John-Paul Himka

The past does not determine the future, but it certainly has a substantial influence on it. In this text, I want to consider how Russia’s previous experiences with democratic transition have helped create the condition of that state now – an authoritarian state that stifles basic civic rights at home and wages a vicious imperialist war abroad.

              The Russian Empire, founded in the eighteenth century, was an autocracy that censored all publications, waged war on its closest neighbors, enforced peasant serfdom until the 1860s, and maintained an extensive punitive system of exile to Siberia.

              Imperial Russia was also, as Lenin noted in 1914, a prison of nations. The Ukrainian language was completely banned from Russia’s modest educational system and for the most part banned in print. Jews were confined to limited geographic areas (the Pale of Settlement) and subjected to other forms of discrimination. And Poles, living on lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, much of which had been incorporated into Russia, were twice provoked to insurrections that were brutally suppressed. As the poet Taras Shevchenko put it: in Russia “in every language everything is silent.”

              With the first whiffs of democratic thinking, imported through the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, some Russians began to consider overthrowing the system. These were the Decembrists, who launched an abortive revolt in 1825. But in the following decades, dissatisfaction with the tsarist regime grew in size and intensity. By 1900, Russia was an extremely polarized society. On the one side stood the tsar and his ministers, the aristocrats and landowners, the Russian Orthodox church, and the organs of repression – the police, the secret police (Okhrana), and the military. Ranged on the other side were revolutionaries, socialists, liberals, suppressed minorities like the Ukrainians and Jews, workers, and peasants.

              Defeat in the Russo-Japanese war created conditions for the first Russian revolution of 1905. The revolution brought representative government, elections, the relaxation of censorship, and an expansion of the right of association. Also among the achievements of the revolution of 1905 was the publication of the first Ukrainian-language newspapers in the empire.

              Unfortunately, the empire struck back and whittled away the democratic achievements – the Russian parliament (Duma) was enfeebled, the right to vote was restricted, and the authorities hunted down revolutionaries to provide them with “Stolypin neckties” (nooses). By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, little was left of the democratic breakthrough of 1905.

              This retrogression only exacerbated the polarization of Russian society and made the frustrated opposition to tsarism angrier and more radical. When war broke out again in 1914, this time a world war, it exposed the military, political, and economic backwardness of the Russian state. And Russian society once again revolted. In February 1917 hungry women in the capital, St. Petersburg, initiated a chain of events that led to the abdication of the tsar and the establishment of a more democratic Russia. Still, Russia remained in the throes of war, and its democracy was not capable of realization; moreover, this democracy took over certain imperial ideas (such as the refusal to grant autonomy to Ukraine) and continued to send peasants into a senseless, imperialist, and suicidal war.

              Then in October 1917 one of the most radical socialist movements, the Bolsheviks, were able to seize control of the state apparatus and establish what was intended to be a revolutionary democracy. However, the Bolsheviks found that they had to engage in years of defensive war before consolidating their power in 1921. From the start, the Bolsheviks restricted civil rights, partly as a security measure, but also because they believed in a dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat they meant turned out to be their own Bolshevik leadership, the proletarian avantgarde. By 1928, any pretence of democracy, in the ordinary meaning of that word, was abandoned. Instead, a powerful dictatorship under Stalin came to dominate all of the former Russian empire. In this dictatorship, the privileged nationality was the Russian nationality, and many non-Russians were severely persecuted: Poles were singled out for execution and exile in the 1930s and early 1940s; Ukrainians were purged, murdered, and exiled in great numbers in the 1930s-1950s; Jews suffered from antisemitic policies throughout the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the 1950s-1970s.

              There was one more moment of democratic transition in Russia’s history: the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s and the more radical democratic postures of Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Now there were elections and referenda aplenty, and there were no restrictions on the expression of thought. Political prisoners were amnestied, and in 1991 the former national republics of the Soviet Union were able to separate from Russia.

              One of the most disappointing moments of world history is that Russia did not continue on this democratic trajectory. Instead, Putin, who came to power in 1999, decided to return to the autocratic and dictatorial practices of most of his predecessors. He inherited a huge army and prison system from Russia’s previous antidemocratic regimes.

              Can Russia break out of its historically formed political culture? I will discuss that question in a further installment.