In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Authoritarianism in Russia

  • Introduction
  • Traditional Russian Authoritarianism—Tsarist Rule

Political Science Authoritarianism in Russia
Joel M. Ostrow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0205


In January 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, analysts and observers inside Russia and out anticipated the rise of democracy and open politics in a country whose history had only known authoritarianism. The demise of communism had brought transformation toward democracy and market capitalism to many of the states of East Central Europe, and the same was expected to occur in Russia. Indeed, it was liberalizing reforms under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, that triggered the eventual collapse of communist regimes. Russia’s new charismatic, populist leader, President Boris N. Yeltsin, emphatically proclaimed Russia to be the most significant cog in a new global wave of democratization that would unite Europe. On the surface, actions seemed to confirm these hopes with the adoption of a new constitution; competitive elections for representative bodies at the national, regional, and local levels, and for leaders such as the president, governors, and mayors; and the rise of an entirely free and vibrant print and electronic mass media. The economic sphere mirrored these social and political changes with establishment of free markets and privatization of former state enterprises. International affirmation came with Russia’s inclusion in a new G8, expanded cooperation with NATO, and a wide range of new global political and economic partnerships. The end of the Cold War brought euphoria over a new era of globalization and democratization, expressed in such events as the coalition to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of apartheid in South Africa, and myriad other examples of which Russia’s democratization seemed the inevitable culmination. But this optimism masked the challenging realities of Russian politics, and by 2000 the hopes were firmly dashed when Yeltsin resigned and appointed a former KGB official as President of Russia. Vladimir V. Putin immediately took advantage of a lack of constitutional and institutional protections and dismantled all vestiges of democracy, restoring Russia to an increasingly strong and uncompromising authoritarian regime.

General Overviews

There is no shortage of books, including classic academic studies, on the subject of dictatorship and authoritarianism, but precious few offer clear definitions of either term. Rather, what one finds most frequently are negative definitions contrasting them to democracy, which itself is a term plagued by overuse and lack of consistent definition, including by many scholars, who invoke it. Ostrow, et al. 2007 (cited under Failed Democratization, see p. 6) defines democracy as a political system that “ensures popular control over the state,” through elections but also through institutions guaranteeing ongoing transparency, accountability, and open competition. By contrast, dictatorship is a system in which “how politics are conducted is determined by a single individual,” who imposes decisions “on a populace denied the political freedom to organize, compete and hold leaders accountable electorally or otherwise.” Whether using a minimalist definition of democracy as a political system featuring free and fair elections of officials, or the more expansive one articulated here, Russia does not and never has had a democratic political system. Its history has been of authoritarian rule and dictatorship, as defined here.

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