Special Issue: Wither Russia? Twenty-Five Years After the Collapse of Communism

Kathryn Stoner, Introduction: Russia in Retrospect and in Prospect

Michael McFaul, Choosing Autocracy: Actors, Institutions, and Revolution in the Erosion of Russian Democracy

Russia’s present system of government did not result inevitably from historical structures, that is from cultural, geographic, or socio-economic inheritances from the Soviet or tsarist past. Russia’s hundreds of years of autocratic traditions made democratic consolidation in the 1990s harder, but not impossible. Rather, individual choices at pivotal moments in time pushed Russia towards a more autocratic path in the 2000s and then produced a reordering of preferences and power in favor of continuity with this new autocratic arrangement. Actors, not structures, were the drivers of these changes, first towards democracy and then away from it.

M. Steven Fish, What Has Russia Become?

What has Russia become? The regime is best characterized as a conservative populist autocracy. It eschews all transformational visions, be they restorative or progressive, while pursuing elite appropriation and reproduction of the political status quo as overriding aims. The ruler relies for legitimation on populist appeals to great power nationalism and traditional folk morality, but he eschews the ethnocentricity often found in populism of the right. His judicious populist politics and skillful campaign to centralize and concentrate power have helped forge a stable, popular autocracy that yields bounty for the ruler and his favorites. But the predatory economic model and the extraordinary personalization of authority create vulnerabilities that may jeopardize system’s durability.

Aleksandar Matovski, It’s the Stability, Stupid! How the Quest to Restore Order After the Soviet Collapse Shaped Russian Popular Opinion

This article argues that despite the chaos and uncertainty of the post-Soviet period, Russian political outlooks were highly coherent because they were driven by a near consensual desire to achieve greater stability. Based on over-time and cross-section dimensional analyses of a unique dataset of 418 surveys, covering the 1993–2011 period, I show that the popular obsession with restoring order facilitated the consolidation of authoritarianism in Russia. In particular, stability-centric outlooks structured political competition in ways that favored strong-armed incumbent behavior and fostered divisions and extremism among the opposition. These dynamics allowed Russia’s increasingly authoritarian regime to rule with minimal use of coercion and largely through the ballot box.

Henry E. Hale, How Crimea Pays: Media, Rallying ’Round the Flag, and Authoritarian Support

Contingent events, including the initiation of conflicts that trigger “rallying-’round-the-flag,” can generate long-lasting public support and hence stability for authoritarian regimes, yet such effects remain poorly understood. The present study builds on the core logic of leading explanations of rallying in democracies to develop theory on how rallying works in authoritarian contexts. Unpacking the surge in President Vladimir Putin’s popularity after Russia annexed Crimea, an original survey experiment finds that authoritarian rallying obtains partly through the activation of patriotic sentiment, but that, counterintuitively, the strongest rallying effects occur among those who watch the least television news. Potential sources of private information on the Crimea annexation’s costs—including negative personal economic experiences and usage of social media—significantly dampen its positive effect on support for Putin.

Hannah S. Chapman, Kyle L. Marquardt, Yoshiko M. Herrera, and Theodore P. Gerber, Xenophobia on the Rise? Temporal and Regional Trends in Xenophobic Attitudes in Russia

In this article we consider the trajectory of xenophobia in Russia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Using survey data from 1996, 2004, and 2012, we examine Russians’ negative attitudes toward seven outgroups over time. We also statistically analyze the degree to which correlates of xenophobia have changed between 1996 and 2012. We find that Muscovites have become more xenophobic toward many groups over time relative to residents of other regions. This change is particularly striking in comparison to 1996, when Muscovites were generally less xenophobic than residents of other regions. Finally, we find that a strong lack of confidence in Russian President Putin is associated with higher levels of xenophobia across time, complicating the perceived link between the Russian government and xenophobic sentiment.

Thomas F. Remington, Russian Economic Inequality in Comparative Perspective

This article considers Russian income inequality in relation to the trend toward rising inequality in the U.S. and in most parts of the world. Income and wealth inequality in Russia has been rising except in periods when the economy is in recession, and wealth inequality in Russia is now highest in the world. The analysis shows that inequality trends in Russia share some characteristics with other developed and developing economies, including technological change, increased integration in the global economy, and the capitalization of rent streams. Financialization and dependence on natural resource extraction contribute strongly to both cross-sectional and cross-regional inequality in Russia. The absence of institutions for aggregating broad competing social interests—whether corporatist or partisan—restricts the capacity of the political system to set agreed rules governing the distribution of the burdens and benefits of economic growth. As in other political systems, both democratic and authoritarian, high inequality undermines the state’s ability to provide public goods that would contribute both to inclusive economic growth and a growing middle class.

Natalia Forrat, Shock-Resistant Authoritarianism: Schoolteachers and Infrastructural State Capacity in Putin’s Russia

This article uses the case of the 2012 presidential election in Russia to reveal a new mechanism of authoritarian resilience, which it calls infrastructural. This mechanism complements the currently dominant explanation of authoritarian resilience focused on material redistribution. The article argues that public sector organizations may significantly increase the ability of an autocrat to implement political decisions on the ground. This mechanism can partially explain Vladimir Putin’s strong performance at the 2012 election, which was achieved through the engagement of schoolteachers, who frequently served as members of precinct-level electoral commissions, in agitation and electoral fraud. The article finds that if the factors contributing to the pressure on teachers were eliminated, Vladimir Putin might not have won the election in the first round.

Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, and Joshua A. Tucker, Turning the Virtual Tables:
Government Strategies for Addressing Online Opposition with an Application to Russia

We introduce a novel classification of strategies employed by autocrats to combat online opposition generally, and opposition on social media in particular. Our classification distinguishes both online from offline responses and censorship from engaging in opinion formation. For each of the three options—offline action, technical restrictions on access to content, and online engagement—we provide a detailed account for the evolution of Russian government strategy since 2000. To illustrate the feasibility of researching online engagement, we construct and assess tools for detecting the activity of political “bots,” or algorithmically controlled accounts, on Russian political Twitter, and test these methods on a large dataset of politically relevant Twitter data from Russia gathered over a year and a half.

Timothy J. Colton, Regimeness, Hybridity, and Russian System Building as an Educative Project

Political scientists often consider post-Soviet Russia, as well as sundry of its Eurasian neighbors, to be governed by a “hybrid” regime that somehow marries elements of democracy and autocracy. Although this approach garners less than unanimous support, I argue that it is the best starting place for inquiry. For the hybridity paradigm to be of maximum use, however, we need more of a conversation about its theoretical underpinnings and empirical manifestations. The present essay takes up these matters with reference to the Russian experience since 1991. I urge scholars to apply a pair of criteria for what constitutes a political regime and pay more attention to what we mean by a hybrid regime and to its actual, observable components. When it comes expressly to Russia in the Putin years, I argue for the importance of the educative aspect of erecting the hybrid system.