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  • Reading RussiaForms Without Substance
  • Archie Brown (bio)

Twenty years ago, there was a more thoroughgoing political pluralism in Russia than there is today. Contested elections took place for a new legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR. Along with its inner body, a radically reformed Supreme Soviet, it wielded real power, as Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov discovered when in June 1989 the legislature rejected no fewer than nine of his candidates for ministerial office. At that time, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was still the only legal party in the country, but there was a public political life and an open struggle among several fundamentally different tendencies. In 2009, there is a variety of parties, but the system has been managed in such a way that recent elections have produced little real choice; moreover, the lack of accountability of those elected, already a feature of Russian politics in the 1990s, persists.

In some respects, the forms of democracy—including party consolidation—have been enhanced, but they have been so manipulated as to deprive them of substance.1 Elections keep up the pretense of democracy, but their political significance has been eroded. The results of the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential balloting were more predictable than the outcome of elections had been during the last three years of the Soviet Union's existence. Russian voters had a stronger sense of political efficacy in 1989, 1990, and 1991 than they have had over the past decade. As Juan J. Linz has noted, "electoral authoritarianism" and "multiparty authoritarianism" are more appropriate characterizations for many states that have been described as "electoral democracies."2 Either of Linz's terms may reasonably be applied to contemporary Russia, although "façade democracy" is no less apt.3 [End Page 47]

That is not to say that Russia has regressed all the way to the pre-perestroika Soviet system. In those years, well-educated Russians were unhappy that censorship deprived them of the right to read the books of their choice and that the closed system denied them permission to travel as freely as did their Western counterparts. Today, Russian citizens possess those civil rights. The full spectrum of political opinion and historical interpretation is to be found in Russian book-publishing. It is highly improbable that a new attempt will be made to restrict foreign travel on political grounds. Hard economic times might keep Russians at home, but their government will not.

Retrogression has been greater in television and newspapers. During both the later perestroika years and the Yeltsin presidency, the mass media contained a wider range of political views, including criticism of the authorities, than is now to be found. Yet the degree of freedom today is far greater than it was in the unreformed Soviet system. Then, Russian samizdat was distributed in hundreds of copies. Today, the circulation of Novaya gazeta, the most independent and boldly critical of Moscow newspapers, is over a quarter of a million. It has paid a heavy price, however, for its investigative journalism and critical scrutiny of the authorities at all levels. Since 2000, four of its journalists have been murdered, among them Anna Politkovskaya. The international prestige of Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the newspaper's owners, may help to prevent the paper from being closed down. Its publication can also be seen as a safety valve as well as a contribution to maintaining an image of democracy.

It was a modestly hopeful sign that, after the latest murder of a Novaya gazeta reporter, Anastasia Baburova (along with the principal target of the assassins, human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov), Russian president Dmitri Medvedev expressed his condolences, albeit somewhat belatedly. He did not do so publicly, but invited Gorbachev and the newspaper's editor, Dmitri Muratov, to the Kremlin to express his "deepest sympathy and compassion." In addition to Novaya gazeta and the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, there are a number of smaller independent publications, some of them voicing extremist views. Of increasing importance—and naturally a far cry from anything imaginable in Brezhnev's time—is the growth of Internet access. So far, at least, the Russian authorities have resisted...


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