How Should Russia Get Out of the Historical Rut

I would like to call the second decade of the 21st century “the time lost” for Russia, the period in which the opportunities gained in the previous years were lost. More importantly, many of the achievements in political and social modernization, that were reached in the nineties and the zero years, either rolled back into oblivion on their own or were canceled out leveled by the policies of Vladimir Putin.


I would like to call the second decade of the 21st century “the time lost” for Russia, the period in which the opportunities gained in the previous years were lost. More importantly, many of the achievements in political and social modernization, that were reached in the nineties and the zero years, either rolled back into oblivion on their own or were canceled out leveled by the policies of Vladimir Putin.

Nevertheless, such a statement would neither be complete, nor would it be sincere, and what is most essential it would not be accurate. 

The Russian Federation, both as a society, and as a state, and as an economic system continued to develop, perhaps not entirely as dynamically and efficiently as did in the 20 years ago.

The post-Soviet transit has been arguably the most complicated phenomenon in political history ever since the “great socialist revolutions” of the early 20th century. Starting with Mikhail Gorbachev’s dramatic attempt to “accelerate and propel” the Soviet regime and satellite regimes into the economic competition with the West, perestroika unfolded into both “a whirlpool and a tornado at the same token,” as Adam Michnik has felicitously remarked. Perestroika put to rest the ideological party of dictatorship, opened up the countries of the Soviet Bloc to the market economy and , what is most important for us – it gave birth to a wave of liberal modernizations, which have swept from Moscow to Beijing, and from Luanda to Hanoi.

The depicted image of the natural calamity in this instance is very much in tune with reality: the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet kind fell under the blows of “winds of the public” and fell straight into the “maelstrom of history”, leaving behind the loss of the totalitarian class ideology – poorly organized, out of balance, unlawful state structures, laws and principles of governance. And at the same very time, the events of 1989-1991 (both in Russia, and in Eastern Europe) were not a true revolution, which would enable that immediate and complete “nullification” of the conventions and social agreements of the previous, regime that has been overthrown. It is not surprising, that these types of revolutions are often called “velvet”.

What does this stand for in the context of the idea of “the time lost”?

In Russia the liberal and pseudo-liberal reformers of the post-Soviet period have not solved the tasks of “the re-establishment of the state”, their objectives were tactical and in part generally momentary in nature, aimed at keep the practically decaying structure devoid of “ any leadership and guidance power” afloat .

In spite of the liberal language of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation, it has inherited the basics of the 1977 Soviet Constitution literally, recreating it both verbatim & structurally so, in rather many ways. The principles of separation of powers, independence of institutions and the authorities in charge were layered upon of the ideas of the social state of developed socialism, that was promising a guaranteed future paradise on earth in words for embracing the totalitarian political model, and accepting the absence of both civil liberty and political freedom. In addition, the artificially large part of society in the post-Soviet space adopted democratic institutions and practices sans the necessary comprehension of the role they play in the process of state governance.

Thus, as a matter of fact the achievements of the Yeltsin era were, nothing more than a mere liberal decorum. For the minority, and to be more exact, for the minority group, liberal transformations were truly important. As for the rest, they were, at best, something that varied in comparison from the socialist “stability” of stagnation. Within the period of Putin’s reign, these years were called the “daring 90s,” and therefore got completely stigmatized on contrast when opposed to the Putin’s rule.

In the year of 2000, the Russian political vector has shifted. Boris Yeltsin was replaced as the “founder of the state” by Vladimir Putin, a hand-picked special executor appointed to “take care of Russia”. Nonetheless, the goals shaping up what the Russian Federation has become as a system have not dispersed. The commencement of the Putin era continued to follow the reformist drive of the Yeltsin era. A great many Soviet and transitional anachronisms had to be to be transformed, and at the same very time to continue the quest for the “appropriately correct” model,  which would correspond to the new stage of society type of Russia as a whole. In the early years of Putin reign the political design has undergone the entire spectrum transformation: from further liberalization all the way to the conservative counter-reforms, with turns & twists towards a theological state of conspiracy, depicted in such an opus as “Edition No. 6”.

At the beginning, the liberal achievements of the 90s were not contradiction to the new era of reforms. However, they have rather quickly transpired into a stumbling block in the matter of “restoring order”.

The conflict began to escalate. On the other hand, by the end of the 2000s, the state authorities have dealt away with this problem by the factual subordination of the courts, re-writing of the laws (in which the unequivocal staples of the Constitution were replaced by by-laws), and by placing a significant restrictions on freedoms of the mass media. As a matter of fact, what Putin and his associates have accomplished in 2001-2020 was a comeback to some imaginary primordial state of affairs that existed “at the demise of the USSR sans the Gorbachev’s mistakes”.

It was not possible to state if that was a counter-reformation that was originally incepted, or whether it just so happened against the backdrop of the never-ending tactical maneuvers. The important conclusions, however, must be drawn from what has transpired: should history provide a second chance for liberal reforms in Russia, the central task would be precisely the re-establishment of the state, that could be compared in its difficulty to the reforms of Peter the Great, or the reforms of the Bolsheviks, who came to power. I am certain that the country would get such a chance.

This is not a simple task, as it would be most challenging separating the grain from the chaff. The regime of Putin has done a lot of atrocious things. Nevertheless, it has also aided in creation of a certain number of institutions, services, services in Russia, which people really were in need of. The system of pensions, taxation system, banking infrastructure – they all are “anchor chains” by which any reformists are bound by to their past. And the millionth army, the millionth Ministry of the Interior as well as the half-million Federal National Guard Troops Service / Rosguard — are not likely to go anywhere in the mysterious “X – times,” even if they would not defend the ancient regime, they still at the very least would require future funding from potential successors.

That is why, it is my opinion, that the re-establishment of Russia ought to begin not with the dream that  “all of Putin’s legacy is going to be canceled,” and even far less with some grandiose ideas for the next backwards time reversal, but rather with a thorough conversation on the topic of what Russia is all about.

order to do so, one requires a discussion, which does not should have ant topics that are off limits or forbidden. In order to lay the sound foundation for the sustainable edifice of the future nationhood can be erected only on the understanding what kind of “cobblestones” were used for the baseline, what “bricks” can be used, and, what quality mortar is required to hold it. The pivotal questions would be about the territories, about whether the structure is going to be the federal or a unitary one, and on the topic of who wants to live with whom within one state.

The agenda should include questions that have been corroding Russia for centuries – first imperial, then Soviet, and now Putin. Should the Russian Federation be a national state? What if some territory and its population want to live in Russia, but the rest of Russia does not want to live with them?

Only an open conversation of such nature would enable us to approach the solution of problems that are being hushed up: issues of the autonomy for Siberia and the Far East, the status of republics, where Russians do not constitute a majority.

The potential future Russian framers will come face to face with the questions of not only Crimea and Chechnya. It would be necessary to determine the boundaries of federal regulations, but rather everything else that does not fall into the framework and should be delegated to the various forms of the local self-governments. At the very same time, the concept of the local government should be identified. Is it going to be at the regional of republican level? Or should these just be defined as cities and districts? We would have to surrender the postulate that Russia only has the federal army, police and security forces.

So, does it turn out that the process of re-establishment is, first and foremost, an act of deconstruction, the dismantling of existing Russia to its basic parts, in its historical, political and social connote? It would seem, that even such basic principles as the equality of all before the law can and should be discussed. It would have to be done as a bare minimum in order to grapple the very essence of the plausible and even inevitable propositions for lustration, as well as to overcome the already almost enshrined in the law losses of the rights of the people, who have dual citizenship, or residence permits in other countries.

Only by getting to the very core of the problem, one can attempt to propose a resolution to the problem of sovereignty within the framework of a multinational and multicultural country.

In the first case, the members of the federation would delegate certain set of powers to the top. As an alternative – federal sovereignty is perceived as an absolute, in which case the authority power of the members of the federation is determined at the federal level. It would become clear depending on which of the approaches becomes dominant, where the limits of international politics are set, or those of the military alliances, or of the legal obligations of the federal government.

It is no coincidence, that this text starts with a reminiscence of the incompleteness, decorative nature and reversibility of the post-Soviet liberalization processes. The fundamental weakness of Yeltsin’s reforms and Putin’s counter-reforms stems from the lack of determination to “get deep into the very foundation” and sort it all out, in order to ensure some sort of legacy both in the case of the empire and the Soviet period. It is this indecisiveness that holds Russia in that twisted loop, which is being constantly cursed by each & everyone, starting with the rulers & all the way up to their opponents. It is immensely harsh to steadily move forward, while carrying the burden of a thousand-year history on your shoulders to keep constantly turning around for a check-up, it is almost impossible.

To free yourself up from it all and re-register once again something that you cannot wrap your mind around and that is the only current task on the agenda of preparing self for the future.

Well, and that is an enticingly interesting challenge after all, isn’t it?

The author is Vasily Gatov, a Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California, Media Analyst.