Since Boris Yeltsin, Russians Have Been Living in an Imitation Democracy

After the Soviet Union’s fall, the West backed Boris Yeltsin as a paragon of democracy, even as his administration rigged elections and empowered a new capitalist class. Now, under Vladimir Putin, the crisis of Russia’s democracy is only intensifying.

Boris Yeltsin in 1991. (Shepard Sherbell / Corbis via Getty Images)

Imitation Democracy was written in the late 2000s, synthesizing the remarkable analysis of the post-Soviet political order that Dmitrii Furman had developed over the previous few years. It was first published in Russian in 2010, just after the high point of what Furman called the “imitation-democratic” system. By the time it came out, Vladimir Putin had served two terms as president (2000–2004 and 2004–8) and handed power to his appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev — a seamless transition, validated by apparently democratic elections, that displayed the system’s confidence and solidity. But as Furman argued back in 2010, the very nature of the system meant that it was headed for a period of crisis sooner or later.

Twelve years on, Russia’s imitation-democratic regime remains in place, having survived a series of upheavals — including nationwide demonstrations against electoral fraud in 2011–12 and regular outbursts of protest thereafter. But in February 2022, the Kremlin plunged Russia and its neighbors into catastrophe through the criminal invasion of Ukraine. Whatever the eventual outcome of the war, the post-Soviet world seems to have entered a new era. In this very different context, how should we situate Furman’s work within the wider field of commentary about Russia? What light does his analysis of the origins and evolution of Russia’s ruling regime shed on its present actions, and how does it help us to understand its possible futures?

As Keith Gessen notes in his foreword to the English-language translation, Furman’s analysis stands out sharply from the general run of commentary on Russia in several key respects. Written with a distinctive combination of critical force and cool detachment, it notably breaks with all the core tenets of the standard Western view and goes against most of the cherished beliefs of the Russian liberals who were Furman’s immediate peers.

For much of the 1990s, discussions of Russian politics framed developments in terms of a twofold “transition” to capitalism and liberal democracy. A burgeoning literature emerged devoted to measuring Russia’s progress along a normative track whose end point was convergence with the West. But in the 2000s, as Putin’s grip on power tightened, the optimism of the previous decade dissipated. The framing question now became that of how to explain Russia’s apparent regression, and the tropes of transition gave way to a new emphasis on the lingering pathologies of the Soviet past.

In the West, this meant a return to something much closer to the Kremlinology of the Cold War era, accompanied by a fixation on the persona of Putin that was also matched in much Russian commentary. If Yeltsin had for a time represented Russia’s fragile democratic present, Putin incarnated the return of its autocratic past. Common to most mainstream interpretations, indeed, was an insistence on an almost Manichean contrast between the two men’s rule, as embodiments of the drastic turn Russia’s political history had seemingly taken at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Furman’s account goes against each of the assumptions underpinning the conventional view. Firstly, he undoes the idea that Yeltsin represented any kind of democratizing momentum in Russia. On the contrary, the 1991 triumph of the “democratic” movement headed by Yeltsin was the first step in the construction of a fundamentally different species of regime, in which the opposition would never be allowed to take office. While Yeltsin’s administration received the fulsome backing of Western governments and pundits as a paragon of democracy, it went about the task of perpetuating its hold on power by rigging elections and empowering a new capitalist class. Secondly, Furman dismissed the idea of any fundamental rupture between Yeltsin and Putin, instead depicting the two men as representing successive phases in the construction of a single system. Putin inherited and consolidated in the 2000s what Yeltsin had built in the 1990s — a relationship symbolized by the handover from Yeltsin to Putin on New Year’s Eve of 1999. (Underscoring the bonds of complicity between the two, Putin’s first act was to exempt his predecessor from prosecution.)

Thirdly, and following on from this, Furman did not see Putin’s regime as any kind of sinister regression to Soviet habits or deviation from a democratic path along which Yeltsin had been leading Russia. Rather, Putinism was a natural outgrowth of the imitation-democratic system Yeltsin had founded. It was therefore not the Soviet past that best explained the features of Putin’s rule, but the internal logic of this new, post-Soviet system.

Against Kremlinology

In offering this alternative view of Russia’s post-Soviet political evolution, Furman did more than break with the profoundly normative character of Kremlinology and the teleological narratives of “transition.” He also shifted the entire axis of comparisons for Russia. Most coverage of the country had tended to set Russia alongside one or more Western states, with occasional provocative exceptions comparing it to other middle-income countries. Furman, by contrast, placed Russia in the company of the states that in fact most closely resembled it: the fourteen other republics that had emerged from the disintegration of the USSR.

From 1991 until his death in 2011, Furman produced a series of studies of the political systems of post-Soviet countries, often in coauthorship with scholars from the country in question. These ranged from early works on national movements in Estonia (1991) and Armenia (1993) to a coauthored volume on Kyrgyzstan’s political cycles, which appeared in 2012. In between came comparative volumes he edited or coedited on Ukraine (1997), Belarus (1998), Chechnya (1999), Azerbaijan (2001), the Baltic states (2002), Kazakhstan (2004), Moldova (2007), as well as on the Commonwealth of Independent States (2006).

This impressive and systematic comparative scholarship provided the basis for the parallels and contrasts Furman so masterfully draws in Imitation Democracy. It also made Furman a genuine outlier: since the end of the Cold War, there had been a surprising lack of comparative work looking at the post-Soviet states as a bloc. To some extent, this reflected Western research agendas and the nation-building priorities of the new states themselves: in both cases, there was a rush to determine what was most distinctive about each country, rather than what united them. In Russia, the question of comparison was freighted with status anxieties. Parallels with Western countries, however unflattering in the present, at least implied that this was the relevant peer group. To find similarities between Russia and Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, conversely, would place Russia in the wrong company.

Furman cut through such prejudices with a characteristic calm and clarity: it stood to reason that these states would resemble each other initially, since they emerged from the same Soviet carapace, and their rulers confronted similar political dilemmas. Together they established a type of regime common not just across the post-Soviet space but also beyond — a “species,” as Furman terms it, with a life cycle and behaviors peculiar to it.

The question was how and why the trajectories of these countries diverged after 1991. Here, Furman drew on his prior formation as a scholar of comparative religion, finding deep cultural roots for the different political systems that would emerge during the 1990s. But he also ascribed many of the gaps that began to open up between former Soviet states to their differing endowments: their degrees of regional and ethnolinguistic diversity, their confessional divisions, the extent to which their social structures tended toward hierarchy or rough egalitarianism. All of these were enabling, though not in themselves sufficient, conditions for a given country to break from the “imitation-democratic” pattern with which they had all begun.

An astute commentator on current affairs, Furman was alert from early on to the speed with which post-Soviet states were diverging from each other. Through the 1990s and 2000s, his writings for wider audiences — gathered in two volumes, one for each decade — often turn to developments elsewhere in the former USSR. Both there and in the present volume, Furman highlights the degree to which countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan were able to establish more genuinely competitive political systems than that in Russia. (In this respect, too, he was engaging in a comparison many of his fellow Russian liberals would find uncomfortable: in the march toward democracy, had Russia fallen behind Kyrgyzstan?)

Yet the Colour Revolutions that took place in these countries — Rose in Georgia in 2003–4, Orange in Ukraine in 2004, Tulip in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 — were the exceptions: the imitation-democratic regime type remained dominant across most of the post-Soviet space through the 2000s. Within that species, Russia’s was the most stable and successful of all, reaching an undisturbed maturity — what Furman calls its “golden age” — in Putin’s second presidential term, from 2004–8.

But even as the system reached its peak, some of its limitations were already becoming apparent. Furman wrote Imitation Democracy halfway through the Medvedev presidency (2008–12), at a moment he saw as marking the imitation-democratic system’s entry into a phase of stagnation. Beyond this standstill, he argues in the book’s final chapters, a period of crisis awaited, in which the contradictions of the system would multiply. These included not only a widening gap between democratic “form” and authoritarian “content,” but also an atrophying of “feedback mechanisms” — a loss of contact between rulers and ruled, rendering it ever more difficult for the regime to get an accurate read on society.

At this point, the very impulses to control society and eliminate political challenges that had enabled its consolidation would turn from assets to liabilities. For Furman, this was not so much a matter of individual failings as of systemic evolution. In his biological metaphor, after reaching maturity imitation democracies inevitably enter a period of senescence and decline. Either their grip on power is loosened, or the very tightening of that grip produces crises of rule. The question then becomes one of whether the system is swept away by those crises, or whether it can survive them by adapting or renewing itself.

Putin Redux

To what extent do events since 2010 bear out Furman’s prognoses? His final chapters were predictive only in a broad sense, but despite the wealth of circumstances he could not have foreseen, the evolution of Russia’s imitation-democratic regime has in many ways conformed to the pattern he laid out then. Furman clearly did not imagine Putin would return to power in 2012, let alone that he would remain there a decade later, his grip on power extended indefinitely thanks to a 2020 constitutional amendment. But this in itself arguably confirms Furman’s diagnosis of senescence.

Faced with multiplying dangers — the fallout from the global economic crisis after 2008, the sudden upsurge of popular protest at home in 2011 — Russia’s ruling system responded by returning Putin to power and heightening its use of repressive methods. An imitation democracy still in the process of growth would have been able to find another leader, would have imagined other options for its prolongation beyond simply insisting on more of the same. While the constitutional amendment of 2020 might be taken as a sign of flourishing authoritarianism, by perpetuating the system’s reliance on Putin it also signals the increasingly illusory character of its democratic façade, codifying the system’s slow-burning crisis rather than resolving it.

Of course, the major development that Furman could not have foreseen was the drastic escalation of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, culminating in the Russian invasion of February 2022. Few would have predicted this outcome even one or two years ago, let alone in 2010. When Furman was writing, many of the events that would prepare the ground for the present disaster still lay in the future: the Maidan protests and fall of Viktor Yanukovych in 2013–14, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist militias in the Donbas over the following years, and the establishment of sanctions against the Russian regime by the United States and its allies.

Even in the wake of all this, the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 took well-informed observers by surprise, their shock compounded by the seemingly impulsive or even irrational nature of this course of action. Yet the decision was also indicative of precisely the kinds of pathology Furman identified as likely in an imitation-democratic regime in its senescence: a narrowing of decision-making circles, a lack of feedback mechanisms, and above all a growing insulation of those at the top from reality.

Nevertheless, the appalling developments of 2022, coming in the wake of more than a decade of mounting tensions between Russia and the West, do point to one major absence in Furman’s analysis, highlighted by Perry Anderson in the most perceptive and thorough English-language engagement with Furman’s work. Geopolitics plays little role in his anatomization of “imitation democracy,” which remains focused on the internal evolution of each regime and the prospects for a genuine democratization within each. While Furman provided an unrivaled comparative analysis of the family of post-Soviet regimes, the dynamic interactions between them remained largely outside his frame. So, too, did the question of how they were jointly and separately affected by the larger force field of interstate power relations.

Above all, Furman allows little room for the possibility that this geopolitical context could itself reshape imitation-democratic regimes — whether by speeding up their downfall from without or by artificially extending their life span. In the post–Cold War period Furman analyzed, these external factors had considerable weight. The lopsided geopolitical balance of the 1990s brought the global dominance of the United States and a drive to extend its sway over the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. The 2000s were marked by the expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics, and by Russia’s growing resentment of its choice between subordination or exclusion from the post–Cold War order.

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was the first in a series of Russian attempts over the next decade to unsettle the existing balance of global forces, the failure of which only diminished Russia’s influence and at the same time heightened the Kremlin’s determination not to cede further strategic terrain. These geopolitical factors not only drove Russian policy in Ukraine in 2013–14; they also played a central role in the regime’s internal ideological reconfiguration through the 2010s, as the imitation democratic system took on an increasingly nationalist coloration. These considerations fall outside the analysis Furman lays out in this volume, in which ideology is ultimately a secondary feature of imitation-democratic systems, which are cynically pragmatic. They can be nationalist just as easily as they can be anything else, switching philosophies depending on the circumstances. The decisive factor is simply their need to maintain their hold on power.

Yet elsewhere in his writings, Furman did draw a connection between the fate of Russia’s imitation democracy and its external policies. In 2007, he wrote on essay on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose association of post-Soviet states formed in late 1991 as the USSR disintegrated. Even at the time, its founding members treated the CIS as the means for a “civilized divorce,” in the famous words of then Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk. Furman situated it in a longer historical arc, identifying it as the “final form of the Russian empire,” which was now reaching the end of a century-long process of dissolution. Made fifteen years ago, his arguments about Russian nationalism and imperialism seem especially worth returning to in the light of current events.

Post-Imperial Syndrome

Furman identified three distinct avatars of the Russian empire, each embodying a distinct stage of its entropic decline. The first, of course, was the vast domain of the Romanov dynasty, which was different from its European peers in lacking a distinction between metropole and colony. For much of the empire’s existence, Russian ethnicity also conferred little advantage on its citizens (indeed in many cases the reverse applied: Poles and Finns could exercise more liberties than Russian serfs). Yet in the second half of the nineteenth century, a combination of top-down Russification policies and an expansion of literacy fostered a growth of national consciousness across the empire, leading to mounting centrifugal tensions.

In 1917, the empire fell apart under the pressure of world war and popular revolt. It could only be knitted back together by shifting its foundations: in the wake of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks created a nominally federal union that enshrined the rights of national minorities, while remaining strictly unitary and centralized in practice. This was a second incarnation of the empire, but a highly contradictory one. For Furman, while the USSR replicated the tsarist empire in territorial outline, it was distinct from it in its deliberate submergence of Russian nationalism. The price of continued de facto Russian dominance was its de jure denial.

At the same time, the construction of the Soviet system paradoxically assisted in the creation of non-Russian national structures that, by the end of the 1980s, were poised to emerge as the governing organs of newly independent countries. The anomaly, Furman observes, was Russia itself, which lacked such national institutions. As a result, at the end of the Soviet era Russian nationalism adopted conflicting goals: it “strove not for the disintegration of the USSR but for it [the USSR] to become a state where Russian dominance could be overt and unconditional.” Under Yeltsin’s leadership, Russian democrats furthered Russia’s sovereignty at the expense of Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-Union government. Yet their very success brought failure: “The struggle for ‘Russian greatness’ led to the destruction of the state within whose framework alone Russia could be ‘great.’”

For Furman, the abruptness of the USSR’s collapse crucially conditioned the character of Russia’s “post-imperial syndrome.” In a March 1991 referendum held across most of the Union — the exceptions were the Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova — an overwhelming majority of voters, some 78 percent, supported the preservation of the USSR. Nine months later, however, the Union was dissolved by the presidents of only three of its constituent republics. (As Furman put it, “somewhere in the Belovezha forest [in Belarus], three men got together and overnight, ‘over a half-litre’ [bottle of vodka], decided everything.”)

The speed and furtiveness of this decision would have far-reaching consequences. Not only was Russian society “not prepared for non-imperial existence and non-imperial politics”; on a more basic level, “the collapse of the USSR was not understood as the emergence of fundamentally new relations between truly independent states.”

This was why, for Furman, the CIS that emerged from the USSR’s ruins was such an ambiguous construct: at once an association of free and sovereign states, and a fictive container for an imperial politics Russia had yet to relinquish — a privileged zone of influence that it termed its “near abroad.” Yet this third avatar of the Russian empire was an extremely weak, diluted one, offering only a “phantom unity” across what used to be the imperial space. The newly independent states would inevitably diverge.

For Furman, indeed, the main thing holding the CIS together was not a shared supranational heritage or deeply held common interests, but something much narrower and altogether frailer: the desire for self-preservation of the imitation-democratic regimes that ruled most of the former Soviet states. The similarities between ruling systems bound them to each other in a kind of authoritarian compact, as Furman saw it, with Russia at the center of an imitation-democratic bloc.

Yet these ties in themselves obstructed the development of any more genuine political or economic integration: the same logic that prevented these regimes from loosening their grip on power precluded the loss of control that such processes would entail. As a result, Furman argued, the fate of the Commonwealth of Independent States was ultimately tied to that of imitation-democratic regimes themselves — which in his view were slated for disappearance, sooner or later. In line with this, it is not coincidentally the countries that have diverged most from Russia in terms both of their internal politics and above all their geopolitical alignment that have peeled away from the CIS: Georgia withdrew in 2008 and Ukraine from 2014 onward.

As of this writing, the war in Ukraine continues to rage, and Furman’s optimism about the inevitable vanishing of Russian imperial politics may ring somewhat hollow. But analytically, he was surely right to link the fate of the imperial worldview to that of the country’s political regime. As he put it, “Russia’s return to the path of recreating an authoritarian system and its return to an imperial [foreign] policy are two aspects of the same process”; these aspects are, moreover, “functionally interconnected.”

The prolongation of the imitation-democratic regime for over a decade since this book was written has also involved an extension — and deepening — of Moscow’s commitment to an imperial path. Conversely, the rise of an increasingly assertive nationalism within Russia itself has undoubtedly provided a solid foundation for the regime’s continuation. In this altered context, it may make more sense to take Furman’s analysis of Russian imperial decline less as a prediction than as a diagnosis, identifying some of the conditions that will be required for Russia to be at peace with its neighbors and with its post-imperial role. A decrease in geopolitical tensions is obviously prominent among those conditions. But if imperial politics and imitation democracy are functionally interlinked, then bringing about such a shift will also require a democratization from within that is accompanied by a rejection of the imperial worldview — a rethinking of Russia’s place in the world and of its purposes and possibilities at home.

Furman’s metaphor of the spiral, which gave this book its original Russian title — Dvizhenie po spirali (Spiral Motion) — suggests both repetition and progression, both the recurrence of imitation-democratic regimes over time and their eventual decay and disappearance. Reading his analysis today, it may be tempting to think that its original object is no longer present — that the developments of the intervening years have produced a mutation in the imitation-democratic regime’s genetic code, transforming it into a different type of system altogether.

But from Furman’s point of view, these mutations themselves would represent at most another coil in the same spiral, a replication of substantively the same power relations in outwardly new forms. This kind of repetition was the second of the two scenarios he laid out in the book’s brief final chapter, the first being a successful transition to genuine democracy in Russia.

It is perhaps difficult, in the present moment, to share Furman’s certainty that this first scenario will take place — not least because the contours and substantive content of democracy will themselves surely be the object of intense struggles. But in the meantime, we would do well to absorb some of Furman’s calm conviction that political systems are repeatedly vulnerable and always finite, and to take on some of the historical optimism with which he concludes his essay on Russian empire: “Compared to the distance we have already travelled, there is not so far to go at all.”

This is an edited version of Tony Wood’s “Afterword” to Dmitrii Furman, Imitation Democracy: The Development of Russia’s Post-Soviet Political System (Verso 2022).

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Tony Wood is assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder and the author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War (revised edition Verso, 2020).

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