Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 2 (November 2015-April 2016), pp. 32-43
Richard Rousseau
Associate Professor of Political Science, American University of Ras Al Khaimah
(United Arab Emirates)
Under Dmitry Medvedev’s and now Vladimir Putin’s presidency, modernization was/is
presented as a national imperative for the Russian government. It became a political slogan
and a means by which to restore Russia’s power internally and externally. This campaign
serves to push the agendas of some of Russia’s ruling elite within the larger ruling camp.
This article tries to answer the following question: How do Russian elites understand
modernization, both historically and within the current context? It concludes that Russian
“political technologists”, who have been in power in the last 15 years, have become masters
in the art of silencing the voices of those who take a critical view of the government’s
Russia, Modernization, Putin, Medvedev, Conservatism
How to cite this article
Rousseau, Richard (2015). "Russia's «conservative modernization»: how to silence the
voices of the opposition". JANUS.NET e-journal of International Relations, Vol. 6, N.º 2,
November 2015-April 2016. Consulted [online] on date of last visit,
Article received on 25 June 2015 and accepted for publication on 29 September 2015
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 2 (November 2015-April 2016), pp. 32-43
Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
Richard Rousseau
In 2011, under his “Go Russia!” motto, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-
2012) called on citizens to take a fresh look at their country’s history and direction. He
was intent on introducing a debate on the need for economic modernization, which has
been a recurrent theme throughout Russia’s history, dating back to the time of Peter
the Great.
Modernization is now being presented as a national imperative under the Putin
administration, repackaged as a political slogan and embossed in the usual layers of
rhetoric and nationalism. This campaign serves to push the agendas of some of
Russia’s ruling elite within the larger ruling camp. But how do Russian elites understand
modernization, both historically and within the current context?
Russia is too often misunderstood by Western experts and politicians, as there appears
to be no middle ground. Many either take a very negative and somber view of the
country1, or they claim that Russia is so unique and exotic that it is in a category of its
own, not comparable to other states2
Both these views of Russia are misleading. The first paints a very gloomy picture of
Russia’s social and economic conditions, and uses historical precedent to argue that it
has always been perceived as a dangerous country. It cannot be denied that there have
been, and continue to be, many disturbing aspects to Russia’s development, but this
fascination with Russia’s dark side underpins the perceptions of Russia most commonly
heard in the West, which derives from an overly selective recalling of historical events.
The second understanding, that Russia is an exotic, almost oriental place, full of
paradoxes, mystery and intrigue, implies that it cannot be so easily understood by
applying generic social science paradigms. The argument is that as Russia is culturally
unique, it does not come close to adopting normal development paths, particularly
1 See Blank, Stephen (2015). Putin Celebrates Stalinism. Again. Atlantic Council, 27 May. Available at:
http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/putin-celebrates-stalinism-again; Pipes, R. (1991).
The Russian Revolution. Vintage, 1st Ed; Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1990). Grand Failure: The Birth and Death
of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Collier Books; Nolte, E., and Furret, F. (2004). Fascism and
Communism. University of Nebraska Press, 1st Ed.
2 See Getty, J. H., and Naumov, Oleg (1999). The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the
Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. Yale University Press; Malia, M. (1995). The Soviet Tragedy: A History of
Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. Free Press; Applebaum, A. (2003). Gulag: A History. Doubleday; Raeff,
M. (1994). Political Ideas and Institutions in Imperial Russia. Boulder, CO: Westview.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 2 (November 2015-April 2016), pp. 32-43
Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
when compared to those of Western countries. Taking this view is, in effect, a means of
avoiding making any definite statement about what Russia is.
Russia is different in many ways, not only from the other states that constituted the
former Soviet Union but from countries of comparable size and population. It also
stands apart because of the geopolitical role it plays in both Europe and Eurasia, and its
strategic significance as the world’s second largest nuclear power. It wields important
political clout due to its status as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.
Above all, Russia is unique because it perceives itself to be different but all countries
perceive themselves to be unique in some way, and wants to remain different.
The collapse and rebuilding of Russia’s state structures, political institutions and
economic system after the demise of the USSR in 1991 created enormous uncertainty
for Russia and affected the way Russians defined themselves as a nation. For instance,
although today’s Russian Federation is the direct successor of a thousand years of
statehood, the political forms and boundaries of the contemporary state differ from any
that Russia has known. Like the Soviet Union, the Russian Republic was also formally
considered a federation and had internal ethnic-national subdivisions. But in contrast to
the larger USRR, only some of its constituent members are ethnic national territories.
Why? Because most of the republics in the Russian Federation are pure administrative
subdivisions populated by Russians. Under the Soviet system, Russia’s internal ethnic
national territories were classified by size and status into autonomous republics and
autonomous provinces and by national districts. Today, all the former autonomous
republics are simply termed republics. In many republics, the indigenous ethnic group
comprises a minority of the population. Since 1991 the names and status of some of
the constituent units in Russia have changed3
The modernization imperative took root in the so-called third cycle of development, or
post-communist cycle, which began in 1991, the first two cycles being the period from
the Revolution of 1905 to the February Revolution of 1917 and the Communist period
4. In September 2009, Dmitry Medvedev wrote on the President of Russia’s
website that “previous attempts to modernize Russia those initiated by Peter the
Great and the Soviet Union had partially failed and had come at a high social cost to
Looking back at the transformation of Russia since 1991, this period has been
characterized by alternating pushes for reform and stability and has contributed in
large part to the creation of a hybrid system combining elements of superficial
Westernization with the remnants of a Soviet iron fist policy. The overall results appear
to be an elite-led modernization of the economic system and society that has become
fused with a greater degree of authoritarianism in the political domain
Government elites have been transformed into a new kind of ruling class similar to
royalty which today controls the many layers of state and para-state bureaucracies,
military and law enforcement institutions. This class is linked with Russian corporations
through the use of administrative resources and in its rent-seeking behavior. For
3 See Sakwa, R. (2008). Russian Politics and Society. London and New York, Routledge, Fourth Edition.
4 See Figes, Orlando (2014). Revolutionary Russia, 18911991, Metropolitan Books.
5 Medvedev, Dmitry (2009). Go Russia! President of Russia Official Web-Site, September 10. Available at:
6 Mezrich, B. (2015). Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs. A True Story of Ambition,
Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. Atria Books.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
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Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
instance, most of the firms run by former KGB colleagues of Putin whether Russian
Railroad President Vladimir Yakunin or Igor Sechin, the Executive Chairman of Rosneft
and hit hard by the EU and U.S. sanctions provoked by the war in Eastern Ukraine
have received bailouts from the Russian government7
The post-Soviet ruling class, particularly the group known as the “siloviki” (those ‘men
in uniform’ reared in intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the Soviet Army),
reached the helm of power under Putin’s first presidency (2000-2008) and have
effectively alienated themselves from the Russian social fabric
. Such vested interests synergize
and determine Russia’s future.
The Putinist, semi-authoritarian “new integration project for Eurasia”
. The gap between the
ruling class and ordinary Russians is similar in degree to that found in the poorest third
world countries. Because of this widening gap between the rulers and those being ruled
Russian sociologists have diagnosed a deepening social-economic crisis in
contemporary Russia.
9, which
purportedly aims to provide the possibility of a leap of civilization into the 21st century,
has actually become a barrier to social change10. Putin’s “conservative modernization”,
which has predominated in official discourse in Russia since 2011, has, in fact,
sanctioned the social protection and prolongation of the status quo. It has come to
symbolize merely the good intentions and esteem of the powers that be11. This style of
modernization has little in common with the ideas of Western European modernizers of
the 20th century12. For some Russian observers, it compares with that of the
“obstructionists” and “reactionaries” of the epoch of “stagnation” under Leonid
Brezhnev’s leadership13
Conservative Modernization
Liberalism in the West has developed over a long time as private property, individual
freedoms and rationalist thinking developed, whereas in Russia all three has been
absent or were severely limited. The main problem in Russia was that the subject of
liberalism, homo economicus, was largely absent, and therefore liberalism found its
main support among the urban liberal intelligentsia14
7 Miller, Chris (2015). Russia’s Economy: Sanctions, Bailouts, and Austerity.
Foreign Policy Research
Institute, February. Available at: http://www.fpri.org/articles/2015/02/russias-economy-sanctions-
8 See Hoffman, D. E. (2011). The Oligarchs: Wealth And Power In The New Russia. Public Affairs, Revised
Edition; Illarionov, Andrey (2009). The Siloviki in Charge. Journal of Democracy, 20 (2), pp. 69-72.
9 Putin, Vladimir (2013). A New Integration Project for Eurasia: The Future in the Making. Izvestia, October
3. (Reproduced on the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union website).
Available at: http://www.russianmission.eu/en#sthash.H1eXjC3e.dpuf
10 Inozemtsev, Vladislav (2010). Russie, Une Société Libre Sous Contrôle Autoritaire. (Russia A Free
Society Under Authoritarian Control). Le Monde Diplomatique, No.10, p. 4-5.
11 See Inozemtsev, Vladislav (2010). Istoriya i Uroki Rossiyskikh Modernizatsiy. (The History and Lessons of
Russian Modernisations). Rossiya i Sovremenniy Mir, No 2 [67], April-June, p. 6-11; Trenin, Dmitri
(2010). Russia’s Conservative Modernization: A Mission Impossible? SAIS Review, Volume 30, Number 1,
Winter-Spring, pp. 27-37.
12 Von Laue, Theodore H. (1987). The World Revolution of Westernization. The Twentieth Century in Global
Perspective. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
13 Inozemtsev, Vladislav (2010). O Tsennostyakh I Normakh. (On values and Norms). Nezavisimaya Gazeta,
5 March, p. 3.
14 Raeff, M. (1994). Political Ideas and… Op. Cit., p. 56.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 2 (November 2015-April 2016), pp. 32-43
Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
In the West liberalism (including private property, individualism and the defense of the
individual and property rights in law) has come before democracy, but in Russia it was
the democratic revolution itself in 1987-1991 that created the bases of liberalism. This
it tried to do by diffusing the economic power that is associated with private property to
establish the basis for individual rights; but at the same time asserted the need for the
concentration of political power, a post-communist Leviathan, in the form of
presidential power15
Economic liberalism but not necessarily fully fledged democracy was on the agenda.
The deconcentration of economic power, moreover, succeeded in establishing a class of
“new Russians” and oligarchs, but appeared to do little for the mass of the population,
a large proportion of whom lost the social guarantees of the Soviet period and gained
very little in return. Liberalism remained far from hegemonic, challenged by the
counter-ideology of statism, and neither was it universal, limited to certain enclaves of
globalism in Russia, Moscow, St Petersburg and some other cities. Nevertheless,
despite the loss of territory and the collapse of the comforting certainties of an all-
embracing ideology it would be false to argue that liberalism failed to take root in
At the heart of the liberal democratic revolution is the attempt to establish a market
economy and representative government. But how? While the liberal reformers of the
1990s paid lip service to representative government, faced with what to them appeared
intractable opposition from the conservatives in parliament many argued in favor of an
“iron hand”, the strong presidency and state acting as a type of enlightened despotism
pushing through the reforms but preserving the main post-Soviet political institutions.
Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, appeared to succeed where Mikhail
Gorbachev failed in finding a mid-path between representative government and
outright coercion, a type of virtual representation of political and social interests
described by the various labels of delegative, illiberal or regime democracy. The
collapse of communist power and the weak development of a democratic counter-
system allowed bureaucratic and elite structures to establish a relatively high degree of
This was most evident in the government itself in the 1990s, established as a sort of
technocratic high command of the economic transition. In the regions, too, the control
functions once fulfilled by the Communist Party were only weakly replaced by the
system of federal representatives at the regional or federal district level. While social
change and economic transformation were perhaps prerequisites for a liberal order,
political development and democratization require more.
In reaction to the attempt to achieve a liberal modernization without liberals a type of
post-communist Russian conservatism emerged. Conservatism in Russia has much
deeper roots and philosophical traditions to draw on than liberalism; but at the turn of
the century and at the onset of Putin’s third presidential term (2011-2012) attempts
were made to combine the two in a distinctive Russian ideology of conservative
15 Gill, G, and Merkwick, R., D. (2000). Russia’s Stillborn Democracy? From Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Oxford
University Press, pp. 127-150.
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Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
Perhaps the most potent source of conservative modernization, however, was the
patriotic view of the need for a strong state combined with individual rights and a
constitutional system16
Putin’s conservative modernization drew on pre-revolutionary traditions, those of the
Soviet period, and in the post-Soviet period on world experience of liberal and social
conservatism. It sought to combine the liberal emphasis on economic freedoms with
gradual restraints on individual and political rights and an organic conception of the
larger community, the attempt to preserve Russia’s distinctive traditions, to revive the
Orthodox Church and to salvage something of the social policies of the Soviet period. A
distinctive brand of conservative modernization, espoused by neo-communists and
some national-patriots, sought the roots of the ‘new community’ in Russian traditions.
Putin’s rule represents a powerful combination of these attributes and adapts the
modernization drive to Russian current and historical condition.
. Thus, in Russia a unique synthesis of economic liberalism,
modernization and political conservatism took shape and assumed political form since
Putin's return to the presidency in March 2012.
The very concept of democracy in Russia now appears de-legitimized, while the word
itself is used as a term of opprobrium. The credibility gap between the statements of
the leadership and the realities of daily life gave rise to what has been called a mistrust
culture and a pervading sense of social nihilism. The ideology of conservative
modernization means that the political institutions of the state became more ordered,
leadership more resolute and consistent. In other words, political stability is better
assured by an authoritarian regime than by democratic disarray.
In his book Political Order in Changing Societies published in 1968, Samuel Huntington
argued that societies in transition to modernity require firm, if not military, leadership
to negotiate the enormous strains placed on society by period of rapid change17
Russia today has a hybrid political system, both democratic and authoritarian, but more
and more leaning towards the latter type. The freedoms that had begun during glasnost
blossomed into genuine freedom of speech and the press, and the variety of
publications and the openness of their content were unparalleled in Russia’s history.
Censorship was explicitly forbidden and only the courts could permanently ban
newspapers, and then only on specific grounds and after due warning.
. In
Putin’s Russia the “praetorian” role is being fulfilled by the presidency and his closest
allies rather than the army. The presidency recreated a center not only for the nation
but also for political society, the center that had crumbled under Yeltsin. Since 2012 the
fear, however, that the strong presidency would not act as a bulwark against
lawlessness but would itself be the vehicle for a new form of arbitrariness has proved
The hybrid nature of authoritarianism democracy in Putin’s Russia arose out of the
conflict between ends and means and has a dual function: to undermine the old
structures of social and political power dominated by the oligarchs, while at the same
time to provide the framework for the growth of conservative forms that could
16 Markov, Sergei (2009). Conservative Modernization. The Moscow Times, November 30. Available at:
http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/tmt/390539.html; Trenin, Dmitri (2010). Russia’s
Conservative Modernization: A Mission Impossible? Carnegie Moscow Center, May 25. Available at:
17 Huntington, Samuel (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven/London: Yale University
Press, p. 1.
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Russia's "conservative modernization": how to silence the voices of the opposition
Richard Rousseau
ultimately stand on their own. Under Putin, moreover, regional and federal politics
became more insulated from the pressures of economic interests, and the presidency
operates less as a freeloading operator in the interstices of the state and society, as it
had done under Yeltsin, but as part of a state order seeking to modernize the Russian
state and society.
Negative Effects
This conservative modernization model has had many negative effects. The most
notable are the scale and systematic nature of corruption and legal nihilism. Valery
Zorkin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation and one of the
most powerful personalities in Russia, has publicly admitted that crime is ingrained in
the state apparatus and economy and that the interests of members of the state
apparatus and business class run parallel with the interests of criminal circles. In an
interview with Izvestia in 2004, he said that ‘bribe taking in the courts has become one
of the biggest corruption markets in Russia‘. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the level
of corruption in the judiciary increases the further down the hierarchy and further away
from Moscow one goes18. In 2004, Russia was ranked 90th out of 149 countries in the
Transparency International Global Corruption Index, whereas in 2013 it was 127th,
alongside notoriously corrupt countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Ivory
Coast19. It also ranked poorly on the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey; it was 112th
out of 185 countries, putting it on a level with ex-Soviet republics like Uzbekistan,
Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan20
The Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) and the Center for Strategic
Analysis (CSR), two institutions close to the Kremlin, have drawn even more telling
conclusions on the circumstances that Russia finds itself in the middle of the second
decade of the 21st century. They maintain that the high level of corruption is the main
factor causing the overall “crisis” Russia is currently facing
. The Medvedev and Putin governments have however
taken some measures to combat corruption and change foreigners’ perceptions that
Russia is not an easy place to do business. In 2010, Medvedev signed the OECD’s Anti-
Bribery Convention, even though Russia is only a partner of this powerful economic
Russian society has undergone substantial changes in its structure and stratification
and these are still in progress. With the development of global mass communication
technologies and increased access to independent sources of information, post-
. The distain for the state
apparatus, which is felt by the vast majority of Russians, is slowing down the
modernization of political institutions. The ruling power has ‘slept through’ the social
changes brought about by a combination of a transitional economy and the loss of
safety mechanisms for the vulnerable.
18 Blass, Tom (2007). Combating Corruption and Political Influence in Russia’s Court System. Global
Corruption Report 2007: Corruption in Judicial Systems. Transparency International. Cambridge
University Press, pp. 31-34; Gilinskiy, Yakov (2006). Crime in Contemporary. European Journal of
Criminology Russia, Vol. 3, p. 259.
19 Corruption Perceptions Index 2013. Transparency International. (2013). Available at:
20 INSOR Experts Focus Attention on Fight Against Corruption. (2008). Institute of Contemporary
Development (INSOR), June 26. Available at: http://www.insor-russia.ru/en/_news/890
21 INSOR Experts Focus Attention on Fight Against Corruption. (2008). Institute of Contemporary
Development (INSOR), June 26. Available at: http://www.insor-russia.ru/en/_news/890