Nation-Building: A Comparison, Part III

For the introduction to this series of essays, see the opening paragraphs of the April 2003 “Reflections on Russia.”

Part III: Democracy’s Viability over a Vast Continent

America’s Democratic Experiment with “the Wild West”

In his First Inaugural Address, President George Washington spoke of the “Republican model of government” in its American form as an “experiment.” For the President and other Founding Fathers, there was some doubt that the United States would work as a democratic republic. These men knew history, and they could not find any precedents of democratic republics that had survived, particularly republics that controlled large geographical areas.

Alexander Hamilton referred to the Greek example as “disgusting,” and all the Founders were vividly aware of how the Roman Republic had become an oppressive empire. At the end of the 18th century, there were only a few republics in Europe and the Americas and none of them were large. The United Netherlands had collapsed in 1787, France had a revolution in 1789, and Haiti followed suit in 1791. For all these leaders, there were serious questions about whether democracy would work – especially for a newly formed nation with a vast, and yet unconquered, “wild West.”

By the time President Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office in 1801, the nation had a population of 5.3 million people and nearly one out of five was a Negro slave. Although the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico – roughly one thousand miles by one thousand miles – only a relatively small area was occupied. Two-thirds of the American population lived within fifty miles of the tidewater.

The potential of the new American republic was enormous, especially if the nation could add the vast tracts of wilderness beyond the Mississippi River, a wilderness now known to stretch 3,000 miles from coast to coast. Yet, in 1801, it was not known if the country could hold on to the existing territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, much less the as-yet-unexplored lands further west.

In the first two decades of America’s existence, the democratic structure of the new nation was indeed tenuous. This new nation was birthed by an act of rebellion and secession and now the challenge was to extend it across a vast continent without losing large sections to regional independence movements. It seemed unlikely at that time that one nation could govern an entire continent, especially when nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse in 1801. The best highway in the country ran from Boston to New York, and it took a light stagecoach three full days to make the 175-mile journey. In this context, the Founding Fathers debated whether or not a continent-wide democratic republic was viable.

Russia’s Democratic Experiment with “the Wild East”

The collapse of Communism and the formation of the Russian Federation raised many of the same issues that the leaders of the newly formed American Republic faced during its formative period. Was it possible to build a democracy across a territory that comprises one-seventh of the world’s entire land surface? Would democracy work in a nation that covers 11 time zones and occupies 6.5 million square miles – slightly less than 1.8 times the size of the United States?

Like America during its early decades, the population of Russia is not spread out across its vast spaces but is concentrated west of the Urals Mountains. America’s “wild West” was not unlike Russia’s “wild East”: wild and vast, largely unpopulated, and rich in natural resources. In both cases, the critical question was whether or not this wilderness region could be made a part of the nation, with its capital and population centers long-distance and with relatively limited means of access.

In the Russian context, some analysts seriously wondered if the Russian Federation, even without the fifteen republics that declared their independence when the Union of Soviet Social Republics dissolved, would survive as a unit. Economic realities suggested that the eastern regions of Siberia might go their own way as they developed extensive trading ties with Asian nations immediately to their south.

The other issue was the legacy of Russian history and the nation’s centuries-long experience of control of its land by military power. Numerous Russian rulers over the centuries can be quoted insisting that the only way to control a vast empire like Russia’s is through strong centralized power. Centuries of authoritarian control by Mongols rulers, Russian tsars and Soviet dictators set a precedent that the new rulers of the Russian Federation had to grapple with in the early 1990s.

A Critical Decision: Risking A “Democratic Experiment”

Like the Founding Fathers in the newly formed American Republic, Russia’s leaders will have to decide whether or not to “experiment” with the viability of creating a democracy in a country that covers an enormous territory. It was not an easy decision for America’s leaders and the risk was great at that point in the country’s history. The one advantage Russia has that America did not have two hundred years ago is this: now there is at least one model of a large nation that has a democratic form of governance. When the American Founders made their decision, there were none. Even with this precedent, figuring out how to make democracy work across eleven time zones is still an enormous challenge, but one that Americans can certainly appreciate in light of their own history.