Thursday, May 13, 2021

Democracy Failed in Russia Because Everyone Focused on Economy Rather than on Political Institutions, Lev Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 11 – Russia failed to develop as a democracy after 1991 because both its own leaders and the West focused on economic reform rather than on the development of political institutions and, when the standard of living fell, Russians retreated into authoritarianism that promised to protect them from further declines, Lev Gudkov says.

            That is just one of the key observations the director of the Levada Center makes in the course of a wide-ranging interview with Olga Khvastunova of the Institute of Modern Russia (

                Among his other significant arguments are the following:

·         The USSR disintegrated because of a combination of three factors – the decline of the planned economy, the rise of national movements in the republics, and the demise of communist ideology and the legitimacy for the leadership it provided. The system could have survived any one of these but not their combination.

·         The most important group which supported perestroika was the mid-level bureaucracy which hadn’t had a chance for promotion because of stagnation. But after Gorbachev eliminated many of the oldest people, those who rose in their place quickly decided they would not be able to rise again any time soon. That cost the regime support.

·         The Putin regime has an ideology, one based on state paternalism and the legitimation of the regime via the past. That appeal, which glorifies militarism and empire legitimates the regime and delegitimizes everyone who opposes it.

·         “The political culture of Russia is extraordinarily inert” and is a continuation of imperial and serf culture as well as the Stalin period. It thus failed to offer the basis for transition that other countries which recalled earlier statehood, had institutions like the church which maintained its image of independence, and even had “remnants of civil society.”

·         Russia talk about the past is “not nostalgia.” Rather it is a way of criticizing the current regime. Most Russians see no other possibility of doing so.

·         In contrast to Europe, “Russian society to a significant degree was created by the state for its purposes, including technological modernization of the army and fleet, bureaucratic administration and so on. Thus, on the whole, the idea of autonomy of society from the state is lacking in Russian political culture” and support for aggressive expansiveness is very much a part of it.

·         A sense of greatness works as “a compensatory mechanism” in times when conditions in fact are anything but good.

·         Russians in 1991 knew they wanted change but felt there were only two options: the Chinese which they did not want or the West which they idealized to the point that it could not have been realized even if everything had been in line to support it. The inevitable disappointment left Russians without a sense of where to go.

·         Russia has a very unusual labor market: Peak earnings now come to people aged 32 to 35 rather than those of pre-pension age. That reflects the shift to the service economy but means that both cohorts have a very different view of society than is the case in the West.

·         The disintegration of the USSR was not a revolution but a disintegration, and it is continuing “via the erosion of great power views.” The younger generation recognizes the former union republics aren’t coming back, and many realize that separatist movements exist in the North Caucasus and even in the Middle Volga. There may even be regional separatism in the Far East.

·         With Putin or without him, Russia will undergo major changes no later than a decade from now because the country is running out of resources and the raw materials export model no longer works. “A struggle for power between various forces has already begun;” its outcome is far from clear.

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