An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2017


Timothy J. Colton

TIMOTHY J. COLTON, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2011, is the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis (1995), Transitional Citizens: Voters and What Influences Them in the New Russia (2000), Yeltsin: A Life (2008), and Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016).

The current issue of Dædalus represents a collaborative effort to think afresh about Russia’s political future. The long and eventful reign of Vladimir Putin, commenced in 2000, is well into its second half. The time horizon we work with in our discussion is roughly ten to fifteen years out. By then, Putin, if alive, will be in his mid-seventies (he turns sixty-five in October 2017) and will either be out of power or in his endgame as national leader.1

Our shared goal in this collection is to reach for answers to a pair of linked questions about what will happen to Russia’s increasingly arbitrary political regime as the Putin era winds down. First, what are the prospects either for a fundamental change that would realign the whole system, or for significant within-system change that would modify it or improve its functioning, without transforming it? Second, if change were to occur, what direction can it be expected to take? Will it be toward a more open and democratic political order, toward a more closed and authoritarian political order, or toward destabilization and disorder? These questions are easy enough to pose but not so easy to answer. Prediction, as the great physicist Niels Bohr famously put it, “is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”2

Two thousand seventeen marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution that toppled tsarism and eventually swept the Bolsheviks to power. The anniversary serves as a reminder that wrenching change has been the rule, not the exception, in modern Russia in all three of its successive forms–imperial, .  .  .


  • 1Putin was acting president of Russia for the first few months of 2000, having been appointed to that position by Boris Yeltsin in his last act as president, and then was elected in his own right and inaugurated as president in May of that year. He held the second-ranking position of prime minister, while remaining the de facto leader, from 2008 to 2012, whereupon he was elected to a third presidential term. When that term expires in 2018, he is eligible to stand for reelection and serve until 2024. The Russian constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms but does not forbid him from seeking the office again after a hiatus doing something else, which is what Putin did in 2012. In 2024, if Putin is still in the political game and wants to remain there, he would need to either have the constitution amended or again sit out several years in a lesser position.
  • 2The witticism is evidently based on a Danish proverb, and has taken several forms, one of the better known mouthed by the baseball savant Yogi Berra.
To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now