The greatest challenge for Russians is unlearning. The dependence on superior directives must be overcome and the inglorious past as a great power forgotten. A genuine democratic succession at the top is also on the list of desiderata. The present situation is suggestive of Mexico during the PRI-regime, when the sitting President single-handedly appointed his successor. Finally, the grim accounts of the murderous Soviet state must be settled.

Might was always right

Around the middle of the thirteenth century Russian society fell under Mongol rule, which lasted several hundred years. Despotic centralized power was combined with total disregard for human suffering. In order to prevail, the Muscovite princes had to adopt the policies of the Master Race in toto. Russia never had citizens: its inhabitants were more like cattle in the personal possession of the Mongol khan or the Russian tsar.

The continuous social mobilization kept the overweening machinery of government intact, regardless of the particular regime in charge. Historically, the social and political environment has usually precluded innovative investment and locked the economy into a futile zero-sum game. At worst, a minimum of self-employment had to be propped up by draconian measures: in mediaeval Russia free peasants were forbidden to sell themselves as slaves, which was their only way of avoiding a crushing tax burden!

In his memoirs Alexander Herzen (1812–70) describes the confusion caused in Vjatka, a remote corner of north-eastern Russia, by the arrival in the 1830s of a zealous young official. An honest village elder who wanted to compensate him for his services in the customary manner was thrown in jail and threatened with the letter of the law. Delicate diplomacy was required before a miscarriage of justice was averted and everything could revert to the reliable, old ways.

The last century has been particularly grim. George F. Kennan has pointed to the successive negative selection of the First World War, Revolution and Civil War, Stalin´s purges and finally the Second World War. The Russian experience has always been that might is right, a primitive rule derived directly from the amoral struggle for life.

Self-defeating revolt

The French revolution put the ideas of enlightenment into undeserved disrepute and did democracy a disservice. Europe was saddled with the reactionary Holy Alliance and even worse, a romanticized revolutionary ideology that poisoned reform efforts, particularly in the more backward countries. Idealistic self-sacrifice, intellectual arrogance and fixation with physical terror were to erupt time and again in senseless acts of violence. When a revolution is necessary, it is unfortunately impossible and when it is possible it is unnecessary – the powers that be are already open to reform.

The fate of the Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century is the most depressing and also the most fatal example of misguided idealism. Revolutionary self-righteousness was acted out to the hilt against the representatives of the Tsarist government – the more reform minded they proved to be, the harder they were hit. The best and the worst of East and West created a witches’ brew that eventually threatened civilization itself.

The paradigmatic figure in this genre is Sergei Nechaev (1847–82), Bakunin’s disciple and leader of a small band of Russian anarchists. A habitual liar, Nechaev was also a callous murderer; he once had a member of his band executed simply to terrorize his gang into blind obedience. Mihail Bakunin (1814–76) disassociated himself from his follower, and Dostoevsky took him as the model for one, and possibly two, of the main characters in The Possessed. Self-deification and total amorality characterizes such specimens, trash thrown up by human emancipation.

In Notes from the Underground (1864) Dostoevsky renders the modern intellect pinned down by the needle of intellectual self-examination: “You boast of your consciousness, but you vacillate because, although your mind functions, your heart is clouded with depravity, and without a pure heart a real consciousness is impossible. And how importunate you are, how you force yourself on people, how you put on airs! Nothing but mendacity and more mendacity… But actually you are all right, it is really both vulgar and base. And basest of all is that I tried to justify myself to you just now. And baser yet is that I am making this remark. But anyway that’s enough, or we’ll never finish, one thing will be baser than the next.”

An inchoate democracy

The surprising and bloodless dissolution of the Soviet Empire left in its wake a sundry lot of states with very varying democratic potential. The political future of Russia is particularly interesting, not least due to the energy resources and the nuclear arsenal of the country. It is also fascinating to follow how Russia is trying to find its own way out of the old totalitarian structure towards a modicum of democratic stability.

Under Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007) Russian democracy took its first faltering steps. Professional criminals aspired for a seat in the Duma in order to enjoy immunity against prosecution; murder threats and bribes alternated in the political dialogue; diverse potentates became elected to local governorships to protect their economic interests. Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin has been severely criticized for his strong-arm measures, as in the case of the ‘oligarch’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was aiming at political power by financing the parties as well as individual members of the Duma. In the absence of written and unwritten rules for political behavior, Putin applied the available means at his disposal to stop Khodorkovsky’s influence peddling. Putin’s regime is undoubtedly authoritarian. All the same, we can only hope that it leaves room for a gradual democratization of Russian society under his successor and bosom friend Dmitry Medvedev.

Crises and catastrophes can destroy established power structures, release shackled creativity and open the door for unprejudiced learning. Such effects are at least partly responsible for the fast rise of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; the victorious powers did not have the same incentive towards reinventing themselves. Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union, most of the corrupt bureaucracy was left in place and today Russia seems to battle in vain with this suffocating hydra.

The greatest challenge for Russians is unlearning. On the credit side, the virtual absence of bloodshed during the traumatic transition should be noted. The cohabitation of Putin (as Prime Minister) and his protegee Dmitry Medvedev (as President) could facilitate the implementation of democratic principles, already enshrined in law. All in all, Russia’s progress after the fall of the Soviet Union has so far been better than could be expected. Russia’s membership in the G8 group, comprising the most influential democracies, implies that it is accepted as a democratic country – at a pinch.