The Russian democratic tradition goes back at least as far as December 1825 when a group of young Russian aristocrats, who became known as “the Decembrists,” unsuccessfully tried to end Russian autocracy. This democratic tradition was, in the 19th century and early 20th century, continued by the Westernizers (and, partly, even by the Slavophiles), social revolutionaries, social democrats (Mensheviki), as well as constitutional democrats of the declining Tsarist regime. During Soviet rule, the Men of the Sixties (“shestidesiatniki”) within the Soviet intellectual elite, the anti-Soviet human rights activists of the 1960s-1970s, and so-called “informals” of the glasnost-induced Soviet civic movement of the late 1980s helped to prepare Russia’s democratization that started, around 1990, as a result of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Most of the older activists of the current protest movement were either themselves members or have been inspired by the ideas, spirit and activities of this earlier generation of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet democrats. Symbolically, the 24 December 2011 demonstration (see picture) took place on a Moscow street named after Andrei Sakharov – Soviet Russia’s most prominent human rights activist who, shortly before his death, played some role in bringing down the communist system in 1989.
While the historical rootedness of the current protests may look encouraging, the actual history of the Russian democratic movement, however, is not. Whether in 1825, 1905-1918 or 1987-1999 – all of Russia’s democratization attempts have ultimately failed miserably. The current re-democratization drive may become victim to factors similar to those which subverted, for instance, Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s introduction of political pluralism: disunity among the liberals, anti-Western paranoia, and imperial nationalism.
First, today, as in the early 1990s, Russia’s democratic movement may turn out to have too many rather than too few charismatic leaders. A possible strategy of the ancient regime during upcoming elections may be to register several pro-liberal candidates who would split the liberal vote among themselves. This would, as in previous post-Soviet Russian elections, ensure that the most serious alternative to the Putin and his “United Russia” party may again become the communists, e.g. as in previous presidential elections, CPRF chairman Gennady Zyuganov. One could, for instance, imagine a situation, in which Putin will have to stand in a second round facing Zyuganov who may have gotten fewer votes in the first round than the sum of the votes for liberal or semi-liberal candidates taken together. Whether this will happen or not, one fears that – as in 1917 or the 1990s – Russia’s democratic movement will again become victim to its disunity, and the personal ambitions of its leaders.
Second, paranoia with regard to the West may again undermine Russian democratization. NATO’s expansion to the East as well as bombing of Serbia were factors that weakened the pro-Western Russian liberals who, in considerable numbers, turned themselves against the West in the late 1990s. What was overseen at this time was that the major driving force for NATO expansion was less American eagerness to include into NATO, for instance, the Baltic states than these countries’ pressure on the West to become parts of the Atlantic alliance. In August 2008, Russia demonstrated in Georgia vividly what exactly the Baltic countries had been afraid of, and why they had been so insistent to become parts of the Western defence community. Without NATO enlargement, we might have gotten by today not only a pseudo-state called Republic of South Ossetia, but perhaps also “The Free City of Narva.”
Russian hysteria about NATO’s bombardment of Serbia was in 1999 already strange as the air raids were, to significant degree, carried out by German, French and Italian war planes, i.e. done by countries with which Russia was trying to build special relationships, at the same time. The whole episode looks bizarre today: Serbia has now for months been knocking loudly at the doors of the European Union demanding entry, Serbia’s President Boris Tadic and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso can be seen here on the right. Although several member countries of the Union had been bombing Serbian military targets some 12 years ago.
Anti-Westernism, in particular anti-Americanism, is still a major current in the Russian collective psyche, in particular in intellectual discourse. It was a major source of legitimacy for pre-revolutionary Tsarism (in spite of Russia then being an ally of France and Britain), Soviet communism, and neo-Soviet Putinism. Post-Soviet fear of a possible Western subversion of Russian identity and sovereignty will most probably be used by both, the official nationalists in the ancient regime, and extra-parliamentary ultra-nationalist groups to attack the liberal movement and question its patriotism. We may soon observe that anti-Westernism becomes the basis for a rapprochement between Russia’s authoritarian state and “uncivil society,” meaning the multitude of semi-political Russian groupings that are impregnated with, or propagate openly, racist, xenophobic, fundamentalist, occultist, differentialist, ethnocentric, or/and similar ideas.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Russia’s imperial temptation could become a major challenge to the new Russian democratization. Will the December 2011 protesters of the White Revolution fully accept the independence and sovereignty of the former Soviet republics, above all of Ukraine and Belarus?
The historical namesakes of Russia’s today would-be revolutionaries, the Decembrists of 1825 as well as the Whites of 1918-1922 were unable to discard the imperial paradigm. The historical Whites, for instance, remained mostly staunchly imperial nationalists. They insisted, during their Civil War against the Bolsheviks, that Russia should be “united and undivided.” By that, the Whites meant that the national minorities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia would not gain independence, but continue to belong to the Russian empire. A popular saying in Ukraine since then has been that “Russian democracy ends where Ukraine’s independence begins.” Will Russia’s new revolutionaries resist the imperial temptation, focus on their own country, and let the other post-Soviet nations go? Will democratic leadership manage to prevent ultra-nationalists form hijacking the current protest movement, and from leading the upheaval ad absurdum?
Russia’s old elites before and after the October Revolution, the CPSU apparatchiks of the Soviet stagnation period of the 1970s-1980s, and Putin’s team during the last years failed, in their own ways. Yet, the declines of Russia’s authoritarian regimes were also fundamentally similar. These descents all happened against the background of Russia’s rulers’ excessive attention to the outside world rather than to problems at home. The Russian White revolutionaries of the early 21st century would be well-advised not to step in the same trap as the Whites of the early 20th century. They should concentrate themselves on, and they should turn Russia’s attention to, her own problems. Russia will become a law-ruled democracy once it stops seeing herself as a civilizational centre engaged in a geopolitical struggle beyond her borders. Once the Russians discard the mirages of “The Third Rome” and imperial greatness, they will finally become free.
Andreas Umland, National University of Kyiv, Mohyla Academy.
This is an excerpt from:
“The Sources and Risks of Russia’s White Revolution: Why Putin failed and the Russian democrats may too,” in: Geopolitika, 3 January 2012,