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  • The Two Sides of the New Russia
  • Lilia Shevtsova (bio)

Whatever scenarios may have seemed possible a few years ago, it has now become clear that the changes which Russia is undergoing in the wake of communism do not fit neatly into the “classical” model of democratic transition, but rather are multilayered, complex, and even contradictory. Trends and countertrends jostle, intertwine, and collide as the country undergoes a fitful evolution away from the Soviet past and toward what we may still hope will be a democratic future.

Scholars, politicians, and diplomats are now arguing about whether what is currently taking place in Russia can be classified as a “typical” democratic transition, or whether Russia’s transition is unlike any other. Each side has a case. The Russian experience since the late 1980s, whatever its peculiarities, does display certain features that seem commonly to characterize any society’s withdrawal from totalitarian or authoritarian rule. 1 But Russia also appears in some respects as an exception that proves the rule.

The reason for this exceptionalism is not hard to discern. In order to make progress toward democracy, Russia must find its way through thickets of complexity stemming from: 1) a lack of consensus among the major players about either the object or the rules of postcommunist politics; 2) the absence of a consolidated state and a secure national identity, at least during the early period of the transition; 3) President Boris Yeltsin’s refusal to undertake political reform before market-based economic reform; 4) the resumption—seen most terribly in Chechnya— of violent methods for settling internal conflicts; 5) the lack of a democratic movement with roots outside the old system and the breadth [End Page 56] to contain a number of groups with differing proposals for approaching the tasks of reform; and 6) the dominance of a “top-down” approach to politics that ignores (as part of what might be called an intellectual hangover from Leninism) the need to build broad consensus and foster genuine communication between leaders and citizens at large. The post-totalitarian countries that have achieved successful transitions to democracy have generally not had to contend with so many inauspicious phenomena.

Conceding that those who stress the peculiar characteristics of Russian postcommunism have some grounds for their position, we may still ask when peculiarity turns into true uniqueness. How unusual does a country’s experience have to be to sever the common thread that links democratic transitions and allows us to consider them as a group? 2 Moving from the conceptual to the practical plane, we may also ask whether the peculiarities of Russian postcommunism pose an insurmountable obstacle to the consolidation of democracy.

Among Russia’s legacies from the Soviet era and its seven decades of “actually existing socialism” was a stubborn ideological tendency to treat politics and economics as a single category. Under communism, the idea that each of these spheres has an inner logic proper to itself but not to the other was denied as a matter of fundamental principle, leading to (among other things) the communist party-state’s systematic effort to absorb society into itself. In a country laboring under such a burden of confusion, reformers cannot rest content with a rearrangement of relations among different institutions, but must strive to form new political and economic systems. In connection with this, civil society too must be “made from scratch” in a short period of time.

Another product of communism that Russian democracy must contend with is the leadership class itself. Most of the members of Russia’s current elite began their careers in the second echelon of the communist nomenklatura. They are provincial in outlook, with limited life experience, no taste or knack for compromise, and often no great degree of professional competence—all traits that characterized the Soviet central bureaucracy. At first, the new (or renewed) Russian elite found itself obliged to join forces with democratically minded intellectuals, who became politically active between 1989 and 1991. This marriage of convenience lent the political class a reformist air for a time, but the intellectuals soon found that they had to either adopt the habits and methods of the bureaucrats or face exclusion from...

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pp. 56-71
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