Russia’s Many Futures
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Richard Sakwa

University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
Professor Emeritus of Politics


ORCID: 0000-0001-6678-8820
Researcher ID: H-3082-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 6506132065


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: 01227 (82)7409
Address: University of Kent, Keynes College, Canterbury CT2 7NP, UK

Russia will have many futures because it has had many pasts. Three aspects in particular stand out in any discussion of Russia’s future. The first is what Marxists used to call the “present political conjuncture.” In other words, the fate of Russia is inextricably linked with the broader developments in global political practices. It is within this framework that one needs to consider the “post-revolutionary” character of Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) began in 1985 soon after his accession to the Soviet leadership, but the great ebb tide of emancipatory socialism had begun long before. The post-war Keynesian and welfare state consensus had already begun to unravel with the end of the long post-war economic boom in 1970 and the move to flexible exchange rates in August 1971 as Richard Nixon moved away from the Bretton Woods system of pegging the dollar to gold. The 1970s saw the first moves toward financial liberalization, and Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 signaled, as Eric Hobsbawm put it in September 1978 in a famous article in Marxism Today, that the “Forward March of Labour” was halted.[1] The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 further indicated the beginning of an offensive against the ideology and geopolitics of revolutionary socialism. In its place the gathering wave of the neoliberal transformation of capitalism transformed the relationship of state to society, the character of work, and the understanding of citizenship in advanced capitalist societies.

This is why the fall of the state socialist systems at the end of the decade appeared to represent the natural and inevitable failure of a given order, and the triumph of the alternative. This is why Francis Fukuyama’s strange and hubristic essay on the “End of History” had such resonance,[2] and why “globalization” became the ideology du jour after 1989. Before then there had hardly been a reference to the term in the literature, but afterwards it became the all-consuming organizing concept for the new moment in capitalist modernity. That “globalization” is an ideology is clear, postulating the retreat of the state domestically and the empowerment of multinational processes and corporations at the global level. Technology and work practices were indeed changing, but instead of the benefits going to those actually doing the work, it went to intermediaries (through outsourcing) and the top one percent, while the real incomes not only of workers but also of the middle class have stagnated for over 30 years.[3]

In short, the tide of social democracy ebbed along with that of revolutionary socialism. This is one of the main reasons why social democracy has not become the dominant political ideology in the post-communist world. The weakness of social democracy in Russia is particularly striking, in a country where social paternalism has deep roots. Instead, the atomistic liberalism nurtured within the decaying Soviet carapace has come to predominate, while organized social democracy remains at best a marginal political phenomenon. In its place we saw the restoration of an activist state in the Vladimir Putin years since his coming to power in 2000, advancing an ambitious industrial strategy of a classic dirigiste sort, but the dynamism of the “managed economy” is constrained by the heavy-handed and tutelary practices of “managed democracy.”

A distinctive type of authoritarian neoliberalism has emerged, in which three power clusters dictate the pattern of social relations: the political leadership at the head of an expanding bureaucratic state apparatus; the tamed oligarchs and business leaders who align their activities with the political leadership; and the powerful security apparatus (the siloviki), which never forgave its loss of power after 1991 and which has become predatory on the business community (working with corrupt state officials) through what is called “raiding.” In this model the “population” is hardly considered a politically determinative demos, but its basic needs are catered for by the extensive rent management system. This is to ensure social harmony and to disarm opposition through a reformatted late-Soviet “social contract.” When the economic resources to maintain the social contract run low, the ideological features of the bargain gain additional salience, notably Russia’s status as a great power.

So, in these terms, Russia is far from inoculated against or insulated from the present global political conjuncture, however much it might stress the country’s autonomy in international affairs and the devising of its own path to the future. Putinite macroeconomic policy has been orthodox in the extreme, much to the dissatisfaction of those advocating a mobilizational form of economic development.

It is against this background that we can understand the second major feature of contemporary Russia that will shape its future, namely, the profound stasis in Russian political and economic development. This does not mean that there is no change in politics, or that the economy has not registered some notable achievements (for example, in the agricultural sector, where Russia has returned to its pre–Great War position as the world’s leading grain exporter), but economic growth rates and the structure of the economy as a whole are far from displaying the dynamism that a country at its level of development could be expected to achieve (a variant of the World Bank’s “middle income trap”).I have spoken elsewhere about the developmental impasse in which Russia finds itself.[4]

The concept of stasis is helpful here, since it delineates the social roots of the situation, indicating an equilibrium between relatively equal contending forces. Joel Hellman in 1998 had identified a “partial reform equilibrium,” where the winners in the early stages of the transition out of communism seek to lock in their gains and to prevent further reform that could threaten their position.[5] The model has some validity, but the problem goes far deeper than that. The exhaustion of the revolutionary socialist challenge to democratic modernity, the weakening of social democracy as an ameliorative and progressive social project, the aridity of the social and political liberalism associated with neoliberal forms of capitalist modernity, means that no great narrative of modernity is hegemonic. The present historical situation can be characterized as “formlessness,” where the great structuring ideologies of the past have gone. Instead fragmented identitarian politics are pursued with an intensity that continues to degrade public discourse.

In the Russian case, this has allowed four great “blocs” to entrench their positions in the polity. None can dominate the others or establish its hegemony over society as a whole, yet each has sufficient stake in the situation to ensure its loyalty. The Russian “establishment” is structured in four great “factions,” with a faction here defined as a sociological-ideational formation broader than a political party or any ethnically or family-based clan, but representing an enduring national political viewpoint or constituency. They can be defined as epistemic-interest groups, combining ideational preferences with socio-professional affiliations. Baldly put, the first of the four are the liberals, divided between the Westernized radical wing at one extreme all the way through to liberal statists and legal statists at the other. The second are the siloviki, mentioned earlier, who are oriented toward security and who in foreign policy remain the institutional and ideological carriers of the Cold War genes (the counterpart of NATO and the militant Atlanticists in the West), ready to awaken a conflict that had never entirely died, and who in domestic politics instinctively move toward repression, control, and suppression when faced by societal challenges. The third group is a heterogeneous bloc of neo-traditionalists, ranging from monarchists, neo-Stalinist communists, neo-Soviet imperialists, and Russian nationalists. They are united by little other than their tradition-based reading of Russian exceptionalism. The final group is the Eurasians, who are also divided into various streams, but whose overriding assertion is that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable gulf between the “Romano-Germanic” (as they put it) civilization of the West and Russia.

The factional model helps understand the way that incompatible groups and ideas are kept in permanent balance. The supreme form of Putin’s managerial role is as faction manager. The regime draws on these forces but is not dominated by them. Putin’s statecraft is based on his ability to ensure that all main factions have an adequate stake in the system so as not to defect, but not to allow any one of the factions to dominate over all the others or to become so powerful as to threaten his own political independence. None are able to force the entirety of their political agenda on to the regime, but each contributes to policy formulation. In some areas one faction shapes policy rather more, while in another an opposing faction has a greater voice. This is a recipe for a politics of consensus, but since no single policy is pursued with consistency and to the full extent of its logical development, this is also a recipe for policy stagnation. Equally, while a breakthrough to a genuinely competitive democratic system is impeded, the consolidation of an outright authoritarian system is also inhibited.

The factional model helps explain the character of Putin’s centrism. Putin positions himself at the center of the factional network, and thus it is not so much the hierarchical verticality of his position as president that shapes policy, but the horizontal structuring of the political field. Although the center is not entirely static, and it can generate policy initiatives and provide leadership, in domestic politics any radical departure from centrist positions would threaten factional balance, and with it the stability of the entire political system. In the United States a comparable framework operates, in the sense that the Constitution has established a system of checks and balances designed to temper extremes but which also makes domestic policy innovation, except in times of crises, exceptionally hard. In both the United States and Russia, the executive has much greater leeway and room for maneuver in foreign policy, although in both cases the presidencies usually seek to act within the framework of the domestic consensus. In Russia, perhaps also as in America, the overall outcome is stasis.

The third great defining feature of contemporary Russian reality is the impasse in Russia’s relations with the Atlantic community (otherwise known as the West). This is a further manifestation of the present formlessness, in which previous forms retain their power to fill the vacuum in innovation and the creation of new forms of international interaction. Accustomed patterns have reasserted themselves, notably what some call a “new Cold War.” Post-modernists may well welcome formlessness and fluidity, and undoubtedly this does open up spaces for innovation in social life, welcomed by some but viewed with distaste by traditionalists, and unsettling for all. In international affairs, by contrast, we are witnessing the epochal shift of economic power to the East, accompanied, as realists would argue, ultimately by a power transition in that direction as well. Russia is certainly taking advantage of that shift. As Putin has several times put it, Russia needs to fill its sails with the Chinese wind. The re-emergence of China also validates Russia’s long-standing assertion of multipolarity in international affairs. Today Russia is at the head of an anti-hegemonic alignment, in which its relative weakness is compensated for by alignment with China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRICS group, and a whole set of anti-hegemonic actors.

None of this, however, helps the country out of its impasse in relations with the West. Here there is complete deadlock derived from the way that the Cold War ended. All Soviet and Russian leaders from Gorbachev to Putin sought a transformation of the European security order, but the apparently “victorious” Western alliance system instead pursued an enlargement strategy. The politics of the latter differ entirely from the former. Enlargement entails a monist conception of the European security order, whereas transformation requires a more pluralistic and shared order. The impasse will remain until, in one way or another, there is some sort of transformation. Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s reassertion of a traditional form of American nationalism and its first moves toward defection from the alliance system that it created could be the stimulus for transformation of the European security system, and thus break the impasse in European (and indeed global) security matters.

There are many other issues in addition to these three that will shape Russia’s future, but these are the most fundamental. They transcend the present leadership and are enduring features of the Russian polity and position in the international system. Russia’s future ultimately affects the future of all of humanity, hence we need to ensure balance and accuracy in the discussion of a topic that too often become polemical and partisan. The formlessness of the historical situation is accompanied by an open-endedness to political outcomes. Formlessness is not the same as disorder, and the outlines of a more pluralistic world order are beginning to emerge. This may well allow Russia to break out from its impasse in international relations, and to overcome the stasis in domestic affairs.

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.



1. Eric Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted,” The Marx Memorial Lecture 1978, Marxism Today, September 1978, pp. 279–86.

2. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, no. 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3–17, with the argument developed at greater length in Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

3. As powerfully demonstrated by Thomas Piketty and Arthur Goldhammer, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014).

4. Richard Sakwa, Putin Redux: Power and Contradiction in Contemporary Russia (London & New York: Routledge, 2014).

5. Joel S. Hellman, “Winners Take All: The Politics of Partial Reform in Postcommunist Transitions,” World Politics, vol. 50, no. 2 (1998): 203–34.