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Russia's Original Sin

The shelling of the White House on October 4, 1993 set the stage for Russia's current political arrangements.
The shelling of the White House on October 4, 1993 set the stage for Russia's current political arrangements.
You could sense the young Boris Nemtsov's apprehension and ambivalence two decades ago as Russia hurtled into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

After months of bitter conflict, President Boris Yeltsin had dissolved the country's hard-line legislature and called new elections. Technically, the move was illegal. But Nemtsov's political sympathies were clearly with Yeltsin. And so were his loyalties.

It was Yeltsin, after all, who had appointed Nemtsov, barely in his 30s, as governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast two years earlier.

"Personally, I agree with the president that there need to be early parliamentary and presidential elections," a 33-year-old Nemtsov told reporters, before offering his caveats.

"It does bother me that the president has not set a date for presidential elections.... And if you approach this from a legal perspective, unfortunately I must say that the way this was done fell outside the boundaries of the law."

Nemtsov wasn't alone in backing Yeltsin's move, albeit with grave reservations -- even when the conflict turned violent and he ordered the army to shell and storm the parliament.

Many at the time viewed his heavy-handed and extraconstitutional move as an example of when it is necessary to use illiberal means to achieve liberal ends.

The parliament was dominated by nationalists and communists, after all. At the urging of Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, violent armed mobs had assaulted the Ostankino broadcast center and the Moscow Mayor's Office. Parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov had even encouraged them to storm the Kremlin.

So after vanquishing the retrograde legislature so decisively, the argument went, Yeltsin and his team could finally get on with the business of setting up a working democracy and functional market economy.

Except that it didn't quite work out that way. On the contrary, the violent resolution of Russia's 1993 constitutional crisis set a series of precedents that continue to plague Russia to this day.

The seeds of many of the elements of Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy," in fact, were planted during that fateful autumn, two decades ago.

"We survived that time and we should have learned something from it, but unfortunately we didn't learn anything," Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff at the time of the crisis, told RFE/RL's Russian Service recently.

"For the last 20 years, we've continued to use the same methods."

The executive-heavy power vertical, the unaccountable super-presidency, and the decorative pocket parliament otherwise known as the State Duma were the direct result of the way the 1993 crisis was resolved.

So is the fact that the rule of law is an illusion at best, consistently trumped by a much older principle: Might makes right. Yeltsin's reliance on the military and security services to solve the crisis presaged the central place the siloviki would occupy in politics -- from KGB veterans like Aleksandr Korzhakov in Yeltsin's time to Sergei Ivanov in Putin's.

Yeltsin's decision not to hold early presidential elections as well as new parliamentary elections, as he initially announced he would when he dissolved the Supreme Soviet, also telegraphed another feature of Russian politics -- the tendency to change the rules in the middle of the game.

A direct line can be drawn from Yeltsin reneging on his pledge to hold an early presidential election after the crisis and other, more recent, maneuvers when the fix was clearly in: from Yeltsin's unexpected transfer of power to Putin on December 31, 1999, to the castling of September 2011.

"We all had that Soviet, imperial mentality, where strength will always better solve the problem, as opposed to negotiations and compromise," Filatov told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"If we're ever going to become a democratic society, we need to change our methods of managing the country and the methods of interaction among the authorities."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast later today, when the issues raised in this blog post will be discussed in depth. Joining me on the podcast will be co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie Zapas," and NYU professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." Also joining us will be special guest Nina Khrushcheva, professor of International Affairs at the New School, director of the Russian Program at the World Policy Institute, and author of the book "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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