Russia After Communism

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the tumultuous and chaotic period of Russia after the fall of communism. We'll learn about the rule of President Yeltsin in the 1990s, and how Russia has changed under Vladimir Putin.

Russia After Communism

Did you ever have growing pains when you were a kid? They could be annoying or painful, depending on the severity, but were a sign that you were going through a growth spurt or some other developmental leap.

Countries have growing pains, too, though instead of a leg cramp these manifest themselves in economic and political problems and sometimes social unrest. Perhaps one of the biggest upheavals in modern history was the collapse of the communist Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It destroyed the paradigm that had dominated geopolitics for nearly a half century, and threw dozens of states into political and economic uncertainty.

This lesson will explore how the biggest of those Soviet countries, Russia, changed and adapted to life after the fall of communism.

The 1990s

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it created a power vacuum in the world's largest country with a population in the hundreds of millions and a large nuclear arsenal to boot. The uncertainty was troubling for Russians and the world alike. The man who stepped into the breach was Russia's first-ever directly elected President, Boris Yeltsin.

Under Yeltsin, Russia transitioned from a centrally managed, communist economy to a market economy. The transition was not an entirely smooth one, but by the mid-1990s nearly 70% of state-run companies had been privatized. Yeltsin also managed to stabilize the Russian currency, the ruble, in part due to loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which U.S. President Bill Clinton helped to secure.

While the Russian economy opened, politically the country remained connected to its authoritarian past. Though Yeltsin was Russia's first directly elected president, over the course of the decade he slowly asserted greater control over Russia's political apparatus. For example, in 1993 he forced through the Russian legislature, the Duma, reforms to the Russian constitution that gave the presidency far greater powers. Additionally, ahead of his re-election campaign in 1995, Yeltsin doled out shares of the remaining state-run enterprises to anyone willing to loan money to his campaign. The campaign transferred enormous amounts of state wealth to private hands, securing his 1996 re-election and helping to give rise to the class of oligarchs that own much of Russia today. (According to a 2013 report, an astounding 35 percent of Russian wealth is owned by just 110 people.)

Life for average Russians in the 1990s changed dramatically. With the fall of the Soviet Union, so also fell the walls that had preserved the insular society that many Russians had known their entire lives. The stress caused by the radical economic shift hit the Russian people hardest, as the ruble's volatility in the early 1990s led to increased poverty, lower standards of living, and a dramatic fall in life expectancy.


In 1999, Yeltsin handpicked his successor, choosing former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to become Prime Minister. Putin began his time as prime minister by quashing a rebellion in Chechnya, making him incredibly popular in Russia. Later that year Yeltsin stepped down, making Putin president, and Putin overwhelmingly won the presidential elections the following year.

Many commentators were optimistic at the beginning of Putin's rule, and hoped that U.S.-Russia cooperation, which had been healthy throughout the 1990s, would continue. There were even positive signs that this would come to pass, such as the 2002 agreement between the two countries to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

However, there were other signs after Putin's 2004 re-election that Russia's democracy was in peril. For example, in 2004 the Russian state appropriated an oil company that had been run by one of Putin's political opponents. In the same year, he modified Russian government so that state governors were appointed by his government rather than directly elected by the state's people. And signs that those in Russia opposed to Putin were being harassed and even killed include the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, who British judges ruled was poisoned by Russian agents.

Domestically, the Russian economy in the 2000s soared in comparison to the volatility of the mid-1990s. This was in part due to the high oil prices that persisted through most of the decade. Though life expectancy and other economic factors improved for Russians, it remains unclear if the full impact of the economic upswing was truly felt across Russia, given that much of the economy remained in the hands of oligarchs.

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