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The Historical Pathologies Haunting Russia Today

  • Published
  • By Prof. Andy Akin

While the full measure of Russia’s destruction in Ukraine and revanchist foreign policy remains unrealized, some Russia watchers hope for an idyllic future in which Vladimir Putin no longer runs a dictatorship of the law protecting large scale theft of state assets. While the Russian state disintegrated twice in the 20th century with little advance notice to the outside world, there remain deeply imbedded structural conditions in Russia which preclude the formation of a liberal democratic polity. It is na├»ve to think that Putin’s ouster would usher in a reform minded leader. Instead the interaction of 4 deep pathologies in Russian history, the legacy of authoritarian governance, the recursive support of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state driven economy, and an absence of private property protections suggest a continuity of Russia as an international pariah.


The most distinct aspect of the Russian state, and the first pathology, is a near-perpetual history of authoritarian governance. Tsar Nicholas I is credited with saying that the Russian state should exemplifying “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.”1 Enlightenment thinking about the limits the absolute power of the sovereign and creates a social contract is noticeably absent in Russia. The norm for the Russian state is an autocratic ruler with minimal accountability and virtually no check on power. Precious few years in Russian history come under any kind of nascent representative government. The first was in the brief interlude between the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the state capture of the Bolsheviks as representative institutions were being built.2 The Bolsheviks ended any effort at consent of the governed and created one of the most repressive states in the modern era. Hopes for democracy again emerged after the Soviet collapse. The 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation codified democratic norms and empowered the President with strong executive powers to protect the future of Russian democracy.3


Vladimir Putin harnessed those executive powers towards his own ends when he ascended to the Russian Presidency. He managed to change the Russian Federation’s Constitutions twice to benefit him personally.4 Beyond that the myriad of journalists, political activists and dissidents and NGOs assassinated, jailed, or disbanded from functioning in Russia illustrates the unquestionable grasp Putin holds on power in Russia. While a democratic minded reformer could leverage Russian executive power to institute more transparent and accountable government, the weight of both history and the structure of the kleptocractic system Putin created stand as formidable obstacles to democratic revolution.


Beyond control of the political sphere, the Russian state maintained near complete oversight of economic activity as well. The second pathology is a historical dirigisme, just as accountable government is a rarity in Russia’s history, so are free markets. The Tsars of the Russian Empire exercised a patrimony over the economic activity of the Russian state to the extent that all economic activity was explicitly sanctioned by the sovereign.5 The Soviets in a similar vein created the largest command economy in the world by nationalizing all firms and dictating universal economic outputs.6 This pathology endures as the current Russian government uses the prospects of individual economic gain to reinforce patron-client relationships.Potential clients curry favor with the regime in hopes of coveted opportunities, and the regime maintains control over the economic sector by installing loyal sycophants and punishing those who refuse to carry out the will of the state (see Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, Vladimir Gysinskiy, and Boris Berezovskiy).

The Church

Giving legitimacy to the statist regime is a recursive connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. The third pathology is the relationship between church and state in Russia. The Tsars were charged with Defending the Faith as an essential element of their rule. Consequently the RoC encouraged fealty to the sovereign and the Patriarch of the church maintained a close relationship with the Tsar.7 Embedded within this relationship was the belief that Russia was God’s vessel on earth and the Russian Orthodox Church was the true inheritor of Christianity. While the Soviets systematically removed outward and visible religious practices, sites, and holidays, the Soviets appropriated the Russia as redeemer of mankind narrative and replaced Christian liturgy with communist buzzwords. In the post-Soviet era, the RoC once again enjoys a protected status by the Russian regime. The church acts as a moral backstop for conservative social laws passed by the Russian state, especially laws targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community.8 In addition, the church benefited from favorable legislation which imposes high administrative burdens on newer denominational churches, especially those with foreign support or sponsorship.9

Property Laws

The final pathology is the Russian legal association with private property. In another divergence from European enlightenment influences, Russia never fully accepted or adopted Lockean concepts of the state as guarantor of private property rights. Instead, property, including financial property remained at the Tsar’s discretion to reallocate. The Soviets had no trouble extending the Tsar’s grasp by outlawing private property, collectivizing and redistributing according to the “needs of the state.” 10 Putin also uses weak property laws to punish enemies (often through amorphic tax charges) and reward allies.Putin’s history of stripping political opponents of their property incentivizes wealthy Russians to hide their capital in foreign states, beyond the reach of Russian authorities. 11

These 4 historical legacies taint the contemporary prospects for liberalization and marketization in Russia. Each is grounded in the authoritarian past and reveals a reluctance among the broader Russian society to accept the Western models of transitions to modernity. Any political reformer will face the entropy of these structural challenges.

Dr. Andrew Akin
Dr. Andrew Akin is an Assistant Professor of National Security studies at the Air Command and Staff College. He attend Wabash College in Indiana for undergraduate school, studying political science & Russian language. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama in International Relations. Having studied and traveled extensively in Russia as an undergrad and graduate student on a Fulbright-hays fellowship, his research focuses on both armed conflict & the post-Soviet states. He was the 2017 AETC civilian educator of the year.  His published work appears in outlets such as The Washington Post, and the Journal, Russian Politics. He is also a classically trained cellist and performs regularly with the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra.


1. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. “Nationality in the State Ideology during the Reign of Nicholas I.” The Russian Review 19, no. 1 (Jan 1960): 38-46.

2. Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution.  New York, NY: Random House, 1996, 82-84.

3. McFaul, Michael. “Russia’s Road to Autocracy.” Journal of Democracy 32, no.4 (Oct 2021): 11-26.

4. Ibid.

5. Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution.  New York, NY: Random House, 1996, 396.

6. Ibid., 193-196

7. Ibid., 20.

8. Garrard, John and Carol Garrard. Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, 253.

9. Eckel, Mike. “Russia’s ‘Yarovaya Law’ Imposes Harsh New Restrictions on Religious Groups.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 11, 2016.

10. Aslund, Anders. Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019, 13.

11. Ibid., 158.

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