Russian Autocracy Redux: Path Dependency and the Late Modern State

James W. Warhola


Path dependency emerged as a theoretical approach in the social sciences (specifically economics) in the 1980s, and has gradually been applied with greater frequency in political science. As a form of historical institutionalism, it shows promise of casting significant light on processes of political stability and change. The present study examines several large-scale defining traits of Russian politics and governance from the perspective of historical path dependence: to date, most applications of path-dependency theory to Russian studies have focused more on economics than politics and governance per se.  This essay applies core ideas in path dependency theory to the case of Russia in the early twenty-first century, focusing on significant political traits that emerged during the Putin and Medvedev presidencies. This study proceeds from the view that politics revolves fundamentally around three core axes:  identity, interests, and institutions; every aspect of political life, arguably, falls under one or more of these dimensions and all show path-dependent tendencies. The traits of Russian governance that show evidence of path-dependent self-replication include: (1) tendencies toward monocratic manifestations of political power; (2) political authority being conceived and exercised in neo-autocratic modes that deliberately control, marginalize, or patently exclude broad and efficacious participatory democracy; (3) an apparently instinctive trend toward political centralization; and (4) a tendency to vacillate historically between a weak and strong state, with powerful historical impulses toward the latter. By applying core ideas in path-dependency theory to the case of Russian politics in the early twenty-first century, our understanding is deepened.

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