Photo Credit: NVO
It is abundantly clear by now that the optimistic expectations nurtured by the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been realized. There were high hopes at the time, not only about post-communist Russia becoming a democratic society, but more generally about political democracy sweeping the whole world. We were about to enter what the prominent historian Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history” — that is, “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Similarly groundless expectations arose more recently in response to the so-called and short-lived “Arab Spring,” seen at the time as the harbinger of the transformation of Arab world autocracies into popular democracies.
Nothing of the sort happened, neither in the Arab world nor in post-communist Russia. Although conditions in present day Russia are not as depriving as they used to be in the Soviet era, the continuity between Putin’s Russia and the former Soviet system has been unmistakable. Political opposition and dissent have been largely silenced, and critics of the regime — including numerous journalists — have been jailed, murdered, or exiled. The government dominates the mass media, especially television. Censorship and self-censorship restrict public expression. The incipient social, cultural, and political trends of pluralism that emerged under Yeltsin have been stifled by his successor.
Putin’s foreign policy is aggressively nationalistic, anti-Western, and anti-American. Soviet-era grievances rooted in the distant Russian past have been revived. Putin has shown little hesitation to use force in the pursuit of an expansionist agenda. He expanded Russian control over areas that used to belong to Georgia, annexed Crimea, incited and armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and deployed Russian troops in the same area. He seems intent on rebuilding the Soviet Union, or some semblance of it, and is on record as suggesting that its collapse was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the past century. Putin has been an ally and close supporter of the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and recently provided Iran with a powerful missile system. He has been eager to improve relations with China and Cuba, two congenially authoritarian regimes.
Putin’s anti-Americanism is a significant contributor to these developments. His apparent support of traditional cultural, values, and ways of life helps to explain his hostility toward the United States, which is the principal agent of modernity and self-determination in the world. His anti-Americanism readily combines with the blend of inferiority and superiority that has been a longstanding Russian disposition toward the Western world. Putin believes that Russia has not been getting the respect it deserves from the West.
Like all anti-Americans, Putin and his supporters feel that they have been victimized by the United States, the only remaining global super-power. Such perceived victimhood helps to vindicate their sense of moral superiority. The germ of reality that may seem to validate this mindset was the NATO expansion into the former Soviet-Bloc countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. Russian leaders have perceived this expansion as a direct threat, a plot against the security and dignity of Russia. The NATO expansion resonates with the notion of capitalist encirclement that the Soviets embraced in the 1930s and used to justify domestic repression. Putin and many Russians seem genuinely incapable of comprehending that a chronically underfunded NATO, and the nations supporting it, have little interest in or capacity for anti-Russian military adventures or expansion.
The other key component of Putin’s anti-Americanism — and of anti-Americanism in general — is the scapegoating impulse aimed at the United States that greatly exaggerates its power and political will. Scapegoating is agreeable because it provides a clear-cut and morally satisfying explanation of a wide range of grievances, and relieves the aggrieved party of any responsibility for its difficulties or failures. Russia can, of course, blame the United States for the NATO expansion and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its intervention in Ukraine that, from Putin’s point of view, has been purely defensive. The questionable and deep-rooted perception of external threats throughout Soviet and Russian history provides a rationale for both military aggression, particularly against Ukraine, and for the growing concentration of state power that is effectively used as Putin’s personal power.
Putin’s personality and biography have certainly played a major role in the rebirth of Russian authoritarianism. The fact that he is a former KGB operative who reportedly aspired to such a calling from an early age is not a minor aspect of his life. Unlike his predecessors, however, he is not an ideologue, but rather a traditional Russian nationalist with a strong interest in personal power and privilege, steeped in an authoritarian ethos. He enjoys popular support because Russians are also nationalistic, they regret the passing of the Soviet era’s super-power status, and they rally around a leader who promises to create order and stability.
Broader social, cultural, and historical conditions have favored the persistence or re-emergence of Russian authoritarianism. It is hardly surprising that Russia has not become a tolerant, trusting, pluralistic society, given the autocratic traditions internalized by its people. By contrast, the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe have been far more successful in creating pluralistic, decentralized, civil societies because several of them have a different history and have been far more westernized.
At last, it is important to bear in mind that stable and durable democratic political systems have been historically rare, limited to a handful of societies. Political democracy is not a “natural” condition that one should expect to flourish around the world. The combination of Putin’s personality and biography, Russian historical traditions, and the genuine and universal difficulty to create pluralistic social-political institutions together explain the persistence of authoritarianism in Russia.