On April 21, 2005, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting on Russia’s political and economic situation. The speaker was Yegor Gaidar, Director of the Institute of Economy in Transition. Anders Åslund, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the session.


Yegor Gaidar began by stating there are a considerable number of Russian authorities that continue to believe in a conspiracy theory, in which American imperialism and the CIA play a central role. This conspiracy theory extends to the recent revolutionary events in the post soviet countries, and naturally lends itself to a question “who is next?” and the answer “probably Russia.”

If one looks at the situation realistically, it becomes clear that unless the authorities do something very drastic and dreadful, there will be no revolution in Russia, at least in the short-term perspective. If something like what happened in Ukraine does happen in Russia, it will be extremely dangerous.

There are great political and historical differences between Russia and Ukraine, which lead to different geopolitical paths. Ukraine never experienced a ‘great revolution.’ This revolutionary period is characterized by danger and instability in the lives of a particular segment of society: the elites. During this period, the previous elites are unable to adjust to the new demands and new realities, thus, the crash of the old regime is followed by long periods of political struggle, instability, weak governments, uncollected taxes, high inflation, and unpaid wages. After a while, law and order become the principal demands of the population and stability settles in. Unlike Ukraine, Russia, as the center of its empire, has passed through this extremely dangerous period both in the early and very late twentieth century.

The 1990’s revolution in Ukraine, however, was not a ‘great revolution,’ but a reclaiming of national independence. In such a scenario, it is much easier to stabilize the institutions of the new states. There is also a shorter period of disorder and a lower demand for law and order. It is a completely different story. In Russia, however, the ‘great revolution’ created an extremely high demand for law and order, forming a popularity base for Putin and his policies. It is this popularity that has allowed him to stay in power and to push some of his more radical agenda.

Ukraine’s regained independence in the 1990s has fused the Ukrainian nationalist, the democrats, and the pro-Europeans together, thus creating a coalition that supports both a democratic and sovereign Ukraine, as well as a front against foreign manipulation. When Russia interfered in Ukraine’s policies, this coalition was strengthened and served as a basis for the Orange Revolution.

The difference with Russia is that in the late 20th century it did not gain independence, but rather it lost an empire. The usual outcome in such scenarios is a post-imperial syndrome where people tend to recall the greatness of the former empire, its prestige and grandeur, its invincibility, and its betrayal. There is a sentiment and a desire to restore this former greatness. This syndrome is especially strongly felt when the empire is land-integrated. This syndrome is usually preceded by a bloody civil conflict. Although the bloody scenario was avoided in Russia, the post-imperial syndrome was not.

It is wrong to believe that this syndrome is felt most acutely immediately after the collapse of the empire. The collapse of the empire is usually accompanied by economic instability, unpaid wages, and day-to-day survival. It is only after economic stability was achieved in Russia, (the real wages began to grow and unemployment was reduced) that the nostalgia for the glory of the previous empire was felt. It was much easier to accept the destruction of the empire if one reiterated the fact that Russia was never beaten in a battle but was rather stabbed in the back by a Jewish conspiracy and other traitors who have stolen property. These sentiments gave rise to a desire to restore the glory of the former empire and to demonstrate who was the boss in the post-soviet space. Unfortunately, it is very easy to base politics on these sentiments. It is much harder to explain to everyday Russians that in order to get ahead in the world, the country needs market economics and political freedoms.

Up to 2003, this form of politics was more or less controlled because these elements of nationalism and racism were considered politically incorrect. During the campaign of 2003, however, the authorities made a grave mistake by giving these sentiments a state backing through television, radio, and print media. The opening of this Pandora’s Box has made anything similar to the Orange Revolution, in the best case, impossible and in the worst case extremely dangerous.

The potential for protest, however, is emerging. A large number of people have become politicized and they have understood that politics are not grounded solely in rhetoric but will and do affect their everyday existence, including their political and economic rights. The problem is that, unlike Ukraine, it is impossible to unite nationalists and democrats in street politics without the possibility of a dangerous, violent development occurring.

The long-term perspectives for Russia are both grim and hopeful. They are grim due to the appalling parallels that can be drawn between Russia and pre-Third Reich Germany. Hitler came to power fourteen years after the collapse of the German Empire; Russia is currently in its thirteenth year. Russia’s hopeful prospects rest in its economic prosperity that can lead to stability and the decline of the allure of a lost empire. Unlike Germany, which was in deep economic recession when the Third Reich took power, Russia has had seven years of dynamic economic growth behind it, and there are no indicators that it will stop. Lastly, the post-imperial syndromes do not last forever. If Russia passes through this dangerous period, and the Russian authorities do not do anything drastic to provoke a movement similar to the Orange Revolution, it will be a matter of time before a true democratic system takes hold. The formula to avoid the next revolution in Russia is very simple: try not to create rigid democratic state institutions.

During the question and answer session Gaidar was asked about a possibility of Russia’s return to the system of checks and balances via evolutionary processes, as well as what is the potential of other revolutions occurring in post-soviet countries such as Belarus or Azerbaijan. He replied that there is still a chance for Russia to undergo this peaceful transformation and that to judge about the true potential of these movements from Moscow or Washington is impossible.

When asked for the strategy of how to get young Russians out of the post-imperial syndrome and the politics of rejection, Gaidar replied that his hopes are only with the group that does not currently share this post-imperial syndrome.

Summary prepared by Alina Tourkova, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.