Why Russia’s Democracy Never Began

Issue Date July 2023
Volume 34
Issue 3
Page Numbers 105–18
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Scholars often blame Russia’s recent re-autocratization on mistakes of individual leaders: Yeltsin or Putin. This essay casts doubt on such accounts. It argues instead that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced not a democratic transition but a temporary weakening of the state (incumbent capacity). This is evidenced by a lack of elite rotation and the preservation of the same type of formal and informal institutions that characterized Russia’s political system in the past. Accordingly, subsequent re-autocratization of Russian politics was just a matter of time.

If the Russia of three decades ago, shortly after the Soviet breakup, was a democracy (albeit a weak and fledgling one), who or what sank it? Was it President Boris Yeltsin, with his October 1993 decision to crush opponents by force, his pushing of an executive-dominated constitution, and his disastrous choice of Vladimir Putin as his successor? Had Yeltsin selected someone else, might things be different today?

The answer, I am afraid, is not to be found in something as contingent as bad leadership. The question “Who lost Russia?” is meaningless because Russia, from the point of view of democracy, was never truly “gained.” The Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but no real democratic transition took place. Instead, the former communist system remained in place, with only a few outward appearances shifting: the old Soviet wolf in new clothing. The Soviet-era ruling groups and institutions largely survived at the top of Russian politics. One exception was—or should have been—the market economy, but even there, old elites seized for themselves the most lucrative assets and positions. The eventual re-autocratization of Russia was just a matter of time.

About the Author

Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Her essay (with Sheri Berman) “Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy” appeared in the July 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy. She is author of the April 2022 Journal of Democracy online exclusive “Will Putin Outlast War?

View all work by Maria Snegovaya

The temporary weakening of an authoritarian regime may sometimes be conflated with a democratic transition. A transition, however, requires fundamental, systemic changes in a given polity. Most authoritarian breakdowns, however, do not bring about democratization but lead instead to a new authoritarian regime or state collapse and anarchy.1

A democratic transition means the institutionalization of new rules such as tolerance of opposition, bargaining and compromise among different political forces, pluralist structures and procedures of competition, and the peaceful, lawful transfer of power according to electoral outcomes.2 In transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, political elites are crucial: They set the structural conditions that promote the institutionalization of new rules. Low levels of elite rotation tend to contribute to the resilience of authoritarian regimes.3 A democratic transition occurs only when an authoritarian government yields power to a new one operating within the new set of rules—something that is unlikely to happen if old elites remain mostly in place.

How pronounced does elite rotation need to be? Some scholars argue that democratic stability and consolidation depend less on the degree to which members of the new elite replace members of the old than on the ability of both groups to reach consensus about the new rules of the game. This view—that the will and capacity to achieve a “pacted” transition are key—is popular among scholars of Latin America who have studied the way regime and opposition moderates in that region have steered transitions from dictatorship to democracy.4

In contrast, other scholars posit that the institutionalization of new democratic rules only succeeds when new people take charge of key posts. In this view, an old elite that hangs on and even reproduces itself will stifle the growth of counterelites and destabilize the new regime.5 Regime change will be more effective when members of the new elite fill vital jobs and can advance institutional changes without needing to make crippling compromises with holdover autocratic leaders.

This last scenario aligns with the experiences of postcommunist countries. There, the presence of “democrats in power” at the top correlated strongly with the success of the transition.6 From the Baltic states to the Czech Republic, people loyal to liberal principles were active in institutionalizing democratic changes and driving the success of democratic consolidation.7 Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel was perhaps the most famous among them. Strong democratic counterelites did not exist in a vacuum, of course. They 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. The higher a given country could be said to score on all these aspects (strong civil tradition, self-organization potential, and counterelites), the better were its chances of maintaining a stable democracy.

In contrast, countries that were bereft of powerful democrats at transition time—the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan fell into this class—saw democratic practices gain little or no ground, while autocratic reconsolidation was swift. Across the post-Soviet space, the more likely a country was to elect members or associates of the old Soviet nomenklatura to postcommunist offices, the more likely was it also to experience a reversal of any movement toward democracy.8

How does the largest post-Soviet state, the Russian Federation, fit into this picture? Some studies group 1990s Russia with Moldova and Ukraine as cases of incomplete or compromised democratization, where the balance of power between the old regime and its challengers was so close that electoral democracy became fragile and democratization unstable.9 I argue, by contrast, that Russia was one of the cases where the old regime retained such a preponderance of power that democratic transition never took place. Reforms were cosmetic. Old Soviet elites and their methods of organizing power relations remained in charge. After a short period of disarray, these elites reasserted their control over society. Russia is not a case of democratic reversal—it is a case of democracy never getting started.

Who Is the Nomenklatura?

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was never a political party in any regular sense. The CPSU was a state authority structure, the core mechanism of the administrative command system. From the Central Committee in Moscow down to the district and town committees in the localities, CPSU bureaucratic structures were the real ruling bodies of the Soviet state.10 To ensure centralized control over these bodies and their decisions, the Bolsheviks developed the nomenklatura (literally the “system of names”), which listed all remotely significant bureaucratic and managerial positions in government bodies and state enterprises. Employment in key positions in cultural, media, educational, and other spheres required approval by the CPSU Central Committee. The individuals who filled these posts formed the nomenklatura. They accounted for a tiny fraction of the USSR’s total populace. At its height, the nomenklatura consisted of no more than about three-million people, including family members.11 At the time the USSR broke up, it had a population nearing three-hundred million. That is, the nomenklatura comprised 1 to 3 percent of the Soviet population.

The selection process for nomenklatura positions was Leninist: deliberately secretive, centralized, top-down, and antidemocratic. It followed Lenin’s advice not to waste time thinking about “the toy forms of democracy,” and “to stop at nothing to [get] rid . . . of an undesirable member.”12 Thus all posts, even formally elected ones, were filled by candidates whom higher officials had recommended to the electing bodies. For example, anyone who had a chance to become a candidate to serve as secretary of a provincial CPSU committee had been preselected by the Secretariat of the CPSU Central Committee. The nomenklatura thus became an opaque, monopolizing ruling class of appointees chosen not for their qualifications or potential, but for their readiness to follow orders. They depended on their superiors, obeyed the system, and cared about preserving the status quo that gave them place and privilege in return for unquestioning loyalty.

The experience of being socialized into the nomenklatura had a lasting effect on members’ preferences. The Soviet elite took on a nondemocratic, patronizing role in relation to the public at large. The job of the nomenklatura was not to represent a diverse array of interests from society, but to serve the party-state, performing its tasks and guarding its assets. For nomenklatura members, discipline and conformity were key. Schooling, propaganda, special privileges (such as access to medical facilities or retail stores closed to average Soviet citizens), and the entire social world of nomenklatura members were designed to train them in lasting support for the Soviet ruling apparatus. Anyone showing disloyalty faced expulsion. The ever-present threat of lost status and privileges in a society where the state dominated so much of life ensured elites’ compliance and created strong incentives for nomenklatura members to internalize CPSU ideology.

By the late 1980s, Soviet rulers had grasped the need to change the system. At the top, the USSR had become a gerontocracy. Holding office until death had become the norm for aged and ailing leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, while junior and middling bureaucrats chafed at their blocked career prospects. The gerontocratic system stymied career advancement, and brought few opportunities for social mobility or prosperity. In 1986, the year after Mikhail Gorbachev became CPSU general secretary, the average age of Politburo members reached 68.13

A mid-1980s oil-price crash worsened chronic problems in the planned Soviet economy. Food shortages and failing grain deliveries spread across the country, including even Moscow, the country’s capital.14 As the 1990s began, nomenklatura reformists led by Boris Yeltsin—a former member of the CPSU Politburo and a former first secretary of the Sverdlovsk region in the Ural Mountains—were squaring off against most CPSU members, who opposed reforms.

In Soviet Russia, nomenklatura reactionaries controlled the legislative branch, the Supreme Soviet. In March 1990, the first relatively free elections had seen supporters of the old status quo, candidates from the CPSU, defeat the opposition (independents) by winning a crushing 86 percent of seats. Across Eastern Europe, the only place where Communist Party candidates did better in the first postcommunist elections was in the USSR’s Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (soon to become the country of Belarus).

The executive branch—historically more important in Russian politics—was where the reformist nomenklatura found its strength after Yeltsin won the June 1991 presidential election with a resounding 59 percent in a four-candidate field. Yet even in that race, the competition had largely been among contending nomenklatura factions: Five of the six registered presidential candidates had been CPSU members at the time of the election, as had all of the vice-presidential candidates.

The economic crisis and the USSR’s sudden dissolution near the end of 1991 at first deprived Russia’s political leadership of the organization and finances necessary to concentrate political control. In the early 1990s, the central government could not afford the salaries of its security agents and soldiers, let alone its civilian bureaucrats and regional administrators. Delayed wage payments became routine. The inability to maintain control over Russia’s security apparatus undermined the repressive functions of the state machine and fueled a crisis of state legitimacy. For example, in October 1993 President Yeltsin was barely able to convince the military to engage during his confrontation with the Communist-controlled Supreme Soviet.15

As the crisis weakened the Kremlin’s grip on Russian society, alternative power centers multiplied. For example, to win his battles with Gorbachev and parliament, Yeltsin made multiple concessions to regional elites. Between 1994 and 1998, he signed power-sharing treaties and various related agreements with 46 constituent units in Russia, often offering special prerogatives to individual regions. Economic reforms that shrank the central government’s role in the economy further expanded the space for independent regional actors to emerge.

Elite and Institutional Continuity

Despite the federal center’s partial retreat, changes within state structures remained limited at best. The CPSU Politburo was gone and a small group of economic reformers gained new influence, but at most levels of government and public institutions, the middle- and lower-ranking nomenklatura groups were holding on to power and showing scant interest in any reforms.16 The organizational structures and bureaucracy from the Soviet era were simply restored almost wholly intact in post-Soviet Russia, albeit under new names.

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.17 The Soviet foreign and defense ministries along with many other Soviet-era agencies saw little personnel turnover. The KGB split into the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), but similar Soviet-trained siloviki ran both. 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.18

The economic bureaucracy did see some turnover. To assist him with reforms, Yeltsin promoted an influx of newcomers without nomenklatura backgrounds. 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 1993.19

At the regional as well as the federal level, postcommunist political elites continued to come mostly from middle and higher CPSU ranks. 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. Across Russia, regional leaders were mostly former Soviet apparatchiks.20 In the early 1990s, about half of all local-administration heads had worked formerly in Soviet executive or legislative bodies, and another 20 percent had worked in the Soviet apparatus at a lower level. Only about 30 percent came from elsewhere. 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.21

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. Soviet power networks with marked elements of patronage and clientelism transitioned straight into the new Russia. Such practices showed remarkable persistence in post-Soviet politics. 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).22

The continuities were not merely generic but literal: It was not a matter of similar types of relationships carrying over from the USSR to the Russian Federation, but of many of the same people in key posts preserving the same relationships with the same longtime partners. Informal governance became key for the operational needs of the new system. For example, in 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, a decade after the fall of communism, about half (47 percent) of elite respondents were still finding Soviet connections important.23 So many posts were filled on the bases of personal loyalty and connections that outsiders found it hard to gain entry. Most of the newcomers who made it, moreover, had siloviki backgrounds and even links to organized crime. They were not exactly the material of a new and more democracy-friendly governing class.

Soviet political culture persisted in post-Soviet Russia. Holdover Soviet elites had neither the will nor the skill to introduce democratic change. Instead, they remained a nomenklatura, with deeply ingrained habits of loyalty and subordination. Behind a formally democratic façade, Soviet power relations carried on as the order of the day. For example, instead of bringing outsiders into the system, elections became a way to resolve internal conflicts among insiders. That was because successful campaigns required resources and connections that the nomenklatura had a near lock on, with its only occasional rivals being wealthy local businessmen. Even these, however, often had establishment ties and origins that made them more like another nomenklatura subfaction than a democratic counterelite.

At the regional level, elections mostly pitted sitting heads of parliaments against chiefs of regional and city administrations. Nearly all candidates came from the nomenklatura. The federal scene was scarcely different: In the July 1996 presidential runoff, Yeltsin ran against an antireform camp led by Gennady Zyuganov. He had been a deputy head in the old CPSU propaganda department, and was now leading a revived Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Other possible presidential contenders like General Alexander Lebed, Yuri Luzhkov, and Yevgeny Primakov all originated from the nomenklatura.

Ironically, Yeltsin’s appointments from the federal center had done more than elections to open elite ranks to figures from beyond the nomenklatura. In 1991, Yeltsin had suspended the use of voting to fill regional-administrator posts, and instead named personal representatives to many regions. He did this in no small part because he was frustrated by the lack of elite turnover in the regions. Even so, he relied heavily on officials whom he had known personally in his days as CPSU general secretary of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, as well as others whom Gorbachev had promoted during the final years of the USSR. Thus the Soviet nomenklatura was the source of many of Yeltsin’s people in the regions.

New Markets, Old Soviet Command Structures

In the early 1990s, Russia’s economic situation was dire. In 1992, as Yeltsin’s acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar administered a “shock therapy” reform package—suddenly ending price controls, freeing trade, stabilizing the currency, cutting the state budget, and selling state assets—to transform the crumbling Soviet economy into a free-market economy.

The persistence of the Soviet elite, however, distorted economic reforms and nascent Russian capitalism. 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.24 An individual’s ties to the old regime produced the strongest payoffs. Nomenklatura members (many of them Moscow-based) had the connections and capital needed to seize the opportunity. They either kept their public positions in order to extract large rents from the emerging private economy or moved from their positions to even more lucrative business opportunities. Directors acquired financial interests in state enterprises that were privatizing under their command.

Data corroborate this. Of the 296 leading business tycoons in the first wave after communism, 43 percent had backgrounds in the Soviet nomenklatura.25 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.26 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.27

The change from Yeltsin to Putin had no adverse effect on the survival of oligarchs with strong Soviet-era nomenklatura ties. 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.28

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. Thus, contrary to what modernization theory predicts, the business class was often not a force for democratization. On the contrary, it sought to limit democratic trends and impede further reforms—including in the areas of economic stabilization and privatization—lest these start moving too fast or in directions that officials and their business allies might find troublesome.29

The Nomenklatura Strikes Back

While Soviet apparatchiks held on atop Russian politics, the shock of the USSR’s collapse and the weakness of the state in the early 1990s did weaken their influence. As the decade wore on, however, they began to recover and reconsolidate. Resenting their loss of social standing in post-Soviet Russia, these groups “were inevitably filled with old-style ideas and attitudes, nostalgic for Russia’s superpower or imperial status.”30 And as Deputy Premier Sergei Shakhrai said, “Many of them have shed their communist apparel but have not, on that account, become different people.”31 The apparatchik mindset lingered, as did past patterns of behavior and the desire to preserve a secure and privileged way of life. Small wonder, then, that the restoration of traditional forms of Russian statehood drew nomenklatura support.

As reforms made their painful effects felt and Yeltsin’s approval rating headed south, nomenklatura-linked groups pushed him to stall reforms and dismiss key reformers. In December 1992, the Supreme Soviet with its heavy apparatchik representation forced Yeltsin to fire Gaidar and name as the new premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, a thirty-year CPSU veteran with dense ties to the old order.32 By mid-decade, the reversal engineered by the so-called nomenklatura party was becoming apparent. Domestic reforms were slowing as foreign policy took on resentful and even revanchist overtones. A symbolic moment came on 24 March 1999, when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (Chernomyrdin’s successor) heard that NATO had begun bombing Yugoslavia. He was on his way to Washington for a state visit, but ordered his plane to reverse course over the Atlantic and fly back to Moscow.

Yet this trend only gained force with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power as the decade closed and the new millennium began. In the early 2000s, economic growth and rising oil prices improved state finances and organizational capacity, and the Kremlin’s public support rose. There was no longer a need to tolerate the pluralism of the Yeltsin era. Putin then proceeded to eliminate power centers that had emerged when the federal center was weak. He reinstituted control over the regions, coopted the private sector and independent media, repressed opponents, and manipulated elections to a degree that just a decade prior would have been unimaginable.

The response of Russia’s political elites to Putin’s re-autocratization was euphoric. To them, it meant that clear and familiar rules of the game were back—the future had become predictable again.33 Yeltsin-era uncertainty and instability were gone. Putin restored the bureaucratic hierarchy that the elites knew so well. He made them feel more secure than they had in years.

There were and are pronounced Soviet elements to Putin’s project. Rather than creating new institutions from scratch, Putin chose to restore structures of the old unreformed state that had been weakened but not fundamentally altered. The nomenklatura reverted with relief to governing structures, recruitment methods, and managerial approaches familiar from late-Soviet times, albeit in a more modernized and technocratic form.

For example, Putin had put the legislature under the near-complete control of his United Russia party a few years into his tenure. Not only did United Russia face little parliamentary opposition, but its own meetings came to resemble the congresses of the CPSU: There were long lists of achievements, storms of applause, unanimous acclamations, and party elites’ endless vows of loyalty to the leader and his “general line.”34 Putin’s tendency to appoint military and security officers to top political posts is also reminiscent of Soviet practices.35 The size and structure of Putin’s Security Council came to resemble the Soviet Politburo more than Yeltsin’s Security Council.36 By my own estimate, the Russian Security Council under Putin has steadily drawn at least 70 percent of its members from people with Soviet nomenklatura backgrounds. Other elements of re-Sovietization included the increasingly insular and close-knit character of the elite, its steady multiplying privileges, its paternalistic and domineering attitude toward private business, its drive to renationalize the economy, and even the restoration of Soviet symbols such as the Soviet anthem and portraits of Stalin.37 The trend has become even more apparent since Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022.

That Russia’s re-autocratization increasingly looks like re-Sovietization is hardly surprising given the nomenklatura continuity at the top levels of Russian politics. Soviet apparatchiks, a well-represented group in today’s elite, have simply reverted to familiar patterns. My own analysis has shown that of the top hundred members of the political elite under Putin from 2010 to 2020, around 60 percent had started their careers in the Soviet nomenklatura or had parents who were members.38 The replacement of the nomenklatura is gradual, as one generation slowly gives way to another. This reflects the stable nature of the system given the absence of revolutionary disruption in elites’ composition. Thirty years after the Soviet system fell, a small elite that in Soviet times never formed more than a tiny fraction of the populace is still holding on to power and social status.

Breakdown versus Transition

Successes of early “third-wave” democratizations in Latin America and Southern and Central Europe led many scholars to equate regime breakdown with democratic transition and to label most subsequently emerging regimes as “new democracies.”

Signaling this confusion was the tendency, in the 1990s and early 2000s, to treat post-Soviet Russia as a case of democratic transition. The persistence and enduring dominance of Soviet-era elites and their formal and informal practices, however, should have cast doubt on this. Such limited liberal changes as Russia experienced were a function of incumbent elites’ temporary weakness combined with their realization that they needed to make some adjustments to the system for the sake of efficiency (a phenomenon dubbed “the revolution of the second secretaries”).39

Economic crisis left the state unable to pay for patronage, bureaucrats’ salaries, and security forces. Alternative centers of power began rising. The Kremlin had to tolerate competitive multiparty elections, but they yielded no fundamental change: The old Soviet nomenklatura, steeped in antidemocratic norms and habits, remained atop the Russian political system and preserved many formal and informal institutions of the ancien régime. In 1993, former CPSU members made up to 80 to 90 percent of the political elite in Russia. In Poland, by contrast, the comparable figure was 30 percent. In Estonia it was 44 percent, and in Lithuania 47 percent.40

Thus rather than experiencing a democratic transition, Russia had a period of authoritarian weakness—but even that did not last long. The nomenklatura persisted, and its influence shaped the restoration of autocracy. The 2000s brought a global commodities boom that filled government coffers and enabled the Kremlin to rebuild state capacity. Putin quickly reversed much of the “pluralism by default”41 that had flourished under Yeltsin. Most Russian elites welcomed this, embracing the end of the Yeltsin era’s seeming chaos and the return of familiar Soviet ways. Civil society barely existed; it could do little to resist the reversal. In the absence of functioning democratic institutions or an organized opposition, the Kremlin was free to abuse power. The re-autocratization took on distinct Soviet overtones as the nomenklatura, which had survived at the pinnacle of the Russian political world, reverted to familiar patterns of behavior.

Countries where autocracy has run into trouble but which lack structural conditions for democracy have seen similar dynamics play out. This has been true in many African countries as well as in the former Soviet space. The current global wave of democratic backsliding has included instances of re-autocratization in countries where democratic changes were never more than cosmetic in nature. Backsliders tend to be countries living in the aftermath of what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call a “democratic moment” that came and went because conditions to sustain it were lacking. In this sense, Russia’s democratic reversal is far from unique. The deck was stacked so heavily against democracy that contingent events mattered little. Thus, even if Yeltsin had chosen Yevgeny Primakov over Putin in 1999, Russia’s democracy would likely not have survived.

Several implications of this argument are worth stressing.

First, studies of transition are too focused on individual leaders. In order to understand transitions better, we must give elite composition more weight. The proliferation of elite-focused datasets in recent years has made this task easier, and will allow us to more reliably predict whether a given democratic transition will succeed.

Second, if democratic institutions are to take hold, there must be elite turnover. To be fair, some carryover of former elites atop new power structures is unavoidable. Barring such elites altogether (even if possible) would be counterproductive: They would become angry spoilers who might lead a full-on antidemocratic reaction. Keeping a society running is always going to require some continuity of personnel. Yet allowing old-regime elites to dominate the upper reaches of the new regime is a recipe for democratic failure. Institutions will not reform, and new democratic rules and methods will fail to take hold. Pushing some degree of elite rotation will therefore be desirable. Western policymakers could assist it by, for example, putting conditions on economic aid to new regimes.

Lastly, nomenklatura persistence at the top of Russian politics is epiphenomenal to other characteristics of the Russian society. Postcommunist countries that had robust civic movements and precommunist liberal traditions found elite rotation easier to achieve. Post-Soviet Russia lacked these, just as it lacked the level of development, nation-building tradition, and ties to the West that other, more successful cases of democratization possessed. Moreover, seventy years of communist rule had homogenized Russian society. Largely missing from it were the social groups (such as private landowners, capitalists, peasants, unionized workers, and clerics) that aided transitions away from authoritarianism in Latin America and Southern Europe, and provided the basis for democratic opposition politics in those regions. Russia’s civic movements amounted to little more than handfuls of prodemocratic intelligentsia scattered across a few big cities. With only this weak force to stand against it, no wonder the nomenklatura found its perch at the peak of the power pyramid so secure. Thirty years later, Russia still features many of these characteristics, which should moderate expectations that it might democratize anytime soon.


1. Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January 2002): 5–21; Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “Elections Without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 51–65.

2. Gary A. Stradiotto and Sujian Guo, “Transitional Modes of Democratization and Democratic Outcomes,” International Journal on World Peace27 (December 2010): 5–40.

3. Ilia Nadporozhskii, “Influence of Elite Rotation on Authoritarian Resilience,” Democratization, 21 March 2023, https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2023.2186401.

4. Terry Lynn Karl, “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America,” Comparative Politics 23 (October 1990): 1–21; Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

5. Frane Adam and Matevž Tomšiè, “Elites, Democracy and Development in Post-Socialist Transition,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 31, issue 1 (2002): 99–112; Iván Szelényi and Szonja Szelényi, “Circulation or Reproduction of Elites During the Post-Communist Transformation of Eastern Europe,” Theory and Society24 (October 1995): 615–38.

6. Michael McFaul, “The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship: Noncooperative Transitions in the Postcommunist World,” World Politics٥٤(January 2002): 228.

7. Szelényi and Szelényi, “Circulation or Reproduction of Elites,” 623; Anton Steen, Between Past and Future: Elites, Democracy, and the State in Post-Communist Countries—A Comparison of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (London: Routledge, 1997), 36.

8. Kirill Rogov, “Genesis and Evolution of Post-Soviet Polities” (in Russian), in Kirill Rogov, ed., Demontazh kommunizma: Tridtsat let spustja [The dismantling of communism: Thirty years later](Helsinki: New Literary Review, 2021).

9. Timothy Frye, “The Perils of Polarization: Economic Performance in the Postcommunist World,” World Politics 54 (April 2002): 308–37; Alfred B. Evans, “The Failure of Democratization in Russia: A Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Eurasian Studies ٢ (January 2011): 40–51.

10. Robert C. Tucker, “Post-Soviet Leadership and Change,” in Timothy J. Colton and Robert C. Tucker, eds., Patterns in Post-Soviet Leadership (London: Routledge, 2019), 9.

11. T.H. Rigby and Bohdan Harasymiw, eds., Leadership Selection and Patron-Client Relations in the USSR and Yugoslavia (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983), 9–10; Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class, trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 148, 92–96.

12. Vladimir I. Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?” trans. Joseph Fineburg (New York: International Publishers, 1935), ch. 4, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/What_Is_To_Be_Done%3F_(Lenin,_1935)/Chapter_4.

13. A.D. Chernev, 229 kremlevskih vozhdej: Politbjuro, Orgbjuro, Sekretariat CK Kommunisticheskoj Partii v licah i cifrah [229 Kremlin leaders: Politburo, Orgburo, Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in faces and numbers] (Moscow: Russika, 1996).

14. Yegor Gaidar, “The Soviet Collapse: Grain and Oil,” American Enterprise Institute, April 2007, www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/20070419_Gaidar.pdf9.

15. Lucan Way, Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

16. Anton Steen, Political Elites and the New Russia: The Power Basis of Yeltsin’s and Putin’s Regimes (London: Routledge, 2003), 12, 157–58.

17. Mark Kramer, “The Soviet Legacy in Russian Foreign Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 134 (Winter 2019): 585–609.

18. Maria Snegovaya and Alexander Lanoszka, “Fighting Yesterday’s War: Elite Continuity and Revanchism,” 10 December 2022, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4304528.

19. Michael McFaul, “State Power, Institutional Change, and the Politics of Privatization in Russia,” World Politics 47 (1995): 210–43.

20. Gavin Helf and Jeffrey W. Hahn, “Old Dogs and New Tricks: Party Elites in the Russian Regional Elections of 1990,” Slavic Review 51 (1992): 511–12.

21. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Anatomii Rossiiskoi Elity[Anatomy of the Russian elite] (Moscow: Zakharov, 2005), https://vrn-politstudies.nethouse.ru/static/doc/0000/0000/0134/134217.swusdllkvr.pdf.

22. Yuko Adachi, “The Ambiguous Effects of Russian Corporate Governance Abuses of the 1990s,” Post-Soviet Affairs 22 (January 2006): 65–89; Alena Ledeneva, “Telephone Justice in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs 24 (October 2008): 324–50; and Alena Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 196, 213.

23. Steen, Political Elites and the New Russia, 157.

24. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise? 196.

25. Serguey Braguinsky, “Postcommunist Oligarchs in Russia: Quantitative Analysis,” Journal of Law and Economics 52 (May 2009): 340.

26. Eric Hanley, Natash Yershova, and Richard Anderson, “Russia—Old Wine in a New Bottle? The Circulation and Reproduction of Russian Elites, 1983–1993,” Theory and Society 24 (October 1995): 654–62.

27. Kryshtanovskaya, Anatomii Rossiiskoi Elity, 199, 318.

28. Kryshtanovskaya, Anatomii Rossiiskoi Elity, 184.

29. Joel S. Hellman, “Winners Take All: The Politics of Partial Reform in Postcommunist Transitions,” World Politics 50 (January 1998): 203–34.

30. Andrei Kozyrev, The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 150.

31. Tucker, “Post-Soviet Leadership and Change,” 10.

32. Tucker, “Post-Soviet Leadership and Change,”12.

33. Kryshtanovskaya, Anatomii Rossiiskoi Elity, 122, 167.

34. Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “The Sovietization of Russian Politics,” Post-Soviet Affairs 25, issue 4 (2009): 292.

35. “Will the Junta Come to Power? Political Scientist Grigory Golosov Assesses the Likelihood of a Military Regime in Russia,” Holod, 16 November 2022, https://tinyurl.com/4x73ajth.

36. Kryshtanovskaya, Anatomii Rossiiskoi Elity, 150, 161.

37. Maria Snegovaya, “Reviving the Propaganda State—How the Kremlin Hijacked History to Survive,” Center for European Policy Analysis, January 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20220711050031/https://cepa.org/cepa_files/2018-01-Reviving_the_Propaganda_State.pdf.

38. Maria Snegovaya and Kirill Petrov, “Long Soviet Shadows: The Nomenklatura Ties of Putin Elites,” Post-Soviet Affairs 38 (2022): 329–48.

39. Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “From Soviet Nomenklatura to Russian Élite,” Europe-Asia Studies 48 (July 1996): 722, 729.

40. Szelényi and Szelényi, “Circulation or Reproduction of Elites,” 623.

41. Lucan Way, “Authoritarian State Building and the Sources of Political Competition in the Fourth Wave: The Cases of Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine,” World Politics 57 (January 2005): 232.


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