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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 155-157

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Book Review

Russia's Stillborn Democracy?
From Gorbachev to Yeltsin

Graeme Gill and Roger D. Markwick, Russia's Stillborn Democracy? From Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 280 pp. $65.00.

As the title suggests, the authors of Russia's Stillborn Democracy have a rather negative view of the current state of democracy in Russia. They argue that attempts at political liberalization in Russia failed, and they proceed to explain why. In contrast to earlier structural explanations, Graeme Gill and Roger Markwick build on what they consider a primary contribution of the "transition literature" by focusing their analysis on individual actors. In particular, they consider why elites choose to liberalize and what factors influence the achievement of their goals.

Where Gill and Markwick part from what they characterize as the transition literature is in their attention to the context in which elites make choices, namely, civil society. They contend that civil society is the primary force that determines the choices of elites who are faced in a crisis with the option of either "liberalizing" or "cracking down." Gill and Markwick argue that "where civil society forces are not powerful and active (and both qualities must be seen as relative to the regime), a democratic outcome is unlikely" (p. 5). In sum: no civil society, no democracy. The implication is that elites will choose to liberalize or democratize only when they are forced to by civil society.

In Russia's case, Gill and Markwick claim that the Soviet legacy, particularly the unresolved tension between "personalism" and "the formal rules of hierarchical procedure" (p. 11), was a major impediment to the development of civil society. Other factors that, in their view, both resulted from and contributed to the weakness of civil society were Russia's political culture, especially what they call the "étatist tradition" (p. 248); the excessive concentration of executive power, which, they believe, diminished not only the legislature but also the emergence of a party system that would have [End Page 155] ensured greater participation by citizens in politics (p. 250); and, finally, the absence of a middle class, a deficiency largely attributable to the inability of the Russian state to "rein in" and "curb" the "bourgeoisie" (p. 258) during the prolonged economic crisis. The argument is thus that democracy in Russia was doomed from the start (or "stillborn") because civil society was congenitally weakened by the Soviet legacy.

One of the benefits of the book's approach is that it draws our attention to the Soviet past in order to understand post-Soviet developments. Although this idea is hardly novel among historians and theorists of "path dependence," it often has been disregarded by contemporary political scientists and economists. In particular, the book quite sensibly links the absence of the "rule of law" and the existence of elite networks in today's Russia with the Soviet experience of personalism and the subversion of formal institutions.

Nevertheless, although the book succeeds in bringing up interesting and important questions about the causes of failed political reform in Russia, it does not do as well in answering those questions. Much of the book covers familiar territory in discussing political reform during the perestroika era, including the decline of the Communist party vis-à-vis state institutions, and the establishment of elections and executive institutions. Gill and Markwick devote only a very limited amount of space to the development of civil society during perestroika in the form of nonstate organizations (pp. 111-120).

This discussion of perestroika, and a subsequent chapter on civil society, indicate that Gill and Markwick are not interested in exploring voluntary civic organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and social movements. Instead, they focus on classes—the bourgeoisie (oligarchs), the working class, the peasantry, and the middle class—and formal political parties. Although this focus may have its merits, the lack of attention to other organizations that are normally considered integral parts of civil society begs for explanation. More important, the link between certain classes and parties and the...