Russian Politics and Presidential Power: Transformational Leadership from Gorbachev to Putin


Donald R. Kelley

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    For Knox Eric Ogden


    When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party, all of us who studied the Soviet Union knew that change was coming. The Brezhnev + 2 era was over; it had lasted for twenty-one years, and it had its good points and bad. But now change would come, because that’s what new leaders do. But our conventional wisdom told us that it would be gradual and probably not fundamentally change the course of the nation. We were wrong. Change came, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. Reforms become revolutions, and eventually revolutions play out and somebody picks up the pieces.

    Trying to understand that trajectory in the broader context of Russian history is the point of this book. Revolutions and reconstructions do not occur in isolation. Both play out in the context of a nation’s history. You cannot escape that past; it shapes revolutions and the new order that emerges. But you also cannot escape your notion of the future, especially if much of your history has been about willing a new and better future into existence.

    That’s where authoritarian modernizers come in. They are transformational leaders who set out to build that future, always rejecting at least some portion of the past and sometimes reinterpreting the works of past modernizers whose ideas had misdirected the nation. The premise of this book is that this perspective is helpful in understanding both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the nature and modus operandi of the Russian Federation that rose in its place. It doesn’t explain everything, of course; culture, formal institutions, and the serendipitous interplay of a hundred other variables of time and place and circumstance all play a role. But it is a place to begin, one that provides a link between the past and the future and that helps in understanding the present.

    There is remarkably little theoretical literature about the phenomenon of authoritarian modernizers in the conventional literature in history, political science, economics, and psychology. Modernization theory—itself an internally conflicted body of thought about the causes and consequences of the phenomenon—also offers little specific discussion of authoritarian modernizers per se other than to note that they rarely, if at all, foster the emergence of open and liberal democracies. Much of what is valuable comes not from the scant body of theory but rather from the historical studies of modernization in Turkey, Iran, Japan, Germany, Russia, China, and the newly independent nations emerging from colonial rule after World War II, some of which are cited in Chapter 1. Much of the conceptual model set forth in the first chapter is my own synthesis, cobbled together out of the theoretical literature and the more comprehensive country-specific studies. It is not offered as an implicit value judgment. Authoritarian modernizers are not inherently either good or bad, at least in the conventional sense in which we judge those who lead us. Nor are they inherently right or wrong, although the notions of modernity they pursue may be out of touch with reality. The concept is offered as what Max Weber would have called an “ideal type,” a paradigm meant to inspire and direct our thought rather than as a final and definitive statement of what constitutes an authoritarian modernizer in all cases and for all time. Some will fit the paradigm better than others; some will succeed in the role, and others will fail; and some will be lauded as the founding fathers of a modern state, while others will be condemned as manipulative authoritarians who cloaked their dictatorial ways with the promise of a better future.

    In the Russian case, there is a little bit of all of the above.


    I wish to thank the reviewers who provided insightful commentary and feedback that helped improve the manuscript, particularly Barbara Chotiner (University of Alabama), Richard Farkas (Depaul University), Gerry Hudson (The Ohio State University), and Irina Vakulenko (The University of Texas at Dallas). Additionally I would like to thank the editorial and production staff at CQ Press for their efforts, including Charisse Kiino, Nancy Loh, Elise Frasier, Sarah Calabi, Matthew Byrnie, Zachary Hoskins, Michael Kerns, Carrie Brandon, Duncan Marchbank, Bennie Clark Allen, and Amy Marks.

    SAGE Publishing also wishes to thank the following reviewers for their kind assistance:

    • Barbara Chotiner, University of Alabama
    • Richard Farkas, DePaul University
    • Gerry Hudson, The Ohio State University
    • Irina Vakulenko, University of Texas at Dallas

    About the Author

    Donald R. Kelley is professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he has taught since 1980. His publications on Russia include The Economic Superpowers and the Environment: The United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan, co-author, 1976; Soviet Politics in the Brezhnev Era, editor, 1980; The Solzhenitsyn–Sakharov Dialogue: Politics, Society, and the Future, 1982; The Politics of Developed Socialism, 1986; Soviet Politics from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, editor, 1987; Old Myths and New Realities in United States–Soviet Relations, co-editor, 1990; Perestroika Era Politics: The New Soviet Legislature and Gorbachev’s Political Reforms, co-editor, 1991; The Sons of Sergei: Khrushchev and Gorbachev as Reformers, co-editor, 1992; Politics in Russia and the Successor States, 1999; and After Communism: Perspectives on Democracy, editor, 2003. Other books include The Clinton Riddle, co-editor, 2004; Divided Power: The Presidency, Congress, and the Formation of American Foreign Policy, co-editor, 2005; and Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush, co-editor, 2013. He is currently writing Looking Ahead: Alternative Futures for the International System.

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