Mikhail Ivanovich: the great genius of Russia’s state machine

Mikhail Ivanovich is a moniker attributed to Vladimir Putin since his days as a fixer for St. Petersburg’s liberal mayor Sobchak.

It is a generic male name and patronym across the entire country, intentionally anonymous, not much unlike John Doe. Nowadays, it allegedly denotes the grand system of Putin’s private asset management. Expression éto dlyá Mikhaíla Ivánovicha (“this is for Mikhail Ivanovich”) harks back to the centuries-old Russian tradition of kormlenye (“tributary taxation”).

The system

Czars used to appoint their trusted people to manage the top levels of the state administration. These managers would appoint their own people to the level below. It all cascaded to the lowest local level.

All these people were tasked with assuring a smooth running of state matters, most important of all being taxation for the crown. But they had also implicit permission to collect taxes personally to themselves, in parallel. This would be the manager’s remuneration.


The manager in question could use his own discretion to decide whom, and how to tax. A part of these proceeds would then be sent as a tribute to his immediate boss. How much? Again, up to the sender. The more you share with your boss, the more loyal you are. At the next job appraisal, your boss would know exactly how valuable are you for him.

The tributary funds cascaded all the way upwards, to the top managers in the state. Czars themselves were exempt from this system. The entire country was their property anyway. All they required from the management was to fill the state budget to the sovereign’s satisfaction.

Communist shock

The Communist revolution of 1917 dealt a devastating blow to the foundation of tributary taxation. The centrally planned economy didn’t leave much wealth to be appropriated at the lower rungs on the government ladder. In addition, Stalinism established a HR management policy where vetting of most trusted functionaries happened high above the heads of regional and local bosses.

However, the system survived. Toward the end of Soviet rule, the former patron-client arrangements became ubiquitous in the distribution of food and consumer products, as well as in the police and among state attorneys.

No “stealing”

When you read in the press about “stealing” as the source of Putin’s wealth (or anyone else’s on the very top of the Russian state), it’s a very crude, oversimplified translation of the kormlénye concept.

Not many of them directly steal anything. They don’t even touch the money. The tributary taxation requires that the taxed bureaucrats themselves devise the safest system for fund transfers upwards. Clumsy transfers that expose recipients, or otherwise make it possible to later indict their bosses on corruption charges, are almost as bad as disloyalty and may be an ultimate career stopper.

Below, a scene from a hugely popular Soviet comedy “The Diamond Arm” where the moniker most probably originated from. To the right, Michail Ivanovich, an undercover police operative to the right who works on busting a gang of smugglers.

Mikhail Ivanovich helps people solve problems
Photo: a scene from the comedy “The Diamond Arm” where secret operative Mikhail Ivanovich helps a hapless Soviet commoner disentangle himself from machinations of international smuggling ring.

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