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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 166-169

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The Post-Soviet Puzzle

Thomas F. Remington

Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin.By Michael McFaul. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. 383 pp.

Michael McFaul's book on Russia's transition from communism is likely to prove one of the most lasting and authoritative studies in its field. Particularly valuable is the framework it offers for comprehending the changes that have occurred. Does the transformation of state forms since the breakup of the Soviet Union constitute a transition, and, if so, is it a transition to democracy? Controversy surrounds the very use of the concept of transition to categorize the transformation of the communist USSR into a motley array of successor states, particularly with respect to Russia.

Some observers, both in Russia and outside it, contemptuously dismiss any notion that Russia's political system is at all democratic, regarding the current adherence to democratic forms such as elections as no more significant than the formal observance of electoral democracy in the Soviet era. Instead, they argue, what has happened is a massive takeover of power and property by a new oligarchic elite, which deceived both Russians and their external financiers and allies into thinking that they were creating a modern capitalist democracy. Others claim that there were some advances toward democracy under Boris Yeltsin, but that these are now being rapidly dismantled by a relentlessly authoritarian Vladimir Putin. Skeptics regard Russia's constitutional forms as window-dressing designed to hide aggressive power-grabbing by the bureaucracy, which is now intertwined with a rapacious class of tycoons and rentiers. [End Page 166]

To be sure, models tracing the paths from the collapse of authoritarian regimes to democracy do a poor job of explaining the profound dislocations that finished the Soviet Union as a state, leading to the replacement of Communist Party rule with various forms of presidentialism in the successor states and the emergence of corrupt, oligarchic forms of state capitalism. As several recent studies have shown, however, Russia occupies a middle ground among the former Soviet republics, both politically and economically. The new order is less democratic and market-driven than those of the Baltic states but more so than what one finds in most of the other former republics. By most measures of democratic and economic development, the states of East Central Europe have achieved consolidated democracy and successful market economies. There, the transition model applies reasonably well. Russia, where democratic and economic reform was never comprehensive, remains stuck in a twilight zone between communism and democracy.

McFaul advances a modified version of the transition paradigm, adapted to the Russian case. His method is to compare the three successive constitutional orders created in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Gorbachev's effort to preserve the Soviet system by partially democratizing it; the interim RSFSR system dominated by Yeltsin while he struggled first with Gorbachev and later with the opposition in the Congress of People's Deputies; and finally the new system created by the 1993 constitution. McFaul examines why the first two ended in violent breakdowns while the third resulted in a rough equilibrium among Russia's political camps. This comparison allows him to engage in some exploratory theory building, based on his remarkably comprehensive knowledge of events throughout the period. His method is that of an in-depth, detailed case study that takes advantage of the succession of phases of institutional change in order to analyze the reasons for the different outcomes in each case.

McFaul argues that Russia departs from the classic cases of democratic transition because of the far greater uncertainty that surrounded the main political actors. In particular, he argues that new institutions devised in the course of a regime transition are unlikely to prove stable in the absence of elite consensus in two areas: the definition of the main policy challenges facing the polity and an assessment of the balance of power among the main contending political forces. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as McFaul demonstrates, elites did not agree on what...


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