Staunton, August 17 – Many people assume that the high levels of support that Russians express for the Putin regime now shows them to be by nature authoritarian. Others, citing poll data only a few years old, say that Russians are naturally democratic but are too oppressed by the security services or bamboozled by government propaganda to express that view now.
But there is a third possibility, one that is more probable and ultimately more worrisome: Russians have such a long history of not having an impact on government decisions that they view politics as something alien to them and thus do not have the firm commitment to either democracy or authoritarianism despite what all too many assume.
Instead, like the figure in W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” who was for one thing when the government decided to go in that direction and in another when the government changes course, Russians shift from one position to another as the government changes, often indifferent to what the changes are.
On the one hand, that means that there is not the reservoir of support for democracy that many among Russian opposition figures and Western analysts and policy makers assume. But on the other, it means that there is not the commitment to authoritarianism that some in the Kremlin would like either.
That makes Russian politics more susceptible to radical and even unexpected shifts, and it means that those who want to promote democracy have a far harder task than they assume because while it is relatively easy for authoritarian governments to suppress the population, it is far harder for democratic ones to involve the people in ways that will make them committed.
At the very least, this perspective should serve as a warning to all those who are all too ready to accept declarations that a former Russian authoritarian is now a Russian democrat as well as to all those who assume that someone with an authoritarian past cannot become a democrat.
Those reflections are among those provoked by a new commentary Pavel Pryannikov offers on his Tolkovatel blog today showing that “five years ago a majority of Russians called themselves democrats and liberals,” something relatively few of them would do today (ttolk.ru/?p=24565).
The Tolkovatel blogger suggests on the basis of an analysis of polling data from five years ago that the extent of the change in declared positions from 2010 to 2015 means that “it will be easy to overcome the current trend of society toward obscurantism arising under the influence of television propaganda.”
But the very “ease” he points to suggests something else Pryannikov doesn’t mention: it may be just as easy to transform that set of views back into authoritarianism once again unless there is an effort to involve people in government rather than simply getting them to change the labels they are prepared to give sociologists.
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