INSOR Russia: Institute of Contemporary Development
Updated April 18, 2019

The Third Democratic: The Baggage We Take to the Next Revolution

January 26, 2012

In an opinion piece for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Igor Yurgens reflects on the failures of previous attempts to liberalize the political system of Russia and writes about the challenges facing today’s pro-democracy forces.

Democrats should make makes sacrifices

Don’t sit in blogs but rather make a concerted effort to build a new party

There is no doubt that this is a revolution, i.e., “qualitative change in societal development.” It began a while ago, and the only question is how the leap forward from the cumulative changes will transpire. I would hope this happens peacefully. The revolution did not begin on 24 September or not on Bolotnaya Square – those are its external manifestations (extremely important in both in terms of the course of events and in terms of the outcome). It began when the level of development of society’s productive forces entered into contradiction with society’s political forces – that is how Marx would describe it. But in terms of real life – people of the postindustrial technological world, people of the Internet, can no longer reconcile themselves with the neo-feudal methods of controlling them by the bosses of life and the airwaves, the bosses of everyone who persistently lie in support of the powers that be.

Today’s struggle of enlightened Russian society for its liberties and rights strikingly repeats the very same basic conditions and, in essence, is suffering the same defeats that it has throughout the centuries.

The young German princess, preparing to convert to Russian Orthodoxy in order to one day become Catherine the Great, wrote about Russian political life in her diaries – “Power without the people’s trust does not mean anything to someone who wants to be loved and glorified” – and – “Freedom, the soul of all things, without you everything is dead.” Is this not similar to the phrase that inspired us – “Freedom is better than non-freedom”? It was uttered on a similar level of power 250 years ago. By the way, the transformations started by the empress in the area of local self-government, the courts, and reform of gubernatorial power are also very similar, with an adjustment for time. But all this ended with the “golden age” of serfdom and Alexander Radishchev’s exile to Siberia.

During the reign of Alexander I, who was educated by Catherine on the principles of the Enlightenment, the battle of the liberals for institutional reforms continued. State Secretary Mikhail Speransky, author of the Introduction to the Code of State Laws in 1809, wrote: “The present system of government is no longer characteristic of the state of the public spirit... the time has come to change it and found a establish a new public order.” And this new public order was to be based on the supremacy of the law, building of a legal state, separation of powers, limitation of the bureaucracy, and so forth.

The response to Speransky was not long in coming from Karamzin, the official historian of the Russian Empire: “Is it really true that despotism can be restricted in Russia? Using what methods?... Nimble minds have no trouble finding answer and say: ‘It can, all that needs to be done is place the law above the Sovereign.’ ... The autocracy founded and resurrected Russia: with the change in its state charter, it perished and is supposed to die, composed of parts of so many and such varied (persons), each of which has his own special civic benefits.”

Alexander I, despite the French Revolution and the war with Napoleon, experimented for a long time with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, but – those productive forces be damned – the matter ended in military-agricultural communities and the Decembrist conspiracy.

The reader himself can continue this historical digression right up to the era of Lenin and Stalin.

What is the history lesson here? The people, its most progressive part, if they do not in earnest follow the path of constitutional transformations (and without that one cannot speak of freedom and dignity “in the long run”), must put their minds to grueling work rather than rely on the winds of change and freedom. Furthermore, we know from our own experience that freedom can bring very unpleasant surprises if it is not defended on a daily basis.

We are apt to go to extremes, we tend to rush things. But after achieving success, we are inclined to wantonness. And now in the blogosphere and in the ranks of the demonstrators and organizers, there is a feeling of understandable euphoria and exaggeration of the strength of the social networks and the potential for self-organization using the instruments of the information society. But what did the Arab Spring stumble on? Of course, there are no parties ready to fight or leaders able to oppose the military there!

Long and meticulous work on building new parties must follow the protest phase. Our achievements here are not brilliant. Despite all the fairness of the criticism of the regime for its persistent “promotion of equal opportunity for the government and the oligarchs,” the stifling of the mass media and Zubatovshchina; we have been stained with the sins of pride and despondency that are so readily exposed in efforts toward maintaining the proper unity of democratic forces. The free and established forces have proven yet unable to coalesce around common goals and general discipline.

In the last century, we somehow or other created a ripe situation for the leftists. Generally speaking, the mantra “Russia is a leftist country” always sounds hypocritical in a Jesuit way. Millions of right-wingers and liberals were at best sent into emigration or else into the next world. But the dislike of the wealthy and successful and the perception of the outside world as a threat that have become rooted in social consciousness really work in favor of the leftist side.

This implies an even higher level of responsibility on the leaders of the new wave. They are obligated to take advantage of this rare intellectual upsurge, created by the likes of Bykov and Akunin, to beat down the bureaucratic language of the regime and opening up the opportunity for renewal.

Politicians deserve due credit. So far their participation in the protest movement is creating the impression of adequate self-evaluation and a willingness to sacrifice part of the spotlight for the common cause. Egocentrism and narcissism have been curbed for the time being, but this risk will always be present when bright, charismatic and freedom-loving people are involved.

Systematic efforts to create a united democratic party will be the historical test for them – and for all of us.

Why can we be more successful than our above-mentioned brilliant predecessors? Why won't the appropriate slogans once again fall victim to the chasm of old stereotypes of worldviews?

All the preceding attempts were carried out in a country with an agrarian mentality, which has serious consequences for the political process. The characteristics of this mentality – a high level of distrust of the people beyond one’s family and clan, subservience to bosses and the patriarchal system, acceptance of labor as a heavy burden past along from generation to generation – were supported by material facts. In the last days of Soviet history, even after the massive efforts focused on accelerated urbanization, 40% of the population still lived in the countryside and was completely or partially fed from private plots of land.

Now this indicator is about 25% and shows a downward trend. Overall industrial and agricultural production accounts for less than a quarter of Russia’s GDP today, while the rest are sectors are related to new technologies, trade and services. This means a different social and occupational makeup of the population, different social and political expectations, and inevitably a new social contract between the regime and the people.

Russia's geopolitical position also plays an important role. Nothing remains of pan-Slavism and of the mission of the leader and defender of the Slavic peoples. On the contrary, the examples of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and others indicate that while playing under the rules of democracy, countries that have been close to us historically now live consistently better than we do.

So, to summarize, difficult and painstaking political work lies ahead. The democratic movement will be required to demonstrate serious self-restraint, mutual concessions and tactical sacrifices in the name of a strategic victory.

Igor Yurgens

Nezavisimaya Gazeta

January 26, 2012