Russia’s “Experiment” with Democracy

Robert Service, Professor of Russian History at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, has a distinguished record as an analyst of modern Russia. His new book, Russia: Experiment with a People (Harvard University Press, 2003), will further enhance this reputation. There are several unique features of Service’s book that make it a valuable resource. The first is his knowledge of many different facets of Russian life, not only politics and economics, but also popular culture, societal trends, and religious beliefs. His comprehensive view and his ability to interpret key trends in contemporary Russia are impressive. He also knows Russian history and is able to show how the legacy of the past creates many obstacles for reform in the present. Finally, Service makes the point that while there are “undeniable horrors” evident in contemporary events in Russia, there are also positive developments that are often overlooked – even by Russians themselves.

Contemporary Images of Russia

From Service’s perspective, Russia’s image – both at home and abroad – is distorted. From the 18th and 19th centuries through the Cold War, Russia has been portrayed as a land of “exotic horror,” with repeated stories of official corruption, crude military violence, and passive masses who blindly followed their cruel leaders. Russian writers, who were enemies of the tsars, together with foreign visitors, who did not really understand the country, have left indelible negative images in the minds of many outsiders.

Service seeks to change these images by highlighting some more flattering and deserving facts: that Russia, as a part of the USSR, provided the backbone for their superpower status; that Russia had a massive industrial base and produced some of the finest science and literature in the 20th century; that Russia bore the brunt of the Nazi military rampages in World War Two and made victory possible for the Allis by defeating the Germans on the Eastern Front; that Russia gave us Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many other champions of human freedom, as well as world-class poets, aircraft designers, soccer goalkeepers and dancers. In addition, millions of “ordinary” Russians managed to survive the horrors of the First World War, the Civil War, the famine of 1932-22, the Great Terror, the Second World War, post-World War Two depression, and the economic collapse of the 1980s. Of course, Russia is languishing, writes Service, “but no one ought to be surprised if and when, sometime in the future, it starts to fulfill its enormous potential” (p. 3).

Russia’s “Experiment”

The rebuilding of Russia, following the collapse of Communism, was a broad and ambitious project undertaken by Yeltsin and his advisors, and they succeeded in formulating a set of goals and objectives that were partially achieved. These goals included creating a liberal democracy, a market economy, ideological pluralism, local self-government, a legal order, ethnic tolerance, individual freedom and civic nationhood. In addition, the rulers in the Kremlin set up a new institutional framework. When you consider the scope of these changes, this was really nation-building, although no Russian ruler used this terminology. A new Russia was being fashioned – another “experiment” was underway for the Russian people, who had once been victims of a 1917 experiment in “scientific materialism” that cost them dearly. Once again, Russians were experiencing the sheer novelty of a national makeover.

In Service’s judgment, Russia embarked on these reforms with several distinct assets. The country is rich in natural resources, a solid administrative network, a large literate workforce, and a people who are “a fairly peaceful lot” and are not especially xenophobic. While the reform process has not met the expectations of many Russians and Westerners, there have been considerable successes, including the ability of Russians to think and say what they would like for the first time since 1917! They can now savor cultural pluralism, enjoy intellectual and religious freedom, buy foreign goods, travel abroad, and set up private voluntary organizations in their communities.

There are “spring torrents of reform from below” at work in Russian life, according to Service, and these torrents “could have been turned into a flood if only the reformers in the Kremlin had so desired. . . . the cardinal point of this book is that much optimism existed among the Russian people in the early 1990s. The ruling reformers spurned the opportunity to release and foster popular initiative for the country’s transformation. . . . Fundamental improvement in Russia cannot come exclusively from on high. It must also proceed from the depths. Even now it is not too late for the attempt to be made” (pp. 9-10).

Russia’s Future

In the final chapter, entitled “Future Uncertain,” Service notes that most of the bolder promises of 1991-92 have been dashed. The small group of reformers had to rely too heavily on Yeltsin, and he proved not to be as committed to reform as it had appeared at first. But the reformers also ran into obstacles that were not of their own making: they could not govern without the administrative cadres from the collapsed Soviet state; they inherited a ruined economy; they were dealing with Russians who were suspicious of any rulers and were not enthusiastic about more radical changes; and, finally, there were no alternative institutions of civil society left to buttress the case for reform because of the damage of seventy years of Communism.

It is Service’s judgment that the transition to democracy will not happen in Russia until the leadership of the nation mobilizes the people and encourages grass-roots reform, a conclusion that I heartily affirm. In my own work in the Russian Federation, I have been amazed by the courage and initiative of many private citizens who are seeking to build a better future for themselves and their neighbors, but their efforts are often blocked by the ruling elites. Until the Russian people are freed from this top-down control, the reform process will continue to limp along and, as Service noted, “Time is not on Russia’s side.”