In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Russia’s Political System: Imperialism and Decay
  • Lilia Shevtsova (bio)

To deliver a lecture named for Seymour Martin Lipset is both an honor and a great responsibility. In a time of hesitancy and intellectual wobbliness, when mere pragmatism rules, Lipset and his legacy remind us how important principles and ideas truly are. Remembering Lipset’s example of insightful scholarly analysis is particularly important at a moment such as the present one, when we find ourselves in what Antonio Grams-ci called an “interregnum”—a historical hiatus during which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” while “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Existing institutions and concepts are becoming obsolete but new ones have yet to form. Such a “time out of time” presents us with problems that we may not know how to sort out; we are in the midst of an unfolding story where we know how the previous chapter has ended but can only guess what lies ahead.

I will start with a simple premise. History can be a nightmare or can end up as a great dust heap, unless it is interpreted by intellectuals who can see the roots of its twists and predict how they will intertwine. Seymour Martin Lipset was such an interpreter, rendering history comprehensible for society and for the political community. He was what the philosopher and sociologist Karl Mannheim called “a free swimmer,” unconfined by the boundaries of a single discipline and capable of comparing regions and countries. Lipset was also a scientist “with a mission” in the Weberian sense, because of his intellectual honesty, and because he built his vision of the world on values and with a strong regard for the ethical dimension of life. We miss him now, in these times of political uncertainty and moral relativism. [End Page 171]

The Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World

Lilia Shevtsova delivered the eleventh annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World on 29 October 2014 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and on October 20 at the Centre for International Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The title of her lecture was “Russia’s Political System: The Drama of Decay.”

Seymour Martin Lipset, who passed away at the end of 2006, was one of the most influential social scientists and scholars of democracy of the past half-century. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy and a founding member of its Editorial Board, Lipset taught at Columbia, the University of California–Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University. He was the author of numerous important books, including Political Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason, and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person ever to have served as president of both the American Political Science Association (1979–80) and the American Sociological Association (1992–93).

Lipset’s work covered a wide range of topics: the social conditions of democracy, including economic development and political culture; the origins of socialism, fascism, revolution, protest, prejudice, and extremism; class conflict, structure, and mobility; social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; and public opinion and public confidence in institutions. Lipset was a pioneer in the study of comparative politics, and no comparison featured as prominently in his work as that between the two great democracies of North America. Thanks to his insightful analysis of Canada in comparison with the United States, most fully elaborated in Continental Divide (1990), he has been dubbed the “Tocqueville of Canada.”

The Lipset Lecture is cosponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Munk School, with financial support this year from the Albert Shanker Institute, Johns Hopkins University Press, the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and the Canadian Donner Foundation. To view videos of the Lipset Lecture from this and past years, please visit

What sorts of questions might Seymour Martin Lipset ask if he were looking today at Russia and the Russian system of personalized power? (In referring to this system, I mean not only the political regime and the style of leadership that...