I went to a talk at Foyle’s in London on Tuesday given by the former BBC journalist and academic Martin Sixsmith to introduce his new book and radio series on Russian history. I found it a depressing experience. The thesis was that in Russia “autocracy” (never defined) is always the default mode and that Russia has supposedly flunked repeated opportunities (or “choices”) in its history to take a democratic path.
In my opinion this judgement though pretty conventional is fundamentally and radically wrong. I think it expresses a western view of Russia that has very little connection with the actual country. I think it is based on a misunderstanding of Russian history and of the course and nature of Russian political, economic and social development.
This is a large subject and not one I can hope to deal with in a single post. There is one point however that I do want to make because I think it is important.
Throughout his talk on Tuesday and in the various questions and answers that came from the floor it was clear to me that Sixsmith and his audience share one basic assumption, which is that the people in Russia they refer to as “democrats” actually are such. In fact these people are not “democrats” but liberals. It is a fundamental mistake to conflate Russia’s liberals with democrats. By liberals I mean Russian politicians and their supporters who favour a pro western foreign policy, a free market economy and private enterprise without all of which they appear to believe (or claim to believe) that human rights and political freedoms are meaningless.
Whilst in Russia today liberals always refer to themselves as “democrats” and are invariably referred to in that way by their western sympathisers and supporters, their actual practice whether in Russia today or over the course of modern Russian history has been anything but democratic. The reason for this is because they have never at any time accounted for more than a very small fraction of the Russian population, which has instead and consistently since the first introduction of elections in Russia in 1906 overwhelmingly supported political groups and parties that have completely different agendas and views. In no election that has ever taken place in Russia have liberals or liberal parties ever won anything that remotely comes close to a majority. The best showing the liberals have managed was in the very controversial parliamentary elections that took place in December 1993, when the result was heavily manipulated in their favour but in which they still only managed to win around 25% of the vote. In every election that has taken place since 1993 the aggregate liberal vote has fallen and now stands at a derisory 1-2%. The same was also true of the elections that took place in Russia between 1906 and 1918, when the various liberal or liberal oriented parties only won small minorities in such genuinely free and democratic elections as took place. This fact is obscured for this period because from 1907 to 1917 elections to the Russian parliament were conducted under a very restricted franchise that favoured the liberal and monarchist parties disproportionately.
If by “democratic” we therefore mean standing for the will of the majority as this is expressed in democratic and free elections fought on the basis of universal adult suffrage then the liberals in Russia have never remotely been in a position to claim such a title for themselves.
The liberals have attempted to compensate for this lack of popular support through two different devices. Firstly they have leaned very heavily on the support of the west. This has been true at all times in recent Russian history. It was as true of the Tsarist period as it was true of the Soviet period and as it is true today. This support whatever its material and psychological advantages has however come at a heavy price. It has meant that Russian liberals far too often address themselves more to western audiences rather than to their own people, which inevitably makes for a distance and a lack of mutual understanding between the liberals and their own people. In an interview for an American news magazine Putin made precisely this point when he drew attention to the fact that one of the present liberal leaders, the former world chess champion Gari Kasparov, had in a political speech he had made in Russia chosen to speak in English rather than Russian. Inevitably reliance on the west has also exposed the liberals to the charge, often justified, that they are unpatriotic and are either agents of the west or, if not actual agents of the west, that they are still people who love other countries above their own.
The second device is to try to gain power through the backdoor. In 1917 the Provisional Government (touted by Sixmith as a “democratic” government) did not come to power because it was voted into office by the Russian people or because it was elected or appointed by anyone with the power or authority to appoint or elect it. It emphatically did not represent the people who formed the revolutionary crowds who had demonstrated against the Tsar and whose actions had brought the monarchy down. The Provisional Government was instead formed and consisted of a group of liberal politicians who had previously been members of the Russian parliament (the Duma), who when the Tsar abdicated simply proclaimed themselves the government of Russia. It is important to say that though these individuals were as I have said former members of the Russian parliament, the Russian parliament did not elect or appoint them to their office. This was because before the Provisional Government was formed and in accordance with the wishes of the politicians who formed it, the Russian parliament had been suspended by the Tsar’s government shortly before the Tsar abdicated so that when the Provisional Government was formed the parliament did not exist. For a very few weeks the liberal politicians who made up the Provisional Government were able to bluff Russia and the world into accepting them as the government of Russia largely because they enjoyed the support of the senior leadership of the army and of the western powers. Very quickly however their bluff was called and upon their right to govern the country being challenged their authority quickly unravelled so that when the October Revolution took place their government immediately collapsed.
In passing I must correct a common error also made by Sixsmith in his lecture on Tuesday that on being formed the Provisional Government ordered elections for a Constituent Assembly elected on a democratic basis to decide the future of Russia. On the contrary the Provisional Government consistently refused to call such elections because it knew that because of the Provisional Government’s lack of support in the country if a democratically elected Constituent Assembly had ever met its very first act would have been to vote the Provisional Government out of power.
In fact so far from governing or trying to govern the country democratically in the way that Sixmith imagines the Provisional Government or at least Alexander Kerensky its head was (as was conclusively established by the White Russian historian George Katkov in the 1970s) heavily involved in an abortive attempt in August 1917 to establish a military dictatorship through a military coup (see George Katkov’s book on The Kornilov Affair).
Nor did the liberals come to power in Russia democratically in 1991. In the parliamentary elections that took place in the USSR and in Russia in 1989 and 1990 the liberals only won a fraction of the votes and only held a very small number of the seats in the parliaments that were elected as a result of the elections that took place in those years. The liberals did not come to power in 1991 because they were elected to power. Nor did the Communist Party lose power because it was voted out of power democratically. Rather the liberals came to power because following the political crisis that caused the USSR to collapse the Russian President Boris Yeltsin (who was himself no liberal) turned to them in the deluded belief that they were the best people to get the economy back on its feet.
Nor once they came into power in 1991 did the liberals exercise their power in any sort of manner that could be described as “democratic”. On the contrary once in power the liberals pursued an extreme policy that was not only profoundly unpopular in the country but which was also economically and socially catastrophic. When this policy provoked opposition the response of the liberals was anything but democratic. Instead of relinquishing power democratically or seeking to compromise with their opponents the liberals opted instead for the illegal and violent dissolution of the Russian parliament in 1993, the systematic rigging of a whole succession of elections (including the March and December referendums of 1993, the parliamentary election of 1993 and the Presidential election of 1996) as well as the almost complete suppression of all contrary voices in the newspapers, on radio and on television. Though the liberals today complain bitterly of the extent to which the Russian media is biased against them they in fact have far more access to the Russian media (including control of several newspapers and the Ekho Moskvy radio station) than in the 1990s they allowed their opponents. During the 1996 Presidential election campaign not only did the liberal controlled news media monolithically support Boris Yeltsin, but Yeltsin’s challenger the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, was denied access to television save for a single 15 minute broadcast.
To refer to such people as “democrats” is ridiculous and obscures the larger truth that the 1990s were for Russia politically speaking a massive step backwards. The democratic breakthrough did not take place in Russia with “the fall of Communism” and the defeat of the August coup attempt in 1991 but with the democratic elections to the Soviet Parliament that took place in March 1989. These elections (as well as regional elections including those for Russia’s own parliament that took place in 1990 and the All Union referendum and Russian Presidential election that took place in the first half of 1991) were the cleanest and most transparent elections to have taken place in Russia to date. As I have said the liberals came nowhere close to winning any one of these elections save that they did support Yeltsin in his successful run for the Russian Presidency in the Russian Presidential elections of 1991. In all other respects and calculated on the basis of the number of votes cast the winners of these elections, all of which took place whilst the USSR was still in existence, were the Communist Party and its supporters, which of course was led at this time by the country’s reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The disastrous course Yeltsin, the liberals and their western backers imposed on the country in the 1990s, with its pattern of vote rigging, media manipulation, unconstitutional behaviour and political violence, threw all this progress into reverse and transformed a promising political process into a corrupted and repressive one.
Since Yeltsin’s fall in 1999 the country has slowly got back onto its feet, the economy has been stabilised and the election process has been cleaned up. This has in turn allowed some elements of the original reformist agenda of the 1980s (such as prison and judicial reform) to be revived. Valuable time has however been lost and the human losses have been enormous. The present conduct of Russia’s liberals shows that they have however failed to learn any lessons from the debacle of the 1990s and that they still come to politics with the same overwhelming sense of entitlement that caused the catastrophes Russia experienced on the two occasions when they have held power in 1917 and in the 1990s. It is of no benefit to Russia or to the liberals for westerners to pander to this sense of entitlement by making heroes out of people who are not and by calling them “democrats” when they are anything but.