Russia’s thorny relationship with democracy
The assassination of Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin on February 27th 2015 marked the first time since the execution of Lavrentiy Beria in 1953 that a viable contender for Russian power was summarily eliminated. By the time Brezhnev forcibly ousted Khrushchev from power in 1964, the Soviet elite had tacitly agreed that power struggles between them would not result in murder; Khrushchev died eight years later, with a pension. Since 1953, the Russian political elite who came to power through illiberal and undemocratic means did not generally purge the allies of their predecessors for fear that the same would be done to them if and when they were succeeded. Perhaps, whoever ordered the assassination of Boris Nemtsov harbours no such fears.
Nemtsov’s murder is emblematic and symptomatic of an increasingly bold authoritarianism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia has never been a democracy, but for a fleeting generation, its governing system was in a democratising flux. The world held its breath while it searched for signs of a democratic pulse in post-Soviet Russia and exhaled resignedly when the Russian regime repeatedly and successfully repressed attempts at democratisation. Most recently, Russian democracy hinged on the faith and action of brave activists like Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza. But Nemtsov is dead, Kara-Murza has survived two attempted attacks on his life and most of the Russian populace does not seem to care enough to do anything about it. This begs the question: is democracy possible in Russia at all?
Some say: no. The idea that Russians do not want democracy has reached American shores before. Richard Pipes, one of the US’s most noted historians on Russia and the USSR, presents one perspective on the desire for democracy in Russia when he writes,
“Although actions undertaken by Putin and his associates play a large part, there is a good deal of evidence that the antidemocratic, antilibertarian actions of the current administration are not being inflicted on the Russian people but are actually supported by them. This evidence also indicates that no more than one Russian in ten cares about democratic liberties and civil rights.”
Cynical as Pipes may sound, he is not without parallel in the Russian-speaking world. Svetlana Alexievich writes in Second-Hand Time that “Russians don’t understand freedom, they need the Cossack and the whip.” Reading the interviews of factory labourers and Politburo members from the early 1990s, for which Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, one gets the sense that the Russian people did not want, or at least, were not ready for, democracy.
What is democracy?
Part of the problem that becomes apparent even in the quotes above is that democracy has accumulated too many colloquial and scholarly definitions to be precise. This ambiguity has allowed tyrants to abuse the term, and dilettantish academics to scoff at anything short of utopia. Democracy can mean so many things that who’s to say if Russians do not have it already?
The minimal procedural definition of a democracy is a state that holds elections, but this seems inadequate because it could also define some repressive authoritarian regimes that permit elections. On the other hand, attributing to democracy liberalism, free markets, constitutionalism and respect for human rights generally belies the “many different colours” of democracy that exist after 1945, as President Kennedy put it in his famous Berlin Wall address. Besides, this sort of broad definition of American-style democracy “with all the fixins’” will not sit well with Russian society because it smacks of American nation building. There is not, and should not be, a little American inside every Russian; we should be searching for a definition for democracy that is endogenous to Russia and stimulates the noblest traditions of that country and people.
In order to declutter modern definitions of democracy, it is best to return to classic texts. In his 1966 book The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore defines democratisation “as a long and certainly incomplete struggle to do three closely related things: to check arbitrary rulers, to replace arbitrary rules with just and rational ones, and to obtain a share for the underlying population in the making of rules.” In other words, we can say that democracy is a check on the arbitrary accumulation and use of power. It is a way to make politics—i.e. the practice of governance and the art of living within society—predictable, consensual, and just. Free markets and liberal values are a welcome but unnecessary bonus.
With this definition in mind, we can revisit the question at hand: is democracy possible in Russia? It is fitting that the most salient democratic movement in Putin’s era uses the language of anti-corruption; the corruption and graft of the Russian regime is the epitome of arbitrary rule. However, while anti-corruption protests organised by Alexei Navalny—the largest in size since the anti-Putin protests in 2011—should be commended in their own right, they do not inspire much hope for democratisation in Russia. During one of the many protests in Russia on March 26th 2017, a fifth-grader by the name of Gleb Tokmakov took the podium in the city of Tomsk. In the finest tradition of Russian political pulpitry, he challenged the crowd and the status quo:
“Someone said: ‘The rule is of millions, not of millionaires.’ Yes, this is a good slogan. I agree with it. But in a huge country, the rule of the people is impossible. Everyone wants something of his own. Everyone wants something of his own. Accordingly, it does not matter who is in power: whether it is Navalny or Putin…”
The Russian chorus behind the young Tokmakov shouts “it is important!” who is in power. Tokmakov is not deterred. He answers,
“Well, no, it is not important. The important thing is to change the system of power itself, [to change] the education system, [to change] the healthcare system. I study at school and I am surprised that schools are so politicised. At school, if you do not draw some picture about our government, they could give you [a low grade]! It should not be this way.”
The lone Tokmakov demands a change that reaches to the very limits of Russian vlast—that mystical and spiritual basis of Russian power. But the Russian crowd that shouted down Tokmakov did not care about changing the system. Like many who supported Gorbachev, Yeltsin, or Putin, they did not seem to mind having a tsar; they seemed to just want the right tsar.
How democracy was repressed in Russia
The sorry state of Russian democracy today is not entirely the fault of the Russian people. Democracy is not inevitable and requires human effort and desire, which Russians have shown in spades since the collapse of the USSR, even if some of that effort has been misguided and some of that desire has been misplaced. But even when people want democracy, democratisation can be thwarted by repression. Throughout the Russian regime’s metamorphoses since 1985, it has consistently repressed, or attempted to repress, democratisation, and the history of these repressions goes a long way toward explaining why democracy never took hold in Russia.
Though Yeltsin was the first ever freely-elected ruler of Russia, he forged a Russia “in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. […] Competition is thus real but unfair.” Richard Sakwa calls the early Yeltsin years “phoney democracy” because Yeltsin ruled without a formal constitution—largely by popular mandate substantiated by the April 1993 referendum—dismissed parliament on September 21th 1993 and ordered the military to fire on dejected parliamentary supporters, killing 146 in the Moscow fighting of October 1993.
Yeltsin’s decision to shell the Russian parliament in response to Soviet and communist party intransigence may have seemed appropriate to Westerners fearing a communist backlash or rampant instability around the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. However, neither the president nor the parliament acted for the sake of democracy at the time. In retrospect, it is clear that the constitutional crisis was a clash between two undemocratic parties vying for power in Russia. Both the decision to rebel against the president and the decision to use force against the parliament reflected the arbitrary use of power—devoid of real legal basis or the consent of the governed—that distinguishes authoritarian regimes from democracies.
The second part of Yeltsin’s tenure was marked by a free but unfair 1996 presidential election victory that is typical of hybrid regimes. Yeltsin’s political allies owned and manipulated an overwhelming majority of the Russian media. With Russian state funds and a sigh of relief from the West, Yeltsin defeated the communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. However, by co-opting a powerful business elite to his aid, Yeltsin’s regime had inadvertently created what we now call the Russian oligarchs, who contributed to the repression of democracy in Russia in their own way. Orwell Prize winner Arkady Ostrovsky writes in The Invention of Russia about the oligarchs:
“Oligarchs created their own parallel infrastructure which substituted for a state. [Vladimir] Gusinsky’s holding, called Media Most, comprised a small army, a bank, a foreign service, his own newspaper, radio and a television channel. […] He was driving around Moscow in a cortege of cars with blue flashing lights, using a lane reserved for senior state officials.”
Oligarchs like Gusinsky relied on off-the-record government loans, which they used to bid on privatising state-owned enterprises and then ran Yeltsin’s campaign in 1996 through the media holding companies they had created.
In terms of democratisation and repression, the oligarchs presented a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they encouraged the state to privatise its collective assets in a nod toward democracy, but on the other hand, the state sold those assets to political allies preferentially, without giving a majority of Russian people access to the bidding. Moreover, while it might seem like the Yeltsin years were an unparalleled boon for private and free media in Russia, Ostrovsky has a slightly different take.
“For a second, Russia seemed almost like a normal country where the ability to criticize and ridicule politicians is a sign of a healthy democracy. Yet, there was one fundamental problem. In contrast to ‘normal’ countries where freedom of expression is guaranteed by institutions such as parliament, civil society, the media itself and, above all, by the consensus of the population, in Russia freedom of speech rested on the goodwill of just one man.”
That man was the president, who seemed to tolerate abusive media so long as, on net, his polls kept rising ahead of the 1996 elections. Yeltsin did not fire on the free market or the free media like he fired on the parliament, but that does not necessarily matter when it comes to democratisation. Yeltsin repressed democracy by consciously creating an inaccessible and opaque regime that rewarded corruption and rested on his grace alone instead of a regime built on the law, institutions, and civil society that could check the arbitrary accumulation and use of power.
Putin’s quest for stability
In order to free himself from the pressure that his predecessors faced from both the top and the bottom of the political spectrum, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, has repressed democracy in three principle ways: eliminating the oligarchs and nationalising their assets, curbing freedom of expression in public and private, and cracking down on civil society. These three repressions have helped make Putin’s reign so stable, that he was able to step down from president to prime minister for four years and still return to the presidency.
The Russian people seemed overwhelmingly to support Putin’s repression of oligarchs. An independent Levada Center poll in June 2006 found that 85 per cent of Russians supported Russia’s renationalisation of the oil and gas industry, and 65 per cent of Russians favoured the nationalisation of other industries that were previously in private hands, like Gusinsky’s media holdings. But popularity is not democracy, because an opinion poll does not provide a viable, predictable and binding rational rule that inhibits arbitrary rulers from arbitrarily wielding power. While curbing the extra-legal privileges of the oligarchs could have been a check on the arbitrary accumulation of power by corrupt business elites, the methods Putin used represented the regime’s own arbitrary use of power and abuse of the rules.
For example, NTV owner and oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky was repeatedly arrested and harassed by state officials with court orders until he sold his Media Most holding company to the state under duress. Thusly, Putin deftly nationalised the media and fleeced the oligarchs by abusing the legal system. “There should be patriotically minded people at the head of state information resources,” Putin told reporters in 2013—as much an excuse for nationalising most of the mainstream media as it was a foreshadow of the forthcoming information censorship.
Nataliya Rostova, an independent Russian journalist and visiting professor of journalism at Berkeley, explains how information is controlled in Putin’s Russia, significantly repressing the relative freedom enjoyed by oligarch-owned media companies during the Yeltsin years.
“The editors and directors [of state-owned media companies] have so-called weekly meetings with the presidential administration to talk about the upcoming events, what will be significant in the next week, what the administration wants to cover. Additionally, media outlets are dependent on state funding and the TV advertising market is almost monopolized as well.”
Free media is a vital tool with which to check arbitrary rulers and to obtain a share for the population in the making of rational rules. Putin represses the tools of democratisation in order to repress democracy without necessarily needing to fire a shot.
The Putin regime still does resort to violence and physical repression, but in a strategic and targeted way that seems a far cry from Yeltsin shelling the parliament. The regime violently repressed protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in the winter of 2011-2012, and then passed a law to levy heavy fines against future protesters. The repression of protesters is symptomatic of a broader crackdown on civil society in Putin’s Russia. Another law passed in 2012 blacklisted and eventually shuttered Russian NGOs that continued to accept foreign funding. Despite what the murder of Boris Nemtsov might suggest, Putin curbs civil society and public protest by passing laws through parliament because he must still placate the elite by using state and party mechanisms, though, to quote Communist Party parliamentarian Vadim Solovyov, “the activities of the Duma look like a clown show and the fifth wheel of executive power.” Nevertheless, Putin has to construct a semblance of legal-rational order to repress Russia.
The secret to Putin’s authoritarian repression of democracy in Russia is that he rarely needs to resort to bloodshed and arrests because he has carefully cultivated a regime that thwarts collective action and discourages checks on his power. His is savvier repression than the dramatic coup attempt during Gorbachev’s post-totalitarianism, and a more centralised autocratic repression than the institutionalised cronyism that characterised Yeltsin’s hybrid regime.
By atomising civil society and controlling information, Putin reduces the costs of repression. To that end, a package of bills known as Yarovaya’s Laws took effect in 2017, requiring all Internet service providers to give the Russian government access to all their users’ information. China has also agreed to share its robust Internet monitoring software with Russia, which the Chinese regime uses“to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.” Once thought to be a tool for democratisation, the Internet has in fact reduced the cost and increased the effectiveness of authoritarian repression in Russia. If the March 2017 anti-corruption protests are any indicator, hope for democratisation in Russia rests in old-fashioned physical collective action that demands an end to the arbitrary accumulation and use of power.
What is to be done?
It is not totally correct to say that communism is the only reason for the lack of democracy in Russia. In fact, there are aspects of Russian society that allowed for Russia to become the first communist country in history and have inhibited its democratisation since then. Furthermore, many of Russia’s post-communist neighbours have found their democratic way while Russia has regressed.
One of the best explanations I have ever heard for why post-Soviet Russian society has such a difficult time finding its democratic footing comes from Juris Rubenis, who helped Latvia move toward democracy in the late hours of the Soviet occupation. “It is impossible to properly utilize external, political freedom if people do not have enough internal freedom,” he says.
“A person thinking in totalitarian clichés sees the world and says, ‘this is wrong! But there is one right solution, and the solution to the thing that’s wrong is really quite simple. So let’s change the wrong approach to the only right approach. Couldn’t be simpler!’ No, no, no. Real internal freedom is respecting the internal freedom of others… it’s actually so complicated and difficult.”
Rubenis, a Lutheran priest and one of the most influential anti-Soviet dissidents of the 1980s, lives in an isolated log cabin on Latvia’s northwest Baltic coast. These days, he dedicates his time to teaching ordinary people meditative practices and Lutheran thought in order to help them rid their brains of the totalitarian clichés imprinted by Soviet communism. Perhaps a forward-looking democratisation process in Russia begins with civil society that educates on individual sanctity without compromising on the attribute of tolerance. Only after that can Russian society begin to demand the same from its government.
Naphtali Rivkin is a research fellow with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington DC, and a graduate candidate in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He studied in Russia and lived in Latvia as a Fulbright Researcher. His research and writing focuses primarily on the collapse of the USSR and post-Soviet democratisation.