One Russian blogger has dubbed his country’s current developments “Russia’s Great December Evolution,” a quip on the Great October Revolution of 1917, and many mass media have eagerly reported the signs of a Russian Winter, following the Arab Spring. Interestingly, almost all Russia watchers who for years have categorized the new Russia as an increasingly authoritarian state where democratic reforms have ceased or failed altogether, are warming up to the possibility of a more democratic Russia.
However, some very significant developments that have been mostly overlooked by both researchers and journalists are aspects of social transformation in the past twenty years combined with long existing germs of democracy. These phenomena have convinced me that democratic ideas and practices exist in Russia. Hence, I was happy to see that during one of the recent demonstrations a participant carried around a sign that read, “We exist.”
Yes, of course it is important to note that Russia’s current political system can be described as a façade democracy or managed democracy, whose leaders are neither interacting with the citizens nor showing any interest in letting them participate in a meaningful way. Nor have these leaders been capable to respond appropriately to social change. This Potemkin political system ignores but has not killed the citizens’ democratic values. Developments such as changes in work ethic, entrepreneurialism, increased foreign travel, and the rising use of new (social) media all need to be taken into account when analyzing the political values of Russians in their daily lives, and ultimately, understanding the country’s political reality.
Part of that political reality is the understanding that Russia’s aspirations for democracy go far back, thinking mainly of the alternative political culture that Russian emigrants and Soviet dissidents helped flourish, even though it was not manifested publicly. Soviet citizens had learned to cope with many of the practical difficulties and hardships of daily life through an effective system of social informal networks. Over time, Soviet citizens had created varied responses to resist the control of state officials. An official sphere existed, in which the party ideology of the Communist Party defined the values – political, social, economic, philosophical – of the institutional order. Simultaneously, in everyday life, an alternative, informal culture existed, which gave citizens opportunities to cope with the ills of the powerful bureaucracy, the shortages of consumer goods, and the privileges of members of the Communist Party. This alternative culture brought forth the system that is known in Russian as blat. This kind of old-boy-network offered people a back (or underground) channel to exchange goods and information informally. The existence of “kitchen circles” is another example of resistance to the overwhelming control of Soviet officials. During these social gatherings, people would come together, sit around the table, drink, eat and talk. While the topic of the discussions could vary between subjects such as anecdotes, poetry, philosophy or music, the critique of Soviet bureaucracy and politics always formed an all-embracing component. Also, reading and writing between the lines, and underground publishing – or samizdat – were elements of resistance among citizens in the informal sphere.
These rituals both upheld the institutional order, and enabled the development of a space in which new definitions, or alternative definitions could be formed. Next to the official networking existed an unofficial network for the exchange of information and goods.
The real question then becomes, “To what extent can society’s democratic values become institutionalized into the political system?” There were high hopes in 1990s. The regular demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people who came together to voice their opinions on the squares of Russian cities, and in countless other places in the former Soviet Union speak of successful mobilization of the people. But also before the current massive protests in Moscow and some 60 other Russian cities, there have been signs of democratic practices. Both on site and online, citizens have been involved in political and social issues, and have booked some results. The protests ranged from environmental causes to a particular driver who was wrongfully accused and imprisoned.
In De Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, he explored historical and geographical conditions, public morals, and the ruling institutions of the country and strongly emphasized the culture – the habits, mores and practices – of the American people. Based on the results of the revolutions in America and France, De Tocqueville did not believe in path-dependency. Among many scholars of the Soviet Union and Russia, the idea persists that it will be problematic for Russians to embark on a democratic form of life because Russia lacks the experience of democracy and the cultivation of civil society throughout its long history. Following this thinking, Russia is forever stuck in, as the scholar Tismăneanu has described it “a culture of statist authoritarianism, bureaucratic obedience, Oblomov-style fatalism, subservience to hierarchy, a crippled civil society, xenophobia and military adventurism.” Following De Tocqueville’s lead, both by rejecting this idea and by taking a more detailed look at Russian history, one can discern trends in Russia’s past that have an important significance for the study of current public morals.
I have focused my research on the political values of Russians as they discuss them in mostly online media outlets. These activities disprove stereotypical findings of Russians’ unstoppable proneness to strong central authority and Russia’s lack of democratic potential. The current political upheaval show us how these manifestations of democratic culture co-exist with non-democratic sentiments and institutions and even suggest that they may prevail.