March 18, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1565

Russia: An Incidental Federation

March 18, 2021 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev
Russia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1565

Russia's official name these days is the Russian Federation, and it consists of 85 elements that possess equal rights. Among them are 22 national republics, 55 territorial entities, three cities – Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and, since the Russian occupation of Crimea, Sevastopol – one autonomous territory and four autonomous districts incorporated into the before-mentioned territorial entities.[1] But it is a big question whether Russia might be called a federation since it differs quite a lot from the 24 other federal countries in the world.

The most striking difference, I would argue, arises from its history. Most of the federal countries emerged either as a composition of territorial entities that were culturally close to each other (such as Germany, Switzerland, or even the United States), or as a heritage of a colonial experience of some kind (these are as diverse as Brazil, former Yugoslavia, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, or the United Arab Emirates). Unlike all these nations, Russia developed itself as an empire, with its historical core, which was once known as Principality of Muscovy, being only a part of the ancient Rus'.

By the early 17th century, Muscovy had conquered vast lands in the East, reaching the shores of the Pacific, and later adjoined Kyiv, the old cultural center of Russian civilization. Adopting the name "Russia," originating from the Greek Рωσία, it expanded further, and by the late 19th century encompassed Poland and Finland in the North, Ruthenia and Bessarabia in the West, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and all of Central Asia in the South. It was built as an empire, ruled as an empire, and glorified as an empire. The idea of a federation emerged in the late 1910s when, after the Bolshevik revolution, the country fell apart and the new rulers were unable to re-assemble it by force. The Bolsheviks praised the federalist idea as a means that might allow the newly created Soviet Union to expand gradually until it transformed into a worldwide amalgamation of Socialist republics.

Coronation of Nicholas II by L.Tuxen (1898, Hermitage)

Imperial History Is Vital For Understanding Russia

Imperial history is vital for understanding Russia since, unlike the European empires, who lost all their colonies between 1776 and 1828, and then gained new possessions from the early 1830s to 1885, Russia never retreated from the lands it occupied or placed under its protectorate. Moreover, since the Russia that conquered Poland, Finland, Caucasus, and Central Asia in the late 18thand 19th centuries was itself an empire composed of its Muscovite metropolis and eastern colonies, the new super-state lacked the sense of difference between "core" and "periphery." The greatest landmass on Earth was considered a single polity ruled from a city that stood 5,500 miles away from Vladivostok and 2,600 miles away from Samarkand or Bukhara. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were governed by an iron fist, whether they were called federations or not. The real federative tradition never existed there, even while there were some examples of what might be called self-rule, or autonomy – from the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Princedom of Finland, where the Czar was the king or prince, and typical vassal quasi-states in the conquered Central Asia, to the nominally "self-governed" Soviet Republics. Anyway, as the real sense of federalism was rediscovered in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union rapidly broke up alongside the borders between its republics.[2]

Here is where our story begins. The new Russia inherited from the Soviet Union at least three crucial problems.

First, the Russian Empire consisted of territories, such as Siberia, that were colonized (i.e., conquered and peopled by the Russians or other Slavic peoples) and of those that were attached and ruled as possessions, such as Finland, Armenia, and Central Asia. The crash of the Soviet Union, unlike the dissolution of the European empires, did not solve the issue: today's Russia encompasses both historical colonies east of the Ural Mountains, where the share of the Slavic population exceeds 70 percent, as well as the North Caucasian territories where it stays at less than one percent. With the revival of religious and in many cases even tribal identity it seems extremely problematic to govern such a country as a democratic federation.

Second, there is an issue in dealing with the state's structure. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which pretended to be a federation, also sought to be "ethnicity-neutral," as is the United States of America. It was composed of 15 republics, each named after its prevailing ethnic or national group. Today, the Russian Federation is called by the name of the Russian nation, which last year was officially called "the state-constituent people" by the amended version of the Constitution; moreover, this country is divided into territories that retain their ethnic specification ("republics") or those that are considered "Russian" ("oblasts" and "krays"). On top of this, some entities bearing the name of their dominant ethnic groups are incorporated in several oblasts and krays.

Third, there are economic issues that undermine the federative principle. The difference in the per capita regional production exceeds 60 (!) times, which is unmatched by any other federal state.[3] Siberia, the former settler colony of Muscovy, contributes more than 75 percent to the country's exports,[4] which consist mostly of energy and raw materials. The Northern Caucasus republics, on the other hand, are living entirely on federal subsidies that comprise up to 90 percent of their regional budgets. Moreover, in Chechnya, a former rebellious republic, the economy (i.e., all the commercial enterprises) recorded a combined loss for nine years out of the last ten,[5] making the whole region a "black hole" in Russia's not-so-well managed economy. With the federal budget channeling a bigger and bigger share of taxes and duties collected into the subsidies and transfers to those regions, the system becomes less and less stable.

As Russia Became Independent In December 1991, Its Leaders Called For The Formation Of A Federation

The history of the current Russian "federation" is also quite telling. Russia declared its "sovereignty" in June 1990 as it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Its president, Boris Yeltsin, cared little about the federal composition: In his efforts to destroy Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, he encouraged the regional leaders "to take as much sovereignty as they are able to swallow" (and not even to digest).[6] As Russia became not only "sovereign," but also independent in December 1991, its leaders started to reflect upon the new reality, and called for the formation of a federation by signing a Federative Treaty. After some negotiations, the treaty was signed in two rounds: first, the representatives of the national republics signed on March 31, 1992 alongside the president of the Russian Federation;[7] and later on the same day the chiefs of the oblasts and krays signed in a separate ceremony.[8] Two republics – Chechnya and Tatarstan – refused to sign the treaty. While Tatarstan finally signed on February 15, 1994, Chechnуa never did, and the events changed their course dramatically.

In the following year, Russian parliament revolted against the president. Boris Yeltsin responded by moving loyal troops into the capital and suppressing the revolt by force; immediately thereafter he announced the national vote on the new constitution, which took part on December 12, 1993. The constitution was adopted by a slight majority of votes: 58.4 percent vs. 41.6 percent, which equals 31 percent of the overall number of eligible voters.[9] But what was extremely important was the fact that articles 71 and 72 of the document, addressing the division of powers between the federation and its constitutive parts, incorporated most of the elements of the Federative Treaty and denounced it. From then on, Russia became a federation without a formative document – and it was not a surprise that several weeks later Moscow sent regular troops to Chechnya, which the constitution had declared to be a part of Russia though formally it never was since it had not signed the 1992 Federation Treaty and has been in fact independent since 1991. So, the adoption of the 1993 Constitution was the first step away from federal Russia.

It was not the last, however. Until the early 2000s, the regions elected their governors, who came to Moscow from time to time together with the chairpersons of the regional legislatures, and members of the Council of Federation, which is the upper house of parliament. After President Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin in 2000, the Council of Federation was reformed in October 2001 in a way that specially appointed representatives of the regions, replacing publicly elected local leaders. The next step came in 2004 when the public elections of the governors were abolished and from then until 2011 the regional assemblies formally voted into office the candidates presented by the president (no one has been outvoted in all these years).

In 2011, then President Dmitry Medvedev reinstalled the previous system but since then the president has the authority to fire any governor without having to explain why he did so – and, moreover, he has the power to appoint a person of his choice to fill the place until the next elections are held. As "national voting day" is set for September, it may happen that for up to one full year an individual never entrusted by the local population can govern a region – which looks like quite a unique practice never used in any country that is called federation, except, of course, those whose territories are ruled by hereditary monarchs, as is the case in UAE and Malaysia. Only India's system might be said to be similar, but there the appointed governors have little power, since the power resides in the chief ministers of the states.

Russia Is A Federation Only By Name, Remaining An Empire By Substance

To make this long story maybe not short but definitely shorter, I would argue that the Russia of the end of the 20thand the beginning of the 21st century looks like an "incidental federation." It was born as such by name and actually used the federative rhetoric in its constituent years as it first confronted the Soviet central go­vernment and later seduced its own regions to acknowledge Moscow's primacy and to drop their own demands for larger autonomy. But immediately after the first significant victory of the central authorities over the rebellious legislature in October 1993, the federal liberties started to shrink in a process that continues to this day as the Kremlin gets more and more power and the regions look less and less willing to complain.

The occupation of Crimea became a significant milestone in this process as, before, Russia seemed to be fighting for the territory it inherited from the Soviet Union, but in 2014 it agreed to take in two new territories – the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol – which supposedly voted for being allowed to become part of Russia, but without a way out as the Russian constitution does not recognize the right of any of the territories to leave the federation. As the new territories arrive, and many Russian politicians voice their readiness to incorporate into the Russian Federation even more entities that broke away from other former post-Soviet states, there is more and more similarity between the current federation and the former empire, which looks like a quite natural phenomenon, since Russia has never been established through the bottom-to-top approach that appears to be the major way for creating a federal state.

History shows that an empire has never successfully become a federation. In all cases it simply dissolves while retaining some signs of solidarity in the form of a commonwealth. Several countries, like the United Kingdom or Spain, being complex polities consisting of different autonomous regions with their long history, are now struggling for their territorial integrity, but all these nations have been metropolises of vast overseas empires, but not empires themselves, as was Russia. So, I would say that Russia today looks like the most problematic federation, as its leadership has no will to govern it as a federation while its citizens have little incentive to demand a larger portion of democracy and self-governance. Therefore, I would say Russia is now a federation only by name, remaining an empire by substance, and the change, if it happens, will definitely not arrive in the near future.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor


[1], accessed March 10, 2021.

[2] For more detail see: Абалов, Александр и Иноземцев, Владислав. Бесконечная империя: Россия в поисках себя, Москва: Альпина Паблишерс, 2021 (Abalov, Alexander and Inozemtsev, Vladislav. An Endless Empire: Russia in Search for Itself, Moscow, Alpina Publishers, 2021– in Russian).


[4] See: Зубов, Валерий и Иноземцев, Владислав. Сибирское благословение, Москва: Аргамак-Медиа, 2013, cc. 24–25 (Zubov, Valery and Inozemtsev, Vladislav. The Siberian Blessing, Moscow: Argamak-Media Publishers, 2013, pp. 24–25 – in Russian).

[5], January 26, 20218.


[7], accessed March 10, 2021.

[8], accessed March 10, 2021.

[9], accessed March 9, 2021.

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