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Can Russia Ever Be Democratic?
This is the question raised implicitly by Maria Snegovaya’s new Journal of Democracy paper, “Why Russia’s Democracy Never Began”. Ms. Snegovaya, a postdoctoral fellow at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., argues that Russia’s post-Soviet experiment with democracy was not lost when President Boris Yeltsin shelled the parliament in October 1993, nor when Yeltsin handed power to Vladimir Putin on New Year’s Eve 1999. Rather, argues Snegovaya, “democracy [in Russia] was never truly ‘gained’,” because there was “no real democratic transition” after the Soviet Union collapsed. The 1990s “reforms were cosmetic”, according to Snegovaya, the result of a “short period of disarray”, after which the old Soviet elites, who retained their positions in the Russian State and society, reasserted themselves. As such, in Snegovaya’s telling, “the former Communist system remained in place, with only a few outward appearances shifting: the old Soviet wolf in new clothing.”
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THE ENDURANCE OF THE NOMENKLATURA
Snegovaya’s argument rests significantly on the continuity in personnel at the top of the State after 1991. The nomenklatura, comprised of three million Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) members out of a population of about three-hundred million by the end, continued to dominate the post-Soviet Russian Federation:
From Yeltsin himself all the way down to lower ranks, Russian officialdom came straight out of the Soviet nomenklatura. Nearly every executive, representative, regional, economic, and military structure in Russia remained in the hands of those who had run it when the USSR still existed. The Soviet foreign and defense ministries along with many other Soviet-era agencies saw little personnel turnover. … My own analysis has shown that through the 1990s, elites rooted in the Soviet nomenklatura filled between 80 and 90 percent of all seats on Russia’s Security Councils, the Federation’s main policymaking bodies.
The economic bureaucracy did see some turnover. … Their numbers and influence were too limited to bring radical change to the system, however. In the upper ranks of economic policymakers, more than four-fifths (82 percent) of those who had held places in 1988 were still there as of 1993. …
Only scattered oppositionists achieved election wins, and those were limited to big cities: Not a single regional legislature had a majority from outside the old establishment. … According to a study by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Soviet nomenklatura members were 78 percent of Russian regional elites in 1992, and still accounted for 66 percent a decade later.
The heavy presence of the nomenklatura ensured that the new Russia would still be dominated by many of the old Soviet practices, both formal and informal. … Common holdover practices included blat (the use of personal networks and contacts to obtain goods and services); “telephone law” (the custom of executive officials putting backchannel pressure on the courts and legal system); and ponyatia (unwritten rules or “understandings” that govern organizations but are opaque to outsiders).
The continuities were not merely generic but literal: … many of the same people in key posts preserving the same relationships with the same longtime partners. … [I]n a 1998 survey, 57 percent of elite respondents thought that Soviet connections were “very” or “somewhat” important, and only 6 percent thought them “unimportant.” By 2000, … about half (47 percent) of elite respondents were still finding Soviet connections important. So many posts were filled on the bases of personal loyalty and connections that outsiders found it hard to gain entry.
Snegovaya’s focus on the nomenklatura gets to the heart of something that has remained continuous in Russia for at least half-a-millennium, surviving even the Soviet Revolution, namely the understanding of power as something belonging to the chinovnichestvo (officialdom).
The Muscovite State that emerged at the end of the fifteenth century inherited its political structures and culture from the Mongol “Golden Horde”, and then self-consciously adopted models drawn from the Byzantine autocracy. Born into a wilderness with no natural frontiers, for the next three hundred years the Russian State—recasting itself as an Empire in 1721—fought for its life on three fronts. The combination of this political culture and the contingent needs of a national, total war for survival—at once domestic and foreign, defensive and expansionist—made State supremacy over society absolute: limitless, arbitrary power was vested in the Tsar to mobilise and direct every available resource in this effort, including the population.
To understand the significance of this, it helps to compare the Russian nobility to European aristocracies, which held their place by birth, having acquired their power and wealth independently, and sustained it by inheritance. This made European aristocracies a genuinely separate power-centre, a counter-balance to the monarch, who could only extract resources—taxes or troops—in exchange for concessions. This interplay would ultimately be formalised in democratic institutions. The Russian nobility was an atomised mass, not a corporate class, which held nothing as of “right”; the individual nobles held their place—status, power, and above all land—as part of their service to the State, which is to say the Tsar. Except for a brief spell in the eighteenth century, the Russian nobility is best thought of as a pool of conscripts to staff the bureaucracy and the army. Where European aristocrats had authority by virtue of their lineage, and the formal title bestowed upon them by the King acquired its prestige by its association with the man, a Russian nobleman had no inherent authority; all he had was his rank or place (mesto), given by the Tsar and just as easily taken away. “The place beautifies the man” (Место красит человека), as the saying goes.
The Soviets, in effect, annexed this system—with the Central Committee replacing the Tsar—and in post-Soviet times the same basic paradigm has held. Ekaterina Schulmann has remarked on the way that even under Putin’s highly personalist autocracy, Russia does not have the features of “Court” life: there are no “favourites” and there is no éminence grise; the powerful figures are those with “places”, the heads of government ministries, corporations, and banks, or those who render procurement services to the State.
The primacy Snegovaya puts on the “places” in her argument is, therefore, entirely logical, and adds to the persuasiveness of her contention that “Russia was one of the [post-Soviet] cases where the old regime retained such a preponderance of power that democratic transition never took place”. We will come to this more directly in a moment.
As in the political system, so it was with the economic sector, Snegovaya writes:
The state was de facto privatizing itself, and allowing state officials to take full advantage of this process. New market relations often relied on the same power networks and practices of informal governance inherited from the Soviet times. …
Of the 296 leading business tycoons in the first wave after Communism, 43 percent had backgrounds in the Soviet nomenklatura. The individuals running state firms in 1993 were largely the same people who had been managing those firms before 1991, and almost two-thirds of the private business elite in 1993 were former members of the CPSU. Up to 61 percent of new entrepreneurs had once worked for the Soviet state, but even among the remaining 39 percent more than a half belonged to nomenklatura families. …
In 2001, 41 percent of Russia’s major entrepreneurs had worked in the Soviet power structure. A significant slice of the other 59 percent had family or other ties to the nomenklatura.
Russia’s emerging businesses remained highly dependent on benefits or privileges dished out by the government. The new capitalists thus found their interests closely intertwined with those of state officials, with whom they already shared values and nomenklatura origins. … [C]ontrary to what modernization theory predicts, the business class was often not a force for democratization.
In other post-Soviet States, the opening of the economy helped dilute the old elite, as capable and ambitious people without Communist Party backgrounds broke through, and the process was even able to draw elements of the old elite into new modes of thinking and practices. In Russia, essentially the opposite happened: the “private” sector became an extension of the nomenklatura.
THE PROBLEM OF THE SECRET POLICE
While Snegovaya’s article (as you can see) deals extensively with the (lack of) change in the political and economic system in the transfer between the Soviet Union and Russia, a curious near-omission is the secret police. Snegovaya mentions that the KGB was split into what became the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and that “similar Soviet-trained siloviki ran both”, but leaves it there.
Snegovaya’s short shrift to the KGB is an odd decision. On the one hand, the Cheka was, from the first to the last, the key instrument in sustaining the Soviet Revolution domestically, and from the 1960s onward the KGB increasingly controlled Soviet foreign policy, acquiring essentially complete control by the mid-1970s. On the other hand, the nature of the present Russia system demonstrates a continuity with this aspect of the Soviet Union more precisely than any other. Putin himself is a “former” intelligence officer, taking a more personal interest in intelligence matters than any leader since Stalin, and the cadre that surrounds him in the inner circle is the siloviki (securocrats), the KGB veterans.
It is, therefore, rather difficult to tell the story of the post-Soviet transition in Russia—even under the constrains of word counts—without a focus on the special services. In Snegovaya’s case, it would also have strengthened her argument about the continuity of the Russian elite from the Soviet era—it was not only a continuity in personnel; there has been a full-fledged institutional restoration of the KGB in the form of the FSB—and thrown into sharper relief the distinction with other post-Soviet States that durably dismantled the Chekist infrastructure.
An excellent report by the Atlantic Council, “Lubyanka Federation”, details the efforts by the Russian State, in 1991-92, to actively try to remove the KGB from having a decision-making role in the State, by breaking it up and purging it of its ideological mission as the “sword and the shield” of Communism. The idea was to create new legal and cultural norms about the role of the intelligence apparatus, focused on defending the country from external threats (i.e. counter-intelligence) rather than domestic “counter-revolution”, and to reinforce this structurally by splitting the KGB up into separate agencies that would compete for turf with each other in pursuit of fulfilling these legitimate security functions. Yeltsin abolished the political policing departments of the KGB and separated out the security departments into truly independent agencies: foreign, domestic, even signals intelligence (SIGINT) with the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI). About half of the KGB’s staff of nearly half-a-million people was laid off immediately after the Soviet Union’s demise, and in this period of acute chaos even those special services officers (and soldiers) nominally retained on the State payroll regularly went unpaid for months. One thing this led to was the creation of a market for “former” KGB officers to sell their secrets to Western intelligence services. Another was a severe reduction in the role of the intelligence services in the life of “ordinary” Russians.
The siloviki were always better positioned than the civilian bureaucracy to recover from the disarray of 1991-92: they had been more powerful and had remained true believers to a greater extent right down to the end, making them more cohesive within themselves afterwards, whereas the civilian nomenklatura had been more diffuse and admitted more careerists. Thus, it was probably always wishful-thinking that parliamentary oversight and the courts could succeed where the highly-disciplined CPSU had failed in maintaining civilian primacy over the special services.
Contingent events—the sanguinary conclusion of Yeltsin’s contest with the parliament in 1993 and the outbreak of war in Chechnya in 1994—were to speed-up the siloviki’s recovery. Russia’s post-Soviet Constitution, adopted in December 1993, sidelined the rebellious parliament and created a “super-executive” presidential republic. The paradox Yeltsin was forced into was the same one faced by the high-minded, liberalising Russian leaders who repeatedly emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: to drive through his reforms, he would need to survive and he would need more personal power, which meant putting official weight behind the rebuilding of the intelligence apparatus.
The precursors of the FSB had “inherited the KGB’s infrastructure, archives, agents, and … preserved much of the KGB’s ideology, skillset, and approach to operational work, and internal understanding of the role of intelligence officers”. The reformist energies exerted to try to alter this institutional culture were lessened after 1993, and in April 1995, when the domestic security agencies were reorganised to form the FSB, it was already well on the way to being the KGB reborn. The FSB only gained in power from there. Over the next half-decade, the FSB either syphoned off responsibilities from other agencies (such as the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information), or outright absorbed agencies (as happened with FAPSI and the Federal Border Service).
All the same, while the FSB had broken out of Yeltsin’s vision of a narrow counter-intelligence-focused agency, he had kept it somewhat contained. Putin, the head of the FSB since 1998, moving into the presidential office, changed this radically. Putin’s FSB subordinates were installed in the institutions, bending them to his personal will and restoring to the FSB some of the KGB’s role in political decision-making, albeit on a much lower scale since the FSB had departed from the “ideological field”. In 2004, Putin liberated the FSB of constraints, vastly expanding its official authorities and detaching it from any remaining nominal bureaucratic oversight. Without any “legal” cover, the FSB then spread throughout the system to become the enforcer of the “shadow government” or “power vertical”, surveilling the ministries and other security services, and intervening in any area of the State or society to implement the president’s will—and protect its own interests, both as a collective and in terms of the personal interests of its senior officials.
By now, the FSB’s dominance of Russia is such that political disputes—both of the kind that in democracies play out between parties in parliament, and those that are fought out between civilian bureaucratic departments—play out between factions of the FSB. In the economic sphere, “market competition” tends to be an internal matter for the FSB clans, too. A reflection of this is that political and economic “interest groups”—which in Russia usually means “the oligarchs”—lobby the FSB, not MPs. The courts are often used to settle intra-clan disputes in the FSB and Putin is the final arbiter: “the outcome depends on which of the warring parties is the first to reach the president with their version of events”. This system creates problems for Putin in accessing accurate information, but he encourages it because it serves his primary objective of coup-proofing: the factions compete against each other for his approval, rather than uniting against him. This approach is what lies behind the recent shenanigans with the nominal “Wagner” unit leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, a creation of Putin’s to counter-balance Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and prevent Shoygu gaining too much power and popularity.
While the FSB might have institutionally become the restored KGB, it is important to point out that the FSB does not play the same societal role as the KGB did. The KGB was the keystone in a totalitarian ideological system—a Revolution that held States whose borders it did not recognise—and the KGB’s influence over and within the Revolution’s captive populations was, in concept and practice, far more pervasive than anything the FSB has or will ever attempt. The FSB shares with the KGB the role of enforcing the will of the State executive, but it is strictly national—even the extension to Ukraine is done under the claim that the occupied areas are domestic Russian territory—and the FSB has no role in inculcating and enforcing an ideology. Rather the reverse: the FSB serves a State that has consciously sought to depoliticise the Russian population. The recent attempts to mobilise Russians behind the war on Ukraine have failed precisely because the prior policy succeeded so well.
The biggest difference between the KGB and the FSB is that the latter is a significant economic actor in Russia. Top KGB officers had opportunities for personal enrichment; the FSB controls assets measured as percentage points of GDP and controls key sectors that distort the economic environment as a whole. At the nadir in 1992, many siloviki turned to the new “private” industries and organised criminals to make money. As the intelligence apparatus recovered, many siloviki—now with their criminal connections—were brought back into the State, able to dominate political institutions and economic enterprises, and this process of State capture was completed at the centre with Putin’s appointment as president.
When the symbiosis of the Russian intelligence services and the mafia developed in the early 1990s, the organised crime syndicates were probably the more powerful party. As the intelligence apparatus reconsolidated in the early 2000s, the syndicates were firmly subordinated, but there was no attempt to disentangle from or eliminate them. To the contrary, the FSB continued to regard the mafia groups as valuable assets,1 so the State was warped to protect the criminals. The interpenetration of the criminal underworld and the political-security “overworld” was one of the key factors in the final erosion of any vestige of independence for an already weak judiciary. Unlike the Soviets, Putin has no interest in ensuring every court ruling is obedient to History: what he needs—and what he has—is FSB appointees embedded in the State ministries to detect and neutralise any cases involving corruption that touch on the leadership. The FSB’s expanded powers also mean there are some issues—terrorism most notably—where there is not even really a pretence that the courts operate independent of the political system. The other main victim of the vertical’s need to defend the mobsters has been the Interior Ministry, which was emasculated more generally by the 2004 decree: its anti-organised crime department was abolished in 2008 and the regional police forces have been disempowered in pursuing organised crime, through direct instructions and interventions that ensure they get the message to leave well alone.
A focus on the special services would have underlined one of Snegovaya’s undeniable conclusions: that “Russia’s re-autocratization increasingly looks like re-Sovietization”. She points to the meetings of Putin’s ostensible political party, United Russia, increasingly resembling CPSU congresses, with the “long lists of achievements, storms of applause, unanimous acclamations, and party elites’ endless vows of loyalty to the leader and his ‘general line’.” Most relevant to our purposes here, she draws attention to the return of pictures of Joseph Stalin and statues of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. As late as the early 2000s, the FSB was publicly insistent that it was not the KGB under a new banner, and distanced itself—as did the SVR—from the history of Soviet intelligence. Now, the FSB and SVR eagerly portray themselves as the heirs of the Chekists. Yeltsin introduced “Security Agencies Workers’ Day” in 1995: from the beginning, it was disquieting that this was set on the date—20 December—that the Cheka had been founded in 1917, but some attempt was made in the public messaging to “distance” the holiday from that legacy. Under Putin, all reticence has been done away with: the occasion is now embraced overtly as “Cheka Day”, as alarming a development as if Germany annually celebrated “Gestapo Day”.
Snegovaya points out that the Russian military apparatus had priority in funding and, as mentioned above, the State struggled to meet its obligations on that front in a timely way in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse; the effect on the civilian bureaucracy was obviously worse. This undoubtedly led to State retrenchment and a larger measure of freedom, in the positive and negative senses, than what went before.
Part of this retrenchment Snegovaya documents is: “Between 1994 and 1998, [Yeltsin] signed power-sharing treaties and various related agreements with 46 constituent units in Russia, often offering special prerogatives to individual regions.” This decentralisation, however, was typical of the “limited liberal changes” that Russia went through in the 1990s, Snegovaya argues: “a function of incumbent elites’ temporary weakness”, combined with some concerns about “efficiency” (and, as she does not mention, appeasing Western observers, on whom Russia relied significantly for economic aid at the time).
Here, Snegovaya criticises the scholars of the “third wave” of democratisation (1978-95), in Latin America and Southern and Central Europe, who “equate regime breakdown with democratic transition”, and as a consequence labelled Russia a “new democracy”. This was superficial, Snegovaya contends: what should have drawn attention was that the nomenklatura remained so dominant in Russia, making up over eighty percent of the political elite, when the comparable figures in other States of the fallen Soviet Empire—Poland (30%), Estonia (44%), Lithuania (47%)—were so much lower. There were also more visible things, such as the fierce Russian public reaction to NATO’s intervention to stop the Serbian rampage in Kosovo in 1999, which should, in Snegovaya’s view, have led to a realisation that Russia was on a distinctly different track to many of the former Soviet colonies.
What had happened, in Snegovaya’s estimation, is that rather than a genuine shift in the power structure and the rules of the political game, the old elite in Russia had made such concessions as it had to at a moment of “authoritarian weakness”—granting multiparty elections, devolving powers to the regions, “privatising” the economy—while biding its time. This was, Snegovaya contends, what Lucan Way has called “pluralism by default”, during which the Soviet holdovers kept hold of the levers of official power and steadily built up their other sources of authority until such a time as they could recover the ground they had lost to recreate the centralised autocracy, and that opportunity arrived in the early 2000s, after Putin had taken over, with the spike in oil prices.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS
There was little by way of civil society to resist the old guard, led by the siloviki that had bounced back more quickly than the civilian nomenklatura, as it moved systematically to restore its supremacy after 2000.
One must enter here a dissent from Snegovaya’s argument that Russia differed from the Captive Nations, which had “strong democratic counter-elites” to take over in 1989. It is true that in Poland the opposition movement, Solidarity, was quite powerful and did in effect negotiate the surrender of the Communist establishment; on a lesser scale something similar happened in Hungary. Nothing of the kind happened anywhere else. The Dissident movement in the Soviet Union “proper” had been thoroughly defeated by the end of the 1970s, and the KGB’s dependent clones in the East had similarly succeeded in rooting out “ideological subversion” in the “German Democratic Republic”, Romania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Civil society was more a product of the collapse of the Communist systems than its cause.
The destruction of the Soviet Empire is attributable to Mikhail Gorbachev and his “new thinking”, which imagined there could be a reformed Communist system that limited the role of Cheka Terror in maintaining it. Gorbachev and his colonial administrators in the East had no intention of surrendering power; his reforms intended a “socialist renewal” that made the one-Party regimes more durable. The reality was, as the KGB tried to tell Gorbachev, socialism could never have a human face. In 1989, Gorbachev finally convinced both rulers and ruled in the Socialist Commonwealth that he was serious when he said the Red Army was not coming to save the East European colonies. With that realisation, these systems—never self-sustaining, further weakened by Gorbachev’s reforms, and pressured not to use force to defend themselves—evaporated. Two years later, the process replicated in the Soviet Union: unwilling to use force to preserve a Union that was held together by nothing else, Gorbachev had cut the ground from beneath his own feet. By the time violence was deployed in Lithuania and the KGB went for broke with the coup in August 1991, it was too late.
This does not necessarily undermine Snegovaya’s point that there was something different about Russia; it can be argued that it strengthens it. The apparent situation was one where all parts of the Soviet Empire, with the slight exception of Poland, started from roughly the same baseline having to create a civil society and a liberal elite that could drive a democratic transition. The Captive Nations managed it, and Russia did not. Snegovaya notes, “Strong democratic counter-elites … were more likely to be present—and to exert robust effects—when a country’s civil tradition and potential for self-organization were also potent”: even in her telling—where the counter-elites existed first and displaced the Communist elites, let alone in the case of what happened where liberal elites emerged after the Communist systems collapsed—it begs the question of why. Snegovaya does not go into this.
Part of the explanation, alluded to in Snegovaya’s reference to the varying strength of the “civil tradition and potential for self-organization” in post-Soviet States, is that all parts of the Soviet Empire were not starting from the same baseline, for cultural and historic reasons. The Eastern European States were able to throw themselves whole-heartedly into a process of what we would once have called “Westernisation”, including integration with institutions like NATO, and many of them were returning to democracy after a half-century hiatus, even if the prior experience had been brief. Russia, by contrast, was not enmeshed in Latin Christendom, nor did it have a sense of itself wanting to be, and it was starting completely from scratch in developing democratic institutions, without even the memory of democracy to draw upon as a model. Operationally, despite the devastation of the Second World War, Communism was not imposed on completely blank slates in Eastern Europe in the 1940s, which is what made it so difficult and forced some adaption to local conditions. In Russia, Communism was implanted on something much nearer tabula rasa after Lenin got the apocalyptic civil war he yearned for. The physical destruction of the old world in Russia, and the fact Communism lasted a quarter-century longer than in Eastern Europe, broke the links that might have made the experience of constitutionalism in the last decade of the Tsardom recoverable.
Regardless of the causes, the record is plain: where liberalism became the cause du jour in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, with many former apparatchiks proclaiming their born-again adherence to the creed, Russian liberals remained what they always had been: a small sect, concentrated in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, often divided among themselves, with little connection to the mass of the Russian population. The land-owners and capitalists whom Snegovaya points to as having played constructive roles in democratisation in other post-Soviet States did the opposite in Russia, since they were in most cases simply the nomenklatura reflagged as “private” actors, who harboured the same restorationist designs as those at the commanding heights of the State bureaucracy. In many countries in the East, the Christian clergy had waged a long and brave struggle against the militant godless, earning a high level of prestige that they used to push towards democracy. This dynamic was not to be found in Russia, where the Orthodox Church had collaborated extensively with the Bolsheviks and moved seamlessly to being a prop of the new order as autocracy reasserted itself.
A corollary of this is that by 2000 Russia still lacked the strong democratic institutions that could act as a bulwark against the return of the Revolution’s agents. Moreover, the workarounds adopted to cope with this had deleterious effects in the long run. As Snegovaya herself points out, some of the best things Yeltsin did, notably appointing senior officials without CPSU backgrounds in the finance bureaucracy, had to be done effectively extra-constitutionally and certainly non-democratically. The same might be said of Yeltsin’s showdown with the Red-Brown alliance in the parliament in 1993 and some of the methods used in the 1996 presidential election to defeat Gennady Zyuganov, an unreconstructed Communist. Nobody would make a direct comparison between Yeltsin and Abraham Lincoln, but the latter is the most obvious case-in-point that sometimes anti-democratic methods are needed to preserve the possibility of democracy. Yeltsin was working in a society ruined by seventy years of the most inhuman ideology, which had fostered patterns of thought and practical habits in the population that had to be undone if Russia was going to be transformed. The problem, of course, is that the insouciance about constitutional formalities and the practice of “managed democracy” to keep the totalitarians at bay in the Yeltsin years set a precedent that was easily picked up by Putin, who had much less defensible ends in mind.
Putin skilfully picked as the first target of his non-constitutional assertion of authority the oligarchs who had sprung up in the Yeltsin years: these predatory figures had picked the bones of the Soviet State, often worked hand-in-glove with organised crime, and used their ill-gotten gains in turf wars (often literal) with each other and to further corrupt Russian State institutions. Putin’s lack of “legalism” in getting these figures in line did not exactly spark a mass outpouring of sympathy for them. The trouble, again, was the precedent. Putin next moved against media stations, presenting it as a continuation of the same process of restoring order and legitimate authority. Some of the stations really were at best propaganda channels for individual oligarchs and their suborned factions in the government. For many, it was difficult to discern at what point the salami slicer started cutting away legitimate independent media institutions. In the background, the war in Chechnya ground on, presented within the same framework of restoring order. The protests raised about all of this by the small liberal intelligentsia in Russia’s big cities was not going to sway most Russians.
Having made inroads to eliminate or coopt the private economy and independent media, and bolstered his popularity by warring with separatism, Putin then turned to the political system. Parliament was stacked with Putin’s United Russia Party in elections that became progressively less free and fair. The autonomy of all regions was chipped away as Chechnya was brought to heel. Overt, albeit selective as opposed to Soviet-era mass, political repression returned—alongside more extreme “deniable” measures. The assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in October 2006 and FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London the next month are infamous cases. Likewise the brazen murder of oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, also in the capital, in February 2015 and the FSB’s attempted murder of Alexey Navalny using Novichok nerve agent in August 2020.
Returning to where we began, Snegovaya’s fundamental argument is: “Russia is not a case of democratic reversal—it is a case of democracy never getting started.” So, does she carry her case? I would say not quite. This is largely an issue of semantics and interpretation, and turns in no small part on an assessment of Yeltsin’s intentions, because Snegovaya’s factual assertions are largely incontestable.
Yeltsin reflected after he left office that he knew his economic team would “go up in flames”, but (he hoped) they would “remain in history”; the former at least certainly did happen. Economic reform played an important part in the transition of other post-Soviet States to democracy and there can be little doubt Yeltsin catastrophically mishandled this important first step, leading to “insider privatisation” that strengthened the hand of the old elite and discredited the broader project of democratisation by failing to deliver any benefits to most people and creating a layer of ostentatious, predatory oligarchs that Yeltsin allied himself to and relied on for funding. For all that, the Soviet economic system was dismantled. To say the economic transition was botched is not the same as there being no transition.
In the political realm, even the scholars who argue Yeltsin did more than he is usually credited with to change the system in a democratic direction acknowledge this was done in a top-down fashion, and, as we can now see, this structure made the slide into full-blown personalist autocracy rather easy. Part of the tension here is that “democracy” is often used when people mean “liberalism”, and they are not the same thing, though it can be said that strengthening the latter makes the former more durable over the long-term.
The question comes down to whether one believes Yeltsin’s public rhetoric about a commitment to a democratic transition was sincere. If so, one can reasonably say he was in essentially an emergency situation, trying to dig out of the rubble of seventy years of Communism, which required him to temporarily assume powers greater than those of an executive in a developed democracy and use non-democratic methods to make the changes, structural and cultural, that would make democracy possible.2 In other words, if Yeltsin truly intended to transition Russia to democracy, his actions in office can be interpreted as working towards that goal and can even be said to have made some progress.
Snegovaya is, of course, correct that what did happen was a brief interlude of greater openness during a period of authoritarian weakness after the Soviet collapse that was terminated once the old elite recovered its bearings. Moreover, even if one assumes Yeltsin’s good faith, and that something like what he tried is the only way to move Russia to democracy,3 he clearly failed on his own terms. Democratic transitions often require some compromise with the old elite: as Snegovaya exhaustively documents, there was far too much from Yeltsin, who allowed the old guard to retain or regain positions of dominance that subverted the whole process. As with the economy, however, this is somewhat different to saying that nothing was done towards a democratic transition.
There are two further questions arising from this.
First, was Russia’s failure to achieve democracy in the 1990s inevitable? Snegovaya clearly believes it was. The cause of the revival of outright autocracy “is not to be found in something as contingent as bad leadership”, Snegovaya writes: even if Yeltsin had made better decisions over reform and some other what-ifs had gone the other way—like choosing someone less despotic by nature as successor—“The deck was stacked so heavily against democracy that contingent events mattered little.” The scale and depth of the ruin done to Russia by Communism inclines one to agree with Snegovaya that it was foredoomed—though, to repeat, that is narrowly but deeply distinct from whether a democratic transition began at all.
Second, is there any hope for the future? Snegovaya’s delicately phrased conclusion on this front is that the damage done by Communism, now compounded by Putin’s regime, “should moderate expectations that [Russia] might democratize anytime soon.” Nothing to argue with there.
Where there is more room for debate is when considering the temptation, especially widespread at the present time for understandable reasons, to cite Russia’s history under Tsarism to argue that Russia is fated for despotism: in this view, with the passing of the Communist interlude, Putin is simply a restoration of the natural order. The problem with this is that it is not true. What one finds in the actual history of the Tsardom is that the Russian State tradition—a form of despotism far more total than anything the “absolute” monarchies of Europe managed, undergirded not only by centuries of habit but a theoretical and ideological dedication to autocracy—culminated in constitutional monarchy.
Faced with a massive terrorist uprising in 1905, Russian Emperor Nicholas II had the choice of reinforcing the (belated) repressive measures he had taken by instituting military rule, or granting political concessions in the hope of peeling liberals away from the terrorist-revolutionaries. Setting aside the convictions of a lifetime, Nicholas opted for the latter, issuing the October Manifesto that promised an elected Duma (Parliament) and a written constitution guaranteeing civil liberties, which was duly produced in April 1906—known as the Fundamental State Laws—at the same time the Duma was opened. For the next ten years, Russia had an elected legislature—where even revolutionaries sat—and broad rights of speech, press, and association, notably powerful legal trades unions that wrung serious improvements in workers’ conditions from the State.
Four hundred years of autocracy had been ended and a constitutional political process had been implemented that, even in its nascent condition, compared favourably with Russia’s sister States in Europe, as Robert B. McKean has detailed. Without getting into the deep arguments about the definition of “democracy”,4 which Snegovaya also wisely side-steps, from a very challenging starting point Russia made rapid progress towards a limited, representative, humane government. This experiment was ended by a wholly avoidable debacle within the elite in response to a mutiny in Saint Petersburg that deprived Russians of their Emperor and the liberals who stepped into the vacuum proved incapable, even when their lives depended on it, of tearing themselves away from their fatal attraction to the terrorists. The last gasp of this constitutional trajectory was the Russians’ decisive rejection of the Bolsheviks in the Constituent Assembly election of December 1917, the largest democratic exercise in history to that point. The Bolsheviks disbanded the Assembly by force a month later and those who wanted to re-open it gathered under the banner of the Volunteer Army (“the Whites”) in an ultimately unsuccessful fight for it over the next two years.
It has become commonplace, within Russia and without, to refer to Putin as a “Tsar”. In the most obvious historical sense, Putin cannot be said to be a continuation of the Tsardom—if he was, he would be picking up where it left off with a constitutional government that had serious checks on executive power. But more generally, it clearly is not so.
Putin’s is a successor State to the Soviet Union, not the Imperial Government—literally, as Snegovaya makes clear. In terms of the composition of the current Russian leadership, Snegovaya makes an important point, quoting Robert C. Tucker: even after these senior officials shed their doctrinal belief in Communism, they were still “filled with old-style ideas and attitudes, nostalgic for Russia’s superpower … status.” Putin and the circle around him are the most Sovietized layer in Russia—still beholden to the conspiracy thinking of the KGB, still regarding the U.S. as the “Main Adversary”—but they think of themselves as “normal Russians” and because of the social environment they operate in, sharing an outlook with their peers and inspiring emulation from their underlings, this perception is reinforced.
There is no question that Putin himself looks back to (imagined) versions of Russia’s Imperial history—such thinking played a key part in the all-out invasion of Ukraine last year—and his idolisation of Pyotr I (“Peter the Great”) has a long pedigree indeed. Putin gives every indication he is sincere about the religio-nationalist beliefs he espouses: he reads a lot and it has been suggested that during the COVID lockdown, under the influence of Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin got drawn still more deeply into an ideological world of his own. The lens Putin looks through, however, is that of Homo Sovieticus: these nationalist ideas are being absorbed within a framework that is fundamentally Soviet. Even in the case of Ukraine, which has excited nationalists and been cast in traditional terms of “gathering” the Russian lands to secure Moscow’s hegemony over the Orthodox world, it is seen as a contest with NATO.
Russians read a lot, though most read less than Putin and few read the esoteric canon the ruler has adopted. Nonetheless, the population has been exposed to these ideas through television and other modern mechanisms of State propaganda, and at least some outward conformity with key talking points and themes has been achieved. The idea that Ukrainians are “Little Russians” who have forgotten their heritage or that the Ukrainian language is a peasant dialect of Russian would have seemed strange to most Russians until not so long ago. Now, they are part of mainstream discourse.
That said, the attempts by Putin to legitimise his regime as an authentic expression of Russia by appropriating select pieces of the history of the Tsardom does not have deep mass-resonance inside Russia for the simple reason that the populace knows little of this history and it does not mean much to them. Despite State encouragement to efforts to revive interest in monarchism, it remains a fringe phenomenon, looked at by most Russians as deeply eccentric at best. As with Putin, the new-old nationalist themes are being mapped onto a mental landscape for Russians that is in its essentials Soviet. Nostalgia for the days of living in a superpower standing toe-to-toe with the Americans is a stronger factor for older Russians who most enthusiastically support the war on Ukraine than any deep desire to collect on the 1654 Pereyaslav Agreement.
The Soviet period has not severed the connection to the Russian Empire in as complete a way as the Mongol Yoke severed Muscovy from the Kievan Rus, but even the memory of pre-1917 Russia is radically attenuated in the Russia of 2023, to say nothing of the customs and culture after the ravages of seven decades of Bolshevism. Perhaps that memory is now lost entirely due to the continued ravages under the current Russian leadership, this hybrid—or perhaps better say, Frankenstein’s monster—of half-understood national traditions fused to the Soviet weltanschauung and gangster practices of the terrorist-revolutionary movement that birthed the Bolsheviks and destroyed the Tsardom. Or perhaps when these men pass from the scene, as the laws of time say they must, Russia will be able to work its way back to the trajectory it was on before 1917.
One way the organised crime syndicates have been valuable is that their transnational dimension gives the FSB a suite of “deniable” instruments to use against the West, whether this is manipulating Western politics by being the vehicle for “black cash” that “dirties up” Western politicians and acting as part of the connective tissue to strengthen and broaden the FSB’s hold over far-Right groups, or to carry out more “normal” espionage activities, which in the Russian context covers everything from reconnaissance to facilitating cyber-attacks to assassinating dissidents.
An analogy might be what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his immediate successor did in Turkey. The Kemalists ruled for thirty years in a manner arguably more harshly authoritarian than even Russia at the present time (Putin has not yet enforced a dress code on Russians, for example). Turkish society was coercively remoulded in a liberal direction, stripped by sheer force of habits acquired over 600 years. The process culminated in 1950 with the Turkey’s first free and fair election: the government lost and peacefully withdrew from power. It can be noted that Turkey’s democracy operated with the Kemalist military bodyguard and all the crimes that went with it, and has now unravelled—though that verdict may not yet be final—but the point stands that a non-democratic reform period produced a democratic settlement, however flawed, that lasted six decades.
All great reforms in Russia—for good and for ill, the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the collectivisation of agriculture and dekulakisation of 1929—have come from the top, and there is little reason to think that if democracy ever arrives it would be implemented any other way.
Bernard Lewis once noted that what most people call “democracy” might “more accurately be described as the parochial habits of the English-speaking peoples”. Naturally, all peoples think the customs of their tribe are the laws of nature, and this view has been reinforced for the Anglosphere by the West and large parts of the rest adopting its outlook, wherein “democracy, thus defined, is the natural condition of mankind, any deviation from which is either a crime to be punished or a disease to be cured”, as Lewis put it.