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Russians to Democracy: Good Riddance?


“The party of power gained the result it needed by discrediting political institutions and the very party itself…the elections turned into a mockery of the people and showed a deep disrespect for their voices”.

This is how Mikhail Gorbachev, once a qualified supporter of Putin, summed up the results of the recent regional elections in Russia, in which the incumbent party just happened to have “won about 80 percent of all contested positions in some 7,000 districts around the country”.

Yet despite the state controlled media, it’s not like the population is ignorant of the blatant fraud: a recent survey found that only 3% of Russians believe the elections to have been free and fair.

And they certainly harbour no illusions, either: a respected Levada Centre poll found just 4% who believe that Russia is a democracy.

Yet while some opposition leaders, such as the Communists and the centre-right Yabloko party (which amazingly received 0 votes in a district in which their own candidate Mitrokhin had definitely cast one) were furious, most ordinary Russians might have actually cheered.


That’s right: although 95% of Russians polled by Levada believe that they have no control over their political destinies, a whopping ‘26% believed that democratic governing was not suitable for Russia’.

In fact, when asked whether they a) either completely believe or just tend to think that democracy is needed or b) completely believe or just tend to think that democracy is wrong for Russia, the proportion narrows to just 50:31.

Moreover, “the majority (60%) also said it would be better for Russia if the president controlled both the courts and the parliament…and nearly 25% said the Soviet Union had a better political system that the current Russian model (36%) or that in Western countries (15%)”.

The following Levada Centre graph illustrates the Russian approval of three political systems: the Soviet one, the current one, or Western style democracy (the fourth line, in green, is marked ‘other’).


Contrary to almost all Western political science thinking, the most popular system from 1996 to 2007 was the Soviet one (blue), consistently winning the approval of 40-45% of the very people who were supposed to have rejected it in 1991, and twice as popular as the Western style democracy (red) they were meant to have favoured.

But the most interesting journey is marked by the yellow line indicating “the current system”. Under Yeltsin’s supposed golden age of democracy and freedom, this yellow line never rose beyond 10%. But as soon as Putin came in, in 1999, it has shown a steady rise. In 2007, it finally beat the front runner, the Soviet system, and continues to grow.

Most importantly, for the first time since the fall of the USSR, an overwhelming plurality of Russian citizens prefer their current system to either an idealised Soviet past or an increasingly demonised ‘Western alternative’.

In fact, this picture of contentment seems to demolish the liberal idea of Russians cowering under an increasingly authoritarian regime, just waiting to be rescued back to democracy.

Other polls show that Russians aren’t particularly impressed with the government’s handling of the financial crisis; nor do they support Putin’s increasingly overblown vendetta against Khodorkovsky (59% think the trial is designed to line the pockets of those benefitting from Yukos’s collapse, and 75% oppose keeping him in prison for life).

So, is there just some sort of weird masochism at play in the Russian soul?

But if so, then why should Putin falsify elections that he could have expected to win anyway?

That is the central question. Why on earth did the Kremlin bother to delete Mitrokhin’s vote for a party, Yabloko, whose popularity had never risen above the low single digits even in free elections? What’s the point?

Similarly, much has been said about the ‘rehabilitation’ of Stalin. And yet, authorities have been cracking down on organisations and academics that have been researching the gulag and the deportation of Germans – measures that I can bet actually increase Stalin’s popularity in the eyes of his current fans, so why hush them up (especially in the internet age)?.

What is the Kremlin’s game? Seriously, I’m Russian, but I have no idea what is going on.

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Comments (3)

  1. Simon R Tuesday - 20 / 10 / 2009 Reply
    Perhaps people freelancing in order to gain the approval of the authorities? A similar theory was floated about the murders of journalists etc- some argue that Putin ordered it; others argued that that was Western propaganda; and yet others argued that the Kremlin was responsible for creating a consequence-free and opposition-despising atmosphere that allows these things to happen. I do not have enough evidence to evaluate all of these different events, but the third option is certainly a possible theory whose face validity is as convincing as the other two.
  2. Scowspi Wednesday - 21 / 10 / 2009 Reply
    A note about the "rehabilitation of Stalin" - you need to look at all sides to see a complete picture. In the last couple of years, "The Gulag Archipelago" has been made required reading in Russian schools; Stalin's grandson had his libel suit against Novaya Gazeta (they were accused of defaming his granddad) thrown out by a court; memorial complexes to Stalin's victims were opened at Mednoye and Butovo (Putin gave a speech at the latter); and in his recent speech in Poland, Putin said that Russia had been "crippled" by the totalitarian regime. This doesn't look like rehabilitation from where I sit.
  3. Vadim Nikitin
    Vadim Nikitin Thursday - 22 / 10 / 2009 Reply
    That's what baffles me even more, Scott! The fact that just about all that there is to know about Stalin has already been discussed, researched, written about, condemned and released IN RUSSIA even more than abroad, ad nauseum, since the 1960s. The genie has been let out of the bottle, and there is probably not a single person living in Russia today unaware of the Gulag or the great terror or the Ukrainian famine. So, with all this in mind, it becomes all the more bizarre how they try to ban and intimidate Stalin scholarship with one hand whilst at the same time putting Solzhenitsin on the curriculum with the other! It appears a bit schizophrenic. Perhaps, as Simon has suggested, it is the result of conflicting pressures from disparate groups inside the government, as well as 'freelancers' keen to curry favour with power. I agree that the term 'rehabilitation' is perhaps too strong, but I also think that, with all that we know about the acts of 70 years ago, the very act of publicly debating whether Stalin 'was all that bad' is itself a troubling sign, even if the eventual outcome is a 'yes, he was'.

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Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs


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