Rethinking Russia

Such is the paranoid tendency of our hyperbolic Western media that one could be forgiven for thinking Russia is reverting to its Communist past. But if we ignore the hysteria of the press (in whose interest it is, after all, to have crises instead of stability) and actually dig beneath the surface, we might actually find a Russia quite different from that which the pundits posit.
Firstly, the hypocrisy with which Russia has been dealt with by the West is astounding. Our Western establishments (both the media and government) continually condemn Russia for failing to be what it is not: namely, a Western liberal democracy. Russia is a country that has had almost no tradition of democratic governance until the 1990s, and yet the West somehow expects that Russia (and other states) can simply become a liberal democracy overnight, with the passing of a law and the adoption of the correct attitudes.
This is particularly galling when one looks at our own record in the development of liberal democratic forms. The United States inherited centuries of a governmental tradition from our British ancestors, and both Britain and America have developed further — but slowly — over the past two centuries. This is indeed a great inheritance of ours, but it is one in which Russia, for whatever reasons, does not share. To simply pretend that Russia’s lack in this department is completely irrelevant flies in the face of reason and common sense. We are what we are because of what we have been, and so it is with Russia.
Our hypocrisy in condemning the Russian elections is deepened when one considers that the boilerplate allegations against these elections — ballot-stuffing, intimidation, bribery — not only occurred in the United States but were actually quite widespread up to as late as the 1960s and 1970s. Jack Kennedy, the martyred liberal poster child, won the White House on the involuntary votes of thousands of deceased Texans and Chicagoans. (G. K. Chesterton wrote that tradition is “the democracy of the dead,” but surely the Democratic bosses took him too literally). My uncle has fond memories of the “good old days” when the Democratic machine would pick you up on election day, take you to vote in a number of city wards, and then send you off to the bar in the evening for drinks on the party machine’s tab. And while it is not nearly as widespread as it once was, electoral fraud persists in those counties of the United States where the old machines still hold sway.
Russia is not following the Anglo-American model of a two-party system, but the two-party system of democracy is not the only one around. Fianna Fail in Ireland and the Justicialist Party in Argentina are single-party coalitions in which the battles between left and right take place within one party rather than between a number of parties. United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev, is a coalition along these lines and includes socialists, nationalists, liberals, free-marketeers, and others.
Another irritating fact to the “Russia is becoming less democratic” school of thought is that Putin has so much public support. Democracy is supposed to be the rule of the demos, the people, yet no polltaker has ever produced any result showing Putin to be anything other than wildly popular.
Examining the reasons behind this popularity is worthwhile.
Vladimir Putin took over as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1999, becoming president on the first day of 2000. During the 1990s, the country had undergone the “shock therapy” of privatization, under which state-owned companies and assets had been sold off at massive discounts to Yeltsin’s inner circle, who in turn became multi-millionaires while the rest of Russia was mired in poverty and unemployment.
Under Putin’s guidance, Russia’s gross domestic product has nearly tripled. The power of the oligarchs has been tamed. Russia has become a major supplier of energy, selling oil, gas, and electric power not only to former Soviet republics like Belarus and Ukraine but also to Germany, Italy, and others. Putin revamped Russia’s tax code and introduced a flat tax of 13 percent on income, a rate far below the European average, and lower than the rate in many U.S. states. It sounds like an enviable record.
The West, of course, has not always backed democracy in Russia. In 1993, President Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament in an undisputedly unconstitutional act, laying siege to the parliament building and eventually sending in the army to regain control. Western governments unanimously backed Yeltsin’s auto-coup, with complete disregard for the rule of law. Would it be too cynical to suggest that the sudden concern for Russia’s democracy has something to do with the emergence of a Russia not ruled by an embarrassing drunk but instead by a competent (if heavy-handed) leader who has returned his country to the status of a powerful country and U.S. rival? I, for one, think we (and the world) are better off for the competition.
That said, there are areas of genuine concern. Russia’s low birthrate will likely prove a great source of instability, and an aid in the Islamification of certain parts of the country. Widespread alcoholism is nothing new, but nonetheless presents a grave threat to the health of Russians. Russia also has the highest rate of HIV infection of any of the G8 countries.
Worryingly, independent critics of Putin and Medvedev have met with intimidation and even violence. These dissident voices pose little real threat to the current government, and the murky campaign against them speaks of a political immaturity on the part of Putin and his cohorts. But again, we can find American precedents. Abraham Lincoln had newspaper editors who disagreed with him arrested, and some scholars posit he also had a warrant drawn up against the (Catholic, incidentally) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for ruling that, as the Constitution says, the President has no power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.
Putin, however, is no Lincoln. A more telling American analogy would be Andrew Jackson: A fierce populist Democrat, Jackson’s two terms were synonymous with the invention of the “spoils system” rewarding Jackson supporters. Despite this, Jackson managed to overturn the unaccountable Second Bank of the United States, which had been taking over the economy under its avaricious president, Nicholas Biddle. Similarly, Putin managed to rein in the famously unruly Russian oligarchs while at the same time allowing them to legitimize their current holdings, provided they now stay within the rule of law. If America had 160 years to evolve from “Jacksonian democracy” to “liberal democracy,” surely Russia deserves more than the 17 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union to do the same.
So as our currency heads for collapse, as our economy faces a potential recession, and as enemies of Christ even worse than the current Republican leadership lick their lips in anticipation of controlling the Senate, the Representatives, and the White House come 2009, it might be best, with regard to Russia, to remember those other words of Chesterton: “The madness of tomorrow comes not from Moscow, but Manhattan.”


  • Andrew Cusack

    Andrew Cusack is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, with an M.A. (Hons) in Modern History. His writing has appeared in the Weekly Standard, among others. He is formerly the associate editor of the New Criterion.

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