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Ryan Rogers Reflects on His Tour of the Russian State Duma

Ryan Rogers, Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy Candidate 2019, The Fletcher School

Situated between Kuznetsky Most and Nikolskaya Street, two favorite hangouts of World Cup revelers located in the center of Moscow, it would have been both easy and excusable to overlook the State Duma during a visit to the Russian capital this past summer. Easy, because the center of Moscow had been transformed into a soccer fanatic’s dream, complete with fans from all over the world packed into bars and cafes across the city and an outdoor soccer field in the middle of Red Square. Excusable, because, since the accession of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999, most analysis of Russian politics has focused on the singular role of President Putin himself, often overlooking or explaining away any role the houses of parliament might play in shaping the direction of politics in the country. My visit to the State Duma, however, demonstrated a layer of nuance and agency not often described in more general analyses of Russia’s domestic political scene.

In mid-July, as part of MGIMO’s International Summer School Program, I had the opportunity to tour the Duma building on Okhotny Ryad and sit it on a plenary session of the Duma deputies. The tour of the building was a historical exploration of both the building itself, which originally housed the headquarters of Gosplan, the Soviet State Planning Committee, and of Russia’s modern parliamentary legacy, which began in 1906 when the State Duma was created by Nicholas II after the revolution in 1905 . The tour also presented an opportunity to see the working spaces of the six parties currently represented in the Duma, a reminder that although United Russia is by far the majority party, several parties vie for electoral support in Russian parliamentary elections while representing a number of different political platforms and issues.

The plenary session offered a brief chance to hear more about these issues. Deputies from several parties, including A Just Russia,and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, put forth a range of motions: from calling for the creation of a new holiday entitled “Russian Football Day,” to advancing new measures for natural resource management in flood-ridden regions of the Russian Far East. Also at hand was the controversial measure to raise the pension age. (This initiative, along with a proposed hike in the value-added tax, was shrewdly announced right around the start of the World Cup, reportedly in an attempt to minimize negative press in the media.)

Throughout my visit, I came to realize just how much the State Duma truly is a focal point of Russian political activity. Much of the protest and criticism in response to pension age reform has been voiced by Duma deputies representing pensioners from various regions across Russia (especially from representatives of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, currently controlling 43 seats out of 450 in the State Duma). In late June, a congressional delegation from the United States met with the Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, along with other Duma deputies, to discuss the current state of U.S.-Russia relations and search for potential areas of inter-parliamentary cooperation. More recently, regional legislative, gubernatorial, and mayoral elections demonstrate a possible erosion of support for the party in power, United Russia—a trend that may have significant implications for Russia’s lower house of parliament. While many developments in Russian politics may be explained by focusing on President Putin, it is also true that the State Duma is one of several political institutions in Russia worth paying closer attention to in order to better understand key drivers of Russian domestic politics.

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