The political trend keeping Russia in the past

Russian history has been marred by the trend of an authoritative head of state with centralized power with minimal checks in three different political regimes. “Personalized power” was present in imperialist Russia when ultimate political authority was manifested in a monarch, throughout the communist regime when leaders like Stalin were able to implement radical political change by using vanguard party philosophy as justification, and now, in Russia’s post-communist attempt at democracy.


Despite having regular elections, Russia’s experiment with democracy is clearly failing. The current system of “personalized power” is damaging the most basic democratic ideals; political dissidents are silenced, election fraud is common, political power is becoming increasingly centralized, and political competition is run through the current political party. When Boris Yeltsin modeled the new postcommunist government after Western-style democracy, it appeared hopeful that this pattern would end. However, the new “democratic” constitution gave the president so much power that today Russia’s political system is considered a form of “soft authoritarianism.” For example, the president is able to dissolve the Federal Assembly in some circumstances, one of the most important checks on the Head of State’s power, and can issue presidential decrees which can pass policy without involving parliament. This extreme power can be seen in the political dominance the United Russia party has enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has allowed Vladimir Putin, current president of Russia, to handpick his successor after his first term as president, implement a law extending the presidential term, and return to the presidency after the following elections. According to Lilia Shevtosa, “Putin brought postcommunist Russia back to the model that had ended in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet state and the unraveling of the old system (177).” She believes that as long as this system of “personalized power” is in play, Russia will never be able to truly implement democracy, and in its inevitable decay it will lead to more aggressive methods of asserting its power, such as the recent annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, in a country whose politics have been shaped by various authoritarian figures it appears that the trend of “personalized power” is unlikely to be broken, especially as it continues to reject western ideas and isolate itself through aggressive military and diplomatic actions.


Kesselman, Mark, Joel Krieger, and William A. Joseph. 2014. Introduction to Comparative Politics. 7th Ed. Cengage Learning.

Shevtsova Lila. 2015. “Russia’s Political System: Imperialism and Decay.” Journal of Democracy 26(1): 171-182.


13 thoughts on “The political trend keeping Russia in the past

  1. Very interesting…what are your thoughts on the future of Russia’s political organization/system? Do you think that “personalized power” will remain for a long time, or do you foresee progressive ‘radicals’ coming into play to change the system? How will Russia handle this change if it is to occur? Do you think that Russia might handle these “subversives”/”rebels” similar to Argentina/Chile during the 1970s/80s when the government vehemently shut down any threat of opposition?

      • I do believe Putin’s methods of handling opposition is very similar to those of the Argentinian/Chilean dictators of the 1970s/1980s. Just as opposition was “disappeared” during those regimes, Putin is not afraid to silence political challenges through imprisonment or assassination. Boris Nemstov, an extremely vocal critic of Putin, was assassinated about two weeks ago. The Kremlin is now trying to cover up the scandal by blaming the act on Chechen terrorists, similar to how Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet attempted to cover up his involvement in the Letlier assassination.

  2. Hey, I’m Kyra’s friend. She asked me to comment because I also like this Russian Politics stuff.

    I’ve read a lot on this site about how patronal politics, the carrot and stick mechanisms Putin uses to control his connections and maintain his highly personal hold on power, poisons any serious attempt to democratize. While I agree, it might be interesting to ask if we should call it poison in the first place. Russians have relied on personal connections down to the most local level to get things done since the time of Mongol administration of Kievan Rus, and this continued throughout both the rule of the Russian Tsars and the peak of the Soviet Union. Informal politics seems to be a hallmark of how Russians do business, and in many ways it allows the sort of flexibility that might give even the smallest acxtors more control than they would have when faced with an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy.

    I’m not commenting to oppose democracy or anything. I’m just asking if it’s ok if the Russian people would rather live with having no official voice in the government, if in turn they’re allowed the freedom to make connections and maneuver influence to more directly achieve the results they want, whether its a small farmer asking for a larger subsidy or a Moscow banker seeking a lucrative government contract. We would call this corruption, but maybe the Russian people accept some of that to get the economic or societal results they desire.

  3. “We are all Nemtsov”
    After the fall of the USSR, I think the world was hopeful that there would be a happy ending to Russia’s long tale of political woe. As you note in your post, with the advent of Putin, things have changed. Not only has he blocked intervention in the Syrian crisis for his own reasons and annexed Crimea while denying that he was behind this plot, but he has demonstrated again and again that anyone who gets in his way will be eliminated. Despite his cries to the contrary, we are all suspicious of the recent assassination of one of his most vociferous political opponents and critics. “Personalized power” is most definitely at play and is unlikely to be weakened in the near future, especially when any opponents are silenced by Putin’s henchmen. No one knows where or when this will end. As you note, it is “unlikely to be broken.”

  4. I agree, it’s interesting to follow up with Russia after we just covered a country like Mexico, that has had similar issues with their government in the past. However, I would be interested to see what changes they should put in place if they were to move toward a more “democratic” democracy. Mexico seems to be attempting to change to a more democratic system, but it’s a very rocky change due to the high mount of organized crime. Although Russia doesn’t have the exact same issue with organized crime, there seems to still be a lot of political corruption, and unrest. This political unrest is causing serious image problems for the Russian Government, due to their obvious lack of control. This can be seen through the recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov “Russian patriot, [and] friend of Ukraine”, as well as the civilian aircraft that was shot down last year.

    The mourners of Nemtsov blamed Putin for the assassination of his political rival, and are calling the “murder a ‘contract killing’.” These quotes are obviously from people who are very hurt at this moment in time, and looking for a answer as to why this has happened. However, the fact that this idea even exists is bad PR for the Russian Government, especially Putin. This is only one of the criminal events Russia has been involved with in the past two years that could be described as “shady.” Not too long ago (July 2014) the world news was all over Russia trying to find out why a “Boeing 777-200 was shot down over the Russian and Ukrainian boarder.” Although it was “unclear whether the missile was fired from inside Ukrainian or Russian territory and who fired it”, popular belief seems to be resting upon pro-Russian rebels that were in the area. While others see fit to rest blame on the shoulders of President Putin.

    Although Russia does not deal with the same type of organized crime as the cartels of Mexico. The area still seems to be struggling with rebels, and corrupt political actions. Although the accusations surrounding Putin are unfounded, the fact that they exist is not beneficial to the legitimacy of the Russian’s attempt at Democracy. This comes back to the issue of “personalized power”, because although Putin has all of the power, he also has all of the blame. I feel that if the Russian Government wants to move forward with Democracy as their system of government, their first order of business should be to oust corruption, as well as remove the President’s “personalized power”.

  5. Putin is a variation on the same Russian theme. This post succinctly puts the current regime in its historical context. The Russian people should be grateful for their quality vodka because their political systems and leaders are consistently awful. There is essentially no hope for the Russian people to have any semblance of freedom without a huge political upheaval and that may result in a lengthy, painful transition.

    • I agree-Russia needs to take a good look at itself and understand that quality vodka is all it has going for itself right now. The nation cannot hope to be a hegemonic power whilst it maintains this type of regime; it must become more progressive and strengthen its economy to come back as a noteworthy player on the world stage.

  6. It is interesting to note the seemingly continuous pattern that seems to be affecting Russia, from both a political standpoint and from a martial one. Russia’s continued path of authoritarian leaders at the head of the state seems to have no end, and this in turn affects the country’s mood towards democracy. All too often, leaders that end up in power and solidify that power around themselves tend to be seen as charismatic, strong, and stable, like Putin is seen as now and how Lenin, Stalin, and others were seen before him. Leaders or politicians that attempted to steer the country towards a more democratic path tend to end up either disgraced, imprisoned, or dead. Yeltsin was clear in his determination for a democratic Russia yet he left office disgraced and seen as a stupid drunk rather than an effective leader.

    In terms of military, it was interesting to note how Lilia Shevtsova mentioned the use of the military and war by the Russian state as a means of accomplishing its goals. This also appears to be a cycle of sorts along with the aspects of Russian leaders. When Russia invades a country, it does so to affect politics both internal and external. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan weakened the Soviet Union at home while the Soviet Union tried to bolster a friendly government abroad. More recently, Russian involvement in Georgia and Ukraine is trying to accomplish both international and domestic objectives. As of now, Ukraine and Georgia are relatively destabilized and their abilities to grow closer to the West are hindered. Meanwhile, Putin stands tall at the success of it all, having approval ratings in the eighties.

    Interesting to see how often both military power and personal political power are used in Russia and how such power can either make or break the nation depending on who is using it and for what reasons.

  7. I found your argument very interesting, and I agree that the trend of “personalized power” is likely to continue in Russia. When looking at the political history of Russia, it’s easy to see the pattern of authoritarian-style rulers. However, what’s special about Russia is that the mentality has remained even though the institutions themselves have attempted to change. Technically, Russia has democratic institutions in place in its government, but at the same time allows leaders to establish themselves with immense power. The “personalized power” that we see all too often in Russian political history hasn’t been all negative, however. Yes, there are have been absolute rulers who have negatively ruled Russia, but Gorbachev, for example, used his power to open up Russia and reform it for the better. The trend of “personalized power” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, it’s just unfortunate that in Russian history, it often has been. As a member of the UN Security Council, arguably one of the most powerful international bodies, it concerns me that a country with such a say on the world stage still governs with the strength of “personalized power”. What does it say about the future trajectory of world democracy that a single leader, Vladimir Putin, has the potential for absolute and final say in his “democratic” country?

  8. The lack of separation of powers in Russia is unacceptable. The Parliament and the Judiciary are incapable of holding the government to account nor to exercise any scrutiny over its actions. It is sadly impossible to imagine any sift towards actual democracy for Russia in a recent future.

  9. Comment: Emelie has asked me to take a look at her class’ blog.
    “Russia’s experiment with democracy is clearly failing.” I couldn’t agree more. As the paper points out that Boris Yeltsin brought in Western-style democracy. But it didn’t have a chance to grow. On the one hand, democracy takes time to grow. On the other hand, the communist culture has some solid roots in those people under the Soviet Union’s regime in which mistrust is persuasive. When people don’t trust one another, democracy doesn’t have much ground to take root. Under this circumstance, “personalized power” reigns, resulting in a biased constitution. And I can see that “the trend of ‘personalized power’ is unlikely to be broken.”

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