While the focus on Russia today is its war in Ukraine, which as of writing this enters its 600th day, not too long ago that focus was on the state of its “democracy”. Prior to the invasion, much of the coverage on Russian domestic affairs concerned Alexei Navalny, the main opposition candidate to Putin’s regime who, in early August 2023, was sentenced to a 19 year prison sentence. The war in Ukraine is of a much more pressing issue as it represents both the active loss of life and the potential expansion of authoritarian powers, but what happens after the war is still of critical importance. What will happen to Russian politics? Where is Navalny today and is he still alive? Where will, or really can, Russian democracy go from here? To these I say that Russia is doomed to continue its cycle of authoritarian backwardness, with the brief glimpses of democratic liberalization always doomed to backsliding. Only if the Russian state is broken up from its current iteration and finally confronts its imperial legacies can it truly move on.
First, the ideology of Russia under Putin was never a democracy. It may have paraded under the auspices of such, but realistically the convoluted ideas that Putin follows is akin to gangster fascism; outlined well by Youtube creator Kraut’s video on the subject. While the process of getting to this point is not part of this analysis, it does go to show how far the politics of Russia have strayed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the brief hope thereafter. This ideology is an amalgamation of the works of Ivan Iliyn, Lev Gumilev, and Carl Schmitt. All three can either be described as overtly fascist or borderline clinically insane. The issue of how such ideologies arose within Russia can be seen in its origin as a relatively lawless state (which another of Kraut’s videos addresses).
In transitioning out of communism, Russia was subject to the corruption that led to its collapse. State industries were allowed to be bought up and controlled by a few powerful oligarchs who then played a major role in controlling the state. The only potential counterbalance would have been a strong middle class, but such a class was not only antagonistic to the Soviet system, it was also hindered by this vast centralization of wealth after Soviet collapse. Not only this, but the meager middle class that was carved out in the decades since is now collapsing as well, especially as the economic opportunities of the average citizen disappear amidst the invasion in Ukraine. While for any other nation this would be devastating, for the Russian state it is actually beneficial as the main potential source of political dissent disappears with the middle class. Those who are poorer have neither the education, resources, nor interest to participate in those politics. Those who are richer are the oligarchs and compatriots who enable the Russian state to function as it is. Many of the aforementioned theorists that underline the Putin regime actively hated the idea of a middle class because it suggests that there is social mobility, and where there is social mobility there is potential for political mobility.
A large part of this issue is that these ideologies and hindrances to democracy are not unique to Russian history in the wake of the collapse of communism, but are an enduring legacy of the state itself. Each of the former regimes were built on a select upper class ruling over a backwards and rural population that enabled them to maintain absolute political and economic power. While the communists may seem particularly guilty of this, the imperial Russian state was just as guilty as well. Even going as far back as the Kievan Rus, the Russian state was built on a backward inequality that, while hindering intellectual and industrial progress, did allow for the comfortable and stable existence of the aristocracy and monarchy. Russia was built to justify the rule of that upper class over whatever was necessary to maintain their style of living. This upper class was often exempt from the rule of law to facilitate this, but that has left an enduring legacy of a disregard for the rule of law that is otherwise necessary for a state to be a state. This has left Russia as a state not in service of building itself up and advancing its people, but one only dedicated to the ruling class that can benefit, and be exempt, from it.
The issue with democracy for Russia now is that the identity of the core Russian state might collapse and make that historical ruling legacy unreachable; something the current Russian ruling class does not want to let happen. While Putin came to power with broad support across the society that was sick and tired of the Yeltsin era, the current administration is primarily supported by the old-guard Russian populace that still idolizes and remembers the Soviet legacy. Under democratic norms, however, the voices not only of the other Russian citizens but also of the constituent ethnicities and states would come through. Often forgotten is that Russia is a state made up of many minorities such as Chechens, Georgians, Ukrainians, Tatars, etcetera. Democracy means equal participation and even self-representation, which for a state such as Russia could mean losing the periphery nations that help keep its core territory safe. Technically the constituencies could opt to stay with the core Russian state, but the history of their severe repression and even open genocide makes that unlikely.
The original monarchs who expanded the Russian state did so out of a desire to correct the inherent weakness of the core Russian state. The plains that allow for the great agricultural output of the peasantry also allow for easy invasion into the heartlands. As such the core Russian mission has always been to expand to more defensible borders that have the added benefit of often containing ethnic minorities that they do not care if they must suffer or not to protect the core. A democratic state might be one that is powerless to stop these nations from gaining independence and thus leaving Russia vulnerable to invasion. That we are in an era where such invasion is unlikely and frowned upon is irrelevant to Moscow. Part of what brought Putin to power and granted him popularity was his ability to crush the Chechens in the 2nd Chechen War. That now corrupt and subservient state to Russia helps them today in their invasion of Ukraine. That is all to say that the Russian state is built on illiberal and undemocratic norms that require their upkeep for that Russian state to continue to survive.
Thus, a democratic movement within Russia is unlikely, at least without fundamentally reshaping the state and finally confronting its legacies as well. Briefly, however, a democratic opposition movement did arise. While Alexei Navalny, previously mentioned above, did play a role in this movement, eventually becoming the symbolic head of it in the West, he was not the sole arbiter of it. In addition, the Russian state has a long history of killing dissidents, and even trying to kill Navalny already, which makes his current sentence in a prison away from the eyes of the international system, now distracted by various wars, a probable death sentence.
The opposition in Russia comes in two forms: systemic and non-systemic. The systemic opposition is what Moscow has allowed to compete against it to give the system the thin veneer of democracy. These parties are not meant to win, nor are they given the resources to. The non-systemic opposition are the individuals and parties not condoned by the state to compete against it. These are often the advocates of real democracy. The thin veneer of democracy that Russia maintains is not only to appease the international community, but more importantly it serves to trick its own population. If all you have ever lived in is an ineffective sham democracy then your idea of democracy is defined by that. All this does is to serve the state in making its undemocratic alternatives not only palatable, but preferable to the dysfunction. Russia under Boris Yeltsin and its first democracy was an ineffective state that let its population suffer. This is why Putin was welcomed with such open arms; people will often choose safety and security over democracy when they suffer. While the current regime tries to make the chaos under Yeltsin a legacy of democracy, and thus solidify its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, it was in fact a legacy of the corrupt state institutions and autocrats that caused it.
The rise of Putin was seen and characterized as a democratic backsliding for the nascent country among foreign observers, but realistically it was just a return to form for the Russian state that always existed and was only temporarily covered up. Even in forming the Russian constitution, executive aggrandizement, one of the key causes of democratic backsliding, was enshrined in its institution of a super-presidential system. The overpowering executive could just overturn and corrupt the other aspects of governance. Thus, even if the veneer of democracy was protected at first, it was doomed to collapse at some point or another.
A lesson here can be applied to the US. While the democratic system is upheld by the system of checks and balances, as well as cultural norms upholding democracy, there are few structural roadblocks to democratic backsliding. Very little prevents a sufficiently powerful and influential figure from gaining the presidency, politicizing neutral institutions such as the courts and bureaucracy, abusing executive orders, and/or building a populist base. As Levitsky and Ziblatt note in How Democracies Die, the two salient unwritten norms that have protected democracy in the US are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Even getting there required numerous deaths and crises in the institutions to build those norms. Even then it can fail such as in the Civil War. This is especially highlighted in other Latin American countries that have copied the US constitution only to quickly collapse into authoritarianism and democratic backsliding.
Democratic institutions are unfortunately usually upheld by their informal norms, and in the case of Russia the informal norm is expansionist authoritarianism which undercuts any attempts at democracy in its current form. Only if Russia is separated from the periphery that reinforces its own ideas of strategic defense, and finally confronts its enduring legacy of lawless authoritarianism, can it actually move on to a system that is actually different in some way – preferably to democracy. But either way, with Putin still in power, it is doomed to drift further towards a semi-fascist authoritarian lawlessness; contradictory to outside observers but completely logical to those in power.
This is by no means a well-informed and original analysis of Russian politics and history, but rather the chaotic amalgamation of that analysis performed by those more capable and intelligent with some light commentary added on. Given it is a blog post, I took the liberty of experimenting with an informal and semi-personal commentary on the state of these politics rather than the strict academic interpretation thereof. Given my inexperience in this type interpretation, it is reflected in the poorer quality of the text. This is not intended to be a theoretical framework for Russia’s actions, but merely commentary that may or may not highlight why and how it reaches decisions. There are almost certainly flaws in this analysis, and if you see them I highly recommend that you comment what is wrong with this, or just leave your general thoughts.
If you liked this unpolished blog on Russian democracy, you might also like my previous works writing for the Boston Political Review, or BPR, which are of far better quality for both information and edited polish. There I’ve written about the 20th National CCP Congress, escalations over Taiwan, Chinese-Australian trade negotiations, and the Saudi-Iranian deal brokered by China. Unlisted is a work in progress article on the current banking crisis in China, so be on the lookout for that!