Russia's Managed Democracy

Past experiments with liberal democracy have led Russia to the brink of civil war, economic collapse and the plunder of state resources. Daniel Beer explains why most Russians feel happier with a strongman firmly in control.

Vladimir Putin (r) with Dmitry Medvedev

The rise of political authoritarianism or ‘managed democracy’ in Russia under President and now Prime Minister Vladmir Putin is the object of anxious fascination in the West. The geopolitical realities of dependence on Russian gas and oil ensure that western societies are keenly interested in the evolution of Russia’s government. What has come to be known as ‘Putinism’ has involved the centralisation of political and economic power, the emasculation of parliamentary politics, the muzzling of the media, a return to the rhetoric of Great Russian nationalism and a bullying interference in the affairs of neighbouring states in what the Russians call ‘the near abroad’.

The architects of this new authoritarianism are a powerful clique of siloviki, former members of the intelligence services and armed forces with influential positions within Russian business. Critics refer to the ‘KGB spirit’ that has taken over the country and Putin himself is ritually criticised as a KGB apparatchik who understands democracy primarily as something to be tamed and manipulated. Yet Putin remains undeniably popular, supported by a majority of Russians as a welcome alternative to the chaotic freedom, lawlessness and kleptocracy of the Yeltsin years. Western commentators usually explain Russians’ enthusiastic embrace of the Kremlin’s authoritarianism (and their cheerful disregard, excepting a few marginalised protest groups, of the niceties of civic, press and political freedoms) as part of the political legacy of the Soviet Union. For more than 70 years the Communist system stamped on dissent and promoted the orderliness of a military barracks. It cultivated in the population a fatal indifference to democratic debate and a preference for strong leaders who derive their legitimacy from a projection of control and power rather than their ability to govern by persuasion.

The authoritarianism of the Kremlin and its support base among a politically naïve and manipulated population are both consequences of Russia’s disastrous departure from liberal constitutionalism and representative democracy for the bulk of the 20th century. Or are they? The preference for order over freedom in Russia today has reprised popular disillusionment with democratic institutions and values in the decade before the Bolsheviks came to power. In their retreat from democracy under Putin, contemporary Russians have followed their liberal predecessors down a path trodden originally in the country’s first experiment with democracy between 1905 and 1917.

At the turn of the 20th century, Russian liberal reformers sought to modernise society in accordance with liberal values of the rule of law, respect for private property and the introduction of representative institutions of government. Imbued with values of reason, order and justice, leading liberal lawyers, newspaper editors, local government activists and professionals all believed that Russia’s masses needed to be intellectually emancipated and politically enfranchised. Only then would it be possible to release the economic, moral and intellectual forces of the country from the dead hand of tsarism.

Fond hopes that the spread of democracy would heal the divisions within Russian society between a small educated elite and the impoverished mass of the Russian peasantry and urban poor suffered a body blow in the 1905 Revolution. The ‘dress rehearsal’, as Lenin called it, swept the Russian countryside in an orgy of violence and was only put down after a brutal campaign of pacification by the armed forces of the tsarist state. Terrorists claimed the lives of about 17,000 people between 1903 and 1911; indiscriminate peasant violence was visited upon the gentry, rural school teachers, village postmasters, anyone who did not hail from the peasants’ own world. Revolutionary violence was accompanied by an upsurge in common criminality, an epidemic of suicide, sexual violence and pogroms which ravaged the empire’s impoverished Jewish community. The leading liberal lawyer V.D. Kuz’min-Karavaev observed in 1906: ‘When policemen are killed, when soldiers are killed at their posts, when children and schoolboys shoot guns and throw bombs, then it is obvious that we are confronting an epidemic phenomenon, a particular form of mass psychosis.’ In the opinion of Prime Minister Count Sergei Vitte (writing in 1905): ‘All Russia was one vast madhouse.’

Political reformers, civic activists and the professional classes all recoiled from the apparently limitless and purposeless nature of the violence. Their earlier conviction that individuals were fundamentally rational and capable of discharging political and civic responsibilities gave way increasingly to a pessimistic view of human beings in the grip of dark and destructive impulses they were unable to recognise or control. The scale of the disorder convinced many Russian liberals that what democracy really promised was violent chaos, the destruction of the fruits of Russian civilisation and complete civil collapse. Reformers might have respected classical liberalism’s espousal of individual rights and political liberty, but found these touchstones deeply problematic in the context of early 20th-century Russian society. The modern, interventionist, democratic state had necessary social and economic tasks to perform that laissez-faire doctrines and natural law theory could ill accommodate.

Confronted with a rising tide of violent social revolution that threatened to sweep away the fruits of Russian civilisation, liberals grew progressively disillusioned with the ability of the Russian masses to govern themselves and believed they were dangerously responsive to the demagoguery of usurpers and extremists. Writing in the midst of 1905, the clinician and publicist Nikolai Bazhenov declared that ‘the most striking feature of the masses is their responsiveness to those who could appeal to their fears and baser instincts.’ He believed that ‘any form of social and political structure, whatever name it bore – a despotism or a republic, unlimited or constitutional monarchy – in the final analysis boils down to one and the same form, to an oligarchy.’

Political parties exploded onto the national stage after the autocracy reluctantly granted a consultative assembly, the Duma, in 1906 to give expression to the people’s voice. The prohibition campaigner Fedor Rybakov believed that political parties should foster within the electorate a ‘herd instinct’ which would serve to channel the undiscriminating and unstable emotions of individuals and crowds towards certain forms of action, certain strategic goals. Parties thus served as a filter of popular emotions, exerting a civilising influence necessary for the maintenance of social stability. Rybakov wrote:

In the West, where social life is more extensively developed than ours, the herd-instinct manifests itself with greater power but there it finds a more noble form: the form of a party outlook; there every party firmly knows the leader which it follows ... [This difference between Russia and the West] does not depend on the fact that the Russian public is in general less developed than in the West but rather on the fact that in our social life there are no established social organisations, the whole of our life is fragmented into individual parts and when these elements are occasionally fused together, it is for the most part by chance, it is a fusion not of thought, of conviction, but of place and time.

The revolution represented the eruption of mass politics unfettered by established parties. The involvement of the mass of the people in the political community of the nation threatened to offer a colossal hostage to the uncontrollable instincts that lurked beneath the social order. In response, many swung behind the autocracy in a bid to hold at bay the dragon of social revolution. In 1909, the liberal Mikhail Gerzhenson noted bitterly: ‘We should hail this government which with its bayonets and its prisons protects from the fury of the masses.’

Yet support for the autocracy was never going to be enough, as many reformers understood. Tsarism had been haemorrhaging authority even before the 1905 Revolution, but the massacre of Bloody Sunday in January of that year when tsarist troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators marching on the Winter Palace dealt a body blow to the tsar’s credibility. The autocracy had only managed to stem the revolution by force of arms, not by force of argument. Confronted by a society in meltdown, reformers cast around for new forms of social glue that would hold the state together. Many turned to nationalism. The major liberal party in the Duma, the Octobrists, were noted for their Great Russian nationalism, opposing the granting of regional autonomy to the national minorities within the empire and insisting on the provision of education only in Russian.

When the autocracy finally did buckle under the strains of the First World War, the violent eruption of mass politics in 1917 seemed to confirm for many their worst fears. The effects of democratic practice between the February and October Revolutions were in fact deepening the polarisation of society. Voting, the expansion of the press, petitions and town hall and village meetings were encouraging the population to think of themselves not as members of a multinational community but rather as corporate bodies of workers, peasants, Cossacks, industrialists and so on, whose interests were unavoidably in conflict. Many liberal observers came to fear that, grafted onto a society with little common sense of itself and polarised along class and ethnic lines, democratic forms of government would simply propel Russia into an abyss of civil conflict and anarchy. The liberal politician and eminent scientist Vladimir Vernadskii observed during the upheaval of 1917, that ‘at present we have democracy without the political organisation of society … It is a tragic situation. Forces and layers of the people are now playing a role in determining our structure of life, but they are in no condition to understand [this structure’s] interests. It is clear that unrestrained democracy, the pursuit of which has been the goal of my life, in fact requires corrections.’

This retreat from democracy was manifest in deed as well as in word. The Provisional Government that briefly ruled Russia between the February Revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik seizure of power later that year began to move in an authoritarian direction. A liberal minister, Andrei Shingarev, introduced the grain monopoly in March 1917, a wholesale repudiation of the free market in goods, and it was the Provisional Government that in autumn 1917 sanctioned the use of armed force to secure grain from the peasantry. In July 1917 the Provisional Government approved the reinstitution of the death penalty within the Russian army. The decision unleashed waves of protest among the lower orders for whom its abolition in February 1917 had been a cornerstone of their new civic freedoms.

Liberalism in the decade or so leading up to the 1917 Revolutions was characterised by three things. The first was a Great Power nationalism of the sort that had no problem with bullying the subject peoples of the Russian Empire. The second was an emphasis on the need for a strong state as the only way of guaranteeing the rule of law and respect for private property. The third was a readiness to ignore and circumscribe or ‘manage’ the democratic wishes of the population when they were perceived to come into conflict with the needs and interests of the state.

It is true that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not result in a civil war, but it did result in the economic collapse of the early 1990s (many Soviet citizens depended on food parcels sent from abroad in the winter of 1990). The shock therapy, blithely recommended to government reformers by Harvard-based free marketers, robbed tens of millions overnight of both jobs and savings. ‘Democracy’ enjoyed a popular resonance for about two years from 1991 to 1993 during which the Yeltsin government presided over an economic collapse so vast and devastating that for most Russians the term became synonymous with chaos and the plunder of state (that is society’s) resources by a small clique of robber barons with political connections. Crime levels went through the roof. The streets of Russian cities, once far safer than their western counterparts, became infested with criminal activity, both organised and disorganised.‘shit’.

Putin’s popularity since his assumption of the presidency in 2000 has been based upon an explicit repudiation of the chaotic freedoms of the Yeltsin era. Putin’s consolidation of political power in a centralised state, his control over the media, his emasculation of the Russian parliament and his reliance upon Great Russian nationalism as a form of social glue all implement this idea. Putin has fostered the belief that Russia’s authoritarian traditions are morally the equal of democratic western traditions. His supporters argue that Russians value a strong state, economic growth and security more than human rights or democracy, which have no roots in Russian history. They may well be right. But to understand the appeal of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’, we should look not to the legacy of Communism as much as to the destabilising power of democracy in a country without strong traditions of the rule of law and a developed and robust civil society. Putin’s desire to constrain the effects of democracy recalls the direction of travel of pre-revolutionary liberals after 1905 in their retreat from democracy. Rather than the gravedigger of Russian liberalism, Putinism is the inheritor of Russia’s first liberal experiment.

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