The traditional view of Russian political culture has been that, due to historical experience, Russians have favored strong autocratic rule. After nearly seventy years of the Soviet experience, Russian society was viewed as totally atomized and Russians themselves as disengaged from the political process. In 1985 Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union and within two years had relaxed the constraints on civic activity outside official party organizations. The apparent explosion of groups and organizations from this time onwards surprised many observers and put previous suppositions in doubt. Although it was not what he intended, Gorbachev started the process which was to end the Soviet Union and put Russia on the road to “democratization.” However, the years immediately after perestroika were actually filled with disappointment for ordinary Russians, and twenty years later many Western observers consider the Putin regime to be one that is “backsliding” on democracy.
There may be elements of continuity which are shaping Russian political culture, but the effects the last twenty years can only be examined for clues, not a definitive answer. This essay will provide a short definition of “political culture” and then look briefly at the so-called “authoritarian tradition.” The main body will attempt to respond to past research on that issue.
Political culture is difficult to pin down – it has been described as “the classic case of a concept that simultaneously captures everything and nothing.” Most work on the subject which will be used in this essay is based on the assumption that political culture is “the subjective understanding of politics…concerned with people’s values, their perceptions of history…and with their foci of identification.” In addition, political culture is considered to be “neither immovable nor simply malleable” and will only change gradually. There is also debate within the field over whether to include behavior as well as attitudes and beliefs. This essay will examine surveys taken and researchers’ interpretations of their data.
According to those who espouse that Russian political culture has seen more continuity than change, there are two strands to this legacy – the first is the centuries’ long experience of autocratic tsarist rule and the second is the nature of the Soviet regime. It has even been claimed that “true” democracy has not yet taken hold in Russia because the people themselves are “co-conspirators” in the rejection of democratic values and practices. This approach holds that, due to historical experience, Russians do not possess an understanding of democratic practices. It is even claimed that “after 1991, Russia is struggling to create a new [national identity] based on a blend of tsarism, communism, and Stalinism.” Thus, according to this view Russian political culture has not evolved; the basic elements were there in 1985 and have continued to this day.
Is Vladimir Putin a reflection of this need for a “strong hand?” Some observers have pointed to the authoritarian nature of his regime, to his background in the KGB and to his apparent authoritarian tactics in government to illustrate this element of continuity in Russian political culture. As Putin seems to make “a virtue out of rejecting ‘politics’ and ideology,” in the opinions of some he is the ultimate “anti-politician,” who came to power on a virtual platform which had no substantive content. This, perhaps, shows that people are once again disinterested in politics, as compared with the 1990s when they were seemingly clamoring for real democracy. In this sense, Putin’s is not the strong hand. His very emptiness as a politician allows people to disengage from the political process.
Yet there have also been suggestions that this disinterest may be a myth propagated by the regime itself. As Sperling states: “It is in the interests of those who benefit from hegemonic state-sponsored belief systems that subjects doubt themselves, rather than question the regime.” Colton and McFaul discovered in their 1999 survey that Putin supporters were fairly supportive of democracy on the whole. In 2004, Hahn conducted surveys in Yaroslavl’ and discovered that there still seemed to be a “normative commitment” to democracy in spite of Putin’s “systematic undermining since 2000 of institutional sources of accountability.” One could argue that this is not a reflection of a basic desire for authority, but more simply a need for stability.
Can Russia Ever be a Democracy?
It is often asserted that a political system – and a democratic system in particular – needs “to be consistent with the political values of its people.” This section will examine some of the research which has explored prospects for democracy in Russia and consider whether the experiences of glasnost’ and the 1990s have affected Russian political culture.
- Attitudes Towards Democracy and a Market Economy
Many scholars have been criticized for being overly optimistic about the chances for a successful consolidation of democracy in Russia based on their survey data, because these are said to be, on the whole, “inconsistent and contradictory.” Initially, there was great optimism over survey findings at the beginning of the 1990s. In the conclusions to his surveys in Yaroslavl’ in 1990, Hahn wrote that “Russian political culture, at least, would appear to be sufficiently hospitable to sustain democratic institutions.” In looking for the “presence or absence of the cultural prerequisites of a democratic polity,” he found relatively high levels of support for elections and of political interest and knowledge. In addition, he related the results from Russia to those from surveys carried out in the USA in the 1970s to show that Russians are not much less “democratic” than Americans. Yet this is precisely the kind of optimism which has been criticized, for it does not take into account varying understandings of “democracy.” Also, 1990 was a year of generally high political excitement in Russia, which may mean that high levels of interest were simply an anomaly.
One needs longitudinal data to see how stable attitudes have been over a period of time. Colton and McFaul have compared data from surveys from both 1996 and 1999. This is particularly instructive, as some observers have commented that the experience of Yeltsin and his “democrats” during the period of transition in the 1990s turned “democracy” and “politics” into “dirty words” for many Russians. Lukin even dedicated a whole book to analyzing these so-called “democrats,” who in reality propounded what he called “Marxism turned inside out.” Colton and McFaul found that, although dissatisfaction with democracy in Russia itself had declined over these years, support for various components of democracy (freedom to elect the country’s leaders, freedom to have one’s own convictions, freedom of expression etc.) and the idea of democracy per se was relatively high.
As many scholars have pointed to the need for a strong economy as a precondition for the consolidation of democracy, Hahn examines data from 1993 to 2004 to assess Russians’ views on a market economy. He finds that the “response to the benefits of a market economy is mixed, but on the whole favorable” and that there are “no dramatic swings of opinion between 1993, 1996 and 2004.” However, Fleron had warned about taking this to mean support for democracy per se, as he shows in his quotation from Brown that “the link between attitudes and behavior has been shown to be greatly strengthened by vested interest.” Hahn also recognizes that “assessments of economic performance have little or nothing to do with the political preferences” of those interviewed and more to do with, as Fleron points out, stronger support for political change coming from the beneficiaries of economic reform. Thus, if there is an emerging middle class in Russia, one could say that the events of the last twenty years (due to the economic, social and political reforms since 1985) have created a particular political subculture which could be a strong source of support for the consolidation of democracy.
One might also look here at the legacy of the disjuncture between public and private lives left over from the Soviet system. Although outwardly many Russians conformed to Soviet propaganda and rituals, it has been shown that in private Soviet citizens behaved very differently, which gave rise to what Tucker called “cross-thinking” and the “dual persona” phenomenon. Fleron takes this as an argument against the reliability of surveys, but it might also be an interesting point to consider for the prospects of democracy. If in 1985 Russians were much less inculcated in Soviet values than had been assumed then perhaps the private persona has now triumphed over the public, Soviet one. However, Fleron once again cautions against this assumption, taking Eckstein’s theory of “formlessness” to show that “extreme social, political, and/or economic discontinuity” should result in “anomie and political extremism, not rapid developments of new cultural orientations such as democracy.” Levada also writes about another “dual persona” legacy from the Soviet era that may not be conducive to consolidating democracy. Using George Orwell’s idea of “double-think,” he shows how people got round the strictures of the Soviet system by seeking out loopholes and convincing themselves that there was nothing wrong in this. In his research he found that “there are no strict dividing lines between the spheres of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour” and thus this legacy lives on. Thus, one might argue that this duality may well hamper the chances for democratization.
Many observers point to the coming of new generations as enhancing the prospects of democracy. This view argues that, over time, the process of modernization and concomitant rise in levels of education and political awareness will have an impact on a political culture. Thus, one might say that since 1985 the experiences of those who are now politically of age could have complemented and enhanced the modernization processes which had already been taking place during the Soviet era. Indeed, Hahn found differences with respect to generations in his work between 1990 and 2004. In 1990 he wrote that he shared the view that “education is the critical intervening variable between development and political culture,” illustrating this by relating levels of education to political trust in the Soviet system. In 2004 Hahn also reported the different understandings of the word “democracy” among different generations: for older people “democracy indeed requires political trust, but trust means that a good government (gosudarstvo) will take care of its citizens.” In addition, he found that it was only the younger generation aged 21 to 25 who have “a sense that they can and should participate,” otherwise known as “internal political efficacy,” which is held to be one of the most important supports for democracy. Thus one could argue that, because of high levels of education during the Soviet era, a new political culture was already being formed, and with the rise of generations who had not known Soviet politics this process might continue in a democratic direction.
- Civic Participation
Many scholars believe that “without a vibrant civil society, the chances for…the success of a transition to democracy in a country formerly under authoritarian rule, are severely diminished.” Thus, a state needs healthy and functioning links between it and society, with a significant number of people somehow involved. The traditional view of Soviet society was one that incorporated “enforced departicipation” (that while the regime outwardly encouraged public participation in the political process, the reality was quite the opposite) and “social atomization,” (the destruction of bonds between members and different levels of society) but the events after 1985 led many to question these assumptions. Once Gorbachev “sanctioned free expression and encouraged ‘the creative activity of the masses’” in 1986, there was an apparent upsurge in civic activity in groups known as “informals,” which represented a wide range of interests, and the so-called “popular fronts.” Some observers have estimated that there were “more than sixty thousand independent associations involving nearly fifteen million people.”
One might look at the concept of “social capital” for this aspect of political culture. It “refers to the network of ties that keep people engaged in various kinds of cooperative endeavours” and these will in turn affect levels of trust and expectations of government. A low level of social capital in a society will indicate “correspondingly poor government.” These can reinforce each other and could result in the long-term stability of this situation, also known as a “low-level equilibrium trap.” In their article from 1990 Bahry and Silver, using ideas from the already large body of democratization research warned that “as old constraints are removed” this initial upsurge will be followed by “a substantial proportion of the population [availing] themselves of new opportunities not to participate in politics” and to become merely “spectators.” Indeed participation in voluntary associations is now very low in Russia; according to data collected in 2001, 91% of the population do not belong to any organization.
Thus, what Bahry and Silver predicted may well have come true and, to refer once more to the idea of a “low-level equilibrium trap,” it may be possible to see just what effect the events of the last twenty years have had. After the initial enthusiasm during perestroika the hopes of many were dashed and, as the economic reforms of the 1990s hit many people very hard, their expectations of government lowered to meet its actual performance. In addition, it appears that Putin wants a “pseudo-civil society,” which is subordinate to the state and whose demands are in line with its general program. Thus, one might conclude that, if voluntary participation remains low and if opportunities for independent organizations are curtailed, then Russian political culture may stay within this “low-level equilibrium trap” that has been operating since the disillusionment which came after the high hopes of perestroika and glasnost’.
Even though the selective use of history to justify explanations has been discredited, there are many who still see authoritarianism as a vital element in Russian political culture. Yet there are also those who have used research to discover what the chances for democratization are. It can be argued that in 1985 Gorbachev started the process, albeit unwittingly, which we have been observing in Russia in recent years and which could be recreating its political culture. By definition, culture can evolve only slowly, and this may mean that Russian political culture as yet cannot be definitively characterized. However, this does not preclude the possibility that there are elements other than authoritarianism which could have been remolding it well before the break up of the Soviet Union. The USSR had a somewhat distorted journey towards modernization, but it has been shown that one vital element was there – high levels of education. Yet Russians’ experiences of “democracy” during the tumultuous years of transition may be another factor in the reformulation of their subjective feelings towards politics. It is still difficult to say how the events of the last twenty years have really affected Russian political culture, but in conclusion two points will be tentatively put forward. Firstly, the experiences of perestroika and glasnost’ gave expression to elements which were to some extent already present in Soviet Russians. Secondly, the disillusionment and trauma of the 1990s may have enhanced the people’s need for stability as human beings, not necessarily as authority-loving Slavs.
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