Recent events raise hopes for regime transformation in Russia. For the past four years Russia has been undergoing a very gradual liberalization that has been much like an iceberg melting. The big question is how and what kind of transformation it will be. A country’s form of rule can be transformed in several ways, and can produce democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, or hybrid (soft authoritarian or weak democratic) outcomes. Historically, there are two basic kinds of internally-driven regime change: revolution and transition. These transitions, as a rule, are more likely to produce democratic outcomes than revolutions.
Revolutions from below are led by elements within society. Opposition forces seize power––eschewing, destroying, and replacing the old order’s leaders and institutions. Revolutions from below can be peaceful, as in Czeckoslovakia in 1989 and the Phillippines in the 1990s, or they can be violent as they were in France at the end of the 18th century, also in Russia and China during the first half of the 20th century. Violent revolutions from below rarely produce democracy. Peaceful ones often do. Revolutions from above, however, can be led by state actors who take control of some state institutions legally, but then use them against other state actors (illegally or extra-constititonally) in order to dismantle some of the old order’s state institutions and replace with them with new ones to enact a new form of rule. Whether military-led (as in the Meiji era in Japan, Ataturk’s Turkey, or Nasser’s Egypt) or civilian-led (as in Russia’s revolution from above led by Soviet party and state bureaucrats against the CPSU and Soviet state apparati), revolutions from above tend to produce authoritarian regimes or weak democracies.