- "Whatever party we try to build, we always get CPSU!"—Victor Chernomyrdin, Russian ex-Prime Minister famous for his malapropismsPosle perestroiki, budet perestrelka, (a potom pereklichka).After perestroika, there will be a shoot-out, (and then a roll callnote ).—a common quip during the late '80s and early '90s
Life in Russia was never nice, and political life is not an exception. The Russian Federation started in what appeared to be a peaceful, bloodless resolution of the Cold War (only three men perished during the 1991 coup attempt), but two years later, the Russian Constitution of 1993 was written in blood after President Yeltsin ordered tanks to shoot live shells at the unruly parliament (housed in the White House — not that one — for bonus irony). Since then, Russia managed to turn even democracy into a dystopia. Granted, Russia didn't arrive at "dystopia" without a considerable amount of help from the United States and Europe, multiple international crises that Russia bore the brunt of but had no control overnote , complications from the laws of the International Monetary Fund, and then the infamous "less shock, more therapy" period.note Historically, Russia has always had an uneasy relationship with democracy, creating a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy that to be Russian is to suffer and that Russia is doomed to authoritarian rule. As always, it's actually much more complicated, but that's what doctoral programmes are for.
The Russian Federation is a federation of 83 subjects (89 before the mergers of the late 2000s), after the events of 2014 two more subjects added, and both are disputed territories de-facto administered by Russia. It is a presidential democratic republic — even though the suspicious distribution of power between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin in 2008-2012 caused some pundits to believe it's actually semi-presidential, if you look at the Constitution, you'll see it's extremely lopsided in favor of the President.
Russian federalism can be divided into three periods: the first being the Yeltsin era, which was largely defined by chaos, economic destabilization, a prolonged crisis regarding Russian identity (that's still ongoing, albeit at a slightly lower volume), the problem of turning former domestic policy into foreignnote , securing the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, and, just for kicks, a civil war. Yeltsin enjoyed a great amount of support from the United States, and while he was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union, he was perhaps not well-suited to the presidency. Vladimir Putin took office in 1999, during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russian history, and while he's the subject of quite a bit of criticism and often portrayed as an autocrat, this view only solidified after the fact. During the first era of his presidency (1999-2008), Putin was credited with centralizing power, which sounds like what he's being accused of doing now but for the fact that in 1999, Russia's federal government was so weak that various regions simply ignored federal law, knowing that Moscow was too weak to enforce it. The third era, or "now," is an open question, and whether or not Russia will move back toward open democracy is unclear.
The central government that resides in Moscow. It consists of the executive branch (the Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister) and the legislative branch, a bicameral parliament called the Federal Assembly, consisting of the State Duma (the lower house with 450 Deputies, and what most people think of when they hear of the Russian parliament) and the Council of the Federation (the upper house, of 166 Senators). The President belongs to neither the executive nor legislative branch, but rather is a separate entity. There's also the judicial branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court in St. Petersburg (the latter's function is interpreting the Constitution and judging its ambiguous points).
All subjects have their own governments, led by a mayor in the federal city of Moscow, heads of administration in ethnic republics and governors everywhere else. Yes, the head of St. Petersburg, also a federal city, is a governor, not a mayor. All heads of subjects are elected locally, but only from those approved by the regional parliaments. And because these parliaments are all controlled by the ruling party and, as a consequence, by the government and the Presidential Administration, this system doesn't differ much from the previous one, when all heads of subjects were appointed from Moscow. The parliaments of federal subjects are unicameral.
Russia uses Proportional Representation (PR) for its parliaments on all levels. Blocs are forbidden, though, and coalitions do not exist.
- Five, Six and Seven percent thresholds: a party must get at least 7% votes to receive seats in the State Duma. If the party gets 6%, it receives a consolation prize of two seats, or one seat if 5%.
- Three percent threshold: a party that gets 3-4% votes does not receive any seats in the parliament but receives any money spent on political ads back.
- United Russia: The juggernaut conservative political party that backs the President and Prime Minister. Can be best described as a party of state bureaucrats and anyone who wants to get close to them. It's a political machine that hogs votes using aggressive propaganda, underhanded manipulations and administrative resources (that's ordering people how to vote, for those not in the know). The Duma of 2007 was utterly dominated by this party; the Duma of 2011 appears to be less United Russia-dominated, and even that year's electoral results (45%) resulted in riots and rallies protesting against United Russia's underhanded tactics.
- For those in the west, it's best to think of United Russia as a political apparatus that happened to become a long-term political party, rather than a party of ideas. United Russia was born from the need to have a designated group backing Putin during his first term. The fact that United Russia happened to cohere, remain a viable force, and develop a platform was something of a happy accident.
- Communist Party of Russian Federation: Supposedly communist, but in fact social-conservative that is, both social-democratic and socially conservative. Unlike the communists of the USSR, these guys support the church, do not mind businessmen, believe in traditional social mores and do not want to restore the USSR. Led by the uncharismatic, unattractive and unambitious Gennady Zyuganov, a persistent presidential candidate of the party aside from the 2004 and 2018 elections, when he was replaced by Nikolay Kharitonov and Pavel "Strawberry Baron" Grudinin, a Communist entrepreneur, respectively. Often accused of closely toeing The Government's line and being opposition In Name Only.
- Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia: Neither liberal nor democratic. It is, in fact, a pseudo-nationalist (mainly because Zhirinovsky is all bark and no bite) party centered around its leader, the famous political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another eternal presidential candidate. This party owes its strange name to the fact it was created in the late 1980s, when "liberal" and "democratic" were buzzwords of instant success. The target of the same accusations as CPRF. The United States considered Zhirinovsky a legitimate threat to Yeltsin in the mid-90s. He's also done some xenophobic raps and bellicose sabre-rattling, including a live TV interview in 2014 where he threatened that Russia would nuke Poland and the Baltics if NATO interferes in the Ukraine mess.
- A Just Russia: A social-democratic party, somewhat of a more liberal and modern rival to CPRF, but less popular. A relatively recent union of three rather different more-or-less leftist parties, some of them decidedly odd (like an ex-Senate speaker Sergey Mironov's Party of Life that tried to tout a really weird pseudo-environmentalist slogans and selected a vykhukhol, also known as a Russian Desman, a bizarre semi-aquatic insect-eater animal, as their mascot), which nevertheless managed to carve themselves a solid social-democratic reputation and win the hearts of some leftist voters who aren't sufficiently radical for the Left Front and don't want to be associated with CPRF's geezers. Also accused of being the Kremlin's creation. Members of this party are called Esers, same as members of the historical Socialist Revoltionary Party; this party officially isn't any kind of successor to that one, but it seems that currently it's becoming more left-wing and may some day live up to the name and become a Spiritual Successor to the historical Esers.
Dwarf and Outlawed Parties
Parties too unpopular to win any seats in the State Duma are usually called "dwarf parties". Some dwarf parties are outlawed because of their extremist views.
- People's Freedom Party (PARNAS): An old-school liberal party led by former Putin's PM Mikhail Kasyanov. In their goals, mind you, as their methods, which included slander, boycotting and an undeniably classist approach, were surprisingly Bolshevik. Liberalism is somewhat The Scrappy of ideologies in Russia because of the liberals' infamous reforms of 1990s which spawned a lot of corruption and a hell of starving poor people, which is why they consistently fail to win enough votes to get into parliament. Their constant internal squabbles don't help either. As is the liberals' reputation as unabashed Western lickspitties, which alienates a lot of the more patriotic voters. It is sometimes said that if Russian Liberals existed in the US, they'd be tarred and feathered in seconds for their disloyalty to the nation.
- Apple Party (Yabloko): Another liberal party, offering more socialized liberalism akin to what the Democratic Party of America believes in. Popular among the educated, cosmopolitan middle class of the big cities, but without support from other voters, the party's numbers are too low for it to maintain real influence. It constantly teeters on the representation barrier, sometimes making it, and sometimes not. The name for the party is somewhat lost in translation as a reference to the surnames of its founders (Yavlinsky, Boldyrev, Lukin)
- Patriots of Russia: A social-democratic party that popped out of nowhere before the 2011 elections, got almost no votes, and then sunk back into oblivion. Accused of being the Kremlin's political tool by many analysts.
- Another Russia: An outlawed party formed from a strange alliance of old-school liberals and Commie Nazis (no, really), united by a common desire to overthrow the dictatorship of United Russia. Currently, only the latter remained in it, and it turned to support of the President.
- Left Front: Looks like the Bolsheviks are back! The Left Front contained and still contains actual communists who wanted to restore Soviet Russia. Now an outlawed party. Its most important policies are restoring the Soviet system by restoring the Soviets (workers' councils) themselves in the state as they were before the Revolution, co-working with the workers' movements and participating in street protests.
Recently, the Federal Assembly passed legislation that creates easier procedures for party formation. Prepare for an abundance of odd, misguided, and incorrectly-named dwarf parties!
There is also a weakly organized, but fairly numerous nationalist movement which is currently gaining momentum. Because of the rise of Islamist extremism, ethnic criminal gangs (mostly consisted by immigrants from Caucasus and Central Asia), huge funding of Chechnya, with peripheral areas being dirt-poor, and racial riots with violence from both sides, the popularity of nationalism is slowly growing. Nationalists occupy the entire spectrum of right-wing political views ranging from national democracy (which can be roughly compared to the Tea Party Movement in the US) to straightforward nazism, but they all share the slogan "Russia for the Russians" and oppose the government or even the state itself for being "anti-Russian". To visualize this opposition, they use the black-yellow-white flag (called imperka) which dates back to Tsarist Russia. Their organizations are difficult to name since they are constantly being banned for racist, antisemitic and extremist hate-speech, and are as constantly recreated by the same people under different names. Most notable of them, and formerly most close to a political party, is the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) which was banned in 2011 but somehow exists to today. They have an annual venue called Russian March which takes place on November 4th and attracts several thousand people in Moscow and several hundred (at best) in other cities.
Vladimir Putin is the house that always wins. No matter who wins and who loses in this casino, this guy will stay on top.
Relatively new, but rather popular opposition leader and Yale-graduated lawyer, who started as a member of an unpopular liberal party, later, he became a very popular Livejournal blogger, who used open sources of information to uncover corruption in the Russian establishment (and there are TONS of it), and publically expressed his sympathies for Russian nationalism. During protests and the slow decline of Putin's popularity, he was gradually becoming much more popular, and is one of the few nationalists who are recognised by Russian society. Many his opponents consider him to be a puppet of the USA, while other think of him as a False Flag Operation staged by Putin. At one point, he, like he did to Kremlin bosses, was accused of corruption, put on a trial, and sentenced for five years (whether he was guilty or framed is a GIANT Flame Bait, so let's leave this topic untouched), but then he was temporarily freed, permitted to take part as a candidate in the election of Moscow mayor, came second, and was pardoned, which led many people to think that he is a Kremlin's puppet and agent provocateur. The fact that his brother and many of followers have received real punishment has been used both to support and to undermine this position. That said, the agent provocateur position is generally agreed to have gotten a lot less defensible in 2020 after "someone" apparently tried to kill Navalny himself by smearing Novichok nerve agent on his underpants (really); he survived after being airlifted to Germany for treatment.note (N.B.: Novichok is only available to the Russian security services.) This triggered some large (though not large-enough) protests across Russia after his return to Russia in 2021.