Who rules Russia?

Who rules Russia? Obviously Putin is in charge but it is also clear that he’s no individual dictator – he’s the main man but has the job of balancing interests in the elite. [1] Since he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President on New Year’s Eve 1999 he’s been the undisputed leader of the elite – the arbiter between different broad groups rather than the absolutist leader whose every whim is obeyed. Using the old art of Kremlinology, most agree that below Putin there are two groups: the siloviki and the technocrats.

Who are the siloviks? They are the former KGB members, the politicians from uniform – the state security services in power. Literally a ‘silovik’ (силовик) is a person of power, ‘sila’ (сила) Russian for strength/power/force. While not a united group as such they have a shared background in state security giving them somewhat similar views on how to run the country. They tend to conservative, statist and focussed on security and law and order (rather than the rule of law). Many are shareholders in the large public monopolies – natural resource companies, railways etc. and control much of Russia’s wealth. This wealth gives them power and a level of autonomy from Putin – individually Putin is more powerful than any one of them but as a group he cannot disregard their interests and survive (and he doesn’t). They favour stability and guaranteed profits for themselves through an FSB [2] (the new KGB) run economy over liberal and democratic reform. It is said that politics, crime and business are all interlinked in Russia and it is through these men (they are all men) that this system reaches the top. [3]

Igor Sechin

Igor Sechin

They have no leader but if they did it would be Darth Vader himself, the ‘scariest man on Earth’ Igor Sechin, [4] a very close Putin associate since the 1990s and now sanctioned by the west. Coincidently CEO of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil and gas company. [5] In the 1980s he was in Mozambique and Angola for the Soviet diplomatic missions “as a translator” while allegedly the man in charge of KGB gun running during the civil wars there. Other top siloviki include Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s Chief of Staff and former KGB colleague of his, and Alexander Bastrykin head of the Investigative Committee.

Dmitry Medvedev [author: government.ru]

Dmitry Medvedev [author: government.ru]

The other group are the technocrats – mostly academic lawyers and economists. They are reformers and managers rather than shareholders – unlike the siloviks they don’t own the economy, but think they know how to run it. Dmitry Medvedev (President 2008-12 and now lame-duck Prime Minister) is an archetypal technocrat – a lawyer from St Petersburg who played the role at least of a liberal reformer with a vaunted ‘modernisation’ programme in the political, legal and economic system. [6] This programme, which came to nothing, highlights the key divide between these groups – reform. The siloviki oppose economic liberalisation as they win in the current state-controlled system – they don’t want any threat to their wealth – while the technocrats view economic liberalisation as necessary for economic development. For them political and legal reform goes hand in hand with this – a thriving private economy requires the non-biased rule of law to move away from an economy of robber barons while greater democracy would reduce elite corruption. All these reforms threaten the position of current elites so the divide between the two groups is unsurprising.

Putin’s role in all of this has been to be the arbiter between these splits – seen as the fair man at the top keeping factional rivalry from breaking out into dangerous divides that could topple the whole system. Although a former KGB colonel himself he has a broader view as the leader of the country, needing to consider his own popularity if the economy did crash under the weight of silovik control so has stood above the conflict until now. Unfortunately for him the economy had slowed down and was nearing recession (even before sanctions hit) so it seems this balancing act may have failed, given Russia should be experiencing fast catch-up growth at the moment. This groups are divided on foreign policy: the siloviki are more hawkish and desire a stronger Russian state influencing the ‘near abroad’ for commercial gain and see international economic integration as a threat if not controlled. The technocrats see international integration and inward investment as pushing Russia towards transparency, fairness and the rule of law, so favour a less belligerent foreign policy. Unsurprisingly then, one conclusion drawn from the Crimean affair is that the siloviks have the upper hand with Putin, at least for now.

Now this is a simplified model – a broad-brush approach to try and make the analysis of power in modern Russia easier. In future I’ll go into more detail of the specifics but this general overview captures the key dividing line at the top. In reality these categories can be fluid not all disputes silovik vs. technocrat: policy affecting different industries can pit silovik vs. silovik etc. One note of caution: every semi-authoritarian state seems to be presented as split between reformers and conservatives, and this is the same model with a Russian flavour. Despite these caveats, these two broad groups can be identified and do tend to take opposing lines on the key issues in Russian politics so understanding this is crucial in understanding the Russian elite. [7]

P.S. You might be wondering where the people are in all this? This is managed democracy. The Duma (parliament) is subordinated to Putin and the ‘competing’ parties are all Kremlin controlled. They have no independent role whatsoever.


[1] This is certainly true of Putin pre-2014, which is what this post focuses on. Whether we have seen a change recently is much too early to say with any certainty.

[2] FSB: Federal Security Service [федерал служба безопасности], the successor to the KGB (Committee of State Security)

[3] Although of course I would never allege that the mentioned individuals are personally corrupt in any way.

[4] Those are actually nicknames he’s been given.

[5] It controversially became the largest through the purchase of Yukos Oil’s assets after its oligarch owner, Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, had been jailed. He blamed Sechin for his imprisonment.

[6] More on Medvedev in a future post.

[7] And that is the job of a model – to simplify enough to draw out a particular feature or relationship.


6 thoughts on “Who rules Russia?

  1. Wow, that’s fascinating! One question I’m left with – what’s Putin got to lose by upsetting the technocrats? The possible retribution is not as obvious as with the siloviks.

    • That’s a great question because it draws out another key feature of the system: you’re right he’s got a lot less to lose! Technocrats are sackable in a way the silovik shareholders aren’t. From Putin’s perspective he’s balancing the short and long term. In the long run he wants intelligent capable managers to ensure economic growth while keeping the siloviks on side taking their cut, but in times of trouble, as with the 2011 protests, the long term goes out of the window and survival is the order of the day – the reformers are sacked and the hard liners push for a reassertion of control. Now the economy is hitting the buffers and foreign policy is obviously hawkish – this is the technocrat’s nightmare but there is little they can do about. Putin can sack them at will with little immediate cost – the threat is that in the long run their loss of influence signals catastrophe for a system in dire need of reform.

  2. What do you make of the current gas deal with China? Do you think this will bring the economic modernisation the technocrats want, allowing the siloviks to get what they want elsewhere? I imagine this recent Sino-Russo deal suits the siloviks more than the technocrats, for each country, in reducing their dependence on the West.

    • I agree the new deal has a huge geo-political element and is about reducing dependence on the EU in particular – as China will never sign up to western sanctions this means there will always be an outlet for one of Russia’s key exports – gas. The Russian state has a controlling stake in Gazprom and Putin has heavily supported it (but interestingly there’s a big rivalry with the oil company Rosneft and Sechin) so this is a victory for the statists. Although economically beneficial in itself – more revenues from oil is good for Russia all else equal – in wider terms it’s going to be harmful as it allows the state to rely on oil revenue to cushion the budget and postpone technocratic reforms to encourage development of other sectors of the economy.

  3. Michael, Riveting Analysis: Cogent, Beautifully – Artfully Presented.

    Gosh darn do I thank you.

    I was asking myself, ‘Google’: “Who Rules Russia?”

    And Viola!@

    YOU published something that has so filled and completed my internal-mental-query, that truly, I’m grateful that you have spent your resources to publish this expose – I am so much more intelligent and smarter because of it – I promise heretofore to become a better listener now, as your analysis deepened my own question to myself, and in some fascinating exchange in which I gain everything, I feel as though more “comfortable” with Russian Power and Projection, The Internal and The External, as your understanding also added comfort and pride to my own, definition of, “What is Russia”?

    One Question: “Would you associate, the people, the demos of Russia with The Technocrats, Such that if the Technocrats are pushed out – – the soul of the country is also?

    Whereby in this instance, I define: soul, as: ‘The Spirit of The Age’:

    And Thus, the eagerness of acquisitiveness Rules, ‘Hoarders’: “guaranteed profits”, Obese with Possessions of no value, and the breath of stench everywhere.

    • Thanks Stuart – I’m very glad google brought my post to your attention in your moment of curiosity.

      Interesting question: If anything the opposite is true (for good or bad depending on your views) – I’d associate the majority of Russia with the ‘conservatives’ rather than the ‘liberal’ technocrats. The technocrats free market views clash with traditional Russian collective attitudes (going back before the USSR to the peasant communes of Imperial Russia) as does their ‘worldliness’ (for want of a better word).

      Looking at the 2013 Levada Centre Survey [http://www.levada.ru/sites/default/files/2012_eng.pdf] many discrepancies between the technocrats and majority of the population jump out immediately. Amongst the population:

      – only 33% want a state like the west with market economy and democratic freedoms (24% wanted the USSR, 33% a unique course of development) [p20]
      -52% feel no connection to Europe at all [p18]
      -42% think Russia should not open to the world as it will threaten its culture [p21]
      -75% think people either have enough or too much freedom [p28]

      And that’s without particularly digging. These views align much more with a conservative position – building up Russian power separately to ‘the West’, suspicion of international integration and social reforms.

      To use a broad brush: the free market socially liberal and internationally oriented technocrats are associated with a minority of the people – the urban, educated and middle class, the ‘intelligentsia’ to misuse a term. If anything the soul of Russia is conservative, rural and suspicious of western-style reforms – and this is the group silovik-style policies appeal to.

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