Monday, 3 January 2011

Tendency to Autocracy

The conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky should come as little surprise to those familiar with the autocratic tendency of the Russian people

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in the Russian Federation shows every sign of continuing unabated following the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of theft and money laundering; though most observers cite the real motivation as purely political.  Currently the power behind the throne as Prime Minister Putin looks set to return as President in 2012 (the constitution of Russia forbids three consecutive terms).  As such this represents the latest in a long line of autocratic moves designed to cement Putin’s control of Russia that shocks outsiders unfamiliar with the political and social history of the Russian state.  Others however see these latest moves as further evidence of the Russian state’s tendency to autocracy.

In the Russian national epic War and Peace Leo Tolstoy sums up succinctly the two diametrically opposed camps into which most lay historians fall.  There are those that view history through the spectrum of actors – the great men theory – seeing in their individual actions and decisions the levers that have shaped the course of history.  Tolstoy himself sees history and its unfolding events not as the result of one great individual but the sum of all of the millions of individuals acting autonomously (yet under the influence of each other), creating an unstoppable flow in which great actors are  the victims and or results of things unfolding around them.  In War and Peace Tolstoy is challenging the perceived wisdom of nineteenth century historians that the conquest of Russia and its ultimate failure were primarily down to the decisions of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Tolstoy posits in that Napoleon had little choice but to take the decisions he did, restrained as he was by the wills and actions of the millions of others living in Europe at the time.

If we are to adopt Tolstoy’s structuralist view we can place developments in modern Russia within the context of its political history and explain why it is no coincidence that like the Tsars and Bolsheviks before them the democratically elected leaders of Russia have become increasingly autocratic.

The modern Russian state emerged during the rule of Ivan IV.  It was during this time that the kingdom developed from an Asiatic backwater into a recognisable modern state, its economy, population and borders expanding significantly.  Other leaders would follow in his footsteps, (most prominently Tsar Peter the Great, founder of the Russian Empire) believing that only an all powerful individual could unite and control the disparate and scattered elements of the Steppe.  There was little opposition to this approach from the Russian people, though this may be due in part to the feudal nature of the country (as it emerged from Tartar rule) at a time when the rest of Europe was emerging from medieval rule and had begun to develop more democratic forms of government and market economies.  Russia’s economic development lagged behind the rest of Europe significantly; the abolition of serfdom did not occur until 1861 and this in turn created a situation in which the majority of the population had zero rights and power was concentrated in the aristocracy.  In these conditions meaningful political organisation or opposition would have been almost impossible to achieve and hence the rule of the Tsars went unopposed. 
When socialist revolution arrived in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century it developed into a uniquely Russian form.  The Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s original theory of proletariat revolution into an altogether more autocratic form; the Russian working class would not be able to achieve class consciousness by themselves and could therefore never lead a revolution to emancipate themselves.  Instead the Russian nation required an intellectual vanguard to show them the way, to explain to them how they were being exploited and how to escape it via a socialist revolution.  Following their ascension to power in 1917 the vanguard led the way until the death of Lenin and the seizure of power by Stalin whose despotic and autocratic rule came to represent socialism in the eyes of much of the world during the 20th century.

Democratic rule arrived in Russia in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union following several attempts at modernisation and pluralisation.  The chaotic collapse of both economy and society has perhaps left a deep impression on a nation used to the rule of an all powerful individual; democracy brought misery, hardship and corruption to a nation that has only recently recovered.  So how has barely twenty years of democratic rule resulted in what many are calling a ‘mafia’ state? 

The structuralist view points towards a natural disposition for autocratic rule; the wills and actions of the millions of individuals within Russia has made it possible for once person to emerge as an all powerful leader for the past five hundred years.  Without this will of the people this could not have happened.  The source of this will may indeed be the unique geography and history of Russia unlike the majority of European nations.  The structuralist would also point toward historical institutionalism as a major factor; simply that previous decision made by an institution restrict its ability to freely make future decisions.  That many of the institutions in existence during the rule of the Tsars simply continued to exist during the Soviet Union – the Tsars secret police simply became the KGB – but slowly morphed around new leaders and priorities helps to indicate why the revolution was unable to shake the yoke of absolute power.  This same process would have continued following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its transformation into the Russian Federation; though the emergence of the oligarchs has also had a significant impact on the behaviour of government.

This argument is not conclusive and is open to much disagreement; the intricacies of Russian history give rise to a whole plethora of other competing interpretations.  But the Russian penchant for bureaucracy, the slow development of its civil society and its history of Mongol rule have undoubtledly influenced a national ‘spirit’ or ‘character’ that has subsequently shaped government. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on power looks set to continue as he stands for President once again in 2012;  should the Russian people freely return him to office we should not be so surprised.

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