Western-style democracy, however, doesn’t appear to be on the list. A new poll by Moscow’s internationally acknowledged Levada Center (registered as a foreign agent over links to overseas funding) has found that more Russians say they aren’t “a democrat,” or “a person with democratic beliefs,” than those who claim they are. Almost half (47%) of the more than 1,600 people surveyed across the country disagreed with the statement, with those holding democratic convictions at around 44%.
The ‘non-democratic’ group, it seems, is growing. When the same question was asked in 2018, 41% backed the notion and only 38% rejected it. Non-believers, it seems, are on the rise – and are now in the relative majority.
There’s also something of an age gap. Those aged 18-24 were the most likely to identify as democrats (50%); those between 40-54 were the least (41%). Intriguingly, people over 55 displayed more democratic inclinations (44%) than the middle-aged. The oldest and the youngest held democratic ideals, while few in between did.
Some observers, perhaps especially in the West, will probably be tempted to jump to conclusions, along the lines of: “There you have it! Most Russians are not democrats” or, perhaps, even that “they’re positively against democracy!” And from there, the usual misleading pseudo-explanations will flow. “It’s built into their genetic code from Ivan the Terrible to today – they’re brainwashed and can’t imagine life without autocracy.” And so on, as long as you can stand it.
There are, of course, better observations to be made.
One fascinating result concerns Russian attitudes toward the political left. Asked if they saw themselves as “adherents of left, socialist views,” a large majority, 72%, said no. Only 18% said they did. Moreover, on this question, the young were even more ill-disposed toward the left than the old.
Post-Soviet Russia is a capitalist country with a significant degree of inequality in wealth and income. Its Gini Index, for instance, a measure of income inequality, shows Russia positioned between Germany (which has less inequality) and the US (which has more inequality), according to the most recent data available from the World Bank. Of course, it is hard to properly understand how Russia’s wealth is really distributed, given the number of salaries and transactions paid under the table, as in almost all former Soviet nations.
You might, however, expect a stronger interest in left-wing politics aiming at more equality, perhaps, especially in a country where the forging of capitalism is within living memory as a story not only of opportunity and entrepreneurship but also of massive insider dealing, inequity, and exploitation.
Clearly, one reason why an explicit adoption of socialist values is so rare, for now, has to do with the long Soviet experience of authoritarianism and inefficiency. In practice, it has left the word socialism with a bad reputation of stultifying and intolerant state ideology, unaccountable and obstinate rulers, and scarce and shoddy goods.
Last but not least, in the Soviet case, the system’s highly authoritarian variant of socialism was a result of a revolution; a revolution, moreover, that occurred inside a bloody world war and was followed by a civil war, that – for Russia – was even bloodier. Against these experiences, “socialism” is associated with violent upheaval and that, in turn, with devastation.
We should be careful, however, this may also be one of those cases, where the answer to a poll question depends strongly not on its actual content, but its packaging, the phrasing. How would the respondents have answered if they had been asked about issues of equality and solidarity, but in terms avoiding the trigger words “left” and “socialist”?
Moreover, if you think that a dislike of “socialism” necessarily translates into enthusiasm for the market, Russia will complicate your idea of the world. In the same country that has little time for the left, only 32% of respondents saw themselves as “adherents of market economy transformations,” while a solid majority of 58% did not.
If we look at the whole – fairly short – poll and not only at the question about democracy, we see a society that does not like market economy reforms very much, seems cool about democracy, and cannot stand “socialism.”
Yet, as with “socialism,” we should ask what Russians actually associate with the terms “democracy”? There are two good answers to this question, one complex, the other simple.
The complex answer has to do with the fact that in Russia, as in the rest of the world, the term “democracy” is multifaceted. It takes no “relativism” to note that democracy can take different shapes. It can be, for instance, heavily constrained by elements of oligarchy, such as in the US. Critical observers could plausibly argue that Washington is, actually, run by an oligarchy ever more weakly constrained by democracy. It can be centralized with a strong executive, such as in France, or decentralized with an executive of less power and visibility, such as in Switzerland. Democracy can come with relatively strong redistribution of income and wealth, or not. It can be more “social” or more “market,” or make a special point of trying to reconcile these two tendencies, such as postwar West Germany.
Moreover, democracy is an ideal at least as much as a reality: Arguably, despite herdlike assertions to the contrary, humanity has, unfortunately, not yet produced a genuine democracy. The idea has been around, but not the fact. Every single polity that has called itself democratic up until now has been so in a substantially flawed manner at best, be it because of degrees of social inequality that are not reconcilable with true political equality – and you don’t need Marx to understand this simple fact, Aristotle will do – or the interference of exclusivist ideologies, such as racism or nationalism.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the real-existing differences in failing or succeeding (relatively speaking) at democracy matter, a lot: It makes sense to classify some states as democratic (by the standards of our age and as by comparison with other states), while other states won’t qualify. As of now, two of the minimum conditions that being labeled a democracy requires are that incumbent rulers can effectively be removed from office by an equal and fair system of voting. And that all adults under de facto long-term rule can participate in such elections, at the very least passively, that is by voting, if not also actively, that is by standing for office.
These conditions mean that Israel is no democracy as long as it exerts de facto long-term rule over a large disenfranchised population of Palestinians. The US was, at best, an extremely incomplete democracy before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at long last addressed the systematic disenfranchisement of black Americans. Despite the existence of political parties and some competition, Russia as well cannot make a convincing case for being labeled a democracy now, given its elections do not credibly expose the incumbent rulers to the risk of loss of office.
Let’s be clear about one thing, however: Not being a democracy is not something that should ever be abused to target a country for outside intervention, because viable, lasting democracy cannot be imposed from outside (except under extremely rare and unusual conditions that are anything but typical). And because once “democracy promotion” is treated as a justification for interference and intervention, the real aim of such activities always ends up being something else, namely geopolitical power advantage. In that process of pretext and misguided “assistance,” democracy is demeaned and its reputation damaged. Western maitre penseurs who lend their names to such ideological cover-ups are naive or detestable.
Against this backdrop of complexity and politicization, we have some evidence on how Russians understand the word “democracy.” Thus, important survey research published 10 years ago by Henry Hale, an American political scientist, revealed three important findings. First, “many of the studies claiming to find evidence of mass authoritarian sentiment in Russia are based at least in part on misinterpreting terms that are assumed to have the same meaning in Russia as elsewhere (such as ‘democracy’ or ‘strong hand’).” Second, the putative Russian mass preference for autocracy (the “tsar” of widespread cliches) is a misleading myth. Third, instead, many Russians show a preference for what political science calls “delegative democracy,” or, in the words of the study worth quoting in full: “a strong leader who is largely unconstrained by other institutions in solving Russia’s immense challenges of transition, but Russians are also quite clear that they simultaneously want and expect to choose that leader through free, fair and competitive elections and to have the right to remove that leader in the same way should things go wrong. Russians are thus strikingly principled in rejecting outright autocracy…”
Hale is no starry-eyed optimist. He has recently reiterated his sense of disappointment with Russia’s politics. But he has also restated his argument that Russian politics are not shaped by deep cultural predispositions toward autocracy.
The second, straightforward answer to the question of what Russians think of when you say “democracy” has to do with recent experience, still well within living memory: Whereas “socialism” can’t shake off bad memories produced in the Soviet period, between 1917 and 1991, “democracy” suffers from being associated with the 1990s.
Perhaps there are still some obdurate Western observers who won’t let go of the illusion that Russians experienced “democracy” in that decade of relentless post-Soviet aftershocks and disruption. But that’s not even a half-truth, it’s merely an ideological self-deception. In reality, this was a time not only of insecurity, impoverishment, and humiliation, but also of a political system that can be described as oligarcho-mafiotic, not democratic in any meaningful sense of the term. It was also a moment of massive and, in essence, open Western interference in Russia’s domestic politics, another feature that clashes with any self-respecting definition of democracy.
Yet the tragedy is that this sad, corrupt, low decade was sold under the label of “democracy.” If you had been challenged to find the most efficient way of disabusing Russians of democracy, you could not have found a more devastating approach than applying the term to the 1990s. And that is why it is actually astonishing how many Russians are not giving up on the idea. While the greedy oligarchs, the ruthless “reformers,” the cynical leaders of the 1990s, and their Western sponsors and advisers did their worst to give democracy as bad a reputation as “socialism” in Russia, Russians are far less skeptical of democracy than of “socialism.” There’s hope in that.
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