Serfs Up! Is there a Russian Mindset Against Democracy? - Democracy in Russia from the Czars to Putin
Never Full Frontal Democracy - Only the Bare Torso
I love taking shots at Vladimir Putin, but probably only because I'm sitting here in my living room in California, and not halfway around the world in Moscow, where perhaps I wouldn't be so bold. Anyway, if I ever flirted with joining the Putin fan club all that changed after this man turned his Cossacks loose on the all-girl punk rock band Pussy Riot in Sochi. In my opinion, the deadly charade that is playing out in the Ukraine doesn't come nearly as close as bullwhip wielding Cossacks attacking girls in ski masks toward demonstrating that Russia has a long way to go before it achieves what we in the West define as a true "democratic" society.
Russia rubs elbows with Europe geographically, yet remains light years away politically and culturally. While nearly every other European country has finally achieved stable democracy Russia still teeters on the brink of the dark ages and really is not much better off in terms of human rights and the rule of law than it was during the time of the Czars.
In a country that has produced so many phenomenal achievements in the arts and sciences I find this almost impossible to comprehend. Yet every time that we in the West think the Russian Bear is finally going to show us full frontal democracy all we get is its unsettling, hairless bare torso strutting around on a tank turret or charging in half naked on a horse to try to scare its weaker neighbors to roll over and stand aside.
The progress of Russian democracy was delayed significantly by the abolition of serfdom, which did not take place there until 1861. To paraphrase the various online definitions, serfdom is a condition in which peasants are held in perpetual bondage to the land on which they live and are required to perform services for the lord who owns their land and lives. In contrast to Russia, serfdom in Western Europe largely disappeared roughly around the end of the late 15th, early 16th century, when the Black Death resulted in a sharp decline in the labor force and increased bargaining power for workers. The end of serfdom led to the growth of a middle class that increasingly demanded and through several bloody revolutions eventually gained participation in the political process. In other words, Russia is roughly three and a half centuries behind Europe in political experience and is still experiencing the growing pains that rocked Western Europe for a few centuries after the emancipated peasants began to demand their rights.
Power sharing is not something that is easily accepted by tyrants, and the monarchs of Western Europe were no exception. France experienced revolutions n 1789-99, 1830, 1832, 1848 and 1871 before democracy finally settled in to stay. Spain went through a violent civil war between 1936 to 1939 that installed strongman dictator General Francisco Franco in absolute power until 1975, and it was only after "El Caudillo's" death that a functional, relatively stable democracy was put in place to govern the country. Spain's Iberian peninsula neighbor Portugal was also ruled by a military junta until the 1970s. Even English democracy, which started out with the baby steps of the Magna Carta in 1215, went through centuries of class conflict before the full franchise for most English males was gained around 1867.
Even here across the pond in the United States, where we Americans like to brag about being an enlightened model of individual democratic participation, a large proportion of our population remained in chains for almost a century after our Bill of Rights was enacted. Complete freedom for this country's African American citizens was not achieved until after the tumultuous upheaval of a civil war between 1861-1865 and then 100 more years of often violent civil rights battles. It appears that no system of government willingly gives up its monopolization of power, and history calls for several centuries of social turbulence before representative democracy and the rule of law can be put in place. Russia got a very late start in this process and appears to still be experiencing growing pains.
Boris Yeltsin's "Tank-top" Speech 1991
Jaded by "Boorish" Yeltsin and Gangster Capitalism?
As the world watched in hopeful anticipation, Russian democracy finally cranked up again after a 74 year hiatus when in August 1991 Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank in Moscow and delivered a speech denouncing a communist reactionary coup and calling for a general strike. The world applauded Yeltsin and Gorbachev for their bold steps to tear down the Iron Curtain and bring Russia into the fold of the democratic western countries. People everywhere were naming their Chihuahuas Gorby and Boris to commemorate the men who seemed to have brought about so much hope for peace and human rights. It was a time when the Russian people seemed one in their accord to denounce the communist system as an evil aberration that had to be thrown off and forgotten for the future prosperity of the nation.
The hopes of the Russians did not materialize as expected. The courageous and charismatic Boris Yeltsin degenerated into the drunk and incoherent "Boorish" Yeltsin as his tenure as Russian President sank down into poverty and economic misery. Yeltsin became an embarrassment as he staggered drunkenly in his underwear down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and danced a tipsy polka with a German brass band. The once mighty Russian bear appeared to have been ingloriously transformed into a comedic circus act, but the disastrous effects of Yeltsin's time in office went way beyond a shameful blush for the ordinary Russian citizen.
Under Yeltsin's tutelage the Russian economy descended into the decay and collapse of "gangster capitalism," in which the owners of Russia's leading industries, known as the "oligarchs," literally fought pitched battles for control of the means of production. These "godfathers" of the Kremlin who carried out assassination attempts against one another were sometimes Yeltsin's chief supporters and the primary financiers of his political campaigns.
It is not surprising that the Russian economy went into near complete collapse and disillusionment began to grow over this new democracy that had seemed so rosy and glorious in its nascent stages. Due in large part to the concentration of wealth in just a handful of Yeltsin's cronies Moscow now has the highest per capita population of billionaires in the world, while the condition of the ordinary Russian is certainly not any better off, and probably worse, since the collapse of communism. Yeltsin's "shock therapy" transformation from a socialized to market economy resulted in hyperinflation, widespread poverty, and a corresponding growth in crime and corruption. Essentially the sleazy black marketeers who had operated in the shadows of the inefficient Soviet controlled economy were the only people with the necessary capital to purchase the newly privatized Russian industries, and the result was the mafia economy of the 1990s that brought misery and hopelessness for millions of Russians. Is it any wonder that widespread disillusionment with the bounties of democracy continues to exist?
Read About Yeltsin's Gangster Cronies
Vladimir Putin emerged from the economic chaos left behind by Yeltsin and was hailed as a savior by his people as he seemingly set to right the foundering Russian nation. Putin signed several economic reform acts into law and was given most of the credit for the rapid turnaround in the Russian economy, even though structural reforms initiated by Boris Yeltsin, the devaluation of the ruble, and rising oil prices also had significant beneficial effects. As is the case in the United States, where presidents either sink or prosper based on the capricious, uncontrollable whims of the economy, Vladimir Putin was the man on the scene as living conditions improved for Russians and he was given the lion's share of the credit for them.
With economic expansion came a gradual erosion of democratic rights for Russians. Just as the German people gladly cast their political rights aside in exchange for the full bellies and prosperity that Adolf Hitler initially provided for them, so were the Russians willing to give Putin carte blanche in the political sphere in exchange for improving economic fortunes.
But economic happiness came at the heavy cost of a serious downgrade in individual liberties, as the political gospel of "Putinism," was institutionalized to insure continued power for Putin and his cronies. Way back in 2007 The US economist Richard W. Rahn defined Putinism as "...a Russian nationalistic authoritarian form of government that pretends to be a free market democracy." Under the philosophy of Putinism much of the political and financial power is concentrated in the hands of the siloviki, a term referring to politicians emerging from the Russian Federal Security Service, the Army, or the police. Being a former KGB agent himself, it is no surprise that Vladimir Putin surrounds himself with people who are more dedicated to state security and Russian nationalism than they are to democracy. The siloviki are connected to Vladimir Putin to such an extent that their personal fortunes are largely tied to the continuation of the Putin regime,a situation that echoes from the nascent days of Stalinism in the 1920s, when that particular Russian dictator loaded the General Secratariat with his own cronies and eventually achieved complete power because of it.
Beginning in 2000 Putin began to take power away from the various Russian regions and to consolidate most of the governmental authority in his own hands. He established seven federal districts which were led by his own self appointed cronies, not elected by the people. Just three days after taking office Putin began to deploy masked bandits to raid the offices of mass media enterprises whose philosophies opposed his own. Criminal proceedings were also hatched against political leaders whose viewpoints ran contrary to the official Kremlin policy, meaning Putin's policy. It was clear from the beginning that Putin was dedicated to being the unofficial Czar of Russia and concentrating all power in his own hands, rather than continuing to establish an open society where political issues could be debated freely and the laws of the land would be applied fairly by a system of impartial courts, rather than arbitrarily by a dictator.
What Does This Mean for the Rest of Us?
If you have seen the second Star Wars trilogy, you know a large part of its plot deals with how a powerful Sith Lord disguised as a Senator deliberately creates an unstable political environment in which the citizens of the galaxy become so fed up with chaotic living conditions that they willingly surrender their freedoms and declare this Sith Lord and Senator Palpatine to be Emperor. Emperor Palpatine quickly consolidates all power in his hands and kills his enemies in a move to "restore order."
Putin's machinations in the Ukraine are similar to those of this Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine. He deliberately fostered chaos by withholding a promised financial bailout to Ukraine and then gleefully watched from the sideline as this country descended into civil war. Now he is engaged in sweeping up the broken pieces of Ukraine in the name of "restoring order," and only history will tell us if he will stop there, or if he plans to continue violating the territorial integrity of sovereign nations for the greater glory of Russia. A study of history indicates to this particular writer that Putin will not stop. Hitler was not satiated by the Sudetenland and Austria; he kept going until he had consumed most of the European mainland.
Keeping Russia on a constant war footing is part and parcel of Vladimir Putin's plan to increase his dictatorial control over the country. The nationalistic tendencies of a country's citizens are fiercely intensified when they are fighting their neighbors, and once again history shows us that people kept in a constant state of fear will willingly surrender their individual rights to those who are engaged in sweeping up the dangerous enemies of the motherland. The scenario does not bode well for democracy in Russia, or for those of us in the rest of the world.
Another Darth Sidious?
Is the Problem in our Definition?
It's interesting that Russians don't think about democracy in the same way we westerners do, and perhaps therein lies the problem. I once had an acquaintance who was a Ukrainian Russian with whom I would chat with about the political issues of the former Soviet bloc. To my surprise this man actually looked back to the days of Stalinism fondly and considered Josef Stalin, one of the most brutal dictators in history, to have been a great leader. Of course there was no way this friend of mine could have been much older than 9 or 10 years old when Stalin died, but perhaps his attitude reflects that after the political chaos and the gangster capitalism of the Boris Yeltsin era Russians desire stability more than full democratic participation.
But along with his shirt, Vladimir Putin has begun to strip the Russian Federation of all vestiges of democracy and is moving the planet towards a 21st century version of the cold war in which the one remaining global superpower is now butting heads with the reawakening one. The hopes and dreams that emerged with the fall of the Iron Curtain have begun to vanish like articles of Darth Vlady's minimalist clothing, and it remains to be seen what this means for the future of Russia and for mankind in general.