Why Did Russia Not Move Towards Democracy
Russian intelligence interfered with the United States 2016 presidential elections. Allegedly, hackers and trolls armed themselves with fake news and fake accounts that swung public perception and votes toward President Donald Trump, who won the election in a dramatic upset. This alleged breach of democratic institutions to influence an election in an effort to fulfill the interests of the Russian regime under Vladimir Putin marks yet another point in Russia’s long struggle with Democracy.
Russia stands out among the European and global powers because of the country’s historical unwillingness to develop democratic institutions. Despite having proximity to major democratic powers, major ports and some of the postulates used for the formation of democratic institutions, Russia today ranks 135th in corruption globally and scores a 20 out of 100 on the freedom scale according to freedom house (Transparency International, 2017, Freedom House, 2018). What happened? Russia has not developed into a democratic society for several reasons. First, there is a long history of government subjugation of individuals that has become embedded into Russian culture. Second, the religious ideology in Russia fostered a sense of superiority over the West and created an anti-western mindset and hostility towards western ideals such as democracy. And finally, the economic system that has existed in Russia for most of their history prevented capitalist economic development and its cultural repercussions prevented individual empowerment and a sense of individual freedom, core ideological elements of a democracy.
Before discussing Russia, it is important to understand the postulates that scholars typically attribute to the development of democracy in the West. First, the development of the Protestant religion had a significant effect on democracy (Bruce, 2007, page 4). Western countries, like England, adopted Protestantism during the protestant reformation. The Protestant ideal that everyone is equal in the eye of God is a core democratic principle (Bruce, 2007, page 7). It justifies the right for everyone to vote as well as being equal under the law. The protestant idea that you can achieve salvation by working hard and that you don’t have to follow in the family footsteps is a core belief of another postulate of democracy: capitalism (Bruce, 2007, page 13, 15). Capitalism and the freedoms that come with it changed what the people expected from their government, as well as the demand for greater freedoms (Bruce, 2007, page 7). Though not a postulate, Western democracies have often had democratic revolutions, some bloodier than others (Bruce, 2007, page 13). These revolutions overthrew the established aristocracy and implemented democratic institutions. Using this as a foundation, it becomes increasingly clear why Russia failed to establish democratic institutions.
Russia’s failure to develop into a democratic nation can partially be explained by the influence of Russia’s Eastern orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church was established in 1589 after the Eastern Orthodox diverged from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, an event that would later be called the Great Schism (BBC, 2008; Makrides, 2009, page 212). This early division in faith meant that Christianity developed very differently in Orthodox Russia than did the Catholic West (Makrides, 2009, page 212). While the Orthodox church kept its tight grip on the East, the Catholic Church was questioned, leading to the Protestant Reformation. On a spiritual level, the followers of the Russia Orthodox Church thought of themselves as superior and an accurate representation of the Christian faith (Makrides, 2009, page 214). The Orthodoxy, unsurprisingly, deemed Protestants and Catholics as heretics and could find no middle ground with their spiritual counterparts and rejected anti-western sentiments which would endure throughout Russian history (Makrides, 2009 pages 213-214, 218). If the Russian Orthodox people looked at themselves as superior to the West, then it comes as no surprise that they did not adopt their institutions. If the Western mindset was heretical and bad, this explains why the people didn’t support this sort of mindset. It’s clear then that the Russian Orthodox faith steered the people and the nation away from democratic institutions on the basis of religious disagreement. The same anti-western mindset prevented the development of Protestantism in Russia which has long been attributed as a catalyst for the development of democracy and capitalism. The fundamental beliefs and the mindset of protestants that everyone is equal under God and that salvation is attained through good works that are crucial for developing a democratic mindset never came into fruition in Russia. Without these fundamental principles for democracy in Russia, there was no ideological justification and motivation for developing democratic institutions in Russia, so democratic institutions never came. It is important to point out that the power of the Russian orthodox church was greatly reduced by Peter the Great and the subsequent Tsars (Kallistos, 1997, excerpt). While it can be argued that the decline in the power of the Church proves that the Church had little influence on the lack of a democracy, these arguments are short-sighted. The anti-western sentiments and the perceived superiority that the Russian Orthodox Church installed in society continued even after peter the Great reduced organizational power.
Serfdom and its repercussions also prevented Russia from becoming a democratic society. Prior to the Soviet era, Russian was stuck under the feudal system of serfdom. In 1547, Russia became a unified nation under the leadership of Ivan the Terrible (O’Neil, 2018, page 342). After uniting the country, Ivan became the first tsar, a term derived from Caesar and implemented the feudal society which would last in Russia for more than three hundred years until its demise in 1861 (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja, page 1075). This feudal system was remarkably hierarchical, placing the Tsar at the top, followed by the land owners and finally the serfs (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja, page 1075). This hierarchy established by the feudal system stayed alive for much longer in Russia than it did in the Western world. For instance, serfdom in England was obsolete in 1500 (Brodie, 2015). This is significant because while the Western nations were exploring and experimenting with democracy and capitalism, Russia was stuck in a feudal hierarchy that was incompatible with democracy.
The length of time that it took to rid Russia of serfdom also had a cultural impact. This became obvious when serfdom was eliminated in 1861 when the serfs were given land and some basic freedoms. This emancipation resulted in a seventeen percent improvement in agricultural production, improved nutrition as well as a significant increase in GDP (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja, 2015 pages 1093-1103, 1113). That said, these improvements were marked by terrible mismanagement of land reform (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja. 2015, page 1113). The increased productivity that resulted from this was countered by a dependence on their former landlords and the inefficiency of that land reform (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja, 2015, page 1077). This discouraged people from allocating resources effectively and investing in their land (Markevic? and Z?uravskaja, 2015, page 1113). These contradicts the fundamental ideas of capitalism as proposed by Adam Smith, encouraging people to invest in their land and their industries to improve the economy. As a result, people were discouraged from pursuing capitalistic ventures and accepting capitalism into Russian society. Capitalism has long been thought to be a postulate for developing democratic institutions, and without capitalism coming to fruition in Russia, democracy never fully developed.
The failure of the Duma and the resulting Russian Revolution in 1917 also marked major roadblocks towards establishing democratic institutions. After failing to defeat the Japanese in a conflict regarding land in China, Russia staged a minor revolution resulting in the formation of the Duma, which acted as a legislative body (O’Neil et. al, 2018 page 344). While certainly a step towards a democracy, the Duma was marred by instability until its eventual collapse during World War One (O’Neil et. al, 2018 page 345). The failure of the Duma as a democratic institution was so bad, that it discouraged Russia from trying to establish other democratic institutions. Instead, the chaos that followed the fall of the Duma and during the early stages of World War One Lead to the steady rise of the Bolsheviks (D’Agostino, 2011, pages 37-48). Taking advantage of the weakness of the central state and anti-war sentiments, Vladimir Lenin allied with Leon Trotsky staged a coup over the provisional government and seized power over the country (D’Agostino, 2011, page 47-48). Instead of democratic values, Lenin established an anti-democratic authoritarian rule in the form of communism in the new Soviet Union (O’Neil, 2018, page 345-346). The Soviet communist values were antithetical to those of democracy. In fact, communism in Russia reverted to many of the same policies and systems that existed in Russia for most of its history like the restriction of movement and anti-western sentiments. Russia opted against a democratic society in favor of the staple hierarchical, controlling regime. This is significant because the revolution has eliminated the progress that Russia had made since the elimination of serfdom towards becoming a democratic society. Additionally, the revolution was motivated by anti-capitalist sentiments, with Lenin denouncing capitalism in many of his writings (D’Agostino, 2011, page 46). This meant that not only did the revolution reject democratic institutions, but also rejected capitalistic ideals. This combination can explain why Russia did not become a democracy during the communist period of its history.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of Vladimir Putin further illustrate why Russia has not developed into a democracy. The Soviet Union was a deeply flawed system that resembled a more extreme version of the hierarchical society that existed prior to the Russian Revolution. An institution that, starting under Joseph Stalin, was built on fear and intense government subjugation of people left much of the population living in distress and impoverished (O’Neil 346-347). The stubbornness of soviet leaders after Stalin to desperate need for reform caused slow economic growth and corruption in the government (O’Neil, 2018, pages 347-348). When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he put in policies that encouraged political openness and economic restructuring. These seemingly liberal ideas increased individual freedoms and were steps toward a democracy. These changes backfired, challenging state power and the Soviet Union collapsed (O’Neil, 2018, page 349). From the ashes of the Soviet Union rose two factions: the conservative communists and liberals lead by Yeltsin who pushed towards a democracy (O’Neil, 2018, page 349). After a failed coup attempt, Gorbachev lost his power and Yeltsin became the leader of the new Russian republic (O’Neil, 2018 page 349). Under Yeltsin, Russia endured a period of a few years with a feebly functioning democratic institution, with Yeltsin and parliament getting along and passing his reforms (O’Neil, 2018 page 349). Soon after, the parliament and Yeltsin grew apart causing the parliament to call for the impeachment Yeltsin (O’Neil, 2018 page 350). In response, Yeltsin scrapped the constitution, wrote a new one, and dissolved the parliament despite intense opposition (O’Neil, 2018 page 350). In 1999, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as the new president who swiftly eliminated any chance at becoming a democracy (O’Neil, 2018 page 349). The society that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union simply could not be considered democratic. The president has essentially total control with the legislative body and judicial system having almost no power (O’Neil, 2018 page2 351-356). The institutions that Yeltsin developed after the fall of communism have proven to be like the hierarchical society that has existed in Russia for all its history. With the power of the President, and the continued political suppression, there is little appetite for becoming a true democracy. Despite this, capitalism has taken a slight hold in Russia. However, the power of capitalism alone is not strong enough to oust the current regime and replace it with true democratic institutions.
Russia is not a democracy. Without any checks and balances and an overpowering executive, Russia resembles an authoritarian regime. In studying Russia, it is hardly surprising. The Eastern Orthodox Christianity that has dominated Russia for most of the country’s history not only distanced themselves from the Western world but rejected Western ideas as heretical. These developments have forever distanced Russia from the trends that happened in the West, including the development of capitalism and democratic ideals. Russian institutions and society maintained its distinct hierarchy and subjugation of the masses in every form. Serfdom maintained its influence far longer than in other European nations, who were experimenting with democracy during some of this time. This hierarchy was further cemented when the Duma failed, and the Russian Revolution resulted in the communist Soviet Union. The resulting society had little appetite for establishing democratic institutions and the people had little power to do so. What’s in the future for Russia? If their history is of any indication, the authoritarian regime under Putin and whoever his successors will be will most likely remain in place for a long time. There seems to be no indication that Russia is trending towards democratic institutions, despite its movement towards capitalism. This means that the Russian quest for democracy will have to wait.
Brodie, Nicholas D. “The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England: From Bondage to Freedom by Mark Bailey.” Parergon, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, pp. 259–261., doi:10.1353/pgn.2015.0122. Bruce, Steve. “Did Protestantism Create Democracy?” Twenty Years of Studying Democratization (2007): 132-49. Print. D’Agostino, Anthony. The Russian Revolution, 1917-1945. Praeger, 2011. e.V., Transparency International. “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017.” Www.transparency.org, Transparency International, 2017, www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017. “Freedom in the World 2018.” Freedom House, 8 May 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018. Kallistos, Bishop. The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, 1997. Makrides, Vasilios N. “Orthodox Anti-Westernism Today: A Hindrance to European Integration?” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, vol. 9, no. 3, 9 Sept. 2009, pp. 209–224., doi:10.1080/14742250903186935. Markevic? A. M., and Z?uravskaja E?katerina V. Economic Effects of the Abolition of Serfdom: Evidence from the Russian Empire. Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015. O’Neil, Patrick H., et al. Cases in Comparative Politics. Sixth ed., W.W. Norton Et Company, 2018. “Religions – Christianity: Eastern Orthodox Church.” BBC, BBC, 11 June 2008, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/easternorthodox_1.shtml.
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