The collapse of the Soviet system led to a period of hope in Russia. Throughout the 2000s, it was popular to describe Russia as a “normal country.” The changes it went through during its transition from Soviet communism to a Westernized, market-based economy and parliamentary system were agreed to be irreversible, setting the stage for the country to eventually join the club of liberal democracies.
Thirty years later, however, it seems clear that Russia’s much-heralded modernization effort was a failure.
In the early 1990s, the political scientist Claus Offe explained the nature of the unique challenges faced by countries across the post-communist region, which he called the triple transformation: the political transition from autocracy to democracy; the economic transition from planned to market economy; and a national transition from empire to nation-building. While post-communist countries saw varying degrees of success, it is the failure to modernize along all three dimensions that distinguishes Russia.
By the late 2000s, it became apparent that Russia’s political system was not particularly “normal.” While economically Russia was at the level of Latin American and Eastern European democracies, its political institutions were more comparable to the (much poorer) autocratic states of sub-Saharan Africa or post-Soviet Asia. Following Vladimir Putin’s return to power in 2012, Russia’s political institutions degraded even further into hardcore autocracy.
The poor quality of Russia’s political institutions was a function of the lack of elite succession during the post-Soviet period. Instead of being driven by a broad popular base, Russia’s political change was largely a product of an intrasystem crisis resulting from the frustration of lower-ranking Soviet ruling elite members who had no career prospects to look forward to in the late Soviet Union (where all of the attractive positions were occupied by aged Politburo members). The new-old elites, once consolidated, began to reproduce the patterns of domination without any personnel rotation from the bottom up. Under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, up to 90% of those who staffed Russia’s main decision-making bodies had backgrounds in the Soviet nomenklatura. This was in stark contrast to countries like Poland, Hungary, Estonia, or Lithuania, where the share of former Communist elites in government ranged between 30% and 50%. By my estimates, even by 2020, about 60% of Putin’s top ruling elites still originated from the nomenklatura. These elites preserved policy preferences carried over from Soviet times, which became an important factor in the reconsolidation of a new autocratic regime in Russia.
At the same time, the ease with which these Putin-led elite groups were able to recapture control of Russia’s political hierarchy was also a product of a second underlying problem: the lack of a large and resilient grassroots pro-democracy movement or any electoral accountability, which quickly led to a restoration of autocracy. The deeper underlying drivers of re-autocratization in Russia can therefore be found within Russian society itself. Except for a brief period of pro-democracy protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Russian population remained largely demobilized and uninterested in defending the freedoms they were accidentally granted in 1990s. Indeed, the average Russian voter appeared to genuinely believe that some degree of authoritarianism was beneficial for the country. This sentiment was skillfully used by Putin and his administration to shut down existing opposition channels and consolidate power.
Even in the 2010s, when Russia’s pro-democracy movement began to take form, its actual size remained very limited. For example, as reported by Russia’s main (and by far the most popular) opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, the number of his monthly donors in Russia constituted about 300,000 people out of a population of some 150 million. Compare this with the size of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which at its height in the 1980s claimed some 10 million members out of a population of some 35 million. The bravery and determination of Russia’s democratic opposition members cannot be denied, but in order to culminate his process of autocratic restoration in the lead-up to his new invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin threw Navalny in prison and blocked the remaining independent media and opposition channels with relative ease.
Alongside the failure of political transition in Russia came the failure of economic transition. Since the early Yeltsin years, Russia’s integration into the world market economy and its economic modernization was a consistent theme among Russian reformers. Despite sporadic successes, however, Russia’s economy over the last 30 years has continued to underperform. Despite the period of oil price-induced growth in the early 2000s, in the 2010s Russia’s GDP growth fell to about 0%-2% annually following the sanctions imposed after the 2014 Crimea annexation.
Meanwhile, active nationalization of the economy under Putin canceled out the effect of privatization reforms. From about 25% in 1998, the share of Russia’s GDP produced by state or state-linked companies jumped up to over 70% by the late 2010s. According to some estimates, by 2018, 48% of Russia’s middle class were employed in the state sector.
This dynamic has been further exacerbated by the unprecedented scale of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its full-scale war in Ukraine. Within a span of weeks, Russia became the most sanctioned country in the world. While their cumulative long-term effect is hard to assess, the sanctions radically undermine whatever investment appeal Russia had before. The sanctions further force Russia to adopt what the economist Branko Milanovich has described as a “technologically regressive import substitution.” Excluded from many foreign technologies, Russia now needs to revive its industries (e.g., machine-building for energy exploration, avionics, car production) on the basis of old Soviet technologies that it had abandoned 30 years ago, and which are currently obsolete. The ongoing exclusion from the world economy completes the process of its economic demodernization.
It was a small step from this psychological embrace of an imperialistic past to public support for military action against alleged ‘enemies’ in Ukraine.
Lastly, and perhaps most catastrophically, Russia’s transformation failure lies in its inability to conceive of itself as a nation-state rather than an empire. During Soviet times, the sense of being the citizen of a respected superpower, a huge country with nuclear weapons that controlled other countries and competed directly with the United States, compensated somewhat for the continuous state of humiliation and poverty of ordinary Russian people in their daily lives. The loss of that status in the post-Soviet period was traumatic for many Russians and has precluded any successful nation-building effort.
Yeltsin-era attempts to find the “national idea” that would substitute for Russia’s historical imperialistic orientation were short-lived and unsuccessful. Unable to develop any alternative vision of its future, Russian society was atomized and disunited, and was left with only the myth of past glory. Exacerbated by the difficulties of early transition reforms, post-Soviet nostalgia grew, peaking in the late 1990s, after a devastating financial crisis. The newly elected Vladimir Putin responded to this national crisis by notoriously characterizing the collapse of the Soviet system as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He restored many Soviet symbols, including the old national anthem, and subsequently tried to reconquer formerly Soviet territories.
As time went on, Russian society increasingly saw the Brezhnev-era Soviet past as a kind of ideal, particularly in contrast to the vision of the democratic 1990s (often assisted by state propaganda) as chaotic, destabilizing, and dangerous. By the late 2000s, this backward-looking orientation among the bulk of Russian society was already quite pronounced. After the mass anti-Putin protests of 2011-12, the state-driven process of returning to Soviet myths intensified sharply.
Craving recognition as a great power, much of Russian society focused more intensely on this mythologized past and on hunting down enemies who were guilty of allowing the empire’s collapse. As Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov points out, the emphasis on the national “enemy” allowed Russian society to reexperience a sense of national unity and belonging while avoiding tough questions about the country’s actual direction. It was a small step from this psychological embrace of an imperialistic past to public support for military action against alleged “enemies” in Ukraine, a country that many Russians viewed as a rightful part of their former empire in both Soviet and czarist times. Seven months into this war, a significant antiwar movement has failed to emerge even among Russians living outside of Russia, where the risks of opposing the war are much smaller.
Contemporary Russia’s unresolved relationship with its past has led to a catastrophe similar to what the country began to experience in 1917. Today, Russia is yet again abandoning the path of modernization. Lacking any internal mechanism to change its trajectory, Russia under its current leadership will likely continue to stagnate and become more isolated. New attempts at modernization, if they ever materialize, will have to be made by future generations.
Maria Snegovaya is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, a Fellow at the Illiberalism Studies Program at George Washington University, and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.