This paper examines two interrelated issues: the role of police as an institution of Russian society and their role during the past 25 years. This research is based on a series of indepth interviews conducted by the author in 2014–2016 with former and current police officers in three Russian cities. The paper traces changes in the perceived institutional roles of the Russian police by comparing police officers’ views during three periods: early through mid-1990s, late-1990s through mid-2000s, and mid-2000s through 2010s. The study reports that, during the early period, Russian police were disfranchised from the state and this abandonment was a source of institutional identity crisis for law enforcement officers who remained on the job. This process was coupled with high levels of job dissatisfaction and the overall feeling of “abandonment” of police by the state.
At the same time, it was during this post-Soviet period, when ideas of policing as a service to the society were introduced and sometimes entertained among the professional circles of police officers and other government officials. Furthermore, this period was marked by continuous, though often sporadic, institutional reforms and anti-corruption measures.
In the second period, the Russian police were slowly engaging back into the state-building process, which caused increased job satisfaction and better retention rates. At the same time, the second period signified a decline of the “police as service” ideology and the comeback of paternalistic views on policing. During this time, the government’s efforts to reform police and anti-corruption measures became systemic and better organized. Also, in the second period, members of the civil society became more active in demanding public accountability and transparency from the Russian police.
Finally, the modern period of police development presents a case in which the institutional identity of the Russian police has been clearly connected to the state’s capacity. This process is coupled with increased paternalistic views among police officers and a failure of “police as a service” doctrine. In such an environment, the efforts by a maturing civil society to demand public transparency and accountability of the police are often met with hostility and anger. The paper concludes that further development of the Russian police depends on the role that they will play within the modern Russian state.