Home Political Science & Law Journal Issue Article


2010/3 (No 138)

  • Pages : 198
  • ISBN : 9782707165121
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.138.0161
  • Publisher : La Découverte

Email alert

Your alert request has been correctly taken into account.
You will receive an email when new issues are put online.


Previous Pages 161 - 180

In 2008, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev stated that parliamentary democracy does not suit a country such as Russia. The country’s future “for the decades and perhaps even for the next centuries to come,” he argued, depends on “maintaining a strong central authority as the only means of guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the country, in other words, a presidential republic.” Medvedev added that “despite the great respect I have for this form of government [. . .] a parliamentary system would mean the end of Russia.” [2]  Vedomosti, July 1, 2008.[2]


“Russia’s chief characteristic is unity in immensity,” wrote Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu at the end of the nineteenth century (1881, 14). Anyone who has traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to the shores of the Pacific, a journey of more than 6,000 km, will understand exactly what Leroy-Beaulieu meant, given the almost mind-numbing uniformity of both landscapes and land management. This is a country that accounts for one eighth of the world’s entire land mass, and where natural landscapes do not vary over thousands of miles: the same forests of firs, birches and, pine trees seem to go on forever, villages all look the same, and, apart from old cities, city centers all look alike, as Soviet cities were all designed the same, with the architecture of all public, civil, and industrial buildings, subway stations, monuments and statues, and even street furniture the same all over the country. In every train station in the country, in all eleven official time zones in Russia, the clocks are all set to Moscow time.


It would be easy to forget that this uniformity of urban landscapes is not at all a natural phenomenon, but the result of a centuries-old political strategy to unify and centralize the vast Russian state, first under the Russian Empire, then under the Soviet Union. This political agenda has constantly been hindered by the demographic and socioeconomic imbalances that characterize Russia. Over the past 20 years, the disparities in population growth, life expectancy, and demographic and economic indicators have grown as a result of the transition to a market economy, which has led to profound changes in the role of government and the social hierarchy. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to an enforced overhaul of the way in which the various regions were governed. As a result of these drastic reforms, the entire political landscape of the Russian regions was changed forever.


In her famous book, historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse once described the USSR as a “Broken Empire.” Similarly, the Russian Federation that took its place can also be described as an “explosion” into various Russias. Four of these Russias are discussed below, all of which are becoming increasingly distinct from each other, even alien to one another, as they ride a wave that seems unlikely to be stopped by any political determination on the part of the Federal authorities, no matter how strong or modernizing that effort may be.

Regional Government


When he was first elected president in 2000, Vladimir Putin immediately began recentralizing government institutions, arguably in response to the gradual drift toward greater decentralization that had taken place under Boris Yeltsin (Raviot 2007). In fact, the recent history of Russia has been marked by regular cycles of political centralization and decentralization, albeit with one constant, namely quasi-feudal clientelist systems in many towns and regions, whose influence and degree of institutionalization has waxed and waned over time. As a result, the restoration of the “power vertical” initiated by Vladimir Putin can be seen as a new cycle, once again aiming to increase central government’s control over the outlying regions. Authoritarian determination comes almost as second nature to Russian leaders, who are based in the capital city and determined to maintain political unity in the face of regional and local clientelism. In 2000, there was a need for urgent action in order to restore the authority of a central government whose power had been weakened by the rise of the oligarchs in Moscow and by the growing influence of the regional and local clans during the privatization era. This loss of power by central government was particularly striking in the North Caucasus, where the rise of a breakaway terrorist movement led to the second Chechen war in the autumn of 1999. More generally, there was an urgent need for the federal government to recover its ability to fulfill its role as paymaster, all the more so as the financial crisis of 1998 meant that the vast majority of constituent states, or “federal subjects” (see below) were dependent on subsidies from the central government and virtually penniless.

The “Russian Sea” and its Archipelagos


There is a striking paradox at the heart of Russia’s geography. Despite its relative uniformity, Russia cannot really be described as one territory but rather as multiple territories. That is, it can be described as an immense and unchanging Russian “sea,” which represents the second-class Russia created due to a series of successive crises: the economic “shock therapy” of 1992-1995 and the financial crisis of 1998, and then again more recently in 2008. In this Russian “sea,” small islands form a string of “archipelagos” consisting of the more prosperous areas. The Russian population has profoundly changed over the last 20 years. Russia is becoming more European and more urban each day, as more and more Russians are choosing to live in the major cities, and it is in this urban archipelago that the best and brightest and, increasingly, the most productive members of Russian society are to be found. Moscow is a prime example of this phenomenon. Official statistics show that while the Russian capital is home to 7.4% of the country’s population, it accounts for no less than 23.1% of the country’s GDP. In contrast, the federal districts of Siberia and the Far East, which account for 66.2% of the country’s total land mass, account for just 18.4% of the population and 15.8% of GDP (Goskomstat Rossijskoj Federacii 2009). [3]  The figures quoted here are from data collected prior...[3] It is also clear that only a small part of the Russian territory is responsible for producing most of the country’s wealth. In 2008, nearly 60% of tax receipts came from just six federal subjects, including Moscow and its eponymous industrial hinterland (37%), Saint Petersburg, and the oil- and gas-rich Tyumen [4]  This includes the Tyumen region as well as the two...[4] region, which accounts for 17.8% of Russian tax receipts despite being home to just 2.4% of the population and one of the few islands of prosperity outside the major urban areas. While the exploitation of Russia’s natural resources is the main source of power driving the economy, they too are unevenly spread throughout the country. To give just one example, over 60% of the oil produced in Russia comes from the autonomous district of Khanty-Mansi in western Siberia. Finally, while the Russian population is largely homogenous, with nearly 80% of the population describing themselves as ethnically Russian in the last census in 2002, divisions and interethnic tensions are growing. In the republics of the North Caucasus, which saw a mass exodus of ethnic Russians in the 1990s, authoritarian or demagogic ethnocratic regimes have grown ever stronger, in the context of a sharp socioeconomic decline, and, in many cases, low-intensity civil wars. In a much different context, authoritarian regimes in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have also continued to grow stronger. The non-Russian marchlands have now begun to encroach upon the very suburbs of the major cities and the peri-urban fringes of numerous large and medium-sized Russian towns, which are home to a growing number of recent migrants from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the North Caucasus. Moreover, non-Slavic minorities are now largely Muslim (with the notable exception of two million Armenians and Georgians), with Islam now the religion of one in seven people in the Russian Federation.

Putin and the “Power Vertical”


The collapse of the USSR effectively threw a spanner in the works of the political and administrative machine that, for better or worse, had managed to maintain the delicate balance between the different regions and ensure that resources were evenly shared throughout the USSR. The Constitution of December 12, 1993 states that Russia is a Federal State whose constituent entities, or “federal subjects,” are divided into six types: 21 republics, seven territories, 48 regions, two cities of federal importance (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), one autonomous region, and seven autonomous areas. In 2010, after the merger of several of these entities, the number of federal subjects was reduced to 83. However, the administrative divisions of the Russian Federation have remained virtually unchanged since the days of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) (Zubarevič 2008). In each federal subject, executive power is held by a head of the regional administration (more often called “governor” or “president” in the republics), nominated by the president of the Russian Federation and elected for a four- or five-year term by the parliament of the region or republic. [5]  In line with the regulation that came into force on...[5] For nearly 10 years (1995-2004), the heads of the federal subjects’ administrations were elected directly by universal suffrage. With no majority in the Duma during either of his terms as president, Boris Yeltsin relied heavily on the support of these regional leaders, who, he said in a now infamous statement from 1991, could “take as much power as [they could] swallow.” Yeltsin gave these leaders extensive political power, and being elected by direct universal suffrage gave them the opportunity to build their local power bases, which were sometimes so strong that they were in a position to rival central government. Yeltsin also granted all of them seats on the Federation Council as senators. Although the federal government often deplored the “feudal” system created as a result of this process, of which the 50 or so bilateral treaties was the most striking feature concerning the sharing of responsibilities between the federal authorities and the federal subjects, it also benefited thanks to the unqualified support received from regional leaders, which allowed it to effectively control the legislative process in the Federation Council.


In effect, the governors of the federal subjects were the backbone of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential authority. However, their influence significantly decreased under Vladimir Putin, who brought an end to this “differentialized” federalism of the 1990s. Once they stopped being elected by universal suffrage, the leaders of the regional administrations lost their political legitimacy, which stemmed from the support they received from the various regional elites and their power bases. Moreover, by removing their status as senators, Putin also cleverly managed to keep them far away from the capital. By forcing them to attend to their work as regional governors, the Russian president effectively deprived them of that most precious of political resources, namely the ability to win favor and influence as well as the personal contacts with ministers or presidential aides or business leaders that gave them access to – or allowed them to verify – information at first hand. It is also worth noting that in 2000, the Russian Federation was divided into seven federal districts (Northwestern, Central, Southern, Volga, Ural, Siberian, and Far Eastern), to which an eighth was added in 2010 (North Caucasian). [6]  The North Caucasus federal district was created by...[6] Each federal district is run by a plenipotentiary representative of the president appointed and dismissed by the president himself and whose role is to coordinate and supervise the activities of the federal institutions in each federal subject. As such, the presidential representative is both the president’s mouthpiece in the regions and the central government’s chief source of information about what is happening in the regions and cities. This new system means that government control is decentralized, thus moving closer to the regions themselves, while the presence and authority of federal power is effectively strengthened in every part of the country.

Table - Russia’s Federal Districts in 2010
Sources: Goskomstat Rossijskoj Federacii 2009; Višnevskij 2009.

Beyond the major shift toward centralization seen in the words and deeds of the two Putin presidencies (2000-2008) and that of his successor Medvedev, it is clear that rather than breaking off relations with the political leaders of the most powerful federal subjects, both men have continued negotiating – some might call it haggling – with them. Although these regional leaders have pledged their unconditional support to the policy of centralization introduced by the federal authorities, they have nonetheless continued to wring considerable concessions from them. It is worth mentioning briefly a few highly revealing examples of this continuing negotiation.


In 2001, when Vladimir Putin withdrew the right to a seat on the Federation Council for the heads of administrations in the regions and republics, he nonetheless gave them the right to nominate the senator that would represent them there. Each of these regional leaders took advantage of this right, which highlights the extent to which their power bases are built on clientelism, as most of them nominated their predecessor as the head of administration for the region or republic on the basis of the principle known as preemstvennost’vlasti, which allows them to hand over power to a chosen successor. Others meanwhile choose to nominate Moscow-based oligarchs or major local business leaders, thus granting their rich and powerful supporters or financiers an all-important parliamentary immunity. Another indication that Putin’s centralization only goes so far is the fact that the leadership of the United Russia Party, which has a virtual monopoly of seats in the national parliament, the Duma, as well as in most of the regional parliaments is dominated by a number of major regional “barons.” One example (among many) is Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow since 1991, whose political influence and ability to get things done (or to stop them getting done) extends far beyond the Russian capital. For over 20 years, Luzhkov has been very close to a number of major business leaders and above all has become highly influential among his fellow governors, whom he turned into a real political force on the back of his own presidential bid in 1999. Among his supporters are a number of his former close confidants in Moscow City Hall, the so-called “Luzhkov boys,” including Georgy Boos, who is now governor of Kaliningrad, and Valery Shantsev, the governor of Nizhny-Novgorod, both of whom received Luzkhov’s not inconsiderable support. The continued influence of some of these “barons” goes in tandem with a co-optation phenomenon by local and regional party organizations seen in the 1990s within local and regional party organizations, which today constitute the most effective route into the political elite, much in fact as the Communist Party operated under Brezhnev.

Four Russias: The Political Landscape of Russian Society


The real political landscape of Russian society in 2010 bears little resemblance to the formal political and administrative structure of the Russian Federation. Rather, it takes the form of a loose hierarchy of networks and territories defined only partially by their physical location. In practice, several other socioeconomic factors, including level of income, education, social and professional status, and access to services come into play when defining a person’s (or a group’s) status within their local region and society. Geography, economics, social status, even ethnicity are all inextricably intertwined. The assessment that follows can only be a cursory one as each of the four Russias presented here deserves further, more in-depth quantitative examination.

The Urban Archipelago


Individuals or social groups with a combination of a high level of income, education, and social standing as well as easy access to public services and facilities are situated in the upper echelons of the urban microcosm, that is, they live in the official Russian metropolitan regions of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk or in other cities with over one million inhabitants (Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, or Omsk). They are globally connected, that is, familiar with activities and networks linked to the global economy. Even if their living standards can be compared to those of the middle class in Western countries, these people are the Russian upper class. They are the most highly qualified and professional, own the highest quality housing (in particular newly-built units), travel abroad the most, are the most likely to use the Internet, and, importantly, are by far the least likely to vote. What marks these people out – in a striking comparison to their counterparts in the West – is their lack of social activity outside of the strictly private or professional sphere (in other words, they have virtually no interest in joining political groups or associations). This is due to the fact that they have sufficient financial and administrative influence to promote their own interests without the need for collective action. This segment of the population is younger and more highly qualified than the average, and consists of management-level employees of the major energy, industrial, banking, and financial groups as well as of highly specialized service companies such as insurance firms, real estate agents, telecom companies, advertising and public relations agencies, etc.). This segment also includes managers in the federal or major regional administrations, senior and middle management in SMEs focused on the export market, professional groups (in particular lawyers), researchers, engineers, and specialists working in high-tech areas or part of international academic or research networks.


The consumption levels and lifestyles of this Russian upper class are very close to those of the middle class in western Europe, with the notable exception that they tend to save much less. Their territory is marked by shopping malls and major international retail chains, whose arrival in Russia – incidentally – led to improvements to the energy and road networks, and by international airports, with their daily flights to places all over the world. Households in the very highest echelons of this urban microcosm tend to own two cars and a dacha (a second home) located not far from their main residence, unless they choose instead to take up permanent residence in one of the classier peri-urban suburbs. This is the sector of Russian society that sets the fashion and defines taste and whose lifestyle choices and values are the ones to follow. Almost all of the country’s decision makers belong to this group, which therefore has a major influence over the rest of society.


A recent sociological study noted the arrival in Russia of the “revolt of the elites,” a phenomenon that is already well-known in all developed societies (Lasch, 1999). The upper socio-professional classes tend to conglomerate in the same residential areas (the “preservancy area of the rich,” as sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya ironically calls them (Raviot 2007, 13), which has led to the gentrification of all of the most prosperous Russian metropolitan regions and major cities (Eckert 2004, 2006). However, this “revolt of the elites” goes beyond this mere residential segregation since it also means that these upper classes tend to focus almost exclusively on the private sphere and their personal and family networks and are highly unlikely to take part in any social or civil activities. In effect, they have turned professionalism and the meritocracy of education – both of which they consider underestimated in Russia – into nothing short of a religion (INOP 2008).


One of the most striking features of this urban Russian upper class is its high level of interconnectivity, rivaled only by its increasing disconnection from the rest of Russian society. However, it is not only the upper echelons of this urban microcosm that are becoming disconnected; the phenomenon can be seen across the whole of urban society. For example, there are over 20 flights a day between the two main islands in the urban archipelago (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) in addition to the high-speed rail link that opened in 2009. In 2006, flights between Moscow and Saint Petersburg accounted for nearly 40% in volume terms of total Russian internal air traffic (Goskomstat 2009). This urban microcosm is like a chain of hypermodern islands linked to each other and to the islands of prosperity in the “islands of prosperity and gray matter” (see below), both physically (by air) and electronically. While this urban archipelago is the main destination for foreign investment in Russia, it typifies above all the country’s growing digital divide. In 2007, there were 29 personal computers for every 100 jobs in Russia, of which only 11 were connected to the Internet. In Moscow, by contrast, the level of computerization was double the national average and the level of Internet connectivity was more than triple. This digital divide separates 10 federal subjects (including Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Tyumen) from the rest of Russia. Even more strikingly, in 2007, nearly 75% of Russian Internet traffic was between Moscow and Saint Petersburg (OMF 2010).


This avid use of the Internet also allows us to measure the importance of the lower echelons of the urban archipelago within the collective consciousness of Russia in 2010. Without a doubt, this is the most important section of the Russian middle class, if only because it represents the layer of society situated mainly between median and average income levels. This urban middle class benefits from a quality of life that is above the Russian average, principally because it has far better access to services (in particular health services) than is available to residents of other Russian cities, especially medium-sized ones. However, it also suffers as a result of its proximity (both physically and professionally) to the Russian elite. The urban middle class and the elite live in the same cities, work in the same large companies or administrations, do their shopping in the same malls, and importantly, share the same increasingly gridlocked roads. Clearly, there is significant potential for civil unrest among this urban middle class, not least because it is the physical and intellectual focal point for social discontent as well as information and know-how about how best to network and get the most out of collective action. Successful actions in defense of the rights of car drivers and against a number of totemic building projects are clear evidence of this, revealing the extent to which this segment of Russian society perceives itself as unfairly discriminated against despite its relative prosperity. Although this is not a segment of Russian society that feels the need to rise up in protest against power per se, it will instinctively do so against any abuse of that power. Its protests are about privilege, for example, the impunity enjoyed by people who misuse the flashing lights on their cars or commit other major abuses of the Highway Code. In 2008-2009, the number of fatal accidents caused by cars driven by political leaders (particularly those from the regions) or by their drivers prompted several major protests among the Russian public, which received significant coverage in the media. Russia’s urban middle classes and elite are now most likely to meet on the roads, which means that the roads are also likely to become the most politically sensitive source of conflict in Russia the future (Bunin 2010).

Islands of Prosperity


In addition to the urban archipelago, there are three different islands of prosperity scattered in the sea of “second-class Russia”: the archipelago of rent, the gray matter archipelago, and the deep-rooted Russia of the rich rural regions. The archipelago of rent (whose revenues come from natural resources, especially oil and gas reserves) consists of cities with rapidly growing populations and the highest per capita incomes in all of Russia. Perhaps the most feverish examples of the growth of these hyper-privileged enclaves in the heart of the taiga or tundra are Surgut (population 300,000 in 2010) and Khanty-Mansiysk (population 76,000) in the autonomous district of Khanty Mansi. Their GDP per capita is twice that of Moscow, which itself is three times higher than the Russian average. [7]  Total GDP per capita for the autonomous district of...[7] This archipelago of oil and gas revenues tops all other socioeconomic indicators in the country. Here is where consumption levels are the highest, homes have all the latest gadgets, local authorities offer all the best facilities, consumers have the easiest access to banking services and patients to health services, new homes and new roads are being built, and the most money has been spent on renovating the old road and energy infrastructure. Helped in part by per capita tax receipts that are truly astronomical for Russia, the cities of the revenue archipelago have developed extremely generous social policies that offer today’s residents the type of heaven-on-earth that previously only existed in Soviet-era propaganda. To many people, the revenue archipelago can be seen as a sort of high-tech colony of the urban archipelago. Its cities are well connected to many foreign tourist destinations, and in particular to the two capital cities, with daily flights to Moscow and Saint Petersburg always full, and where many residents send their children to study and where they have invested heavily in real estate.


The “gray matter archipelago” is less spectacularly rich than the rent archipelago. It consists of several major cities (although not large enough to be considered metropoles) that are home to major universities and scientific institutes, such as Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, or small and medium-sized cities that host research centers or high-tech manufacturing industries. This group includes scientific cities and the so-called “closed towns” that used to be home to the military industrial production complexes of the Soviet era, many of which have successfully transformed into centers for new technologies. The number of people with university degrees living here is far higher than anywhere else in Russia, as is the use of new IT tools. These scientific and technical research centers are also well represented within the Russian blogosphere. Although 70% of Russian bloggers are from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the residents of the gray matter archipelago (with less than 1% of the total Russian population), account for 15% of active blogs in Russia (OFM 2010). Clearly, there is real potential for these cities to become the birthplace of a new knowledge economy in Russia. In fact, this was clearly the hope of President Medvedev when he launched a new “innovation hub” initiative in 2009, which was an attempt at stopping the brain drain that has grown steadily over the previous 20 years. It is also worth noting that voting patterns in the gray matter archipelago differ somewhat from those in the revenue or urban Russia, which tend to vote for the party in power. Voter participation levels are higher here than in the major cities, and voters are much less likely to support the party in power, with support for more liberal and democratic political parties considerably higher here than in other parts of Russia.


The third island of prosperity is the deep-rooted Russia of the Black Lands, the rich agricultural region to the south of European Russia. This region, a rough square between the cities of Kursk, Tambov, Volgograd, and Krasnodar, has a number of distinguishing features that mark it out from the rest of Russia. Despite being far removed from the major urban centers or the revenue-rich oil and gas fields, this deep-rooted Russia is the only part of the country where economic and demographic growth go hand-in-hand thanks to a steady and growing influx of migrants. The region is crisscrossed by a network of small and medium-sized cities with a population density unlike any other in Russia (closer in fact to that seen in neighboring Ukraine). Although incomes are not particularly high at roughly the Russian average, data show that the quality of life is very high. For example, the urban-rural divide that is usually seen in Russia as regards access to local services (in particular sanitation) is far less pronounced here than elsewhere. Although the number of retirees is no higher or lower than elsewhere in Russia, male life expectancy is higher than the national average (65 compared to 61), perhaps as a result of another striking statistic, namely the fact that the diet of people living in this region is far richer and more varied than in any other region. Additional characteristics that help define deep-rooted Russia include, for example, the fact that there is no (or virtually no) mass exodus from this region – in fact, the population is rising and the number of migrants leaving is insignificant. The majority of the current population have lived there for several generations, a truly remarkable feat considering the constant flow of migrants throughout the twentieth century. A patchwork of towns and villages sit cheek by jowl, which brings a degree of social proximity. Moreover, the number of SMEs and micro-companies per capita in the areas of Voronezh, Rostov, and Krasnodar alone is nearly double the national average (Goskomstat 2008). Finally, criminality levels are lower than in other ethnically Russian rural regions, where they can be very high even in small and medium-sized cities, suggesting that there is greater social cohesion in this archipelago. This deep-rooted Russia also includes a substantial middle class that differs from the urban middle class in that income and education levels are lower, lifestyles and values are more traditional, and voter participation is considerably higher than elsewhere in Russia. By making them the core of his new pro-Putin majority, Vladimir Putin managed very successfully to bring together these two middle classes, and urban middle class that is more centrist, liberal, and open to the west, and a rural middle class that is more “patriotic” (bordering on nationalistic) and that was the last bastion of the Communist vote in the 1990s (Raviot 2008).

Second-class Russia


Second-class Russia accounts for most of the rest of the country. It begins at the edges of the cities and islands of prosperity and in the peri-urban zones around large and medium-sized cities. It stretches from depressed industrial cities and the deserted countryside to the glubinka, or “the Russian heartland,” its dark underbelly that groups together those with the lowest incomes – on a par with or just one step above the poverty line – the lowest education levels, and the lowest access to services. Although voter participation in deepest Russia is slightly higher than the national average, that Russia is at the bottom of the socioeconomic league table. This is the Russia of small and medium-sized towns, far removed from the major cities, with poor facilities and poor connections to large cities by road or public transportation. It is the Russia of the depressed countryside from the Urals to Siberia, where the soil is not black and fertile and where the ravages of the exodus to the cities have taken their toll. It is the Russia of penniless pensioners who can barely afford to eat meat more than once a week and of a population that simply stops looking after itself. A single telling statistic is enough to describe this Russia: in 2006, just 43% of rural households had running water, and only 22% had hot water (Marchand 2007b, 149). The population of this Russia is slightly older, with more women than men, and it is considerably less well-educated than the Russian average. It is also the Russia where in many areas, cash transactions became increasingly rare throughout the 1990s and were replaced by a return to a former barter system. This is particularly true in areas where over 20% of the local population is below the poverty line (the Russian average in 2007 was 13.4%) (Goskomstat 2009). That Russia also includes the long-term unemployed, those with no job security, employees in trades in crisis or that are slowly disappearing, the many highly qualified people whose professions were downgraded significantly during the 1990s (in particular the many junior and senior army officers who have struggled to retrain), and the many young people with no educational or professional qualifications. It is a Russia where most of the household income is spent on food and essential needs such as transportation, clothing, and healthcare. Importantly, the vast majority of Russian retirees, who have significant demographic and economic influence (in 2007, there were 1.75 people in active employment for every retiree) are also considered part of this second-class Russia.


This Russia – and by extension deepest Russia also – is marked by three main characteristics: i) unemployment is on average 1.5 times higher than the Russian average (which was 6.1% at the end of 2007); ii) the number of people out of work far outnumbers those in work as a result of a disproportionate number of retirees; and iii) the estimated share of income accounted for by benefits (including retirement payments) is significantly higher than the Russian average, which is 11.6%, whereas the figure for most of the regions in second-class Russia is over 20%. This is also the Russia of the protest vote, which is particularly significant in the mono-industry cities of the Urals and Siberia, a throwback to the old managed economy days of the Soviet era. These depressed industrial zones are the electoral breeding ground for the demagogic politics of such charismatic speakers as Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In fact, the Communist party never managed to win over this section of the electorate. Although the “vote against all” mindset, which used to allow people to reject all political parties en masse in a kind of active voter abstention may no longer exist, its spirit endures in this second-class, rebellious Russia (Raviot 2008).

The Non-Russian Marchlands


The Russia of the non-Russian marchlands can be split into two subdivisions that in fact share little in common. The first consists of the former autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, recently grouped together into an official federal district that contains just one federal subject where the population is predominantly ethnic Russian (the territory of Stavropol). [8]  The choice of Pyatigorsk as the capital of the new...[8] The chief characteristic of these republics is that they have only a small Slavic population, a feature that clearly distinguishes them from the other republics in the Russian Federation and one that has become even more marked since the break-up of the USSR. The second subdivision is more difficult to define, not least because there is far less data on which to base a definition. It consists mainly of newly-arrived migrants from the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the North Caucasus, who have chosen to settle in the suburbs of the major cities in the very heart of the urban archipelago or in smaller, less important cities in second-class Russia. They do not mix with the Russo-Slavic population and tend to stick to their own separate ethnic communities – at least, this is how they are perceived by the vast majority of Russians.


The Soviet system of nationalities was based on the principle that each nationality should have its own territory and be led by its own people. This system dictated that the leadership of the republics should be drawn from the same ethnic background. As a result, a number of de facto ethnocracies sprang up across Russia, many of which have grown stronger since the fall of the USSR. These include the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which could be semi-attached to the revenue archipelago on account of revenues from their substantial oil reserves (Baku II). The leadership of both these republics is based on a kind of ethnic cronyism inherited from the nomenklatura, a system that has remained largely unchanged since the old Communist days, helped – not coincidentally – by the fact that the ruling elites remain essentially the same as in the Soviet era. While most Tatars and Bashkirs are Muslim, it is not possible to categorize these two impregnable post-Soviet fiefdoms within the Russia of the non-Russian fringe. First, their population is different, with a significant ethnic Russian minority. Second, the standard of living in these republics is much closer to what prevails in the urban archipelago or the North Caucasian district, or among the central Asian migrants living in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.


Although some observers have somewhat arbitrarily lumped all Russian Muslims together into the category of potential separatists, the Muslims in the Volga and Ural districts have almost nothing in common and virtually no contact with their co-religionists in the North Caucasus. The Russia of the non-Russian fringes is a kind of second-class Russia that in socioeconomic terms is very close to deepest Russia. While the average per capita income in Russia was the equivalent of €4,320 in 2007, [9]  Calculated on the basis of €1 = 35 roubles (average...[9] it was less than half this figure in all the republics of the North Caucasus. On this purely economic basis, this Russia of the non-Russian fringes must also include the republic of Kalmykia, on the northern shore of the Caspian Sea, as well as the autonomous micro-territories of southern Siberia. This extended Russia of the non-Russian fringes and steppes (including Kalmykia and the Siberian territories) is very much on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. It has high unemployment (over 25% everywhere and as high as 53% in Chechnya), and a significant section of the population is below the poverty line (over 20% everywhere and as high as 41% in Ingushetia). Other data confirm that this section of Russian society differs considerably from the rest. Compared to the Russian average, it has a higher rate of natural population growth and longer life expectancy, it is considerably more rural, and it has a younger and less well-educated population as well as a disproportionate number of people out of work, not as a result of a large number of retirees living there but because of high youth unemployment (Višnevskij 2009). The question is whether this results from their ethnicity and their different cultural and religious identity. It is certainly possible to put the lowest levels of criminality in the entire Russian Federation down to the influence of clans and village justice, with their own non-official methods for dealing with conflicts, in a region of the world where honor crimes and vendettas are considered part of the culture. The way in which this Russia of the non-Russian fringes is portrayed in the media (particularly on TV) in the major cities is particularly striking. It is often represented as a society that is becoming increasingly alien to the rest of Russia, in a state of virtual separation, and the potential “enemy within.” In his speech announcing the creation of the new North Caucasian federal district at the start of 2010, the Russian president announced his determination to do away with corrupt ethnic clientelism, though he failed to say precisely which ethnocracies he had in mind.


The perception that Russia is somehow waging a low-level war against Caucasus residents or Muslims stems from a variety of sources, including the horror stories told by ethnic Russians returning from Central Asia (and in particular from war-torn Tajikistan) in the 1990s, images of two wars in Chechnya, and the hostage taking and terrorist attacks that have sadly marked the last 15 years of Russian history. Moreover, this perception has continued to grow in tandem with the rise in the number of migrants belonging to “visible” communities (to use the expression commonly used in France) from the Caucasus or Central Asia. [10]  Net migration tripled between 2003 and 2007 (Višnevskij...[10] The public perception of issues such as the rise within these new migrant communities of ethnic criminality (Tiškov 2005) is often over-inflated, not least because the issues are not well understood. However, they are no less real for all that, and they generate new economic and commercial rivalries on a daily basis. [11]  Vedomosti, June 14, 2010.[11] For example, a number of serious incidents followed by riots in the tiny village of Kondopoga in Karelia shook the whole of Russia in September 2006. Moreover, such incidents are leading to a growing anti-immigrant trend among Russians, especially those living in the urban archipelago, despite the fact that the vast majority of these migrants come from post-Soviet states and speak Russian, or, in the case of Chechen, Dagestani, and Ingush migrants, are in fact citizens of the Russian Federation. In spring 2010, the Moscow authorities announced that they were developing a “Muscovite code” that would, in the words of one staff member working for the municipality, “set out in black and white the hitherto unwritten rules that all people living in our city must adhere to, namely don’t kill sheep in your courtyard, don’t cook kebabs on your balcony, don’t walk around the streets in your national costume, and do speak Russian.” [12]  It is important to remember that restrictions on the...[12] In particular, images of the 2005 riots in French suburbs had a massive impact in Russia. Although the levels of frustration and anger that today typify the ghettos of the French Republic are not yet shared by the Russians from the non-Russian fringe living in the cities, the specter is growing of a very real separatist threat from minorities that until now were not perceived as such and of a threat of fragmentation along ethnic lines that would strike at the heart of Russian society and whose potential repercussions can be seen very clearly in each new terrorist attack. These events throw a stark light on the fault lines within the Russian Federation, whose continued unity now seems more uncertain than ever.



Following the partial regional and local elections held in the autumn of 2009, which were marred by several blatant cases of fraud, Dimitri Medvedev decided to step up his criticism of Russia’s efforts to improve its economy and its democracy. Building on the message of an earlier speech given in 2008, he vigorously denounced the fraud before the Russian parliament. Yet there was nothing exceptional about this fraud, which had just helped Medvedev’s own United Russia party increase its absolute majority in every parliament in the country. Yet the speech was not well received by local and regional leaders, who saw it as a betrayal, given that most of them had pledged to follow the central party line. Many of them complained about this breakdown in traditional communications between the “power party” in central government and its counterparts in the regional administrations. “Do they know what they want in Moscow?” lamented many of the politicians, in a state of utter confusion. In effect, Medvedev’s modernizing zeal struck right at the heart of a political system that is essentially a pyramid of top-down crony networks. Reports by a think tank close to the Russian president (who sits on its advisory board and whose policies are inspired by its findings) (INSOR 2010a, 2010b) call for a major reform of local and regional government in Russia based on three basic principles, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Delegate more authority to the federal districts and reduce the authority of the federal subjects;

  2. Develop new technology and knowledge economy hubs run directly by federal ministries; and

  3. Develop a new management policy designed to promote meritocracy through the creation of a management reserve list drawn from both the public and private sectors at each level of sub-national government. [13]  See the programme’s website: http://www.rezerv.gov...[13]


All three proposals were the object of informed and expert criticism, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. This attempt at reforming sub-national government through rationalization to better meet the demands of the modernizing economic policies pursued by central government is unlikely to be no more successful than previous efforts [14]  Natalija Zubarevič (2008) discusses the dangers involved...[14] (Zubarevič 2008);

  2. The Olympic project, which consists of preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi or innovation hubs such as the one in Skolkovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, which is officially described as the “Russian Silicon Valley,” have the potential to become the Potemkin villages of the twenty-first century; [15]  See D. Danilov (2010).[15]

  3. While it is still too early to pass judgment on the creation of a management reserve list barely a year after its launch, its similarity to the nomenklatura system is certainly cause for alarm. Although it may prove useful in the short term in putting in place a new generation of reformers, the track record of this system in Soviet times shows just how inadequate it is in ensuring promotion based on skills and merit (Raviot 2007).


All the indications are that Medvedev has continued with the centralizing policies of Putin. Unlike his predecessor, however, he prefers to sidestep regional clientelism rather than work with it or try to control it from afar. By creating new economic hubs or by trying to develop a pool at the national level from which to draw the next generation of managers when the inevitable changing of the old guard takes place, he appears to be replacing regional clientelism with a kind of federal technocratic clientelism in which a new network of elites managed by Moscow will allow for more effective top-down control of the Russian regions. One clear indication of this desire to move toward a more centralized, technocratic system is the strong backing given by the federal government to a recent decision by the Kostroma municipal authorities, who decided that rather than having residents elect a new mayor, they would instead replace the mayor’s post with that of city manager selected by the municipal authorities themselves.


The major demographic and socioeconomic disparities that mark Russian society have already exposed the weaknesses of the country’s sub-national system of government, a system largely unchanged for centuries from the Russian Empire through the USSR to today. These disparities will only get wider in the future, making the system seem even more archaic to those reformers and modernizers who continue to call – and who have been calling since at least the nineteenth century – for radical changes to sub-national government in Russia. Twenty years from now, the four different Russias outlined above are likely to be even more distinct from one another than they are today, perhaps even to the point where it will no longer be possible to consider Russia a single country. While government in Russia continues along the traditional twin tracks of center and fringes, Russian society is moving in an entirely different direction. As in many other developed societies, it is becoming increasing fragmented and pluralistic, a society based on communities and networks. As a result, power is being both recentralized and decentralized along different lines (Carroué 2004). Despite these major changes, which are themselves partly linked to the development of the global economy, there is a strong chance that the sub-national government of the future in Russia will bear more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart from the immediate and more distant past. Large swathes of Russian territory seem to have little chance of survival without hand-outs from a centralized – not to mention authoritarian – federal government. For these regions, the administrative reforms of Vladimir Putin seem to offer a more realistic vision of the future than the possibility of genuine political democratization. Like Chechnya, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan before it, the Russia of the non-Russian fringes seems likely to go down the route of indirect rule, a model of government that was widespread under both the Empire and the Soviet Union after 1953 and under which, in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty to the central government, local non-Russian ruling elites were given considerable political freedom. Ultimately, a globalized Russia could emerge, consisting of the urban, revenue and gray matter archipelagos under a more pluralistic and liberal regime, closer to the international standards of governance and expertise. In any case, we can be certain of one thing: the future political landscape of this great landmass that is Russia will undoubtedly be far less monotonous and uniform than that of today, or that of yesterday.


  • Bunin, I. 2010. “Novye i starye formy protesta i strategija vlasti.” Accessed from: http://politcom.ru/10154.html
  • Carroué, L. 2004. Géographie de la mondialisation. Paris: Armand Colin.
  • Danilov, D. 2010. “O! Skolkovo otkrytij čudnyx.” Russkie Novosti, March 22, 2010. Accessed from: http://www.russianews.ru/policy/31182
  • Eckert, D. 2004. Le monde russe. Paris: Hachette.
  • Eckert, D. 2006. “Les villes russes en révolution.” Accessed from: http://www.cafe-geo.net/article.php3?id_article=828
  • Gelman, V. 2007. “Le retour du Léviathan: La politique de recentralisation en Russie depuis 2000.” Critique Internationale 34:103-25.
  • Goskomstat Rossijskoj Federacii. 2008. Maloe i srednee predprinimatel’stvo v Rossii. Moscow. Accessed from: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/business/inst-preob/obsled/mal_bisnes.htm
  • Goskomstat Rossijskoj Federacii. 2009. Regiony Rossii. Social’no-èkonomičeskie pokazateli. Moscow. Accessed from: http://www.gks.ru/bgd/regl/B09_14p/Main.htm
  • INOP (Institut Obščestvennogo Proektirovanija). 2008. Summa ideologij: Mirovozzrenie i ideologija rossijskoj èlity. Moscow.
  • INSOR (Institut Sovremennogo Razvitija). 2010a. Ob’edinenie sub’ektov Federacii: Za i protiv. Moscow.
  • INSOR (Institut Sovremennogo Razvitija). 2010b. Rossija XXI veka: Obraz želaemogo zavtra. Moscow.
  • Lasch, C. 1999. La révolte des élites et la trahison de la démocratie. Castelnau-le-Lez: Climats.
  • Leroy-Beaulieu, A. 1881. L’empire des tsars et les Russes. Paris: Hachette.
  • Marchand, P. 2007b. Géopolitique de la Russie. Paris: Ellipses.
  • OMF (Obščestvennoe Mnenie Foundation). 2010. Internet v Rossii 38.
  • Raviot, J.-R. 2007. Qui dirige la Russie? Paris: Lignes de Repères.
  • Raviot, J.-R. 2008. Démocratie à la russe: Pouvoir et contre-pouvoirs en Russie. Paris: Ellipses.
  • Razvitie interneta v regionax Rossii. 2009. Accessed from: http://download.yandex.ru/company/ya_regions_report.pdf
  • Tiškov, V. 2005. “Rynočnaja ekonomika i etničeskaja sreda.” Obščestvo i Ekonomika 12. Accessed from: http://www.demoscope.ru/weekly/2007/0271/analit03.php
  • Višnevskij, A., ed. 2009. Naselenie Rossii 2007. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo GU-Vysšaja Škola Ekonomiki.
  • Zubarevič, N. 2008. “Ukrupnjat’bespolezno: Rossijskaja ekonomika sliškom slaba dlja provedenija politiki ekonomičeskogo vyravnivanija regionov.” Ekspert 4. Accessed from: http://www.expert.ru/printissues/expert/2008/24/interview_ukrupnyat_bespolezno


[1] Professor of contemporary Russian history and politics at the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre-La Défense.

[2] Vedomosti, July 1, 2008.

[3] The figures quoted here are from data collected prior to the 2008 economic crisis.

[4] This includes the Tyumen region as well as the two autonomous districts of Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets, which are part of this region and which are also classified as “federal subjects.”

[5] In line with the regulation that came into force on July 1, 2009, the President nominates a candidate for the post of Governor, who is then elected by the parliament of the region, republic, or territory from a shortlist of three candidates drawn up by the largest political group in each regional parliament. However, the President is also free to reject all three candidates, forcing the largest political group in each case to put forward a new list of three candidates. These three candidates can also be rejected by the President, who is then free to choose his own candidate from a “reserve list” (kadrovyj rezerv).

[6] The North Caucasus federal district was created by a presidential decree of January 19, 2010 that resulted in the division of the former South federal district into two. This new federal district includes all the republics of the North Caucasus (except for the Republic of Adygea) as well as the territory of Stavropol.

[7] Total GDP per capita for the autonomous district of Khanty-Mansi was €28,090 (€1 = 35 roubles) in 2007, in line with that in the United States. See Annex, p. 180.

[8] The choice of Pyatigorsk as the capital of the new North Caucasian federal district is a significant one as the population of this spa town in the territory of Stavropol is predominantly ethnic Russian. Although it is not a major economic center or the capital of any federal subject, it has the advantage of being geographically close to the many republics in the district without being the capital of any of them.

[9] Calculated on the basis of €1 = 35 roubles (average exchange rate in 2007). For comparison, the average annual per capita income was €12,500 in Moscow and €1,380 in the Republic of Ingushetia.

[10] Net migration tripled between 2003 and 2007 (Višnevskij 2009, 221).

[11] Vedomosti, June 14, 2010.

[12] It is important to remember that restrictions on the number of unskilled foreign migrants were imposed in 2007, principally in order to protect Russian workers’ rights.

[13] See the programme’s website: http://www.rezerv.gov.ru

[14] Natalija Zubarevič (2008) discusses the dangers involved in “bringing back the Gosplan” and makes a telling reference to the resounding failure of the so-called “Sovnarkhov” reforms under Khrushchev at the start of the 1960s.

[15] See D. Danilov (2010).



This paper examines the widening social and economic gap between Russian regions and municipalities and highlights the challenge it represents to the Russian government as well as its consequences for the overall political landscape. In 1991, the dismantling of the USSR led to the birth of fifteen independent states, one of which is the Russian Federation. Today, despite federal rulers’ political bid for an ever more “united” Russia, Russia’s political geography shows very significant disparities, and Russia may be described as a very diverse and “un-united” country. This paper identifies four “Russias”: the prosperous territories, the urban “metropolitan Russia” and “prosperity islands” (prosperous mainly thanks to the energy and raw materials sectors), the “second-class Russia” (economically depressed mainland territories, where the majority of Russians live), and the Russia of the peripheral non-Russian-speaking marchlands. Those four “Russias” are becoming increasingly distinct, and are becoming alienated from one another. As a result, political unity will remain a major challenge to the Russian federal state in the coming years.


  1. Regional Government
  2. The “Russian Sea” and its Archipelagos
  3. Putin and the “Power Vertical”
  4. Four Russias: The Political Landscape of Russian Society
  5. The Urban Archipelago
  6. Islands of Prosperity
  7. Second-class Russia
  8. The Non-Russian Marchlands
  9. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Jean-Robert Raviot, “ Géographie politique de la Russie de 2010 ”, Hérodote 3/2010 (n° 138) , p. 161-180
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2010-3-page-161.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.138.0161.

Previous Pages 161 - 180
© 2010-2014 Cairn.info
back to top

Message sent

Your email address has been saved.
We will notify you when this article becomes available in English.