Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev's conservative modernization campaign represents a marked departure from the politics of the previous decade. Russia's system no longer maintains a semblance of meritocracy and without radical reform, Russia's oil-dependent economy cannot hope to take its place among the modern great powers. Conservative modernization aims to, among other things, diversify Russia's economy, strengthen the rule of law, and broaden media freedoms without bringing political upheaval. It has the potential to spur Russia's growth, but at present, is merely a propaganda tool which serves to further the rent-seeking policies and nationalist goals of the Kremlin elite.

Conservatism is in vogue in Russia. At its most recent national convention in St. Petersburg in November 2009, Vladimir Putin's United Russia described itself again as a conservative party. Officially, it stands for the country's heritage and its values. These values were laid out in Dmitri Medvedev's first annual address as President to the Russian parliament in November 2008. Now, the conservatives' principal task, as both Putin and Medvedev told convention delegates in St. Petersburg, is to bring about Russia's modernization—without losing traditional values, or, more importantly, tampering with the country's political regime.1 The current buzz word is conservative modernization. The idea is that Russia's backwardness would be overcome in an evolutionary manner without destroying or dramatically weakening the state. It would also be based on Russia's core values: traditional family, a strong state, patriotism, "faith in Russia," and great-power independence.2 Can Putin, Medvedev, and the United Russia pull it off?

Conservative modernization is emerging as a hallmark of the Medvedev presidency. The official vision of modernization was described at length in Medvedev's "Go Russia!" article first posted on an independent Internet news site in mid-September.3 Even though he later complemented this vision with many—perhaps too many—details, which have diluted the original message,4 the idea of modernization has become the Leitmotif of the Kremlin's policy agenda.

True, the talk of modernization is still mostly talk, but its emergence is both significant and revealing. Just two years ago, the same voices were striking very different tones at the Kremlin. In early 2008, Putin's choice of Medvedev as successor was framed within the Kremlin's "2020 Strategy"5 as an official vision of Russia's economic and social transformation, which elaborated on the "Putin plan" and served both as an election manifesto for Medvedev and a symbol of continuity between the two presidents. The "Strategy" foresaw the rise of Russia, even though hardly anyone was ignorant of the very slim and uncertain foundation of Russia's growth, and of its glaring defects.

Now, overhaul is treated as an urgent task. The United Russia convention hall rings with phrases which one last heard in the days of perestroika, and with reference to the moribund Soviet system: "Tak zhit' nel'zya—One cannot go on living like this!" The intriguing thing is that the man driving the change—there is no doubt that Medvedev's initiative has the backing of Putin, the paramount leader—is the same person responsible for building the country's present political, economic, and social system. Of course, corruption was not born in Russia on Putin's watch; neither was strong dependency on energy and raw materials exports, but the rent-seeking bureaucracy that has virtually taken over the state is a phenomenon of the last decade.

The irony of the situation is that the major political project of today is designed to undo some of the salient features of the preceding presidency, which until very recently (cf. the "2020 Strategy") was considered a uniquely successful one. It is even more ironic that those who personify these distinctive features are the same people who are now vowing to undo them.

So what is it that Medvedev and Putin are hoping to achieve? Is this achievable? If not, is there a credible alternative to conservative modernization? If there is, what would be the drivers of change, and who would be its agents? And, finally, should modernization fail, what could be the future of Russia? These are the principal questions dealt with in this article.

A Myth Dispelled

Let us start with the definition. What passes for conservatism—draping itself in navy blue, the distinct color of Russian conservatism, and seeking a place next to Germany's Christian Democrats and to the People's Party in the European parliament—is the ideology (a thin veneer) and practice (tons of it) of the people who rule and own Russia—and own it because they rule it. Their conservatism is sincere in the most literal sense: these people have achieved their goals and are now seeking to consolidate and perpetuate their gains. Where most elite values can be best measured in dollars (or euros), conservation of the existing system is a most pragmatic ideology.

There is more to it, to be sure. Russia's dominant conservatism seeks to strengthen itself by appealing to the tradition of a strong, essentially unitary state led by a strong leader, where all nominal branches of power are in fact departments of the supreme authority. Spiritually, conservative leaders of Russia have struck an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been preaching, ever more loudly, the values of social conservatism.6 In foreign policy terms, conservatives see Russia as a lonely great power engaged in a never-ending rivalry with the West, which seeks to politically contain and ideologically contaminate it.7

Russia's post-imperial nationalists seek to appropriate Russian patriotism through continued reliance on the still immense emotional resource of the WWII experience (the Great Patriotic War, to the Russian people), through pandering to national pride in the genuine achievements of the Soviet era, such as space exploration or the cultural revolution, but also through pointing fingers at Russia's historical enemies, such as the Poles.8 Anti-Americanism has become the mainstay of conservative discourse on global affairs. At Putin's initiative, historians writing school textbooks have been encouraged to give a "positive" view of Russian history which had been "tarnished" by liberal critics in the late 1980s and 1990s.

So much for heritage. Values are more difficult to come by. Of the non-material ones, loyalty to a group, clan, corporation, and to the boss top the list. Loyalty in exchange for protection and the "us vs. them" approach to the wider world are the guiding operating principles of those who wield power and call themselves conservatives. Some of them are practicing Orthodox Christians, but most observe the church rituals, candle in hand, especially on holy days.

Politics was reduced to political technology. Based on their victory in the parliamentary-presidential election cycle of 1999–2000, Putin and his allies managed to form a more solid political machine than the Kremlin had in the Yeltsin era. "Unity" and "All Russia," the two wings of the political elite that clashed bitterly in the 1999 parliamentary elections, were combined into a "United Russia" bloc, then a party, which led to a degree of consolidation of the ruling bureaucracy. Giving the "party of power" a generally conservative orientation symbolized the emphasis on stability, which was popular after a decade and a half of turmoil in the country, which started with Gorbachev's perestroika.

Conservatism has been useful in helping the authorities fight their two main domestic political adversaries: communists and liberals. It is virtually forgotten by now, but the 2003 Duma election marked the end of the Communist party as a major force in Russian domestic politics. The Communists, who used to poll a quarter of the popular vote, were the leading force in the parliament during the 1990s, and vociferously opposed President Yeltsin and his cabinets (although letting their budget bills pass rather than being dismissed alongside with the Duma), were simply routed by Putin and his allies, including Zhirinovsky. Ever since, they have been confined to the ghetto of a minority party, receiving between one-eighth and one-seventh of the popular vote.

Now, communism is officially disparaged as an ideology, October Revolution Day abolished as a holiday, and tsarist Russia is glorified and sometimes imitated. Lenin and his Bolsheviks are treated negatively—at best as misguided firebrands—while their White Russian enemies, such as General Denikin and Admiral Kolchak, are rehabilitated as genuine Russian patriots. The émigré anti-communist philosopher Ivan Ilyin has been adopted as a major intellectual source of conservative thinking. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "GULAG Archipelago" has been made required reading in high school, but official attitudes toward Stalin remain ambivalent. On the one hand, his repressions are seen as criminal excesses; on the other hand, he remains a statesman and a victorious war leader.

Communists have been caged, and liberals decimated. It was also in 2003 that neither of the two liberal and democratic parties, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, managed to get into parliament. That spelled the end of an era when liberals and democrats were part of the Russian political mainstream. From then on, they have been clearly driven to the margins of Russian political life.

Unlike the communists, the liberals were less dangerous to the Kremlin because of their own political appeal, than as a partner of some formidable political challenger. In the late 1980s, it was the liberals' alliance with the populist Yeltsin that demolished the Soviet regime and swept away Gorbachev. In the early 2000s, a similar figure seemed to be emerging in Mikhail Khodorkovsky who, the Kremlin suspected, was scheming to take over power. In 2003, the Khodorkovsky challenge was put down by Putin and his power base, the YUKOS oil company, broken up and nationalized. Even before the Khodorkovsky case, the Kremlin had moved resolutely to establish control over the electronic media, wrestling major liberal-leaning TV stations from two other oligarchs, Berezovsky and Gusinsky. 

The Kremlin triumphed. Its victory was complete in political, economic, and ideological spheres. Communism was derided as a demon of the twentieth century; liberalism, as a holdover from the nineteenth. Conservatism, by contrast, looked like a serious force well designed for the beginning of the twenty-first century. It helped that at the time many of the leading nations around the world were led by conservatives: George W. Bush in the United States, Angela Merkel in Germany, Jacques Chirac, and then Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, the LDP in Japan and—one might add—the CCP in China. In the eyes of the Kremlin, what brings them all together is close ties to the business communities in their countries, and thus a link to real power; a strong preference for law and order at home, and Realpolitik abroad; and a certain elite disdain for those not endowed with wealth and power. In a word, conservatism, seen from the seat of the Russian government, is a rich man's ideology. The Kremlin fancied itself in good company, even if many others did not necessarily include the Russian leaders in their own company.

This did not bother the Kremlin very much. Again in 2003, Goldman Sachs published its famous BRIC report9 which put Russia on a trajectory of a steep and inexorable rise to the upper echelons of the world's economic powers: indeed, Russia was supposed to overtake all European economies and become the world's number five, behind the United States and the Asian giants. Most strikingly, the projections of the report were not made conditional on any set of specific reforms. The report must have given Putin and his colleagues a shot in the arm.

Risks remained, however. Domestically the Kremlin had to be vigilant. In early 2005, both the communists and the liberals suddenly appeared to present real risks to the triumphant Kremlin leadership. Had they tried harder, the communists could have certainly exploited the pensioners' widespread discontent over mishandling of a social benefits reform. As for the liberals, they emerged in the Kremlin's mind—in the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine—as a "fifth column" of the United States, plotting "regime change" in Russia.

Offense was the best form of defense. Russian conservatives had to be not only vigilant, but militant. The Kremlin, while continuing to give its support to United Russia, set about forming reserve or satellite parties on the left ("A Just Russia") and the right ("The Right Cause"). In a parallel move, it encouraged the formation of three "clubs" within United Russia, on the right, the left, and the center. It also reached out to the youth by buying into young nationalist groups ("Nashi") and sanctioning formation of United Russia's own youth wings ("The Young Guard"). These had to be used in street battles with the government's enemies, or just critics. The general idea was to fight off the new challenges and to further stabilize the existing politico-economic system.

The Putin Plan worked, up to a point. The smoothness of the Putin-Medvedev succession in 2008, admittedly a risky proposition, gave the Russian leadership confidence that the system would last for decades. One heard comparisons with Mexico's IRI and Japan's LDP. Jokes were made, only half-seriously, that even if Medvedev, when his two terms were up, had to cede the presidency to Putin, in order to come back again after Putin's two new terms, he would still be much younger by the mid-2020s than John McCain was when he faced Obama. The so-called Putin plan and his 2020 Strategy seemed invincible. Even if the rest of the world experienced an economic downturn, Russia would remain an "island of stability."10

This was not to be. In the fall of 2008, the economic crisis demolished the old certainty. Even though the worst has been avoided so far (no major strikes or other social upheavals, no split within the tandem or the ruling group in general, no pressure from the outside), it dawned on the Russian leadership that a simple return to the oil-driven growth of 2003–2008 was not to be expected. Even if the prices did rebound again, Russia, and by extension its political system, would remain exceedingly vulnerable to their volatility in the future. Since other countries were obviously using the crisis to improve their economies and finances, and to reach new technological levels, Russia's refusal to do the same would impair its global standing and thus present a challenge to the system from the outside. But how can one manage modernization and conservation at the same time?

Smart Modernization?

The crisis called for a new approach. Economic and social reformism that Putin had proclaimed at the beginning of his first term, but then shelved amid the oil bonanza, has been rediscovered. Medvedev set goals of ending the Russian economy's dependence on raw materials exports, reining in corruption, and securing independence for the judiciary while broadening media freedoms. Medvedev's "Go Russia!" piece is not a revolutionary manifesto, much less one designed to attack Putin or tarnish his legacy to please the opposition. Yet, on the face of it, this is a plan to re-energize the country while avoiding political upheaval.

The young President sounds a bit idealistic when he denounces paternalism. From Putin's more seasoned perspective, the government is the only genuine modernizer. It has the political power, controls much property, and, unlike its would-be detractors, would have no interest in "using modernization for political purposes" because it already has all it wants. Politics, the Kremlin is convinced, is generally wasteful11 unless carefully manipulated. To illustrate the point, Russian TV likes to refer to post-Orange Ukraine, with its constant bickering in and outside the Rada, which often paralyzes decision making. With virtually the entire Russian elite marshaled around "the tandem," the government is the only engine to pull the country ahead. 

This was good, but not good enough. By the late 2000s, there came a realization that while the Putin majority was an indispensable electoral resource, guaranteeing the overall stability of the regime by providing it with the genuine consent of the governed, its main advantage—the public's passivity and abdication from active public life—was also its principal deficiency in terms of the modernization agenda: the Putin majority was sterile. It was one thing to ignore the opposition intelligentsia ("old liberals") in the early 2000s; by the end of the decade, ignoring the best and brightest of the IT generation was less affordable.

"Two nations" was conservative nineteenth century British statesman—and later Prime Minister—Benjamen Disraeli's comment on contemporary class-divided British society. There may have been something of the concept of "two nations" behind Medvedev's gambit. According to some Kremlinfriendly political technologists,12 Russia is divided into a massive, but passive majority dependent on the state, but critical for the survival of the government, and a minority of active and self-reliant people, some intensely patriotic or even nationalistic, but most with a global outlook. Putin the paternalist had long captured the former group, thus ensuring the stability of the system; Medvedev the modernizer now needed to make a pitch for the latter one to move the country forward.

Medvedev was, after all, part of Putin's plan. Even his selection by Putin may have had something to do with this calculation. Medvedev's reputed passion for the Internet—his personal blog with its own video section—was intended to appeal to those outside the Putin majority. Putin himself could have easily won more young converts, but a division of labor probably made more sense to him. Since 2008, the state-sponsored youth program has been redirected from harassing enemies of the government or foreign diplomatic scapegoats to promoting innovation. In 2009, the big theme became reversing the brain drain and attracting Russian émigré scientists back to their country of origin.13

Medvedev was explicit. In his famous article he made it clear that he stands for comprehensive modernization, including in the political realm. He was not readily believed, but many people became curious. In the annual address to parliament, he seemed to backtrack somewhat. Yet, the whole thing is more than public relations or mere imitation, as some critics suggest.14 The Russian leaders are obviously inspired by the example of East Asian countries. Japan, as noted above, has been de facto a one-party state throughout most of its post-WWII history. The "rise of the Asian tigers" (South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Singapore) happened on the watch of the conservative governments even in those countries which later turned democratic. Officially communist and clearly authoritarian, China and Vietnam are surging ahead. The issue is, can a strong one-party rule that does not allow political competition lead to a technological and societal breakthrough in Russia as it apparently did in Asia?

Can It Succeed?

Putin and Medvedev realize they are dealing with more than just an economy that needs modernization. Their vision is a Russia that not only has a diverse and innovative economy, but also a society that is made productive and stable by the prominence of the middle classes, inspired by the traditional values of mainstream Orthodoxy and other religions, and even a polity built on multi-party competition in the continental European-style, or a two-party system, as in the U.S. or the UK. They also want Russia as a great power: a magnet rather than a master in its own neighborhood, a co-equal of the leading centers such as the EU, China, and the United States, and a member of the "collective global leadership."

This vision may be tempting, but it cannot be achieved in a conservative way because the obstacles to the goals it sets are endemic to the system over which Putin and Medvedev preside. Corruption is not an evil; it is the organizing principle. The business-bureaucracy nexus cannot be wished away; it can only be broken. Indivisible power cannot be separated into branches by simply appealing to the Constitution, which mandates this separation. Conservatism will only imitate change and compromise the vision. Revolutionary change, of course, is not the answer: Putin and Medvedev are correct regarding this question. What is needed is an effort which will not undermine the state, but replace the current politico-economic system: radical modernization.

The drivers of change are a legion: Russia is basically open to the world. International comparisons are poignant, and international competition is real. Should its modernization effort fail, Russia may not hold together in one piece: the best and the brightest would leave, and the more successful regions may secede from those regarded as drags. At the very least, the notion of Russia as a great power would finally be history, and the country would lay by the wayside of globalization.

The crucial question is about the agent of change. In the Asian countries mentioned above, there were leaders bold enough to initiate change. They were also able to ensure discipline within the elite, who became their associates. Looking to the top leader as the top reformer has a long tradition in Russia. From Peter I to Alexander II to Gorbachev, reforms were always coming in a top-down fashion, spearheaded by an enlightened despot. When Russia's rulers were not great reformers themselves, they, like Yeltsin, provided vital backing to the actual reformers. But all the Russian rulers cited above were essentially liberal reformers.

Not this time. Putin's predecessor as a conservative reformer was Peter Stolypin. The ruthless anti-revolutionary and pro-monarchy prime minister famously called, one hundred years ago, for "twenty years of peace and quiet" that would transform Russia. One can only guess what Russia might have looked like by 1930 had Stolypin not been assassinated in 1911 and had the tsar avoided being dragged into WWI three years later, which eventually led to the Bolshevik takeover. Putin, too, is calling for two decades of mildly authoritarian rule (he assumed power in 2000 and his "strategy" runs to 2020) and promises a modernized Russia at the end. The problem is, corruption in Russia has never been such a systemic factor as now. Modernization would seek to do away with it; conservation would seek to perpetuate it: the result would be a gridlock!

This is a tall order. Even a ruler as tough as Putin—provided he is willing—may find it hard to break that gridlock by disciplining the elites and to turn them into willing and active participants in the modernization drive. China's political system is much more authoritarian, but it is meritocratic. Russia's is based on rent distribution. Of course, Russia has a number of well-trained and enlightened bureaucrats wishing to do good for the country, but the general bureaucratic environment is determined by kickbacks and other forms of official corruption. No "vertical of power" is capable of making the elites put the national interest above their own—and certainly not in the situation where the top of the vertical has to rely on the loyalty of the lower end, bought at the price of licenses to steal.

Business is minding its own business. Normally, the business community would be the natural driver of modernization and a partner of the enlightened leadership and a patriotic bureaucracy. Russia's business elites, however, have not been noted for particular courage vis-à-vis the authorities, whether tsarist or post-communist. A century ago, this passivity contributed to the Bolshevik coup; more recently, the YUKOS lesson has been learned only too well. Big and, to a degree, medium-sized business has bought into the system and mastered competition in "administrative resources" (i.e., official corruption). As such, it feels comfortable and abhors change. Breaking the power-and-property nexus is a sine qua non for liberating Russia's entrepreneurship and innovation. 

The middle classes are not there—yet. Until now, the Russian middle classes have been focused on improving their own material circumstances and thus are not yet plausible agents for change. Post-Communist Russia has demonstrated the triumph of the private over the public in a most astonishing and pervasive manner. Middle classes here are essentially consumers, not citizens or entrepreneurs. Seen from that angle, today's Russia is not a nation: there is no res publica. It is also a country without a golden age to look back to. Conservative spokesmen are right: ironically, the Russians have never had it "so good" in terms of affluence, but also of personal freedom. However, unless the middle classes develop a public interest and start comparing Russia not to its past, but also to its neighbors, they will not become a driver for a higher quality of life.

The crisis has not produced an upheaval. As discussed, the current economic crisis, which many thought would bring pressure from below to bear on the Russian leadership, has so far failed to do that. The tandem is standing tall, its popularity virtually unaffected. Liberal activists who saw a ray of hope in the protests of car importers in the Far East or the disgruntled factory workers near St. Petersburg have been confounded: protests come in ripples, not in waves. It is only if the crisis is used to put the Russian economy on a new material foundation that its impact on the country's development will be positive.

Can outside pressure help, as some liberals hope? Gorbachev's concessions, after all, were rooted in the growing financial difficulties the Soviet Union faced in the late 1980s.15 Serious Western pressure on Russia and its leaders would certainly have an impact, but hardly to the liberals' liking. The underside of a hypothetical "confrontation of choice," in which the United States would actually apply pressure on the Russian leaders to make them change their domestic and international behavior in accordance with the values and principles espoused by Americans, would be so huge in terms of U.S. national security as to make it virtually unthinkable.

So, what could work? At the very top, a major driver could be the geopolitical factor, which drove Russia's modernizations of the past—both liberal and illiberal. Peter the Great, Alexander II, and Stalin all feared that a backward Russia would be too weak to stand up to its rivals. The key difference, of course, is that in the age of globalization the challenge Russia is facing is predominantly a non-military one. As such, it requires openness and private initiative, the opposite to state-run mobilization. Differences over these issues, and over the specific interests that would be affected by policy choices, would bring back genuine debate within the elite and the opening of the political system. Business would be relieved from its vow to keep out of politics. The public space, non-existent today, would re-emerge with people starting to care about issues, not only their narrow interests. At the middle classes level, a tax reform away from the flat low tax which is being increasingly talked about would probably create an interest about how public money is spent, and thus a real demand for accountability.16 A more austere financial environment can end the situation of "no taxation and no representation."

There may be several other drivers. The oil price, in a comfortable range for now, may drop and hit Russia again. A man-made disaster may provoke mass discontent. Successful transformation of a neighboring state, (e.g., Ukraine) may lead to the question: why can we not do better? One thing is clear, however. Giving priority to system conservation will stifle the modernization effort. A failure to modernize would speed up the already advanced process of Russia's steady decline and marginalization, and potentially lead to its break-up. The situation is dire. In principle, oil and gas money plus clean water, fresh air, and transit routes may sustain the elite for decades, and even leave something to the declining population. This, however, does not have to be Russia's future. As Medvedev and Putin tinker with conservative change, a combination of conflicts of interest and leadership ambitions, patriotism and national pride, business common sense, and a popular feeling of justice and revulsion against the reigning cynicism and license economy may start working for a more modern Russia.


1. Vladimir Putin, Speech at the 11th United Russia Party Congress, November 21, 2009, St. Petersburg. Dmitry Medvedev, Speech at 11th United Russia Party Congress, November 21, 2009, St. Petersburg

2. Dmitry Medvedev, Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 5, 2008, Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow.

3. Dmitry Medvedev, Go Russia! http://eng.kremlin.ru/speeches/2009/09/10/1534_type104017_221527.shtml.

4. Dmitry Medvedev, Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 5, 2008, Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow.

5. Vladimir Putin, Speech at Expanded Meeting of the State Council on Russia's Development Strategy through to 2020, February 8, 2008, The Kremlin, Moscow.

6. The Basis of the Social Concept, http://www.mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/.

7. Address by President Vladimir Put, September 4, 2004, The Kremlin, Moscow. Nichego u nih ne vyidet, Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 22, 2007 (#4525).

8. Name of Russia, results http://www.nameofrussia.ru/rating.html, November 4-National Unity Day website http://4november.ru/index.html.

9. Goldman Sachs, "Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050."

10. Alexey Kudrin. Speeches at St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, June 7, 2008.

11. Boris Gryzlov izbran spikerom Gosdumy chetvertogo sozyva, December 29, 2003.

12. Peredacha vlasti. Rossia 2.0, Vedomosti # 198 (2468), October 20, 2010.

13. Fundamental'lnaya nauka: Pochemu my utekli. Vedomosti # 186 (2456), October 2, 2009.

14. Dmitry Medvedev, Go Russia! http://eng.kremlin.ru/speeches/2009/09/10/1534_type104017_221527.shtml. Dmitry Medvedev, Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 12, 2009, The Kremlin, Moscow.

15. Yegor Gaidar, Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, (ROSSPEN, 2007).

16. Nikita Belykh. Mestnoe samoupravlenie: den'gi pod nogami, Vedomosti #223 (2493), November 25, 2009. 

Copyright © 2010 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 30, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2010, pages 27-37.  Reprinted with permission by The Johns Hopkins University Press.