Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 4

The Ulyanovsk Phenomenon moves from the “Chinese path” to the “North Korean path”

By Arbakhan Magomedov

One of the defining characteristics of post-Communist Russia is that many of the powers traditionally vested in the central government have devolved to the regions. Russia calls itself a federation, but was until relatively recently run along highly centralized lines. The situation changed in the early 1990s, causing a bewildering increase in the number of actors on the political stage. In some ways, Russia’s eighty-nine republics and regions differ more from each other today than do the member-states of the European Union. Among that patchwork, Ulyanovsk Oblast, birthplace of Lenin, occupies a special place.

Ulyanovsk Oblast lies in the heart of the Volga region but has relatively few links even with its closest neighbors. Its access to modern transport and communication networks is limited. Visitors are struck by the contrast between the city of Saratov and neighboring Samara and Kazan in terms of economic dynamism and sociocultural infrastructure. Even in the nineteenth century, writers used to contrast "mercantile Samara" with "conservative, sleepy Simbirsk" (as Ulyanovsk was called in those days). Goncharov’s Oblomov was written about Simbirsk: it was a sleepy place before the Revolution, and it is sleepy now. The same held true during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika: in contrast to Saratov and Samara Oblasts, no Democratic Platform emerged in Ulyanovsk’s Communist Party organization. Even today, there is little democratic activity among the population. Unlike their counterparts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Ulyanovsk’s Lenin Museum and Lenin Memorial Hall continue to operate and the fight for "Lenin’s truth" has not been abandoned in the city on the Volga.

Instead, life in Ulyanovsk is colored by an artificial tranquillity. Until 1995, prices of food products were about half those in other oblasts. This was the result of price controls instituted by the oblast administration and maintained by state subsidies. The administration shielded the population from the effects of Yegor Gaidar’s "shock therapy." Cheap food meant that old people in Ulyanovsk went about with smiles on their faces — not a common sight in Gaidar’s Russia. Prices did not begin to rise until June 1996, when the system of mass food subsidies was finally abandoned. Subsidies remain, even now, for the neediest citizens, though in most other respects prices for consumer goods in Ulyanovsk are now comparable to those in neighboring regions.

Yury Goryachev, who has been governor of Ulyanovsk oblast since 1992, was the regional Communist Party boss in the seventies. As governor, he has acquired a reputation as a traditionalist, preserving the old order with ration coupons and price controls. Liberal commentators sometimes imply that Goryachev imposed controls on a local population that was full of potential entrepreneurs and aspiring black belts in shopping. It could just as plausibly be argued, however, that Goryachev’s policies reflect the dominant inclinations of a rather traditionalist constituency.

A look at Goryachev’s record shows that he is no wild-eyed revolutionary. Born in 1938, he could more properly be described as a populist than a Communist. Goryachev made no attempt to resist Boris Yeltsin’s 1991 decree severing the links between the Communist Party and local government. Unlike Communist Party leaders in neighboring Samara, Goryachev relinquished his party post in July 1991 without a fight, keeping his post as chairman of the regional Soviet. In October 1991, the oblast Soviet recommended Goryachev for the post of regional governor. President Yeltsin preferred a local enterprise director, but Goryachev had strong local support. Demonstrators came onto the streets to protest, carrying placards bearing the slogan "Goryachev for the people, the people for Goryachev." The local elite made it impossible for Yeltsin’s appointee to govern. In January 1992, Yeltsin visited Ulyanovsk, removed the embattled governor, and appointed Goryachev in his place.

Goryachev was reelected last year in a direct election. He ran on a platform saying that Ulyanovsk had the lowest prices in Russia and that his main aim was to keep them that way. Goryachev was backed by Grigori Yavlinsky’s Yabloko movement and the local branch of "Russia is Our Home," though the national leadership of the pro-government movement did not support him. Also refusing to support Goryachev was the local Communist Party, which ran its own candidate.

A "Goryachev cult" exists in the oblast. Goryachev is a very active governor, issuing a string of decrees and instructions touching on every aspect of social and economic life. Unlike Samara’s governor Konstantin Titov, or Boris Nemtsov when he was governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Goryachev does not look good on television. With his peasant face, he would not go down well as governor of a sophisticated, urbanized oblast. But his style of governing inspires strong loyalty among local residents.

Privatization in Ulyanovsk is strictly controlled by the local administration. The regional government’s activities are aimed at supporting the privileged status of specially created commercial organizations, whose activity makes it possible to maintain food subsidies for needy residents. Local entrepreneurs enjoy the patronage of the oblast administration; otherwise, they move elsewhere. The effect on the economy has been negative. Ulyanovsk suffers from weak market infrastructure and low business activity. The oblast administration has prevented the establishment of the commercial kiosks that are such a common feature of life in most Russian cities. Instead, the administration continues to support a network of state-controlled commercial outlets. The number of supermarkets, department stores and small shops is low compared with neighboring regions, and the variety of goods available is much poorer. The city of Ulyanovsk boasts only one large free-enterprise food market, which is open daily until 2 p.m. and closed all day on Mondays. The capital of neighboring Saratov, by contrast, has two huge markets in the downtown area and more on the outskirts, and they stay open until 9 p.m. Transport infrastructure is also underdeveloped, meaning that Ulyanovsk is gradually turning into a transportation cul-de-sac.

There is a high degree of concentration and interaction between the local government and economic elites. Local government officials and economic managers are drawn from the same pool, which is virtually a "party" in its own right. The parliamentary elections of 1993, for example, gave a monopoly of seats of both chambers of the oblast legislature to this "party." Its candidates won more than four times as many votes as their closest rivals. Much the same thing happened in the 1995 elections to Russia’s State Duma.

Goryachev has never hidden his contempt for "democratic" reforms. He tells interviewers that "meetings and discussions won’t increase meat or sugar production." Under his leadership, the Ulyanovsk administration not only criticized "shock therapy" but ridiculed the incompetence of the Gaidar team, calling them "Hoorah-reformists." They never included Yeltsin in this insult, however.

This sketch suggests that Ulyanovsk’s political system cannot be simply dismissed as nostalgia for the Soviet era or a desperate clinging to the past. Instead, it represents an attempt by existing local elites to adapt to the new epoch of mass politics. In this sense, Goryachevite politics may be seen not the opposite of the politics of radical reform, but rather as their parallel. Russia’s radical reformers often said that the "Chinese path" was ruled out for Russia since its prerequisite — a strong authoritarian party — had ceased to exist in the USSR by the second half of the 1980s. The "Ulyanovsk phenomenon" casts doubt on this argument.

Another analogy may be even more appropriate, however. Consumer prices in Ulyanovsk are now comparable to those in neighboring regions, except for vodka, which is twice as expensive because the regional government controls the price as a means of filling of the oblast budget. However, income levels are lower in Ulyanovsk than in the neighboring oblasts. Therefore, the residents of Ulyanovsk have lower living standards than their neighbors. In these circumstances, it might perhaps be apt to say that the "Ulyanovsk experiment" is moving from the "Chinese path" to the "North Korean path."

Dr. Arbakhan Magomedov heads the Department of History and Culture at Ulyanovsk State Technical University. He is spending this year as Visiting Fulbright Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley.


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

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