Staunton, December 30 – The year ahead marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the USSR, developments that many at the time hoped would allow Russia to emerge as a free and democratic state. Those hopes have been quashed by developments over the three intervening decades.
Many of those hopes were inspired by the belief that the problems Russia had to overcome were those of the Soviet system and that, having ceased to be communists, Russians could easily become democrats. One who even then saw that was not the case was Igor Klyamkin, the current president of the Liberal Mission Foundation.
In 1987, four years before the end of the Soviet Union, he published his seminal article, “What Street Leads to the Church?” (liberal.ru/sovet_fonda/kakaya-ulica-vedet-k-hramu) in which he argued that Russia’s problem was not limited to Stalinism or Sovietism but very much part of the Russian historian tradition.
Now, in an interview he has given to Daniil Kotsyubinsky of Novaya gazeta, Klyamkin explains why instead of leading to the church” of Western democracy, Russia has moved along a street that ends with Vladimir Putin (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/12/30/88576-pochemu-rossiyskaya-ulitsa-vmesto-hrama-privela-k-putinu).
Klyamkin recalls that his suggestion that there is a strong authoritarian tradition was read at the time as a defense of Stalinism because his argument implied that the Soviet dictator was only following that tradition rather than being responsible for its hyperbolic forms. But inevitability and responsibility are different issues, he says.
When he wrote his article, the commentator/activist says, he was certain that “neither the liberalization of the communist system nor its gradual dosing of democracy could open the prospects for the transformation of the command and planned economy into a market one.” And indeed that did not happen except by zig zags that have restored much of what went before.
Klyamkin says that Mikhail Gorbachev found himself caught in the contradiction between his proclivity for using authoritarian means and the non-authoritarian system he believed he needed to create. As a result, he too moved in zig zag fashion, now tilting one way not another but not breaking entirely with the past.
According to the Liberal Mission Foundation, “the decisive contribution to the process of the renewal” of authoritarianism was made not be Gorbachev or even by Vladimir Putin. Instead, it was made by Boris Yeltsin, who recognized that Russia could be authoritarian only in more restricted borders and if it used democratic forms to promote authoritarian ends.
That is what he did between 1991 and 1993, Klyamkin says. Yeltsin moved selectively but he put in place the model that Putin has followed, extending authoritarianism from one sector to another. The current Kremlin leader was able to do that because of his role in touching off the second post-Soviet Chechen war, something that gave him legitimacy in the eyes of many as the head of a new imperial state.
Putin has put in place “a new form” of classical Russian autocracy, “one different from its tsarist and soviet” predecessors. It is eclectic in its combination of autocracy with liberal democratic attributes, uses constitutions and laws for anti-constitutional and anti-legal ends, and thus puts in place “a falsified version of a legal state.”
That does not end the Russian authoritarian tradition. Instead, it has allowed it to survive into a new century. But the forms themselves, however much their content has been gutted by the Kremlin leader, provide the basis for some hope that Russians will begin to invest them with the meaning they should have but that Putin rejects.
If that occurs, then Russian history can change, not easily or with certainty or without the opposition of those who would lose power if it does; and if those changes happen, then a new road will open, one that could lead not to another despot but to liberal democracy as a system and not just the power of liberals who then betray what many say they stand for.