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  • Soviet Nostalgia:An Impediment to Russian Democratization
  • Sarah E. Mendelson (bio) and Theodore P. Gerber (bio)

This fall marks the one-year anniversary of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," when popular protests against fraudulent elections led to nonviolent regime change. Ukraine's came on the heels of other similar revolutions, in Georgia in 2003 and Serbia in 2000, leading many to wonder whether Russia will be next. The Russian government actually plays a major role in manufacturing such speculation, all the while stirring up anxiety and paranoia. The Kremlin views these revolutions as the outcome of efforts by Western intelligence agencies to undermine Russia. Every couple of weeks, a Kremlin insider, on occasion even President Vladimir Putin himself, warns of the sinister motivations behind foreign assistance. "We understand that you dance with the one who brought you," Putin remarked recently.1 Russian journalists and pundits obediently echo this alarmist refrain. Major business and Orthodox Church leaders, not to be out of step with the Kremlin bosses, have answered the call to defend the motherland against such threats. This past spring, they founded Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth organization, and funded several weeks of summer camp for 3,000 of its recruits. The organizers clearly intended that the camp would not only provide opportunities to sing around the campfire and swim in the lake, but also to discipline and indoctrinate members of Nashi ("Ours" in Russian), inoculating them from "their" (foreign) ideas and activities.

Yet, the U.S. democracy promotion advocates that the Kremlin worries about are themselves puzzled and anxious. In policy circles and donor meetings, some gingerly approach the issue of whether something akin to an Orange Revolution is possible in Russia. Although no one is brazen enough to embrace such a goal publicly, some privately wonder what it would take and [End Page 83] how much it would cost to support one, given Russia's 11 time zones and current inhospitable political conditions. The case for why U.S. taxpayer dollars should support anything connected to the disdained and gutted Russian political party or electoral system is especially difficult to make. Yet we frequently hear U.S. government officials remarking that they cannot simply ignore the democrats in Russia and have to do something related to elections.

For different reasons, the Kremlin advisers and Western democracy advocates are both off the mark. No dramatic revolution in Russia is likely to come soon from below or outside. Multiple, random sample surveys we have conducted in Russia since 2001 indicate that many Russians are simply too ambivalent about democracy for any revolutionary scenario to be plausible. Support for concepts such as transparency and the rule of law, as well as free and fair elections, are greatly inhibited by the power of historical legacies. Widely held, uncritical views of the past shape Russia's political and social development today. If left unaddressed, they threaten to drive a deep wedge between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community.

To date, Western democracy assistance has overwhelmingly supported the building of institutions associated with democracy, such as political parties, independent media, and nongovernmental groups.2 Donors have devoted relatively little attention to the ideas that underpin such institutions. The survey findings suggest to us that Western assistance should be reoriented to promote basic democratic principles as well as public understanding of how Russia's recent history has undermined or reinforced these ideas. Today, many Russians show symptoms of collective amnesia about the past, and a majority of young Russians believe Joseph Stalin (1929–1953) did more good than bad. Although intellectuals in many countries complain that the next generation in their own countries do not receive adequate training in history, in Russia this "absent memory" appears to have political consequences.3 As long as they remain positively inclined toward Stalin, young Russians are unlikely to embrace concepts such as justice and human rights. The failure of robust democratic institutions to develop, coupled with a lack of understanding of the past, has left Russians uneducated about democracy, ambivalent about Stalin, and confused about Russia's place in the world.

Listening to Young Russians

We make this argument drawing on a unique set of nationally representative surveys we...


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pp. 83-96
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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