"*" indicates required fields

The Evolution of Russian Autocracy Kremlin photo

The Evolution of Russian Autocracy

share this

As the world anticipates the unsurprising results of Putin’s “reelection” in March, it is important to reflect on Russia’s journey from a hopeful democratic state to the personalized autocracy of Vladimir Putin.  A timeline from the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union to today shows how quickly Russia’s fledgling democratic experiment was ended and Russian autocracy returned.



  • After over 70 years of communist dictatorship, the Soviet Union was dissolved and the many states making up the Union became independent. At this point the world hoped that the new Russian state would make a democratic transition and see the end of Russian autocracy, however, this was not to be.


  • Only two years after the democratic experiment began, was the first crisis point: a coup by the president. Tensions between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament, then known as the Supreme Soviet as a holdover from Soviet times, had been worsening in the months prior, mostly over his unpopular “shock therapy” reforms. This resulted in Decree 1400, which dissolved the parliament. In response, parliament impeached Yeltsin and barricaded themselves in the Russian White House, the seat of parliament’s power. Yeltsin sent in troops to storm the building and arrest the lawmakers. Afterwards, Yeltsin ordered a new constitution, which gave greater power to the Kremlin, and established the Duma as the replacement for the Supreme Soviet.


  • The independence movement from the Caucus state of Chechnya was met with violent military suppression in the First Chechen War. However, the Chechen guerrilla forces managed to defend their home, brokering a peace agreement with Yeltsin that gave them de facto independence. The mostly Muslim Chechens advocated for independence from what they claimed was an anti-Islamic imperialist Russia. The violent suppression of the separatist group made Yeltsin increasingly unpopular.
  • In the 1996 presidential elections Yeltsin ran against communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. Though the election was nominally free and fair, Yeltsin won despite his extreme unpopularity, with polls hovering around 30% approval due to his economic reforms and the war in Chechnya. He only won by making the campaign a referendum on communism and thus his opponent, and not on his own performance as president.


  • In 1999 Yeltsin’s failing health led him to resign the presidency and appoint Putin as interim president. This was seen as a protective measure from his many enemies as Putin would later give Yeltsin immunity causing speculation about a deal between the presidents. Putin won in a landslide special election three months later and began a process of centralization and consolidation of power. First, he consolidated the districts of Russia into seven super districts, with representatives appointed by the president. Next, he signed a law allowing him to appoint regional leaders. These two actions combined central power in the executive and did not represent the federalist ideals of the original constitution.
  • The second Chechen War began only three years after the first ended, ostensibly in response to a bombing attack on a Moscow apartment building, though questions linger about whether this attack was a false flag operation. The war that followed was filled with gruesome human rights violations, including the near razing of the capital city Grozny, and the solidification of Putin’s control. In a contested election, pro-Kremlin Akhmad Kadyrov was elected president of Chechnya, and today his son, Ramazan, leads the republic.


  • In 2008 Putin stepped down as president and took over the role of prime minister to abide by constitutional term limits. His deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, became president. Despite this, many observers noted that Putin was still the true center of power in Russia. During Medvedev’s tenure, Putin passed presidential term reforms that changed the term of the president from four to six years. Putin returned to the presidential office in 2012, and later changed the term limit laws allowing him to possibly remain in power until 2036.

Common themes


Yeltsin was accused of significant corruption during his tenure as president. Yeltsin allowed the people closest to him to become wealthy off their connections to the Kremlin, especially on the privatization policies which were integral to his economic reforms and offered the best opportunities in a capitalizing Russia. His immediate family members and friends were placed in important positions and a cadre of wealthy bankers close to Yeltsin controlled much of the Russian economy. Putin inherited the system of Russian oligarchs, the very rich owners of many of Russia’s privatized businesses, from Yeltsin, and has continued to allow them a loose leash so long as they continue to support him.


Putin has maintained Russian autocracy through severe repression of dissent and use of state-owned media outlets to spread propaganda and disinformation. Many high-profile critics or detractors are physically attacked, two famous examples are the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Other methods of political crackdowns[1] are employed to suppress protests, such as those against the war in Ukraine, and to remove any political opposition. Putin also exercises control through the media. The media has allowed him to control the narrative of the country and influence citizens without using any force in many cases. His control over the media has become seemingly ubiquitous since 2022, when the last truly independent news site, Novaya Gazeta, suspended operations and Russia banned Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last week Russia’s election committee denied Putin’s main opponent for the March elections, Boris Nadezhdin, from running, claiming that over 15% of the signatures were flawed. Nadezhdin promised to bring the case to the supreme court to appeal the decision. This outcome is not surprising, however, as in the past political opponents have been either quickly disposed of if they presented a real threat, or put up as strawmen for Putin to easily defeat and display his overwhelming support.


Russian autocracy in the post-soviet era has gradually regressed from democratic aspirations to personalist dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin’s reigns. As Putin seeks reelection, the enduring struggle for political freedom in Russia and the need to safeguard democratic principles against authoritarian encroachment continues.


[1] Lipman, Maria. “How Putin Silences Dissent: Inside the Kremlin’s Crackdown.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 95, no. 3, 2016, pp. 38–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43946856. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.

Image Credit: Kremlin CC BY 4.0 DEED