20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the discussion on the issues of Russian constitutionalism. Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov explains why Russia’s unitary structure leaves it an autocratic empire, and why a federation would permit it to become a nation-state with functioning authority.


Autocracy became a recurrent quality of Russian statehood, morphing from one historical system into another: from Tsarist into imperial; from imperial into Soviet; and from Soviet into post-communist. Photo: Lyudmila Pakhomova / TASS


  • You can read Vladimir Pastukhov’s previous essay (“Constitutionalism vs. the Russian Matrix”) here.
  • We also recommend downloading IMR’s recent report entitled “Constitutional Crisis in Russia and How to Resolve It,” of which Vladimir Pastukhov is one of the co-authors.


I suppose that to many people, both in Russia and elsewhere, the dilemma posed in this article’s title might seem invented, inappropriate, or improperly formulated. Nonetheless, I maintain that autocracy vs. federation is the key issue on which the future of Russian constitutionalism depends. Russia’s ability to create a nation-state hinges on its ability to create a viable federation. I also think that to reject federalism (and both the authorities and a significant segment of the opposition tend to reject it, openly or secretly, with surprising unanimity) is to doom Russia to endless laps within a closed political circle, in which any move toward democratization and liberalization will ultimately result in the reestablishment of autocracy (each time, of course, in a new and for a while unrecognizable form).

To paraphrase the classics of Marxism, we can say that while all the previous Russian constitutions put a new face on the empire, the real task of Russian constitutionalism consists in putting an end to empire once and for all. Today for some inexplicable reason the insignificant and insubstantial issue of the preferred form of government for Russia—a presidential or a parliamentary republic—has taken center stage in constitutional discussions. This is a false dilemma, and paying too much attention to it only slows constructive constitutional discussion. The discussion should be centered on an entirely different dilemma—that of unitary state or federation.

To choose a unitary state will mean opting in favor of empire, whereas choosing a federation will open the way for the possibility of creating a nation-state.

Authentic federalism has nothing in common with Soviet federalism, nor with its post-communist sublimate. In general, the political realities of Russia past or present have anything to do with federalism. Russian federalism remains to be created. Not only has it never existed in practice; a theoretical model for it has never been developed. Developing one is not a task for the near future, but rather a longer-term goal that will give direction to the movement of constitutional reform in Russia. I doubt this goal can be attained in one “constitutional sitting.” Therefore we must resign ourselves to the reality that the forthcoming constitutional reform in Russia is a long-range and multi-stage project, in which there are both immediate tasks and longer-term goals. They are interrelated but not interchangeable, and it is important not to confuse the former with the latter.


The Constitution of a “Non-Existent Russia”

At the root of the problem of Russian constitutional reform is the fact that a nation-state has never existed in Russia and still does not exist—just as to this day, a Russian nation has not existed.

There is a Russian people, which has historically united around itself, through an imperial government, dozens (if not hundreds) of other peoples and ethnic groups, but this Babylonian aggregation of ethnicities gathered under one state’s roof has never become a nation. Strange as it may seem, the closest anyone has come to solving Russia’s National Question (in the strict sense of the term) was when the Bolsheviks constructed a “single community—the Soviet people.” But this ambitious and utterly misguided project failed in 1991. And to this day, the Russian post-communist state remains a fragment of the Soviet empire, which in turn was an edited version of the Tsarist Russian Empire.

The worst of it is that nowhere except in rose-colored pseudo-liberal dreams is it possible to overcome in one leap the enormous distance that separates empire from nation-state in Russia. There is no constitutional magic wand with which it would be possible to create in a flash a Russian nation and a Russian nation-state. And that means that, as opposed to Europe or America, where nations were formed to a considerable degree in the depths of feudalism (the proverbial “third estate”) and preceded the constitutional order, in Russia it is necessary to first create the constitutional prerequisites for the nation’s formation, and then wait a rather long time for it to take shape, and only then finally nail down the birth of the nation-state constitutionally.

At the root of the problem of Russian constitutional reform is the fact that a nation-state has never existed in Russia and still does not exist—just as to this day, a Russian nation has not existed.

It is understandable that all this takes time, and a lot of time, even by historical standards. Unlike God’s act of creation, everything people undertake themselves, especially in Russia, is a process. Filmmaker Andrey Konchalovsky likes to recall Chekhov’s observation that between the statements “There is a God” and “There is no God,” there is a huge space of spiritual and mental work that the average Russian cannot bridge. In the same way, between the statements “there is no constitution” and “there is a constitution,” there lies an equally large expanse of indeterminacy that will require several post-Putin generations to overcome. And for the entire transition period Russia will need some kind of constitution—not an ideal one (how can it be ideal if there is as of yet neither a nation nor a nation-state?), but one sufficiently stable to set the course for social development.

It is precisely this circumstance that makes me believe a two-tiered constitutional reform in Russia is inevitable. There first needs to be an initial push, for which a “constitutional transitional period” is necessary to ensure constitutional development during the time that the consequences of the current “constitutional excess” (or the “constitutional counter-reforms,” in Tamara Morshchakova’s terminology) are being overcome and a nation-state is being established. Then, only much later, another constitutional reform will be required, as part of which the problem of federalization will be solved, with the final parameters of the Russian nation-state thus being fixed. This two-level process of reform is even natural, if you think about it: with the “amputation” of legal consciousness, as with the amputation of a limb, you must first put the patient into critical intensive care, and only later carry out rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Of course, such a conversation about federalism and the final parameters of the Russian constitutional project seems somewhat abstract, as if we were discussing the constitution of some utopian Russian “Sun City” that has never existed and may never exist. But it is necessary to “begin at the end,” so to speak, and not with a discussion of a transitional constitution, the relevance of which is readily apparent to anyone.

The reason for this is that in Russia, movement described as “transitional” is commonly understood to be movement from nowhere to nowhere. In Russia, transitions last forever—in fact, Russia’s entire political history could be described as a “transitional period.” Therefore, before discussing in detail the constitutional path, we must determine its endpoint and define the parameters at which we wish to arrive. In Russia one must always start with utopia.


Size Matters

As a rule, everything complicated stems from something simple. Within the ever-shifting paradigm of Russia’s political history, there is one constant—territory. If Russia is indeed somehow a truly a unique country, it is thanks to its size. Over the course of the last five hundred years at least, it has remained an endless empire, stretching over two continents. Even losing control over large expanses of land following the breakup of the USSR at the end of the 20th century could not significantly diminish its size. Despite the volume of writing devoted to the influence of territory, geographical location, and climatic changes on Russian history, practical conclusions are rarely drawn from it: Russia is often still measured by “someone else’s yardstick,” which is never applicable.

The size of Russia’s territory over many centuries has influenced its political development in contradictory ways. On the one hand, the size of the country has always been a powerful stabilizing force for political power, and as a consequence, the most important condition for the preservation of sovereignty and independence of the Russian state (thanks in part, of course, to the resources that can be “dug up” on this territory). On the other hand, it was precisely the grandiosity of this space (which had to be settled and controlled), the impossibly long land and sea borders (which had to be serviced and defended), and the variety of geographical, economic, and cultural conditions (which had to be reduced to a common denominator), that served to hinder the successful evolution of the country’s social and political systems, and, in part, the conversion of the empire into a nation-state. Under these conditions, any transformational impulse quickly ran out of steam and dissolved without a trace.

Unfortunately, history provides no examples of the successful transformation of such a huge country from an empire into a nation-state (for many reasons, the U.S. cannot serve as a model for Russia, although this does not exclude the borrowing of some ideas and mechanisms). Therefore it is extremely hard for Russia to learn from someone else’s experiences. It must build its own nation-state on almost virgin ground.

The scale of the task appears so frightful that, psychologically, it is easier to decide there is no solution. And that’s what has happened, resulting in two mutually exclusive conclusions.

In one camp, there are people, and not just a few, who conclude that Russia is an “eternal empire,” and cannot and should not be anything else (in other words, they absolutely reject the possibility of Russia’s constitutional development). In the other, there are many people who, privately (because it is inappropriate to speak of it openly), are ready to accept the possibility of dividing Russia into several independent states, each of which will solve the issue of building its own nation-state independently.

It seems to me that, notwithstanding the scale of the challenges that arise in the process of constitutional development in a country stretching across one-seventh of the earth’s dry land, the priority in this process remains the preservation of Russia as a unified state within its present borders.

Leaving aside rhetorical and patriotic motives, I believe that the idea of dividing Russia is counterproductive for a whole series of reasons.

Unfortunately, history provides no examples of the successful transformation of such a huge country from an empire into a nation-state (for many reasons, the U.S. cannot serve as a model for Russia, although this does not exclude the borrowing of some ideas and mechanisms). 

In such a division, Russia would lose those advantages that flow from its current geopolitical position and thanks to which it historically developed as a relatively separate civilization. Moreover, the Russian people would become one of the largest “divided peoples” in the world, inevitably leading to humanitarian issues, which, in turn, would give rise to political issues. It is nearly impossible to imagine the peaceful coexistence of several Russian states within the former empire.


The Cross of Autocratic Russia

In a country as huge as Russia, the development of effective managerial chains is a difficult task to carry out. If Switzerland were the size of Russia, then Swiss watches would run slowly, not to mention the work of officials. But the size of the territory is only part of the problem. Varying conditions within the country pose an equally complicated situation. Russia is unevenly developed: thickly populated regions alternate with vast and virtually uninhabited spaces poorly suited to human habitation. Given its size and such a variety of conditions, any managerial mechanism is doomed to work badly as a consequence of constant delays, sudden changes in trajectory, and long gaps in communication. If we add to this the traditional inability of the Russian bureaucracy to work according to clearly established norms, then the question cannot help but arise: how could Russian statehood even come into being and exist for several centuries?

The answer is well known: over-centralization. We are talking not only about the centralization of power, as demonstrated in the histories of other peoples, but also about its concentration in literally one point, practically in one person—in other words, autocracy. Russian autocracy is not a fluke of evolution, not a failure of a political program, but rather Russia’s evolutionary answer to the historical challenges thrown at it by natural and cultural conditions.

It’s worth noting that the formation of Russian autocracy paralleled at all times the development of its colonial empire and the growth of its territory. This is one reason autocracy became a recurrent quality of Russian statehood, morphing from one historical system into another: from Tsarist into imperial; from imperial into Soviet; and from Soviet into post-communist. Unsurprising given that the basic factors—the vast size of Russia’s territory and its varying conditions—have remained the same.

Since time immemorial, excessive centralization of power has been considered one of the main defects of Russia’s system of government. Accordingly, since time immemorial there has existed the opposition (reformist) mantra of “decentralization.” Every self-respecting Russian reformer begins with a proposal to carry out the expeditious decentralization of Russian power and to inject self-government into it. However, history shows that the long-term result of all reforms carried out in Russia has only been greater centralization of power than before. At most, reformers sometimes succeeded in making the centralization hidden (or latent), concealing it behind the fence of another decentralized “Potemkin village.” Government power in these cases was realized through a “two-channel” system of formal and informal institutions. The independence of the Soviet republics (and krays, oblasts, and so on) was more than compensated for by rigid party control. And the freedom of the post-communist “subjects of the Federation” is strictly limited by the centralized, arbitrarily interpreted (in essence criminal and forceful) control over government power.

Russian autocracy is not a fluke of evolution, not a failure of a political program, but rather Russia’s evolutionary answer to the historical challenges thrown at it by natural and cultural conditions.

Several years ago, a group of constitutionalist scholars published a manifesto in Russia, calling autocracy the main defect of the current Russian constitution. The problem is that they avoided identifying the deeper reasons for the appearance of this defect, blaming it instead on the influence of temporary factors (the striving to usurp power on the part of the first Russian president and his successor). One can endlessly scrape away the autocracy from the surface of Russian political life, but it will appear there again and again, like yellow salt on the surface of one’s boots after a walk about Moscow in winter. Getting rid of the autocracy is possible only by eliminating the underlying factors responsible for its existence in Russia. We must understand and admit that autocracy is deeply embedded in the unitary structure of Russia and ineluctably flows from the necessity to more or less effectively control the country’s huge area.

So long as Russian government remains “flat” (that is, single-level and unitary) it will be autocratic, no matter who comes to power in the country. In order to break free of this closed circle, the government must become “three-dimensional” (multi-level, composite).

Such a change can be achieved only with the aid of federalism, the true sense and intended purpose of which unfortunately remain virtually inconceivable in Russia.


To be continued.

*This article was originally published in Russian on the website of Open Russia.

Russia under Putin

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