A History of Absolutism: Russia and the West - by Rafi Parens
Putin’s belligerent behavior in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have raised questions about political processes and dissent in present-day Russia. Due to a history of absolutism and crony-governance, Russia has never built the democratic institutions existent in Western democracies. Thus, it is important to note the oligarchic and absolutist elements in Russian government, both as they influence international politics and domestic decision-making.
Since its inception, the states that make up Russia and the former Soviet Union have experienced absolute governance, rule by a hierarchical system with power isolated at the top. Russia saw monarchical rule from the 1800s to 1917. These rulers utilized absolute power to control their kingdoms, establishing feudal-like control of the peasantry through the policy of serfdom. Even the aborted revolution of 1905 did little to advance the long-term interests of the lower classes in Russia. As a result, anti-government and anti-war sentiment coalesced among Leninist revolutionaries and dissident veterans of World War I. Losses to Germany and Austria-Hungary and economic shortages led to the Russian Revolution, a period of protracted conflict between pro-government and communist forces. With the rise of Lenin and his successor Stalin, the Russian government strove to implement further central planning in their economic, social, and political systems. Ultimately, this resulted in famine and mass deaths.
The crucible of World War II strengthened the hand of Stalin as the Soviet Union fought back from the brink of defeat and eventually defeated Nazi forces. Under the guise of preventing the re-emergence of Nazism, the USSR established puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, setting the scene for the Cold War. A chilling of relations with the West followed World War II due to tensions over Europe’s political future, with Germany divided between the developing Eastern and Western blocs. Over the next 40 years, the US and USSR flirted with nuclear war while participating in a variety of proxy wars in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Russian civil rights varied during this period, but absolute governmental control was concentrated amongst party elites and protected by the secret police and security infrastructure. The powerful Soviet military was unable to subjugate Afghanistan and the indigenous US-backed guerilla forces. Due to long-term economic slowdown, fiscal drain created by the war in Afghanistan, and gradual westernization policies,the Soviet Union fell in 1991. The new Russian government briefly pursued democracy before the rise of an oligarchic system, dominated by local strongmen and crime bosses. The elite of Russian society loomed over the poor majority, reaping benefits through criminal enterprises and government domination.
The rise of Putin in 2000 very much reflected the failures of post-Soviet democratization. Putin is a strongman, a response to the weak and ineffective Russian democratic government of the early 1990s. Russia in the 21st century has thus pursued a Soviet style of realpolitik, hyper-realist and self-interested policy, while simultaneously eliminating individual rights and quashing dissent. Russia committed itself to a variety of wars in the Caucuses, fighting newly independent Georgia and Chechnya. Later, Russia began illicit independence campaigns in Ukraine, invaded Crimea, and offered military support for the Assad regime in Syria. Within Russia, the government restricted independent media, eliminated the election of regional governors, gained control of gas companies, applied oversight programs to NGOs, and extended presidential terms. All of these changes threatened the establishment of democratic processes and bolstered the existent absolute government. Meanwhile, Russia has been beset by protests during recent elections, leading to many arrests and detentions.
Given Russia’s history, we can see why democratic processes have failed to take root: they were never really given the opportunity. On the other hand, the United States has the parliamentary traditions of English governance as its model, and has seen over 200 years of development through slow change and amendments. To be sure, our government has flaws, including the troubling rise of executive orders and undeclared wars, bypassing the declaratory power of Congress, but this establishment has the weight of history and hundreds of years of intellectual thought to back up its democratic process. Building such a system is quite difficult, particularly so in a country where the ruling class has no desire to relinquish power. Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB officer, a surviving member of the secret police that dominated the Soviet Union. His government is predicated on power resonating from the top, while attempting to legitimize such a position via rigged elections. Dissenters against the system are thrown in jail, if not worse, and minorities are persecuted and denied rights.
Achieving democracy is a difficult process completed through much compromise and conflict. France saw a revolution and the rise of Napoleon before the eventual development of democracy. Britain weathered a bloody civil war and the continued power of the monarchy on its path towards a constitutional republic, and Germany suffered the failed Weimar Republic and the terrible Nazi Regime before the establishment of a West German Democracy after World War II. Russia likely must follow this path of chaos and slow political change in pursuit of democracy, as its history and current institutions do not provide any basis for long-term democratic governance.
So what is next for Russia? Clearly the Russian state apparatus does not favor a change in internal power structures. Will the Russian people eventually revolt against the government? This is entirely possible. What, if anything, could the West do in response? The Russian military and government already reacts with hostility to Western interactions with Ukraine and the Baltic states, so we can be sure that Western support for another Russian revolution would be punished. At the present moment, it is unclear whether Russia’s divergent political system can continue to coexist with Western democracies. Indeed, a new Cold War may have already begun.