© 2011, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Purpose ¿ The purpose of this paper is to question the periodization of Russian political and economic development that sees a break occurring between the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies. It does this by looking at how political problems common to late developing nations influenced the development of reform programs in Russia under its first two presidents. Design/methodology/approach ¿ The paper applies concepts from the literature on development to Russia, using it as a case study to develop an alternative historical narrative on Russian political economy. Findings ¿ The paper finds that there was more continuity in political conditions between Yeltsin and Putin and that economic change in Russia under Putin was not achieved because a political consensus over economic policy developed but because the wealth generated by hydrocarbon exports enabled Putin to buy support. Whilst this has meant that there was less contest over economic policy during the Putin presidency, it is far from certain whether this means of managing the economy can last over the longer term if the price of oil declines. Originality/value ¿ The paper demonstrates the need for political reform in Russia as a condition of economic change, something that is beginning to be taken seriously in Russian political circles after the experience of economic crisis that followed Putin.