Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Road To Democracy

No More 'Troubles' Under Putin

Russia has its own path to democracy, one that is determined by the country's long history, President Vladimir Putin and his entourage frequently assert. To understand their vision of Russia's future, one must pay attention to their use of the past and to the national myths they create and promote.

Russia is engaged in a political transition now that, even Kremlin insiders admit, is virtually a "crisis." The celebration of People's Unity Day on November 4 and the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 have brought to the forefront crises of the past and models for emerging from them. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and the state media have labored overtime in recent weeks to reduce these historical events to easily understood elements -- chaos, disunity, internal and external enemies, violence, and famine -- and to emphasize that Russia survived them only by rallying around a strong, authoritarian leader-for-life.

Historical Precedent

People's Unity Day is a three-year-old holiday that marks the liberation in 1612 of Moscow from Polish occupation and the end of a decade and a half of discord known by the ominous Russian phrase "Smutnoye vremya," the Time of Troubles. The "smuta," or trouble, was set off when the royal line of Ivan the Terrible came to an end and the country's political elites began a ruthless battle among themselves for power. The period was characterized by factional infighting, famine, and foreign occupation, nearly leading to the collapse of the Russian state. It came to an end only in 1613, when the nobility chose one of their own, Mikhail Romanov, at a Grand National Assembly, founding the dynasty that would rule Russia until 1917. Before the 17th century was out, Mikhail Romanov's grandson, Peter the Great, was in power and the country that had been on its knees was on the verge of becoming a global power.

The new People's Unity Day holiday has developed in two directions in its short history. On the one hand, it is a cause for annual semi-sanctioned "Russia-for-the-Russians" actions, events that serve to remind the public that the country's unity is fragile and that violent confrontation is lurking close to the surface. On the other hand, the holiday is marked by widespread demonstrations in support of the Kremlin and the strong central government. The Unified Russia party has begun the practice of sending representatives into schools and other institutions to make sure that the horrors of the Time of Troubles remain vivid and the lessons of unity and authoritarianism are not forgotten.


In Praise Of The Iron Fist

The logic of the analogy between the Bolshevik Revolution and the Time of Troubles leads to the conclusion that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was the strong, authoritarian leader-for-life who pulled the country out of chaos and, through a far-sighted program of industrialization and collectivization, created a country that was capable of withstanding the onslaught of Nazi Germany and of competing in the Cold War for decades. The Kremlin, of course, is wary about direct praise of Stalin, largely because of how such statements are seen in the West. In addition, the means by which Stalin came to power -- infighting, betrayal, show trials, and persecution -- are clearly less savory than the image of the Grand National Assembly that elevated Mikhail Romanov on a wave of national unity.

However, Putin has made enough overtly pro-Stalin statements over the years to have lured away virtually all the Stalinists from the Communist Party. He has restored Stalin-era state symbols and has stated directly that the country has no need to feel guilty about its past. During Putin's years in power, Stalin's reputation has grown steadily, with more and more Russians stating that he played "a positive role" in Russian history. State television commentator Mikhail Leontyev wrote in "Profil" this month: "What Stalin inherited from the Bolsheviks as an object of state -- in fact, imperial -- restoration was an absolutely Asiatic formation that could only be managed by Asiatic methods -- literally those of Genghis Khan. That is, by using 'the masses' as raw material, fuel for the historical process. There were no other means for managing that country, for saving it, for securing it in the midst of an aggressively oriented environment."

Read it all at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Also at A Tangled Web

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