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(DV) Uhler: Russian Identity and the Prospects for Democracy in Putin's Russia







Russian Identity and the Prospects for Democracy
in Putin's Russia 

by Walter C. Uhler
May 15, 2006

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Paper to be presented at the 15th Annual Russian-American Seminar, May 16-23, 2006, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia


A few years ago, severely disillusioned by the failure of most Americans to doubt the exaggerations and lies told about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda by the administration of President George W. Bush, I turned to reading books by such prominent thinkers as Walter Lippmann, Walter Karp and Robert Wiebe to try to understand where America's experiment in democracy went wrong. The result was a warmly received article, “Democracy or dominion,” that was republished in a college textbook (Annual Editions: World Politics 05/06), after initially appearing in the January 2004 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (Copies are available to interested seminar participants.)

Readers of that article know that I dispute the contention that the United States is a democracy. Why? Because, as America's war in Iraq demonstrates, America's so-called democracy fails to meet even the most basic and fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy: the ability to hold its leaders accountable. Thomas Jefferson had accountability in mind, when he asserted: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Ignorance falls easy prey to political deception. Witness the ease with which the Bush administration was able to persuade 51 percent of Americans, in March 2003, that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Vice President Cheney never tired of falsely linking Saddam and al Qaeda. Yet he remains in office. Where's the accountability?

Consequently, I certainly was not surprised to read that Mr. Cheney not only advised Russia to return to democratic reforms, but that he equates such reforms with "the gains of the last decade." After all, it was during that decade, under the rule of Boris Yeltsin and his "shock therapy," that privatizers in so-called democratic Russia gave away much of the people's wealth, especially oil wealth, to Russian oligarchs. That's certainly the type of backroom democracy Mr. "Halliburton" Cheney understands, and the type that America, under the Bush administration, practices.

Thus, as I present you my views about "Russian Identity and the Prospects for Democracy in Putin's Russia," I urge you to keep in mind my conviction that America has failed to achieve its own democratic ideal.

Russian Identity and the Prospects for Democracy in Putin's Russia

In September 2004, nearly six months after President Vladimir Putin won reelection, two Washington Post correspondents questioned Putin's pollster, Alexander Olson, about the nature of the President's popular appeal. Olson told them that "chaos" was the key word in the people's understanding. Boris Yeltsin and his team had brought democracy and economic reform to Russia, but great poverty and chaos as well. According to Olson, "Putin came to office determined not to force-feed democracy to Russia; he would … simply let the river revert to its authoritarian course and ride along with it."

The conviction that Russia's river of history inexorably flows along an authoritarian course is shared by one of America's foremost students of Russian history, Richard Pipes. As Pipes states in his most recent book, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, "I have been impressed how quickly, one might say inexorably, the Russian people, having gotten rid of the most extreme form of autocratic rule ever known and seemingly ready to embrace democracy, have once again, as in 1917, sought safety in submission to a strong hand. Russia, it seems, for reasons rooted in either her social structure or her culture or both, is committed to authoritarian government. By this term I mean a government under which the citizens surrender their political and civil right in exchange for stability and order."

Mr. Pipes traces this commitment to authoritarian rule back to Muscovite Russia. In the course of throwing off the Mongol yoke and "gathering" Russia's land, Muscovy's Tsars fostered a slave mentality that astonished 16th century Western visitors. According to one visitor: "the entire population of Muscovy is subjected more to slavery than freedom. All Muscovites, no matter what their rank … without the slightest attention to their person, find themselves under the yoke of the most cruel slavery… One must refer to oneself as kholop or the meanest, most contemptible slave of the Great Prince, and refer to all of one's possessions, movable and immovable, as belonging not to oneself but to the sovereign."

Mr. Pipes believes that this slave mentality was the product of an extreme militarization of every group (except the clergy) within Muscovy's population. Thus the gentry lost their right of unconditional land tenure, when their land holdings became conditional; subject to successful military service to the Prince. Their successful service, however, required even more stringent measures to further limit the freedom of their serfs.

Moreover, during the period of Mongol rule, quasi-democratic urban self-governing assemblies (the veche) were dissolved. In addition, Mongol rule strengthened the tendency among Russia's subordinate princes to see their principalities, not as public land over which they ruled, but as a votchina or patrimony -- private land that they owned, inhabitants included. Thus, as Muscovy's Grand Princes "gathered" Russia's principalities in the course of becoming Tsars, Russia itself became one huge patrimony.

According to Mr. Pipes, a chasm separating rulers from ruled was created in which the Tsar and his officials "took no interest in the well-being of its subjects and, in return, demanded that the subjects take no interest in the affairs of state." More significantly, Mr. Pipes also claims, that "this mentality was deeply ingrained: it first emerged in Muscovy and survived into the imperial and Soviet eras."

Of course, nothing in the interpretation by Mr. Pipes suggests he believes that today's Russians possess a slave mentality. But when he criticizes what he believes is their remarkable depoliticization and desocialization, it is apparent that he believes they still suffer from the lingering effects of Tsarist and Soviet patrimonial autocracy.

Yet Mr. Pipes' interpretation has serious flaws. First, as Nicholas Riasanovsky has demonstrated in his recent book, Russian Identities, the tendency of the Tsar to view all of Russia as his patrimony did not survive the reign of Peter the Great. It was Peter, who drew "a sharp distinction between his own resources, which he considered limited to the salaries he earned in his various functions, and the possessions of the state." And Nicholas I subsequently emulated him.

More significantly, Peter fostered in Russia the concept of the "common good," the advancement of which obligated both Tsar and subjects. Seduced by the West's Enlightenment, Peter also was convinced that "learning is good and fundamental and as it were the root, the seed, and first principle of all that is good and useful in church and state." Thus, most of the educational reforms undertaken by Peter and his successors were designed to create the enlightened subjects who could best serve that common good.

Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim, "The modern Russian educated public was created by the reforms of Peter and his successors." Moreover, "educated Russians accomplished much." More significantly, by the middle of the nineteenth century, "Russian thought and literary culture [was] no longer led and controlled by the government." More than a few educated Russians took the lead in urging the emancipation of the serfs.

Yet, by that time, Russia's dominant Age of Reason ideology had split into three broad, but distinct, worldviews that, respectively, were articulated by the Tsar (Official Nationality), the Slavophiles and the Westerners. According to Mr. Riasanovsky, in the wake of Russia's Crimean War defeat, "the total picture was that of confusion, collapse, and defeat, with only some central concepts, such as "people" (narod) or "peasant commune" (obschina, mir) as seminal legacies."

Even worse, the creation of a Westernized educated public "produced the deepest gulf ever between the educated few and the masses." And that gulf would only widen during the Soviet period as a consequence of vicious attacks on the Orthodox Church and Stalin's murderous campaign of agricultural collectivization.

Mikhail Gorbachev's bold attempt to create democracy from above, especially through glasnost and perestroika gradually narrowed that gulf, until the Soviet Union's collapse -- the product of not one coup, but two -- and Yeltsin's "shock therapy widened it once again. As Nina Khrushcheva has recently written, it is difficult to persuade the masses to accept the democratic and market principles offered by the elite after they already have begun to call such a market-based democracy, dermocracy, -- dermo being the Russian word for shit."

Viewed in the context of Gorbachev's attempt to create democracy from above and Yeltsin's impoverished dermocracy, President Putin's "managed democracy," especially his recent creation of the "Public Chamber," might be viewed as a tactical retreat to Gorbachev's means to save democracy from Yeltsin's ends.

Second, Mr. Pipes, Mr. Cheney and numerous other Russia scholars in the West err when they suggest that, after throwing off Soviet rule, Russians appeared ready to "embrace” democracy. As Nina Khrushcheva correctly observes, "While Russians may have been thrilled to have the chance to vote in an election where the outcome was not pre-determined, their further experiences with democracy were not as positive."

Moreover, those who extol Russia's democratic development after the collapse of the Soviet Union need to explain two inconvenient events:

1) Why would Yeltsin's economic team choose to deregulate prices before privatizing assets? According to Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinsky, whose book, The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms, contains the subtitle, Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, "shifting the power to set prices away from the government and in the hands of semi-governmental monopolies, with the resulting hyperinflation and the disappearance of middle-class savings, was a way of sharply narrowing the array of potential contenders for a sizable chunk of state property when privatization finally took place." Was this move made in the interest of fostering democracy?

2) Why would Yeltsin order special military forces to fire tank shells at the nation's elected Parliament? As Stephen F. Cohen noted: "It is the same Parliament, chosen in a generally acclaimed free election in 1990, that defied Gorbachev and the Soviet Communist Party by making Yeltsin its first chairman."

Yeltsin insisted that the assault on Parliament would bring greater democracy to Russia, and many American Russia scholars agreed. But, as Mr. Cohen correctly noted: "No authentic democracy is possible anywhere, least of all in Russia, without a truly independent and fully sanctioned parliament or congress."

Thus, when considering the post-Beslan "reforms" instituted by President Putin -- seen by many in the West as moves toward authoritarianism not democracy -- consideration should be given to the question of whether, and to what extent, Russia has made any strides of substance toward democracy. After all, even the Governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko has been quoted as saying that "A Russian's mentality is such that he needs a master, a tsar, a president. In other words, a single commander."

Consider the "reform" of the method by which Duma members are elected. As Nina Khrushcheva observes, having seats allocated proportionally, based on the percentage a party receives in the general election "further weakens the people's voice in government." Yet she concedes that the change might have the effect of compelling political parties "to better organize and prompt citizens to more closely identify with a particular party."

Moreover, President Putin's decision to "change the selection of Russia's 89 regional governors from a vote by the local electorate to appointment by the president" certainly has "reduced the democratic choice of the average Russian in selecting their government." But as Mr. Putin famously informed America's Mike Wallace, on the TV news show, 60 Minutes, "India is called the largest world democracy. But their governors have always been appointed by the central government."

Finally, much has been said and written in the West about the decision by the Russian government to tighten controls over non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those financed by foreign governments. While the West considers such NGOs crucial to the development of civil society, President Putin said the new law "was needed in order to make society and citizens safe from the spread of terrorist ideology of hate that could masquerade under the cover of one or another label."

Perhaps more to the point is the observation of William Pfaff, writing in the May 4, 2006 edition of the Korea Herald. "It is inconceivable that any American government (or U.S. Congress) would be equally tolerant of pressure groups and NGOs financed by a foreign government, working to bring 'real democracy' to the United States, and instructing young American in methods of political protest and agitation fostering, even indirectly, Russian national interests."

Thus, even if Putin's "reforms" signify a move away from democracy, they are moves away from a democracy that has yet to really take hold in Russia. And by that, I mean a political system in which an informed public holds its elected officials accountable. It doesn't exist in Russia because, as William Zimmerman has observed, "it bears emphasizing that sizable sections of the Russian mass public turn out to be every bit as ignorant of the world … as their American counterparts."

Although Professor Zimmerman's comments were limited to the Russians' knowledge of foreign policy issues, like the majority of Americans, their ignorance is not limited to just the outside world. Russians do not know their Constitution. Forty-two percent of the population has never heard of the term "skinheads," just 17 percent of them know both the words and music of their national anthem, and only 13 percent of them are aware of the implementation of national projects in Russia (57 percent had heard something about them) And, given the Kremlin's successes in stifling the news media, especially TV news, the introduction of Mr. Putin's Public Chamber is a modest, but very insufficient corrective.

Yet, when considering Russian identity and the prospects for democracy in Putin's Russia, one must acknowledge the accuracy of Mr. Putin's observation that "democracy has its national peculiarities in every country." Moreover, even Nina Khrushcheva acknowledges as much, after first insisting that in order for Russians to embrace democracy and a market economy, they must renounce "1,000 years of communal history," during which society's needs took precedence over the individual. Compelling Russians to become individualistic, market-loving democrats would seem to be almost as impossible as compelling them to become God-denying Communists. Yet Khrushcheva sees small changes, such as growing consumerism and elections, which persuade her that a uniquely Russian style of democracy might emerge -- one that is a "synthesis of western-style capitalist/democratic infused individuality with the long-established Russian communal nature."

But, given this author's conviction that a genuine democracy requires an informed electorate that is able to hold its political leaders accountable for their actions, even if Mr. Khruscheva's vision of Russian democracy becomes a reality, like America's democracy, it still will be a long distance away from the real thing.

When reflecting on the condition of democracy in Russia today, perhaps Nicholas Riasanovsky put it best: "Democratic institutions have replaced the Party and the Soviet government, and they have claimed the allegiance of the authorities ever since Gorbachev, although they look much better on paper than in practice.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). This article will be presented at the 15th Annual Russian-American Seminar (of which RAISA is a co-sponsor) to be held at St. Petersburg State University during May 16-23, 2006. Endnotes to this article will be provided upon request. He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com.

Other Articles by Walter C. Uhler

* On “Preventive War,” Kissinger Becomes Bush's “Useful Idiot”
* More Proof of Prewar Intelligence Manipulation by the Bush Administration