20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the discussion on the issues of Russian constitutionalism. In part two of this essay, 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.


Federalism is one of the core constitutional principles in the United States. Depicted above is President Barack Obama who delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Photo: Bao Dandan / Xinhua via ZUMA Wire / TASS


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


The Unknown Federalism

We must give the “founding fathers” of the post-communist Russian constitution their due, and acknowledge that they at least defended federalism as a constitutional principle. This was something, considering that today a latent anti-federalist consensus has formed in Russia, one that unites in a sort of secret society the current government, the “patriotic,” and even part of the “liberal” opposition. Many regard federalism as a sort of Soviet relic, like Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square: yes, it would be a good idea to bury him, but as long as Soviet veterans are alive, it’s better to leave it alone. This shows a complete misunderstanding of what federalism in fact means—nowhere else can you find a constitutional institution the understanding of which is fraught with such intellectual distortions and political misconceptions.

If we examine the spectrum of Russian “federalist distortions,” certain ones stand out, with two appearing more frequently than others: “federative formalism” and “federative nationalism.” In the first case, federalism is understood to be something profoundly external, a mechanical organization of organs of state power centrally and locally, within which there exists a division of responsibilities and a two-chambered parliament, one chamber of which is elected according to the principle of equal representation. The presence or absence of federalism is determined by a short checklist: if there is a legislative division of powers or a two-chambered parliament, then it is federalism. In the second case (and this is a much more pathological case), federalism is considered to be the political instrument for solving the National Question. Here the roots go back to the thoroughly false Stalinist method of state-building, in which this or that ethnic group got a governmental entity named after it as psychological compensation for the political trauma it suffered under the communist dictatorship. The government would go so far as to bestow such an entity as a means of encouragement, or withdraw it as a form of punishment. 

Real federalism has, of course, nothing in common with these Soviet political sublimates. It is a philosophical and political concept rooted in deep layers of constitutional thinking, and is most closely related to the concept of separation of powers.

In fact, federalism is yet another way of separating powers, another dimension of such a separation, accompanied by a concept familiar to the Russian people—that of separation into legislative, executive, and judiciary powers.

In my opinion, the political foundation of federalism is most clearly expressed in the American constitutional system, as federalism is one of its core constitutional principles. Within the U.S. system, federalism is not just a method of building relations among bureaucratic institutions; it is also a crucial instrument in the operation of political freedoms. What makes it important for Russia is that the need for federalism as an additional dimension of separation of powers is most pertinent in large states where the initial “central” separation of powers doesn’t suffice.


Separation of Powers: Strength or Weakness?

Further reflection on the essence of federalism is obstructed by yet another factor: in Russia, the meaning of the constitutional concept that serves as the starting point for the development of federalism—“separation of powers”—remains unclarified. In theory, “separation of powers,” is perhaps the most popular constitutional idea in Russia; however, people’s understanding of what it actually is has become no less barbaric over time. Most Russians interpret it as a means of weakening power in the spirit of the famous Roman adage “divide and conquer.” The thought process looks like this: There is a state monster called Leviathan whose tentacles have grown together into one disgusting claw. If the monster is chopped into three parts (legislative, executive, and judiciary), it will be weakened and become a lesser threat to the public. And then the public can be freer. Hence, the subconscious public attitude toward federalism as something that weakens the authorities, which makes it unsuitable for Russia with its vast territories, wild bureaucracy, and endemic crime. 

The political foundation of federalism is most clearly expressed in the American constitutional system, as federalism is one of its core constitutional principles. Within the U.S. system, federalism is not just a method of building relations among bureaucratic institutions; it is also a crucial instrument in the operation of political freedoms.

The reality not only differs from this popular opinion, but is in fact its complete opposite. Separation of powers is necessary not to weaken the authorities but to strengthen them. The question is one of how we perceive strength: as the capacity for arbitrariness, or as the ability to implement government functions in an orderly manner?

Being a necessary instrument of the exercise of power, the bureaucracy has the ability to eschew any administrative signal it’s supposed to act upon, or even to completely shut it down. To put it in electrical terms, the conductor first becomes a semiconductor, and then turns into an insulator.  Thus, the longer the bureaucratic chain with its hierarchical series of officials, the fewer the chances that this chain will function well. Every additional link in the chain will duplicate deviations of power. Separation of powers helps resolve this issue by replacing the series connection with parallel ones. Bureaucratic chains break down, become more complex, and consolidate into groups that compete with one another and, as a result, the administrative signal gets through. The authorities become stronger as they gain the ability to overcome the resistance of their own imperfect nature.

All of this is directly linked to federalism as a concept of a different—horizontal—cut (as opposed to the classic ‘triad’) of separation of powers. Federalism (the true, “live” variety) is the only real alternative to hypercentralization of power and the perennial Russian autocracy. It breaks excessively long bureaucratic chains, (making them shorter), inserts intermediate “control points,” and creates competitive movement that allows for the maintenance of efficient government at a more advanced, non-linear level.

Only federalism, consistently realized in its entirety as the idea of competition of powers, can relieve Russia of the superfluous concentration of power within one person’s hands that so irritates modern constitutionalists. While fighting consequences, one has to eliminate the initial problem.

Here’s a simplified illustration: Imagine political power represented as a pole. Imagine trying to stand this pole vertically on the ground. If you don’t happen to be at the equator, you will hardly be able to do so without hammering the pole deep into the ground. This is the method of the Russian autocracy, the governing method of the country. But once you split the pole in three and use the pieces to create a tripod, it can easily be steadied on the ground. That’s what happens to power under the classic separation of powers. Let us now imagine that the surface of the ground is vast and uneven, and that the legs of our tripod therefore sprawl out, leaving it unstable. Then not a three-, but a four-legged platform is required—it can stretch over a large area of land. That’s how a system based on separation of powers with the added option of federalism works.


Russian Federalism is an Equation Made Up Entirely of Unknowns

When discussing the possibility of Russian federalism, we must begin by taking stock of which conditions of federalism are missing in Russia and which are in place. In reality, there is nothing in place, except for a provision written in the Constitution that Russia is a federal state. However, out of all the non-existent pre-requisites, there are two that stand out: lack of a subject and lack of a universal (unified, evenly organized) territory.

These two distortions of federalism describe conditions that are impossible to bring about simultaneously, and therefore predetermine the two-stage character of the impending constitutional reform.

It follows from the natural and geographic conditions of Russia’s existence that it will be a long time before it’s possible to achieve across the territory the level of uniformity necessary for federalism. Moscow and Yakutia can be made equal only in the constitutional imagination. Because of this, Russia is doomed at least initially to create an “asymmetrical federation” uniting territories of two types: “federal states” and “federal lands.” The former must become full-fledged subjects of the federation, and the latter must remain territories with a special status, governed by the federal center. Such an arrangement might not qualify as federalism according to pure theory, and most important, permits the untangling of those political knots that currently turn the idea of federalization into a total farce.

No federalism can be real if the federation consists of almost a hundred small, non-independent, non-self-sufficient, pseudo-governmental entities whose potential differs by orders of magnitude.  The subjects of the federation must have sufficient potential to realize fully their federative powers, in order to, among other things, develop their legislation, have real autonomy of their judicial and administrative systems, and rely primarily on their own budgets. There are only 20 or 30 such subjects in Russia. With time, their number can increase, owing to the growth of the potential of the federal lands. 

A country as huge as Russia can exist only as an empire or as a federation—there is no third option. The empire has exhausted itself and dooms Russia to marching in place, but federalization will open up new horizons.

So, in order to advance the idea of a federation in Russia, it is necessary to carry out a new carving up of territories and to be free at last of the territorial scheme adopted in the time of Catherine the Second (if not earlier).

The new subjects must be created around several of the largest megalopolises, which must become centers of economic growth, and at the same time administrative centers of the federal states. 

It goes without saying that the new federal states must not be confined to titular nations, and must be fully freed from the Bolshevik inheritance of solving the National Question by “carving out” intra-state boundaries. The 20th century showed us that in the argument on the National Question between Trotsky, on the one hand, and Lenin and Stalin on the other, Trotsky, who defended cultural autonomy, was closer to the truth. The protection of cultural and other specific interests of this or that people within Russia must be concentrated at the level of local self-government. This is a painful but absolutely necessary decision, without which the normal development of constitutionalism in Russia over the long haul is difficult to imagine.


The School of Constitutionalism

Of course, to propose beginning constitutional reform with a full-scale “replotting of the lands” would be reckless. At first glance, the task of building a real federative national constitutional state (not just on paper, but in fact) seems unachievable in Russia. In a country divided into several dozen semi-feudal “principalities” reduced to a common denominator partially through arbitrariness, partially through criminal means, any change is fraught with the threat of anarchy. But that’s just the thing—the federalization of Russia is not an immediate task, but a future one, the final goal of constitutional reform. It is a sort of guidepost, allowing us to see the long-term direction of constitutional development. It lets us outline a constitutional “corridor of opportunities” within which the reformers of Russia must operate for a long time before getting to the final stretch.

Russia will inevitably have to undergo its constitutional development by passing through an “eclectic period,” during which the necessary but currently absent prerequisites of the nation-state will be created and shaped. On the one hand, any effort made today to find a constitutional solution “for all time” is doomed to failure (just as it was doomed to failure in 1993, something that many people then failed to understand). On the other hand, in order to one day reach the end, it is necessary to see the goal from the beginning and follow a set course.

There are various steps to constitutional building, and each of them has its own guideposts. At the first stage of constitutional reform, Russia will need a “temporary constitution,” which will serve two functions—a restraining one and a stimulatory one. 

It must prevent Russia’s backslide into an imperial paradigm, and must stimulate movement in the direction of a nation-state and federalism (which, in Russia’s case, is almost one and the same thing). It’s possible that for the whole of the 21st century Russia will continue its training in the “school of constitutionalism.”

As in any other school, in the school of Russian constitutionalism, the most important thing is to maintain discipline—specifically, political discipline. Historically, it’s apparent that in the face of any challenge, Russia has a tendency to stall into an imperial tailspin. To mix metaphors, Russia is a boat that can’t get out of the harbor, because when a storm begins, the “most practical” and “safest” decision seems to be to turn back. But if one constitutionally blocks the very possibility of returning to the beloved harbor of empire, Russia will be forced to move forward and seek new political—and this time constitutional—means of stabilizing the regime. And then it will necessarily arrive at federalism on its own, without any coercion, because a country as huge as Russia can exist only as an empire or as a federation—there is no third option. The empire has exhausted itself and dooms Russia to marching in place, but federalization will open up new horizons.


Click here to read the first part of this essay.


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