Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 8

The Communists as Defenders of the Russian Bureaucratic Tradition

By Maryanne Ozernoy


Russian politics presents a puzzle. Why does "Russian Capital,"(1) those commercial banks, financial and industrial companies that invest in Russia, see a Communist regime as the guarantor of stability for their assets? The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) promises in its program to do the opposite: "to restore the socialist economy and endow it with a second wind …by expropriating and returning property to the people and by restoring state control over assets, privatized against public interests."(2) The explanation lies in the KPRF’s firmly asserted role as a provider of order and security for "Russian Capital’s" vested interests. Answers to this apparent contradiction are bound to be misconceived and incomplete, unless we take into account the Russian administrative elites’ steady accumulation of political power and wealth over the centuries.

A History of Bureaucratic Dominance

Modern Russia’s bureaucratic system of governance is deeply rooted in the customs of medieval Rus. Until the eighteenth century, Russia maintained an administrative structure in which princes and later czars appointed boyars (service nobility) to head military and civil administration in votchinas (regions) The ruler delegated to the boyars the authority to exercise a monopoly of power at the local level. The boyars served as governors of their respective regions, but received no official payment for their services. Instead the boyars’ compensation consisted of monetary payments, as well as goods and services, delivered by the peasants under their rule. This system of commissions became known as kormlenie, which literally translates as "feeding." The institutions of kormlenie laid the foundation for modern power structures similar to the mafia; a system of oversight and protection based on monopoly positions in both legal and illegal economic ventures.

In tandem with this system of local rule and taxation, a second fundamental component of Russia’s administrative system, bureaucratic hierarchy, also developed from early Russian tradition. This hierarchy, or mestnichestvo, originated from the customary Russian practice by which nobles received a mesto (place) around the czar’s table and in the czar’s service according to their respective families’ pedigree. The boyars didn’t own the estates in votchina, but saw them as a reward for service. They could lose their lands if the czar found their state service inadequate. The bureaucratic hierarchy had features of the later nomenklatura (a confirmation list) system, including the presence of an independent political ruling class that was economically dependent on its service to the state. The Russian noble class of boyars did not enjoy the privileges of their feudal counterparts in the West, land ownership, or proprietorship of substantial assets until the eighteenth century. They could inherit the estate with service, but they could be deprived of possession anytime by the czar. Therefore, administrative position, mesto (place) and chin (rank), and corresponding political power, became the only asset boyars had Similarly, it was political power that granted economic privileges under Communist rule.

Since members of this bureaucratic class maintained wide discretion in appropriating and distributing resources through the system of kormlenie (tribute collection), and since Russia lacked clear laws governing the limits of bureaucratic power, the bureaucracy was able over time to usurp substantial political power. Over decades, the bureaucracy was able to maintain its own internal cohesion, as well as its political power, by exercising control over the selection of new members. The nomenklatura became a professional governing class atop the bureaucratic hierarchy, responsible for selecting virtually all professionals for official positions. Today these traditions are thriving, despite the wave of change sweeping across Russia, and are playing a dominant role in determining the structure of Russia’s emerging political system.

A Conflictual Bureaucratic System: the Anatomy of Russian Administrative Reforms The system of bureaucratic hierarchy violated the tenet of absolute political control by the czar and eventually helped to undermine the czars’ autocratic rule. From the 1917 Bolshevik revolution until August 1991, the Communist party supplanted the czar’s autocratic power and assumed total control over the state and the selection of bureaucrats. The exclusive list of Soviet elites consisted of dedicated Communist party members. Each had to be selected and approved for key positions by the Communist party apparatus. There was no separation of power between the party and the state. Membership in the nomenklatura did not grant private ownership of economic privileges, nor could the privileged position be inherited. The Soviet nomenklatura system could not protect its members from purges or personal loss. A disgraced patron usually tarnished his team as well.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, attempts began to reform the system. In 1988, the 19th party conference voted to separate Communist party functions from the state administration. This decision ended the CPSU monopoly on political authority, its ownership of all natural resources, land, commercial and industrial wealth, and its tight grip over the nomenklatura. Bureaucrats turned in their party cards but stayed in power with a new government job. The survey results presented by N.S. Yershova show that, unlike in Poland and Hungary, Russia’s new elite did not come to power from the lower classes, but inherited its high governmental positions from parents or on the basis of a Communist past. As a result, N.S. Yershova concludes, the Russian elite is an exclusive caste that is very difficult for outsiders to enter.(3)

During the 1980s, military competition with the U.S. highlighted the inefficiency of the centrally planned economy and accelerated a process of internal reform. Decentralization, however, would allow bureaucrats to transform their privileges into property.

The Russian Communist bureaucracy is generally seen as incompatible with free enterprise because of its antagonism in the past to capitalism. When Russian or Western political scientists tried to examine Russia’s path to a market economy, they discovered the existence of an unusual phenomenon: bureaucratic entrepreneurship. Attempts to describe it as "nomenklatura capitalism" (4) or "political capitalism" (5) do not capture the political meaning of bureaucratic economics, since they fail to take into account the influence of Russia’s powerful bureaucratic institutions: the system of stiff bureaucratic hierarchy and corresponding institute of private and semi-private ownership. These institutions limit free enterprise to a proportion of the nomenklatura’s collective interests.

The direction, character, and duration of the reform process were regulated from the start by the nomenklatura, and hence influenced by bureaucratic elite interests. The nomenklatura was not willing to concede its considerable economic advantages nor share economic and political power with ordinary Russians. These facts are commonly admitted by various groups in Russian society: from liberal democrats to extreme nationalists. "The origin of all large industrial and financial trusts in Russia is tied to all kind of resources except economic ones," claims the nationalist Viktor Aksyuchits. Among the "resources" he lists are CPSU and Komsomol (young Communist) money, special discount credits from the state bank, the right to distribute foreign aid and credits, state subsidies, and the right to privatize profitable businesses. "Who becomes rich was decided not by natural economic competition," stated Aksyuchits, "but by the government bureaucracy and connections to them." (6) This idea is supported by the sociological research on Russia’s elites conducted under the supervision of a prominent Russian liberal sociologist, Academician Tatiana Zaslavskaya.(7) Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya (from the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences) observes, "The heart of all changes consists of the fact that the power of the party and state nomenklatura in economic field had been transformed into legalized private property. A minister became a trust shareholder and obtained 51 percent of ownership, the department head of the Ministry of Finances became president of a commercial bank, and the leading manager in Gossnab ( the State Provision Committee) became the head of a commodity exchange. We can conclude that the process of economic reform has been conducted under direct nomenklatura control." (8)

Boris Yeltsin’s regime has failed to tame the growing centrifugal forces among provincial administrators and lost the support of the society at large. The citizenry was not only excluded from participating in lucrative property privatization, but they were encouraged to find their income and security in areas other than the state and public resources. When elites blatantly grabbed every chance for financial gain, ordinary citizens found themselves helpless against the combined power of the nomenklatura and the mafia.

There is an ongoing fierce conflict between the Moscow bureaucracy and the regional nomenklatura for economic control over military factories, oil, gas, and minerals located mainly in the regions, usually in the non-Russian republics. The central bureaucracy tries to rein in the republics by keeping tight control over foreign aid, credits, loans, licenses, quotas, subsidies, and cheap state supplies. Federal rules on taxation limit regional hard currency gains. That allows Moscow to concentrate eighty percent of Russia’s finances which, in turn, provokes the regions to flirt with independence and threaten Moscow with secession, tax evasion, etc.(9)

The KPRF successfully seized the opportunity to act as a power broker between Moscow and the regions.(10) The neo-Communists also promised to eradicate social instability by returning the elites’ ill-gotten gains to the masses. A high-ranking member of the KPRF and Duma deputy reveals, "the Communist party plans to re-nationalize some 200 of Russia’s leading (privatized or semi-privatized) enterprises and commercial banks, which represent ‘a threat to society.’ "(11) Communists conveniently label "illegal" those properties that do not support the patriotic fundamentalism of the KPRF. The pro-Communist Duma has already set up a committee to check the legality of privatized state and public property and explore whether expropriated capital could be invested to "restore the state industrial base."(12) In all probability, these funds will go to industrial and agrarian lobbies to reward their support of neo-Communists in the December 1995 parliamentary elections and in the upcoming presidential elections. As the Communists compensate their supporters and coerce their opponents, total central control over the regions and ethnic republics will eventually be restored. That explains why the "Russian Capital" supports the KPRF and see it as the guarantor for future investments.


Neo-Communists are acting within the traditional institutional framework of the Russian state when they promise a "mixed economy," a "third way" for Russia’s economic development. This approach will preserve the two major institutions of bureaucratic dominance: the hierarchical system of nomenklatura and opportunities for wealth related to position in it. The authors of perestroika exchanged the autocratic rule of the CPSU for the autocratic rule of high ranking clerks. The only difference from Soviet rule is that now the Russian state controls the distribution of private property instead of renting state properties to designated administrators. The missing element in this system of property redistribution is an effective central security apparatus like the USSR’s monopoly on violence. The state security and police were undermined by the rampant growth of organized crime and private security agencies. Private property has also reduced the fear of and dependency on the state. Neo-communists promise to correct this problem also. These promises appear to be quite real bearing in mind their ideological ancestor’s unhesitating use of police state methods throughout the twentieth century.

There is now a new class of entrepreneurial bureaucracy that draws its power and authority from both inside and outside of the governmental administration. The new establishment needs stability and effective security. If a coalition of neo-communists prevails, it promises to introduce a "mixed economy" that would secure the assets of financial, industrial, and agrarian bureaucratic monopolies and impede free entrepreneurship in Russia. Bureaucrats who lose their governmental positions would retain their privileged status as a result of their ownership of private property, diminishing the risk connected with elite renewal as occurred during the Stalin purges.


1. See "Prism Interviews State Duma Deputy Elected from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Businessman and KPRF Central Committee Member Vladimir V. Semago," in Prism, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 12, 1996.

2. "Programma Kommunisticheskoi Partii Rossiiskoi Federatsii," in Sovetskaya Rossiya, February 2, 1995, p. 2, c. 3.

3. N. S. Yershova, "Tranformatsiya pravyashchei elity Rossii v usloviakh sotisal’nogo pereloma," in T.I. Zaslavskaya and L.A. Arutyunian (eds.) Kuda idet Rossiya? (Moscow: Interpraks 1994.)

4. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, "Transformatsiya staroi nomenklatury v novuyu Rossiiskuyu elitu," in Obshchestvennye nauki, No. 1, 1995.

5. Marc Garcelon, "Uncivil Society: Political Entrepreneurship and Political Capitalism in Russia, 1989-1995" presentation at the Kennan Institute, November 1995.

6. Interview with V. Aksiuchits, "Voice of Russia," February 17, 1996.

7. T. I. Zaslavskaya, "Bizness–sloy Rossiiskogo obshchestva: ponyatie, struktura, identifikatsiya," in Economic and Social Change, No. 5, Moscow, October 1994.

8. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, "Transformatsiya staroi nomenklatury v novuyu Rossiiskuyu elitu," in Obshchestvennye nauki, No. 1, 1995, pp. 58-59.

9. Francoise Thom, "The Russian Elites," in Uncaptive Minds, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1995.

10. See the discussion of Neo-Communist ethnic policy in M. Ozernoy, "Neo-Communist Ethnic Politics: Multi-Ethnic Fundamentalism," in Prism, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 12, 1996, pp. 1, 12-13.

11. The Jamestown Foundation Monitor, Vol. 2., No. 36, February 21, 1996.

12. "Programma Kommunisticheskoi Partii Rossiiskoi Federatsii" in Sovetskaya Rossiya, February 2, 1995, p. 2.

Dr. Maryanne Ozernoy is a Professor and a Research Scientist at George Washington University.