Staunton, Sept. 16 – Those who want to understand the rise of authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia would do better to read William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, than listen to those analysts who argue that Vladimir Putin is personally and uniquely responsible for this development or that Russians will always turn to authoritarianism, Vladimir Gelman says.
In that novel, the professor at the European University in St. Petersburg says, the Nobel laureate “presents a classic model of the emergence of an authoritarian regime using as his example a group of teenagers stranded on a desert island as the result of a disaster” (ridl.io/ru/avtoritarnaja-rossija-traektorija-politicheskoj-jevoljucii/).
These teenagers first tried and failed to develop a democratic system, Gelman writes; they then tried to arrange a system based on the most powerful, an oligarchy, and then they fell victim to “the most brazen” of their number who expelled his rivals, reshuffled his supporters and established “a repressive tyranny which turned into a new disaster.”
His regime was brought to an end when outside powers arrived on the island. “In reality, however,” the political analyst says, “the disaster he had created could have lasted indefinitely.” And what is important to remember is that Golding’s characters “were not doomed to tyranny because of unfavorable circumstances: they were just ordinary teenagers.”
From this it follows, Gelman says, that “authoritarianism is the natural and logical outcome of successful and arrogant politicians seeking to maximize power if their aspirations are not curbed by effective constraints.” That is exactly what happened in Russia, and neither Putin nor Russian culture is to blame.
According to the scholar, “the main goal politicians in any country and not just in Russia pursue is to gain and hold as much power as possible for as long as politicians. Some succeed in doing so while others do not, the latter being held limited by mass protest movements, intra-elite conflicts, international influence, and their own ideas which sometimes lead to miscalculations.”
In post-Soviet Russia so far, all of these “obstacles” have proved to be weak, and so not surprisingly authoritarianism has been the outcome, maintained by the regime’s cooption of some and suppression of others. But Golding’s book and a comparative perspective suggest that this is not the end of the story, Gelman says.
Many authoritarian regimes, including Russia’s, are personalistic and thus “extremely vulnerable when it comes to succession,” he continues. And polls show that Russians would like to have more control over their own lives and are “quite capable of learning from their mistakes” of the last three decades.
Compared to 30 years ago, “Russia is much better prepared for a meaningful, purposeful and consistent construction of democracy now – even if the political environment of today is much less favorable than it was three decades ago.” Consequently, while it is not inevitable, it is also not impossible that “Russia will be free” at some point in the future.