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.  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  (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. 
They have no leader but if they did it would be Darth Vader himself, the ‘scariest man on Earth’ Igor Sechin,  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.  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.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.  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. 
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.
 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.
 FSB: Federal Security Service [федерал служба безопасности], the successor to the KGB (Committee of State Security)
 Although of course I would never allege that the mentioned individuals are personally corrupt in any way.
 Those are actually nicknames he’s been given.
 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.
 More on Medvedev in a future post.
 And that is the job of a model – to simplify enough to draw out a particular feature or relationship.