Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Elections are regularly held in contemporary Russia, but Vladimir Putin or his supporters always win. Here the apparatus of democracy — parliament, presidency, parties — exists in plain sight, but it has little existence in reality. Parliament does not have the power that democracy should grant it; the president is not subject to the constraints that democracy should exercise; political parties do not generate policies that have been forged democratically; the opposition does not foster politicians who challenge or share power. ‘Democracy’ creates nothing more than a spurious, superficial, manufactured legitimacy for the rule of entirely self-interested elites.
Westerners therefore look at Russia and consider its democracy to be compromised. Many Russians, meanwhile, consider the whole notion of democracy to be compromised. Schooled in the Soviet tradition — to spot the hypocrisies in American democracy — they delight in Edward Snowden’s revelations. Many of them associate democracy with Yeltsin’s reforms and the chaos and poverty they brought. For them, democracy is all about Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, ruthless free market experiments, lawlessness, and the accumulation of extreme wealth at the expense of other people’s extreme deprivation. For a frustrated older generation of Russians, democracy means corruption, crime and the absence of justice.
Yet the Soviet Union, too, which some of this generation remember with nostalgia, was a ‘democracy’. Like Russia today, it had a parliament without power and elections without choice. So what was the Soviet Union? Was it a dictatorship or was it a democracy?
The clearest and most influential statement of ‘Soviet democracy’ was laid out in the Stalin Constitution of 1936. Sidney and Beatrice Webb infamously wrote that this document created ‘the most inclusive and equalized democracy in the world.’ The Constitution established the Supreme Soviet, a national parliament, though the Webbs were impressed by what they perceived as a participatory political culture, the existence of mass political enthusiasm, and the usefulness of a range of social and political rights.
Were Stalin-era elections simply a charade to impress Western visitors like the Webbs? After all, they offered no possibility of changing the government; a single candidate was usually on the ballot; and only one political party existed. For all the significance and complexity of the way that the Soviet Union understood, rejected and also valued the West, winning over the Webbs seems an unlikely explanation. Stalin-era elections, with their near 100 per cent approval votes, were an opportunity to demonstrate unanimity, in a claustrophobic and even totalitarian atmosphere. The lengthy election campaigns were not opportunities for debate or expressions of pluralism, but invaluable public information programmes, providing clear expositions for the population on how they should express their loyalty.
Although the Soviet Union changed fundamentally after Stalin’s death in 1953, the political system remained the same. How those strange elections operated in practice, and how they compare to elections today, will be the subject of the next post, when I will look at what happened in 1946 and 2012.