Trade Unions in the Comfort Zone: Liberal Authority in Yeltsin’s Russia.


  • Norma Jo Baker Nipissing University



While much has been written on the failure of the Yeltsin presidency and the transformation of Russian society since 1991, little work has been done that illustrates the participation of established liberal democracies in supporting Yeltsin’s authoritarian, politically unresponsive ‘superpresidentialism,’ or linking this support to the authoritarian nature of the modern liberal democratic project itself. By examining Russian trade union culture and history, as well as international trade union representative involvement, this paper argues that the persistent neglect of unions in the 1990s to challenge social relations of production can be understood as paradigmatic of an authoritarian dynamic focused on the political elite rather than on their membership. With international support, the regime’s concern was with the dismantling of Soviet economic relations and social institutions. Working from the culture and history of Russian trade unions, the unions’ efforts to retain a place in the new era through a strategy of ‘social partnership,’ combined with the collapse of the social welfare system, reinforced a top-down inertia characteristic of the unions. The result, predictably, was an era marked by a politics of irresponsibility, a political ethic is not indicative of an inherent Russian authoritarianism, but that of the authoritarian nature of the liberal modernity itself.

Author Biography

Norma Jo Baker, Nipissing University

Dr. Baker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Nipissing University. Dr. Baker holds a Ph. D. from York University’s Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought. From 1997 to 2004, Dr. Baker lived in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Hungary, conducting research and working in ost-secondary educational reform projects. Along with her work on Russian trade unions, Dr. Baker’s research activities include post-Soviet and Western international education projects, liberal arts transformation efforts in Canada and Central Asia, and global issues of social justice, particularly as encountered in the practice of sociology as a liberal arts project. Her doctoral dissertation addressed the conflictual relationship between capitalism and democracy by tracing the problematic transformation post-Soviet Russia experienced during the era of the Yeltsin regime, particularly as it played out for Russian trade unions and petroleum-based communities in the Khanty-Mansisk region of Western Siberia.