Ah, Russia. It never ceases to entertain the West. Well, the news outlets call it outrage and information and “disturbing trends,” but in reality it’s more like political titillation — or entertainment at the very least.
These days I spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa, sitting and feeding an insatiable baby who wants food right now every hour and fifteen minutes (two hours if I’m really lucky). There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re occupied with such activity, except read books, listen to the radio, and watch TV. Sounds like heaven to a lot of overworked people, but right now I daydream about uninterrupted minutes in front of the computer, or — heaven forbid — skiing.
But as I’m stuck listening to the news for longer than I want to hear it, I’ve noticed that Russia is coming up with increasing frequency, and much closer to the top of the news hour, than it used to when it was looking to go all clean and democratic and Westernised. This week it’s the denouncement of yesterday’s parliamentary elections as “not fair.” Now, notwithstanding the fact that America’s last two elections could be open to a lot of the same questioning (only the UN wouldn’t dare), what is there about Russia that has given the West a reasonable expectation that the citizens of the Great Bear have any interest in pure democracy?
Russia is a country that has had very little time to find out what it actually believes in, and democracy doesn’t hit high on its priority list. Launched from oppressive and greedy tsarism straight into a bloody revolution and then one of the worst dictatorships in modern history, Russian people wobbled into the 1990s with little idea of how to determine the course of their own country, or what direction they would choose now that they had a choice. And then what happened? An economic collapse due to the same greed of the same people who made such a mockery of socialism.
And now? The country, overseen by Putin, has some of the largest concentration of millionaires and billionaires in the world. It is positively awash in oil wealth. When I was in St. Petersburg just over a year ago, the city was undergoing public and private transformation that could only be bought by a people who had far, far more money than they knew what to do with. The influx of oil-slick cash hasn’t abated. Who cares about the freedom of the vote, or freedom of information, when you’re so darn rich?
There’s more going on than just money, though. Not only does Russia have no history of democracy, it has two mindsets antithetical to the West’s ideas (or at least Europe’s) of what free people should believe. First, Russians have a history of believing in a ruler only if he or she is strong, unquestionable, and authoritarian. Do you really want to know what percentage of the population regularly come out with, “What we need is another Stalin”? Not all Russians believe this, of course, but there are enough.
Second is an aspect that any outsiders but scholars are simply unaware of, and that is the Russians’ deep belief in themselves as the second of God’s “chosen people.” The Russian Orthodox religion is the inheritor of Byzantium, of the true church first of the Romans and then of the Ottoman Empire. It might sound a little silly, but the rise of the Evangelical right in the US is proof that populations hold fast to their deepest religious beliefs even in — or perhaps because of — what should be an age of enlightened humanitarianism. A passage from the novel The Turkish Gambit by Russian philologist and essayist Boris Akunin (pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili) beautifully illustrates the Russian obsession with their Byzantine inheritance:
” ‘Constantinople!’ said Sobolev, his voice trembling with feeling as he gazed out through the window at the glittering lights of the great city. ‘The eternal, unattainable dream of the Russian tsars. The very roots of our faith and civilization are here. … They won’t have the courage to take what belongs to Russia by ancient right. … I see a great and powerful Russia uniting the Slavs from Archangel to Constantinople and from Trieste to Vladivostok! Only then will the Romanovs fulfill their historical destiny and finally be able to leave these eternal wars behind them and devote themselves to the improvement of their own long-suffering dominion. But if we pull back, then our sons and grandsons will once again spill their own blood and the blood of others along the road to the walls of Constantinople. Such is the cross the Russian people must bear!’ ”
On the subject of democracy Akunin’s character Erast Fandorin in the same book is even more eloquent: ” ‘ I am opposed to democracy in general. … One man is unequal to another from the very beginning, and there is nothing you can do about it. The democratic principle infringes the rights of those who are more intelligent, more talented, and harder working; it places them in the position of dependence on the foolish will of the stupid, talentless, and lazy, because society always contains more of the latter. Let our compatriots first learn to rid themselves of their swinish ways and earn the right to bear the title of citizen, and then we can start thinking about a parliament.’ ”
Obviously, not all Russians of intelligence and education feel like this. Garry Kasparov, world-famous chess champion, has been calling for more open and fair elections in Russia and leading the opposition party for some time, and a solid percentage of citizens stand behind him. But what voting citizen of a democracy has not sometimes felt the same frustration, even if unacknowledged?
Combine a distrust of your fellow citizen’s judgment with a religious bedrock that calls you one of God’s chosen people, throw on billions of dollars in natural resources just waiting to be exploited out in your vast landscape, fan a smoldering injured pride at the West’s decades-long condescension and fear over the US’s proposed missile defense system sited in Eastern Europe, and you might just put all your faith in an unbendable force like Putin, too, despite his suppression of democratic opposition and manhandling of a free media.