McFaul's labeling the Yeltsin years as "democratic" is pure opportunistic verbicide. I'm not sure what "democracy" he's even talking about. He never offers his readers a definition. But if we assume that he means the government of Yeltsin, go back a bit and review what that entailed. Yeltsin's "democracy" saw him unleashing tanks upon the Russian Parliament in 1993, an act that led to 500 deaths, over 1,000 wounded, and 1,700 arrests. Yeltsin's "democracy" saw the parliament dissolved, the Constitutional Court suspended, and a new Constitution that gave him dictatorial power shoved down the Russian people's throats. Yeltsin's "democracy" was shock therapy, hyperinflation, poverty, unemployment, wage arrears, fixed elections, black PR, television manipulation and political intimidation.
Yeltsin's "democracy" was also bathed in blood. If you didn't duck fast enough you were caught in the crossfire of neoliberal capitalist warfare. According to information provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 31 Russian journalists were murdered in the 1990s. Thirteen were related to Chechnya, and eighteen were connected to investigations into corruption, politics, or some other aspect of their trade. If you go by the Glasnost Defense Fund's count, the number of dead journos in the Yeltsin years shoots up to 94.
Journalists weren't the only ones who were murdered. Businessmen and government officials were frequent targets of contact killings. As Vadim Volkov notes in his book Violent Entrepreneurs, it wasn't just property that was privatized. So was violence. Afghan and Chechen war vets, street tuffs, unemployed chekisty, 'roided up sportsmeny, and other no-necks were employed as mercenaries in capitalist intra-class warfare. In fact, the capitalists were so intertwined with the mafia that it was difficult to tell them apart. As Zygmunt Dzieciolowski has pointed out, during Yeltsin's rule "the world looked on in shock as vicious wars erupted over the privatization of Russian industry." In a list RFE/RL complied of "high profile killings" committed in the 1990s, out of 27 murders, 12 were politicians. The rest were journalists and businessmen.
If "democracy" was a violent period for Russia's aspiring capitalists, it was a nightmare for average Russians. McFaul's claim that "democracy" had only a "marginal effect" on the period's "incredible economic hardship" boggles the mind. Thanks to the economics of his imagined "democracy," the number of labor strikes in response to unpaid or collapsing wages, hyperinflation, and privatization went from 514 in 1994 to 17,007 in 1997. In the same period, real wages per capita were on a rollercoaster ride, contributing further to a life of instability, chaos, and uncertainty for working Russians. Given Yeltsin's record of "demokratiia" it's no wonder that many Russians slip an "r" in and call it "dermokratiia," or "shitocracy."
McFaul's "democracy," is now dead indeed. "Well, good riddance," most Russians say. However, my emphasis on the utter farce that "democracy" was in the Yeltsin years is not meant to whitewash the Putin era. I only want to point out that if, as McFaul says, "the formal institutional contours of the Russian political system have not changed markedly under Putin," then perhaps the roots of his system are not to be found in his "autocracy," but in Yeltsin's kleptocracy?
Indeed, calling Putin an autocrat is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of his rule, his role, and the capitalist system he provides over. For sure, Putin is no democrat. Nor is his "managed democracy," "sovereign democracy," or whatever they're calling it nowadays. Personally, I like how Lilia Shevtsova calls it in her Russia: Lost in Transition. "[Putin] appears to see himself as the 'CEO of Russia' and he and his colleagues view Russia as a business corporation." There is nothing remotely democratic in that. At the heart of every corporation is subordination, productivity, and management, management, and more management. Like a CEO, Putin's power is rooted in the company's shareholders, the Russian elite. Putin's CEO mentality plus the elite's propensity toward self-destruction makes their relationship symbiotic. Putin's power is reliant on the elite as much as their power is reliant on Putin.