Wednesday, 18 November 2015 13:10

Russia's Diminishing Democracy

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Russia's Diminishing Democracy

Edith Muesing Ellwood

With two degrees in political science, Edith Muesing Ellwood has pursued a career in political and social science research. She has written two books and numerous articles on technological culture and its political ramifications and is in the process of researching her third book.

The Russian people are at the point of subordinating many of their personal freedoms and individual rights to the power of the presidency for security reasons and to assert Russia's national identity apart from the West. The reasons democratic individualism has faded in Russia are based upon Russia's history of authoritarianism and the current attempts to return to order at the expense of the degree of democracy achieved.

Because of Russia's history of authoritarianism, it is difficult for Russians to understand democracy. Democracy presents a challenge to the Russian people, who were controlled by Communist propaganda for decades. Under Communism, and for that matter under the preceding centuries of czarist rule, Russians obeyed the orders of the state instead of expressing their free individual will through participation in a democratic political process.

Many Russian citizens do not appreciate what the democratic values of freedom and equality can do for them. They are concerned with order, particularly because of the corruption and chaos of the years of attempted democracy under Boris Yeltsin. They support Vladimir Putin for his law-based predictability even though he has tampered with their individual liberties.

When the presidential election was held on March 26, 2000, Putin won. He had previously served as prime minister of Russia and then acting president following Yeltsin's resignation. He won a second full term without difficulty in the March 2004 presidential election, which has been criticized because Putin unfairly and undemocratically controlled the media through United Russia, Putin's political party. Putin manipulated public opinion in the 2003 and 2004 elections in regard to Chechnya and privatization, the results of which might have been different if fraudulent control had not been exercised.

As a result of the plunge in living standards with the advent of democracy as well as the public's close association to the order of Russia's past, Putin was authorized by the people to assert extra power. It was seen by average citizens, soon also faced with the threat of terrorism, as a legitimate step to restore economic well-being to a troubled land. Boris Yeltsin was blamed for leading Russia to the ill-defined concepts of a market economy and Western democracy.

With Yeltsin's departure from government, Russia's "economy has grown by two thirds, helped by a fifty percent rise in oil production and a global ballooning of oil prices."1 As a result, the average Russian citizen is content with life and with democracy in a diminishing form.

With a terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of school children in the Russian town of Belsan, Putin proposed restructuring all three branches of government on September 13, 2004. He asserted greater presidential control over the judiciary and mobilized support for the government by strengthening political parties and evoking the views of private organizations in his favor. The threat of terrorism was interpreted by Putin to be so great that the elements of democracy had to be subordinated to a strong fist controlling terrorist aggression.

There were attempts made at democracy before 1991. It is worth noting them as the emergence of popular representation although they were brief and failed. Czar Nicholas II agreed to codify certain civil rights into the October Manifesto of 1905 and proposed Russia's first representative assembly. Unfortunately, the assembly never passed any reforms. Then, after the fall of the czar in March 1917, Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky proclaimed the state to be a democratic republic. The republic's Constituent Assembly accompanied Russia's first free election. This attempt at democracy ended when the Bolsheviks overthrew the government in November 1917. The Communist Party then controlled the Russian people for seven decades with propaganda aimed at motivating them into compliance.

To understand why democracy is difficult for the Russian people to comprehend and protect, one must realize that under Communism the Russian people were indoctrinated to worship the state. The Soviet Union was legitimized as an "ideocracy, a system ruled by an idea."2 Russians entered the 20th century embedded in propaganda. They acted as objects among objects with no free will. The people were enveloped in Communism due to the orders from the high echelons of the state. To the average Russian, Marxist-Leninism was the absolute truth.

Historically, as part of the Soviet Union, Russia's laws protected the community and state rather than individual rights. What V. I. Lenin did with his doctrine of Marxist-Leninism was to bring about a social revolution in what became the Soviet Union. He used his interpretation of Marxism to inspire the greatly outnumbered industrial population to cooperate with a basically peasant society through the Communist Revolution.

To the extent that Putin has promoted order and distinction from the West, freedom has diminished. Today, the Russian military establishment is, in general, opposed to Putin's infamous private police force, which is considered by some as comparable to Hitler's S.S. in Germany during the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, when Putin was intent on democratic reform fifteen years ago, he was also faced with strong opposition from the military, which effected his course of action.

In a democracy, along with granting such fundamental freedoms as speech, press, religion, and assembly, the government calls on the individual to act with self-restraint to protect the freedoms of each and all others. Civil liberties are protected by a constitution and other laws so that no single group or individual has the political power to curtail the rights of others.

In theory, democracy is realized when individuals function in and interact in society to influence the outcome of government policies for all, through a structure that is accessible to all. Russia's democracy has tempered its authoritarianism partly through Boris Yeltsin's vision of balancing and separating the powers of the president, judiciary, and legislature. However, many Russians today, when questioned, admit they feel powerless. In Russia, the right to speak out against the government is restricted because, in general, Putin loyalists are in control of the media and in control of the police.

The Russians have difficulty envisioning how freedom and equality can coexist with order. Under Soviet Communism the freedom and equality of each individual was not even discussed let alone practiced. The renowned scholar Erich Fromm wrote in his book, Man For Himself, that:

. . . in the authoritarian orientation, the power of will and creation are the privilege of those in control. Those subject to the leader are means to his end and, consequently, his property and used by him for his own purposes.3

Democracy becomes an option only when such supremacy is questioned. In the Soviet Union, citizens reacted to the fall of their economy prior to the union's dissolution. They ceased being objects of the Communist authority and became instead, subjects expressing their discontent.

It remains to be seen if Russians can realize the benefits that the freedoms of democracy can provide them with, in particular, the right to express a political opinion in opposition to the state leadership. With the advent of reforms in Russia starting in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the seeds for democratic thought and active dissent against authoritarianism and oppression began.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet economy declined, leaving room for political and economic change. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet president. Gorbachev oversaw the establishment of a new parliamentary system and a new presidency.

There was now an elected president with a fixed term of office, a line of succession . . . and a two-term limit. There were provisions for impeaching the ruler, for passing legislation against his will, and for overriding his veto.4

It is Gorbachev's legacy that he inspired the Russian people with terminology that planted the seeds for dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of fifteen new states. Importantly, Gorbachev discussed the "individual" as having merit in society.

In his book Perestroika Gorbachev stated a belief in lifting the individual spiritually, respecting the individual, and giving him or her moral strength. He felt that the individual must know and feel that his or her contribution to society is important and must be treated with respect and trust.

Under Gorbachev's presidency, the Soviet Union was still trying to maintain its existence. Yet, Gorbachev paved the way for the dramatic changes to follow. Importantly, the election of March 1989 was the first time power shifted away from the Communist Party. Future elections made it all but impossible for the Communists to reinstate their authority. This was the beginning of a chance for the people to have a voice in the input and output of governmental decision-making.

Boris Yeltsin, in the liberating atmosphere of the late 1980s, made his way to the top of the government power structure. In 1991 there was an attempted coup with chaos in the top of government circles. Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union. Russia became a nation on its own with Yeltsin as its president. For the first time the Russian people were able to assert themselves. Under new leadership they began an attempt at democracy.

In December 1993, the Federal Assembly, a 628-member parliament was established. It consisted of two chambers: the 450-member State Duma (lower house) and the 178-member Federation Council (upper house). The Federation Council exercises less power than the State Duma. In the election of 1996 voter turnout was high. Russian citizens felt enough effectiveness to vote and express their political choices. International observers declared the election to be free and democratic. As free subjects, the Russians were trying to assert their own self-determination.

To its credit, during its 2001 session, the Duma passed reforms which included a Criminal Procedure Code. The reforms were a step forward in fostering human rights and brought Russia closer to the freedom and democracy of the West. Unfortunately, at present Russia is trying to divorce itself from Western democracy. Its democracy is flawed because there is no long-term governmental vision that would bring the people through a reform process.5 As subjects, most people are finding self-assertion difficult and find it easy to some extent to revert back to being objects of manipulation by those in power -- Putin and his loyal followers.

Because the Russian constitution restricts a person holding the office of president to two terms, there will be a major election in Russia in 2008. Putin loyalists are competing for the position. Dmitri Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister, although not declaring his candidacy, is nevertheless a front-runner to succeed Putin. Among others there is also Sergei Ivanov, who became Russia's first civilian to lead the country's military in 2001 and is now serving as first deputy prime minister, the same rank and title as Medvedev.

However, there is also a minority speaking out, because the groundwork for dissent in favor of democracy exists. Some Russians have the strength of will to dissent in the name of freedom and democracy. A rally of several thousand people was held on March 3, 2007, in the heart of St. Petersburg's tourist district. It was held in advance of local elections scheduled for March 11th. Speaking out on behalf of democracy, a prime leader of the rally, Mikhail A. Kasyanov, told the large group:

I congratulate you for overcoming your fear. We will have victory when we get our Russia back. We have 364 days before the election in 2008.6

Kasyanov was an organizer of another protest in Moscow in April 2007 that resulted in numerous arrests by the police. The people as individuals exerted stood for democracy despite suppression.

A poll conducted by Michael McFaul in Russia measured the electorate's opinion of democracy. The results showed that over 60 percent of those surveyed support the ideal of democracy while 85 percent believed in the importance of freedom of expression.7

Between 1998 and 2003 a sample of Russians was surveyed by Ellen Carnaghan of Saint Louis University. Even though they didn't fully grasp what democracy is, a strong majority of those interviewed said they favor democracy. When asked if government officials should serve the interests of the majority, or if individuals should enjoy personal freedoms, or if elections should give citizens the opportunity to choose among competing candidates, they replied "yes."8

Russia may never mirror the United States or Western Europe in political and governmental form. In the West, liberal values have a long history. There is little precedence for democratic individualism in Russia. Yet, there is dissent in favor of democracy. It has not yet died. Whether it will take hold or be destroyed remains to be seen. The election of 2008 is around the corner both in the United States and in Russia. *

"[A] wise and frugal government . . . shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." --Thomas Jefferson


1. Steven R. Weisman, "Russia Is Needed, But It's Not There," New York Times, sec. 4 (April 9, 2006): 1+.

2. Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 155.

3. Erich Fromm, Man for Himself (New York: Fawcett Premier, 1975), 153.

4. Hedrick Smith, The New Russians (New York: Random House, 1990), 485.

5. Zoltan Barany, "The Politics of Russia's Elusive Defense Reform," Political Science Quarterly 121, no. 4 (Winter 2006-07): 629.

6. Andrew E. Kramer, "Police and Protestors Clash in St. Petersburg," New York Times, sec. 1 (March 4, 2007): 4.

7. Michael McFaul, "Russian Democracy: Is There a Future?" (Event Transcript) Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Publication (January 18, 2001): 1-20, Available from

8. Ellen Carnaghan, "Do Russians Dislike Democracy?" Political Science and Politics XL, no. 1 (January 2007): 61.

We would like to thank the following people for their generous support of this journal (from 6/9/07 to 9/14/07): Ariel, Nancy M. Bannick, Nephi Barlow, Douglas W. Barr, John G. Barrett, Harry S. Barrows, Bud & Carol Belz, Charles Benscheidt, James L. Blilie, Priscilla L. Buckley, D. J. Cahill, Terry Cahill, Dino Casali, W. Edward Chyoweth, John Alden Clark, William D. Collingwood, Gary E. Culver, Peter R. DeMarco, Fransic P. Destefano, Jeanne L. Dipaola, Neil Eckles, Nicholas Falco, Joseph C. Firey, Reuben M. Freitas, James R. Gaines, John B. Gardner, Robert W. Garhwait, Jane F. Gelderman, Joseph H. Grant, Hollis J. Griffin, Joyce Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Weston N. Hammel, John H. Hearding, Thomas E. Heatley, Bernhard Heersink, Norman G. P. Helgeson, Jaren E. Hiller, H. Ray Hodges, John A. Howard, Donald C. Ingram, D. Paul Jennings, Robert Keldsen, Bruse G. Kelley, Gloria Knoblauch, Reuben A. Larso, James A. Lee, Herbert London, Francis P. Markoe, Curtis Dean Mason, Paul Maxwell, Stanley C. McDonald, Woodbridge C. Metcalf, King Odell, Valentime Polkowski, Steven B. Roorda, Michael J. Ryan, Matthew J. Sawyer, Mr. & Mrs. Richard P. Schonland, Irene L. Schultz, Harry Richard Schumache, Paul Sopko, Richard J. Stasiak, Carl G. Stevenson, Clifford W. Stone, Kenneth R. Thelen, Julian Tonning, Eugene & Diane Watson, Gaylord T. Willett, Piers Woodriff.

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