is different. Russia emerged in 1990 as the result of a struggle within the sprawling Soviet nomenclature — then and today's ruling class. The propaganda of the democratic myth in Yeltsin's time was only a cover for the undercover elite struggle, which explains the existence of several episodes of “real elections” (for example, the confrontation between B. N. Yeltsin and G. A. Zyuganiv n 1967).

The real middle class (let me remind you, the main subject of politics in the United States) in Russia has not been formed. Most of the businessmen of the 1990s have now turned into “downtrodden sole proprietors”, trembling before officials, freezing in clothing markets that are far from hygiene standards and barely “making ends meet”.

Recruitment to power takes place under completely different laws than in a democracy. If in the same United States, to become a politician, you need to have oratory skills, show initiative, be constantly in touch with your voters, be prominent and noticeable, then in modern Russia the opposite principle of “negative selection” applies — in order to “cling to power”, you need to show your superiors that you allegedly represent little of yourself, are tongue-tied in front of an audience, you are uninitiative, but at the same time, you are executive and in no way can make your boss at least some competition <...>. If a novice Russian official chooses a different, Western, style of behaviour, then for him, it will automatically mean signing a “political death sentence”, and if after leaving power he “does not get smarter”, then close communication with law enforcement agencies. . .

The Russian authorities need completely different forms of communication with the controlled population than democratic ones, and the Moscow Kremlin, I think, has intuitively found a way to solve the problem. The methods of interaction with subjects known from the Soviet past and earlier (even ancient) historical and ethnographic material were chosen. Although outwardly they resemble the electoral process in Western democracies (there are election commissions, ballots with different candidates, and finally, ballot boxes), but in fact, they differ in completely different rules, meanings, and mutual obligations of the parties.

Such “authorities” in anthropology are called “bigmen” — in exchange for their property, often left almost without everything, they received moral authority. Photo:

We are talking about a banal mass feast with banal mass distribution of gifts. Despite the seeming innocuousness and apolitical nature, it was mass treats at the dawn of human history that gave rise to the political genesis and formation of early states. To date, experts in economic anthropology have accumulated enough field material to argue that in the primitive era and among the historically known “backward tribes” of the Amazon, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Oceania, etc., the organisation of a mass feast was a prerequisite for obtaining and maintaining power.<…>

Distribution of bread to the plebeians in the ancient Roman state, fresco of the first century AD. Photo:

“Bread and circuses”

In Ancient Greece, candidates for public office often presented potential voters with gifts in the form of free lunches and fruit from their gardens. In Ancient Rome, the emperors arranged mass distributions of grain, baked bread, butter, and pork for the plebeians. Caesar, in order to attract the Romans to his side, arranged mass feasts and spectacles for them for many days. The rulers of ancient China and India often did the same. In medieval Europe, under the guise of Christian “beggary”, kings and other feudal lords arranged distributions of food and money.

In Kievan Rus, power relations were inextricably linked with tables set by princes for everyone. <...> In Soviet times, as a result of the Civil War and mass repressions of the 1930s, the European-minded part of the population was physically destroyed or found themselves in exile. The power was seized by the nomenclature — people from previously unprivileged and uneducated strata. The specifics of the new ruling class (the combination of power and property, the collective nature of management, etc.) are brilliantly analysed in the books of M.S. Voslensky and M. Dzhilas. Something like the restoration of archaism has come (just listen to and read the official Soviet rhetoric of the 1930s), and “people's votes” became even more archaic than imperial coronations.

National holiday (1952, artist — N.A. Sysoev). The picture shows the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Photo:

The older generation remembers that in Soviet times, elections did not solve anything (everything was already decided before them), but the voting day itself was a grandiose holiday with premature payment of bonuses, scarce products at bargain prices in buffets, music, dancing, etc. From a scientific point of view, this was the usual for primitive, ancient and medieval societies, prestigious distribution of food, in exchange for authority and respect for the donor (“ordinary people” understood the meaning of their campaign to the polling station in this way).

“Power was born at the banquet table”

In the 2000s, after overcoming the main “inter-elite contradictions”, the authorities, as mentioned above, returned to the practice of holding elections in the form of mass holidays with gifts. It is interesting to recall that the grandfather of the current president of Russia worked as a cook at one of the dachas of I.V. Stalin, i.e. participated in the organisation of the famous Stalinist feasts — analogs of medieval feasts. In both cases, the most important state issues were resolved at a common meal, and it is not superfluous to quote a statement from the works of a well-known specialist on the middle ages, A.Ya. Gurevich that “power was born at the banquet table”.

Everything connected with feasts is the core of the Stalinist nomenclature, and, apparently, it was the hereditary proximity to the real hearth (partly, in the literal sense of the word) of power, and not the disciplining service in the mysterious state security agencies and other, in general, random factors that stopped B.N. Yeltsin's choice for V. V. Putin as his successor. Boris Nikolaevich himself, unlike Vladimir Vladimirovich, had to “get” to the Moscow Kremlin from the Urals, which could not but affect his health. Physical presence near the centre of power, its feeder (the one who “feeds”), “feeder” even in the role of a simple cook or security guard provides a dizzying career rise. Suffice it to recall that in the early middle ages, the king's or prince's unborn retainers, often taken by them as teenagers from the poorest families, later went to the “regions” for good service as governors, judges, tribute collectors, and sat at the head of the feasting tables of the local “best people”. This is also repeated in modern Russia, when the guards of top officials become governors and ministers.

M. Khmelko. For the Great Russian people. 1947. Photo:

Under Vladimir Putin, the election turned into an all-Russian mass holiday-feast. The main thing here is not the counting of votes, candidate programmes, staged debates, etc., but the very fact of the physical presence of a person, which, as in the case of the historical examples given above, starting from primeval times, means that those who came agreed to political subordination. All this reminds, among other things, of the feasts of Knyaz Vladimir Krasno Solnyshko.

I will focus only on the main organisational points and the most illustrative and striking examples. According to media reports, it is known that the presidential elections in 2018 and the vote on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation were ordered by the Moscow Kremlin to make a feast. The executors of the order were the vice-governors of the regions, who built a vertical of organisation and control over the festive component of voting.

It is impossible to imagine such a system of relations between the presidential administration and vice-governors in the United States, which indicates not “a special historical path” of the Russian state, but the serious archaic nature of its structure. Many ancient state formations, for example, in the Ancient East, arose as a system of measures for organising and holding a religious holiday, but when such mass actions ceased to be held, the state, as a rule, perished.

Buffet at one of the polling stations in Kazan. Election of the President of the Russian Federation on 18 March 2018. Photo: A.V. Ovchinnikov

Judging by available open sources and my personal observations, before the voting day, state employees were paid salaries and (or) bonuses ahead of schedule, free taxis were organised for the weekend, concerts were often held at the polling stations themselves, you could eat for free, buy goods at buffets at prices significantly lower than their cost, and participate in the drawing of various prizes. The authorities came up with numerous reasons for giving gifts (for example, to those who vote for the first time), in large cities at the end of election day, mass free concerts were organised, but only those who voted could get to them.

On the day of voting in the Russian presidential election on March 18, 2018, I personally visited four Kazan polling stations and witnessed long queues for cheap macaroni, sugar, buckwheat, cottage cheese, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges, apples, potatoes, washing powder.

As a historian, it became obvious to me that the principle of “bread and circuses”, known from Ancient Rome, was being revived, and if Roman plebeians were given special tesserae badges to get free bread and as a pass to hippodromes (“stadiums”), then in Tatarstan for many years in a row their analog is the “I voted” bracelet, which gives the right to use public transport for free on the day of voting and attend concerts at the Kazan arena stadium.

Example of an ancient Roman tessera. Photo:

Returning to the comparison of elections in Russia and the United States, we again have to state that such systematic distribution of gifts on behalf of the state is impossible there, but this is observed, for example, in Africa. An African colleague kindly informed me that in some West African countries, gifts, usually in the form of cereals, are distributed directly at the polling stations. European observers who arrived one day for the parliamentary elections in Papua New Guinea found tables served on behalf of candidates with free food at the polling stations…

In late 2011-early 2012 (the period of the so-called “white ribbon revolution”) and at the time of the annexation of Crimea, pro-government rallies were organised by means of “orders” for budget organisations, and even the crowd at the rallies was divided according to the places of work of participants (personal observations of the author). The opposition was organised on the basis of personal interests, which resembles a political national identity, like the American one. The same is true for Belarus and explains why A.G. Lukashenko, after mass protests against the falsified presidential elections on 9 August 2020, literally “rushed” for Belarusian enterprises to speak before labour teams — he knew that it was there, and not in the army or the police, a true pillar of its power.

The pyramid of budget organisations is the main qualitative difference between Russia and the United States and, accordingly, Russian and American elections. For the same reason, there will be no civil war in the United States if presidential candidates disagree with the election results (differences will be resolved by independent courts), while in Russia, in the case of a real free vote, representatives of “clusters” of public sector labour collectives may collide.

By Alexander Ovchinnikov

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.