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Politics plays a major role in contemporary Russian life. This has long been the case since Soviet times, and students of Russia and its language will find that much of the country’s political system is based on past Soviet means of governing. For example, the existence of “soviets”, “dumas”, and a strong executive branch are holdovers that survive in today’s Kremlin. Below are these and a few other of the most essential terms to understanding Russian politics. A mastery of these terms will help one to understand Russian media and, as a result, to become abreast of pressing political affairs in Russia.
Прави́тельство comes from the root of “пра́во”, meaning “right, law, or justice”. Russia’s history has undergone tumultuous shifts in its form of government, from imperialism, to one-party socialism, to now liberal democracy (officially called a “federal semi-presidential republic”). Russia’s government is founded on the principles of the Constitution of the Russian Federation (Конститу́ция Росси́йской Федера́ции ), adopted in December 1993.
The official name of Russia is the Russian Federation (Российская Федерация). Put simply, a federation is a large political body made up of many smaller parts. In Russia’s case, there are many smaller divisions; Russia’s 144 million people are organized into 85 federal “subjects” (субъе́кты), the most numerous being the 46 о́бласти (“provinces”), which range widely in size, along with 22 респу́блики (“republics”) and 9 края́ (“frontiers”).
The “Duma”, or “State Duma” (“Госуда́рственная Ду́ма” or “Госду́ма “ for short) as it’s officially called, is the Russian parliament. It was first established during Tsarist times by Nicholas II in 1906, abolished in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, and then reestablished in 1993 as part of Russian independence. The term comes from the Russian verb ду́мать (dumat’) meaning “to think” or “to consider”.
A term synonymous with “Russia’s government”, the Kremlin is home to Russia’s president and the rest of the country’s Executive branch, much the same way the White House is to that of the United States. The name Kremlin means “fortress inside a city”, a fitting name for a place surrounded by 2 kilometers of 60-ft high walls in the middle of one of world’s largest and grandest cities, Moscow.
There are over 100 registered parties in Russia, but only a few are represented in the State Duma. The most prominent party is United Russia (“Еди́ная Росси́я” or “EP”), the party of Vladimir Putin. UR, which currently hold 342 (or about 76%) of the 450 seats in the State Duma, has been called a “catch-all” party for its ability to appeal to a wide range of ideological groups in Russia, especially both Slavic nationalists as well as “Westernizers” aiming for closer ties with Europe and the USA. The second-place party in elections is commonly the Communist Party of Russia (КПРФ), and with the third-most support is the Liberal-Democratic Party (ЛДПР).
The current president of the Russian Federation is Vladimir Putin (Влади́мир Влади́мирович Пу́тин). The role of president as intended by Russia’s constitution to be limited in power, secondary to the office of Prime Minister, currently Dmitriy Medvedev (Дми́трий Анато́льевич Медве́дев). However, Vladimir Putin is largely considered both in Russia and abroad to be the primary leader of the country. The president also holds the power of selecting the prime minister, which has resulted in the primacy of the president’s power.
While this term didn’t become relevant until after the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s now a must-know for learners looking to understand Russia’s new system of democracy (демокрáтия). Interestingly, it originates from the word го́лос, meaning “voice”.
This term literally means “choices” (plural of the word “вы́бор”). Elections for the State Duma are held every five years and presidential elections are held every six years.
The Russian Министерство comes from the Soviet Union, and is akin to a governmental “Department” in the US government. Examples of ministries in Russia are the Ministry of Finance (Министе́рство финáнсов or “Минфин”), the Ministry of Defence (Министе́рство оборо́ны), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Министе́рство инострáнных дел, or “МИД”).
The term “soviet” means “council” in English, but took on a distinct meaning in Russia and has become central to the history of the country’s governance. Though the term was used in Imperial Russia in the State Council (Госуда́рственный сове́т), the first soviets in their notable form began in the early 20th century as workers’ councils that, amidst the hardships of the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, fomented the proletarian fervor that would spark the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thereafter, the soviets becoming vital enough to be of the succeeding country (CCCP, or Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик). The term can still be seen today, in its original definition, in the name of the Federation Council (Сове́т Федера́ции, or “Совфед”), the upper house of the State Duma, akin to the US Senate.
Guest Post by Patrick Goodridge, a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied linguistics, focusing on the Russian language. This summer, he will study Kazakh at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a US State Department Title VIII grant. He will then enter Stanford for a one-year MA program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, with funding from the Department of Education FLAS program. In his free time, Pat likes to play chess, learn languages, and watch his favorite sport, lacrosse. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, where he is very active and open to research collaboration.