My view of Russia as essentially a conservative and slowly changing society is confirmed in a new book, BETWEEN DICTATORSHIP AND DEMOCRACY: Russian Post-Communist Political Reform, which addresses the question of where Russia is headed: toward democracy and openness or reverting back to its autocratic traditions.
Russia has made a lot of progress toward democracy since the Soviet era, but far less than what was projected in the optimism of the early 1990s. The authors suggest Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is moving back in an autocratic direction, according to a review by Richard Pipes, in today's New York Times.
Civil society remains under-developed; non-governmental organizations are weak; Russian political parties are weak. Members of the media have evolved since the early 1990s from "spokespeople for democratic change under perestroika to tools in internal power struggles among the political and business elite in the latter part of the 1990's. Currently the media have for the most part reverted to one of the roles they played under the Soviet Communist regime: the government's propaganda apparatus."
Legal institutions value order over freedom, hierarchy over democracy. Russians "have a high degree of tolerance for blatantly undemocratic phenomena, such as administrative lawlessness" and "unpunished violations of human rights," assert the chapter authors, Vladimir Petukhov and Andrei Ryabov.
The initial appeal of a Western-style governmental system was the economic prosperity it would bring to Russia. "When democracy promptly failed to bring prosperity, disenchantment set in, and today no more than 10 percent of the people continue to favor democracy," Pipes writes.
The authors might be more optimistic about Russia's future if they focused more on the de-concentration of wealth in the hands of the state and into the hands of the people of Russia, Pipes suggests. Is that truly occurring? Or is the wealth of Russia transferring primarily to a relatively few capitalists or "entrepreneurs"?
The Russian perspective on democracy and capitalism can be explained by Russian history, Pipes says. "If Russians mistrust democracy and the independent press, or if they set higher value on order than on freedom, the reason lies in experiences dating back to czarist days," Pipes observes. "Bewildered by a world in which they have been unable so far to find a secure place for themselves and perplexed by the uncertainties of freedom, Russians are instinctively withdrawing into the familiar universe of autocratic rule. Since experience has taught them they can have no influence on affairs of government no matter what the regime, they are willing to let their rulers do as they please so long as they allow them to pursue their private interests. They are profoundly apolitical because they can see little that government can do for them or they for the government."
Pipes quotes a specialist on Russian law, Stephen Holmes: "Those at the top neither exploit nor oppress those at the bottom. They don't even govern them; they simply ignore them." And that's the way the Russian people like it -- to be left alone. Because through bitter experience, they have learned that not to be left alone by government may actually be much worse.
Ironically, Russians in ways have a far more skeptical view of government than Americans, who join advocacy and lobbying groups and associations in droves, to get a larger piece of the economic pie from a far more responsive and less bureaucratic American goverment.