Russian Federation Federal state

History and trends

The Russian Federation is a semi-presidential Republic. Its Constitution entered into force on 12 December 1993.

Following the creation of the USSR in 1922, it was one of the republics of the Soviet Union. By virtue of its historical, political and economic weight, it shaped the destiny of the USSR throughout the 20th century.

Between 1922 and 1991, the history of Russia was intertwined with the history of the USSR, revealing in stark detail the various phases of its development:

  • the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s, in which the state took a relative back seat in the economy and reconstruction of the country
  • the Stalinist period (1927-1953), which shaped the Soviet system and was marked by the 1930s, a period of immense and diverse atrocities against society and spectacular yet chaotic industrial modernisation
  • the “Khrushchev Thaw” (1953-1964), when the totalitarian system was relaxed, the communist ideology was revisited and key reforms, especially in agriculture, ended in failure
  • the Brezhnev era (also known as the Era of Stagnation, 1964-1985), when the regime struggled to manage a sociologically more diverse society and when new generations created space for autonomy
  • the brief rule of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991), whose attempts to introduce reforms ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Russia.

Throughout these decades, Russia was by far the most important state in the Soviet Union by virtue of its size (it was the largest Soviet republic), its historical role as a model and, most importantly, its place as the seat of power of a highly centralised state. However, it was only in the 1930s – when there was a notable shift from Marxism-Leninism to Russian nationalism – that the Soviet Union’s leaders actively sought to align the identity of the USSR with Russia.

A reversal of this trend began in the 1970s, when the so-called “nativisation” of the constituent republics’ political and economic frameworks caused the first outflow of Russians and Russian-speakers. The desire for stabilisation among local leaders shaped a new balance of power within the USSR, forcing Moscow to give greater consideration to peripheral states.

As the terms perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”) – the two key concepts of the Gorbachev reforms – entered the discourse, centrifugal forces emerged and the idea of the USSR as a central state began to lose currency.

This development affected Russia itself. In May 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Russia elected Boris Yeltsin – the leading reformist – as its chairman and the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian SFSR followed in June that year. Political liberalisation sparked the emergence of new movements – ultra-nationalist Russian parties, independence movements (as in Tatarstan) and green factions. This, in turn, added extra momentum to Yeltsin’s reform agenda, and he subsequently won the first presidential election by universal suffrage in June 1991.

The failed 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt – an attempt by members of the Soviet Union’s government to take control of the country from Mikhail Gorbachev – allowed Yeltsin to establish himself as the only force capable of stabilising the country. Against the rebels, he set himself up as the defender of freedom and the man of the moment – to the detriment of Gorbachev. The failed coup d’etat attempt triggered a fresh wave of opposition and the RSFSR agreed to dissolve the USSR by signing the Belavezha Accords (8 December) with the republics of Ukraine and Belarus, establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place.

On 25 December 1991, the RSFSR changed its name to the Russian Federation. For the first time in its history as a modern state, Russia lost its empire. Yet it also had to grapple with a culturally diverse population. The Russian Federation, comprising 21 republics, had more than 30 million non-Russian citizens. In addition, following the collapse of the USSR, there were 25 million Russian nationals dispersed across the former Soviet republics (especially in Central Asia), which had now become independent states.

As well as struggling to redefine its geographical, cultural and institutional identity, it embarked on a long and difficult separation from communism as a political and economic system. The restoration of state authority amid sweeping, systemic change remains one of the most pressing challenges of the post-Soviet area.

The new constitution, approved by referendum in December 1993, was a source of conflict between the legislative and executive branches. The constitution consolidated the president’s authority by redistributing powers between the president, the government and parliament and reforming the relationship between the regions and the central government.

The Russian Federation is divided into 89 “federal subjects” (regions, autonomous republics, etc.) of equal federal rights. It has a bicameral parliament. The State Duma (lower house) is a 450-member house with legislative and budgetary power. The Federation Council (upper house) is a 178-member house where the “federal subjects” are represented.