Continuity in Russian Corruption through Changing Societal Forms

By Raiklin, Ernest | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Continuity in Russian Corruption through Changing Societal Forms


Raiklin, Ernest, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


This article examines in detail the corruption endemic in pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In doing so, it analyzes such aspects as bribery, extortion, organized crime, and human networking (called blat) in their political and private dimensions. The article concludes with a reference to recent measures adopted by the Russian government to curtail corruption.

Key Words: Corruption; Pre-Soviet Russia; Soviet Russia; Post-Soviet Russia; Bribery; Extortion; Organized crime; Informal connections (blat); Causes of Russian corruption; Efforts to correct Russian corruption.

Post-Soviet Russia swims in corruption. Transparency International gives the country an extremely low 2.1 points out of ten, which is the same as that given to Kenya and Bangladesh.1 Moreover, Transparency International estimates that Russia occupies 95th place in terms of its level of corruption (corruption is higher the lower the place occupied).2 "Ordinary Russians are well aware of this, with three-quarters describing the level of corruption in their country as 'high' or 'very high'."3

However, at present the Russian people are ambivalent about corruption. On the one hand, they sound the alarm: corruption corrodes the country, impeding justice, fairness and economic growth.4 On the other hand, the post-Soviet Russian people view corruption as something without which the country could not have survived the transitional period from the Soviet to the post-Soviet way of life.5

Our paper explores the origins and nature of Russian corruption. Present Russian corruption is analyzed in its historical context. For this purpose, an attempt is made to establish a historical connection between Russia's present and past corruption.

The remedies that post-Soviet Russia now employs to fight corruption are very briefly discussed. The question is raised of whether these anticorruption measures are adequate to solve the problem.

Administrative (Political) Corruption

Pre-Soviet Russia

Let us start with the end of the fifteenth century. For several centuries prior to the establishment of the Soviet system in 1917 Russia had a feudal structure with czars at its helm. It was only at the end of the fifteenth century that czarism appeared as a political institution.6

The emerging centralized czarist state needed revenue to support it. The task was facilitated by the fact that the czar had both people and land at his disposal. He "parceled out economic privileges to his subordinates on condition that they in turn support him. These powers of the czar were delegated to the... [bureaucrats], who then implemented them to their own personal advantage."7

Political extortion

One of the powers delegated to the bureaucrats was to tax the czar's subjects. The form of taxation wasprivate taxation.

This term comes from the fact that the official allowed to tax people was not getting a fixed salary. Instead, he used his administrative position via the system of kormlenie, or "feeding" himself by "privately" taxing, or charging people depending on him, not according to the formal tax regulations but according to existing custom, however it was interpreted by the bureaucrat." That was the way the bureaucrat filled the coffers of his ultimate master, the czar, and supplemented his own meager and unstable income.

While we may consider this to be exploitive and tantamount to corruption, it was not seen as corruption by its contemporaries. For them, kormlenie was a legitimate behavior sanctioned and approved by czarism. Such a relationship was not just a whim of the country's paramount leader. It was rooted in the conditions of life of medieval Russia.

In an early feudal country, where the vast majority of people were Dliterate peasants, M oscow state officials were mostly the czar's serfs. As such, they were not respected by the population. Thus, with the growth of a centralized state, while the importance and influence of state officials were increasing, their prestige still remained low, especially among the "nobles, who continued to see this post. …

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Continuity in Russian Corruption through Changing Societal Forms
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