Why did Russia never become a democracy?

By Spencer Thompson, Assistant Reporter

August 1991, three communist leaders of the Soviet Union attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, in a coup. Their attempt failed and, in the following days, various Republics within the Soviet Union declared their independence, including Belarus, Markov, and Ukraine. It is widely understood that the August Coup, as this rebellion was named, decreased Moscow’s influence in the Soviet Union, and this decentralization of power in the state led to the splintering of the Soviet Union.  


Across the Western world, leaders were triumphant in declaring their victory over the shadowy communist regime that had haunted Western countries for the past 45 years. These world leaders, high on what seemed to be a new dawn for the world, expressed optimism for the former Soviet States. They felt that it was only a matter of time before the countries of the ex-superpower adopted a liberal democracy and embraced a capitalist mindset. Reforms had already been put in place during Gorbachev’s reign, and now that the Soviet Union had crumbled, society would be upended for the better. Russia, being the largest and most powerful of the newly formed states, was the center of this hope. If the West could convert Russia, then victory would be absolute. This idealistic worldview was even expressed in Russia by those who were excited for the prospect of Western luxuries. The early 1990s were the all-time high for US-Russia relations. The future was bright for the world and for Russia.

Now the future has come and US-Russia relations are at record lows, the idealism of the past is now seen as naïveté and tensions are escalating. So what went wrong? What happened to this budding democracy? 


Alfred B. Evans, in his article “The failure of democratization in Russia: A comparative perspective” sheds light on what exactly went wrong in The Journal of Eurasian Studies. A political science professor at California State University, Evans specializes in Russia and is perfect to illuminate this discussion. Overall Evans, blames the corruption of the process of privatizing state assets during the 1990s, but expands his argument into four main points.  




His first point levies significant blame onto Western thinkers. Alfred points out key assumptions policy makers had which hindered Russian democracy. The foremost of these assumptions is what he called the electoral fallacy. Electoral fallacy is the misconception that purely elections themselves can bring about fundamental political change. The problem that Western thinkers did not account for was the sustainability of competitive elections. Basically, what happened in Russia was that the first election was competitive, but with each successive election, the dominance of one party, called the United Russia party, grew until it had no real challenges, thus nullifying the effect of the elections. This created a general apathy for the electoral process, as citizens believed that it was a waste of time to vote when they knew who was going to win, and the democratization this could bring never took off. The second major miscalculation of the West was their underestimation of the influence those with unchecked power at the top of Russia’s political food chain had over the elections themselves. Through this unchecked power, Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs, and to a lesser extent Russia’s previous President, Boris Yeltsin, could manipulate the media, political parties, and public opinion. While the electoral process had worked previously it did not lend itself well to the Russian environment.  




His second point is more focused on the economic side of things, with Alfred claiming that democracy was severely crippled by Russian efforts toward privatization. When Boris Yeltsin was restructuring the Soviet economy, he made several key mistakes. Under political pressure, he gave into demands, and allowed those with political connections to insert themselves into the distribution of former state assets to the people. Obviously, this went as well as you could expect. With rampant corruption taking over the economy, fate deemed that the old guard, those who were in power during the Soviet Union, would gain the most from this poor attempt at privatization. This led to the formation of Russian oligarchs, obscenely rich business owners who earned their wealth through political connections and crime. These sketchy dealings created resentment and anarchy in Russia. As a result of this, confidence dropped in the government as Russians felt deceived and disconnected from the economy. Furthermore, this resentment was even projected onto democracy itself, as privatization and democracy were correlated, and it drove a metaphorical spear through its heart. This highlighted the necessity of the people’s trust in a properly functioning Government, and fundamentally changed how the West thought of democratization.  Previous thought had claimed that in order to form a strong democracy, the best place to start was to create a compact between the democratic elements of a country and the more authoritarian regime – to compromise. However, it is clear that in the case of Russia that the better approach would have been a complete adoption of democracy, as the previous system simply led to an undercooked political system which hampered any real attempts at change. 




Alfred’s third point takes a look at Russian civil society. It should be noted that this is not a criticism of the Russian people or of Russian culture, but rather, when Alfred speaks of civil society, he is speaking about the political system in place of the Soviet Union. Studies have shown that a strong civil society is essential for a democracy, and that former communist countries have a particular difficult time developing a strong civil society, which explains why Russia had so much trouble recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union. But why? Alfred explains that Western thinkers view civil society as “the sphere of the largely independent and self-directed organization activity of citizens” (Diamond, 1999, 249). The problem with this is that independent social organizations were far more limited in Communist countries. Russia, in particular, suffered from this as the Communist party was in power far longer than in any other nation, and it had inserted itself into nearly all forms of social organization. In total, the Communist party of the Soviet Union permeated through so much of society that, after it fell, there was no civil society to speak of as nothing was left standing. Without a functioning civil society, pro-democracy organizations in Russia were unable to receive the support and momentum they needed, and political leaders and elites were able to subvert social organizations and go back on promises made to the people. This left the Russian people feeling cynical towards political change and created a strong headwind for any real move towards democracy. 




Alfred’s final point focuses on the influence of historical factors. Here, he first focuses on why certain Eastern European countries have been somewhat successful in their transition to democracy. While places like Poland and The Czech Republic have serious issues with authoritarianism they are at least more democratic than Russia. The Soviet occupation directly after World War 2 led communism to be associated with a lack of national character and pride. This helped future democracy movements, as Communism was the opposite of Capitalism, and Capitalism was associated with democracy. This allowed the democratic movements in these countries to take advantage of nationalism as a tool for their cause, and helped them put forward a unified front. However, in Russia, there never was a unified belief in Capitalism. According to Alfred,  the distaste Russians held for the Soviet Union had more to do with Stalinist policies rather than the ideology of Communism itself. And so, Communism and Russia were linked in the eyes of the country and part of its national identity. As Capitalism was associated with Democracy, Communism was against it. This led to weak public support for what was viewed as an intrusive Western idea, and thus the President Boris Yeltsin had to rely on elite power brokering to get his way, corrupting his ideals and souring the image of democracy.  


With all four points established, Alfred concludes his story of Russia’s bright beginnings and dark fall. But what can this teach us? Obviously, there are thousands of lessons for the State Department here, but for the average individual I think the biggest takeaway is the warning it gives: Russia demonstrates the dangers of complacency when dealing with authoritarianism. Not only does it show that democracy is not guaranteed, but that democracy can backslide without consistent effort by those advocating for it. Taking the easy route and assuming that democracy is a given once established, denies the hardship and work required to maintain it and continue its growth. If we wish to live by our democratic ideals, which we espouse to the world and ourselves, we must be willing to work for them.


Evans, A. B. (2010, November 04). The failure of democratization in Russia: A comparative perspective. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879366510000345