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Yesterday I asked the question "Is Vladimir Putin surrounded by yes-men?", which was promptly closed for being primarily opinion-based. I thought this one was worth a discussion.

I'm interested in this question because I have the intuition that authoritarian forms of governments are by nature bound to make serious mistakes due to their close-mindedness (in short). To me, the case of Putin's Russia appears like a good example of this vague intuition, so I'd like to know about any evidence confirming or contradicting it. Let me emphasize that the point is not about criticizing or judging, it's about understanding the culture and processes in which this particular government makes decisions (needless to say, this is definitely on-topic for this site).

  • The lack of focus mentioned by Ekadh Singh in a comment could easily be solved, if this is a serious issue. In general I'm happy to edit the question, of course.
  • I'm aware that the question can be perceived as oriented, especially in the current context.
    • I would emphasize that the hypothesis that I submit in the question could in theory be disproved as well as confirmed, i.e. there could be evidence in either direction.
    • I'm not really satisfied with the use of the word "yes-men" in the title question but I didn't find any better way to summarize the question (suggestions welcome).
  • As far as I understand, the main problem is the one mentioned by Italian Philosopher in the comments: the question is hard/impossible to answer objectively due to the secretive nature of the Russian government.
    • I would argue that there are certainly various publications written by people specialized in Russian politics which could, if not answer it clearly, at least bring relevant information to the question. Case in point: the second link in Fizz' answer.
    • Closing questions immediately because the first few active members who see it don't think it can be answered is problematic: most questions about politics are subjective to some extent, and deciding whether a question is "objectively answerable" is itself subjective. I was lucky that Fizz managed to write an answer just before the question was closed, but other people who may have interesting things to say about the topic are less likely to find it once it's closed and they wouldn't be able to provide an answer anyway.
    • Incidentally, I suspect that this perpetuates the US/Western-centric bias of the site: most active users are knowledgeable about Western politics so they are more likely to close questions about other countries as "not objectively answerable", thus reinforcing the bias and making it harder for users from other backgrounds to participate.
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As I'm sure you're aware, people are limited to a small handful or reasons for suggesting question closure. 'Opinion-based' is one of about six choices; it's more of a vague gesture at a certain kind of problem than an acute and specific diagnosis.

I didn't vote to close your question personally, but I can see the inherent problem with it. It centers around the use of the term 'Yes Men'. 'Yes Men' could mean any of the following:

  • Toadies or sycophants who agree with the leader because they want to cozy up to power
  • True believers or fellow travelers who actually agree with most of the extreme positions the leader takes
  • Nationalists, who give highest priority to the prestige of their group or party, and thus will never allow that the leader of their group or party can do wrong
  • Cronies and co-conspirators, who have a tight transactional relationship with the leader and support him because it profits them to do so
  • Bureaucrats, who fear repercussions and the loss of their power and status (not to mention worse penalties) and follow the leader with complete moral ambivalence

Each of these points to a different form of authoritarian governance, with different implications and different concerns, and different people within the regime may have different motivations. None of them, however, are likely to identify themselves as sycophants, true believers, nationalists, cronies, or feckless bureaucrats, so we could only identify them as such through implication and intuition. But the question doesn't touch on these distinctions; it doesn't even make the basic distinction between the active state of telling the leader what he wants to hear and the passive act of not telling the leader what he doesn't want to hear, which seems psychologically significant.

The question as asked would involve too much speculation and mind-reading, and doesn't offer enough philosophical grounding to keep answers focused and contained. That's an issue, because it leads to speculation. Now, I could probably have written a decent answer to this if I'd seen it, but I probably wouldn't have, because I would have recognized how much effort I'd have to put in structuring and focusing and contextualizing things. It would have been more writing that I'm generally willing to invest in a Q&A site.

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    Not my DV, but I think yes-men generally refers to the 1st bullet rather than to fellow travelers And your 4th & 5th bullets aren't substantially different from the 1st one. Mar 21, 2022 at 14:06
  • And the difference between active and passive is easily blurred as you might have seen from Naryshkin's questioning. If we know anything about somewhat smart authoritarian leaders is that they involve their entourage into rubber-stamping their decisions, so they have no wiggle room in case of regime change etc. Mar 21, 2022 at 14:13
  • @Fizz: °1, °4, and °5 are different in terms of internal motivations: adulation, greed, and self-interest. They look similar on the surface, but react differently under stress and cannot be treated as strict equivalents (which is the crux of the problem with this question). But yes, I think you're right that most people associate yes-men with toadies. Mar 21, 2022 at 18:12
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    Thanks for the answer (+1). To be honest I didn't think about this level of distinction, but actually I'm not interested in the different types of "yes-men" as much as in the specific political culture inside the government. I realize now that I didn't choose the title question very well, but I don't know what would have been a good question for this. Typically I found the analysis provided by Fizz quite insightful, that's the kind of answer I was looking for but I wish there had been other answers to see different sources/perspectives. Maybe it's just not specific enough for SE.
    – Erwan
    Mar 21, 2022 at 21:55
  • I must admit I am really shocked by your comments in the final paragraph. Almost every answer you write is speculation or your own opinion based on your own knowledge.
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 23, 2022 at 16:02
  • @CGCampbell: Sigh... I have a lot of acumen in this subject area. What you consider 'opinion' and 'speculation' is (usually) reasoned analysis from long study and experience. It's unfortunate you don't see that. But if I may be frank, I don't actually care if you're shocked, and my only response to your periodic complaints about this issue is the proverbial (and sometimes actual) eye roll. If it makes you feel better to vent about it from time to time, ok, but seriously... Don't you have anything better to do? Mar 23, 2022 at 18:28
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There are many questions that are dismissed by this community as impossible to answer or asking about people's motivations, whereas one could provide a wealth of information about these matters based on various indirect sources and intelligent analysis.

For example, in this case one could point to:

  • Russian officials close to Putin, who made public statements/prognostics/promises that didn't turn out to be true
  • Russians officials who were recently dismissed
  • Steps made by Putin that show gross miscalculation
  • Typical cases/studies showing that the advisors to men in power tend to be yes-men - e.g., volumes have been published on the culture in the Nixon White House, since many conversations were tape-recorded and later made public.

and so on.

Sure, we cannot have a 100% exact answer without a confession by a person involved, but neither do the people actually guiding the policy - the presidents, prime ministers and their advisors. They base their decisions on analyzing the available information, and sometimes do make gross mistakes (like invading Iraq). It is perhaps the difference between history and politics that the former deals with established facts, while the latter with the currently available knowledge.

Of course, there are also the hidden premises of the question that undermine it: e.g., it assumes that Russian policy is single-handedly guided by Putin, which in itself an unprovable and subjective belief.

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    Thanks for your answer (+1). Yes, this is indeed what I was looking for. I should certainly have phrased the question better, because I'm not even that interested in Putin as a person, only to the extent that he's the one who shapes how his government works.
    – Erwan
    Mar 21, 2022 at 22:00
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It's inherently an opinion-based question. The degree to which any one politician is influenced by his immediate circle is something that can only be ascertained by the people in that immediate circle. And if there is no 3rd party observers who can make a rigorous assessment of the situation, then the only information to go on is subjective opinions and 3rd party speculations.

Even the "tell-all" books, which are often written by individuals who used to enjoy close working relationships with politicians, are often written to promote specific political agendas. So they should be taken with a grain of salt.

But, in the absence of any first-hand claims, speculation is all that can be offered on this topic.

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    Thank you for your answer, but I disagree: for example, in the answer given by Fizz there are factual indications that Putin surrounds himself with people he trusts personally rather than people who have any competence or experience for the position. Sure, we cannot measure how much they influence him or not, but by themselves these choices tend to indicate that the answer is yes for Putin.
    – Erwan
    Mar 24, 2022 at 19:04
  • @Erwan I think Fizz's answer is speculative though. He just outlines the possibilities on both sides of the speculation. His answer is essentially that either Putin is surrounded by yes-man because he can't stand opinions he doesn't like. Or Putin is using sink-or-swim model to quickly filter out capable men and keep them around. Core competencies are not necessarily the most valuable asset in an executive position. The "it" factor is, which makes aptitude more important than competence. Putin himself didn't have formal training in politics.
    – wrod
    Mar 24, 2022 at 22:18
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I would argue that there are certainly various publications written by people specialized in Russian politics which could, if not answer it clearly, at least bring relevant information to the question. Case in point: the second link in Fizz' answer.

This argument is 100% correct, so I voted to reopen.

Alas, all the armchair Kremlinologists on this site were too darn few and too damn busy what with the war and all. Your question got closed, and that's that, sorry!

The sad part is the Catch-22: we will never find out on this site whether the question is, in fact, answerable, will we? And if we keep it closed, we guarantee it will not be answerable.

But wait, what's happening to the blank space underneath the question... Could it be... could it be... the beginning of an answer?!


My comment under the OP, outlining one possible answer

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  • Thank you for defending my question and having it reopened :)
    – Erwan
    Mar 24, 2022 at 19:05

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