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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building a Democracy

As a longtime Sovietologist, I often experience a shock of revelation when I hear my Russian friends talk about my profession. The common assumption, it seems, is that a Westerner, however astute and well-informed, is incapable of understanding this country -- its peculiar history, its political culture, the mentality of most of its citizens. It is a variant of those famous lines by the 19th-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev: "Russia cannot be understood by reason. ... In Russia one can only believe."

Western Sovietology is generally dismissed as the product of naive (often, "leftist") minds. Now I wouldn't contest the view that some Sovietologists are far from brilliant, or that some have been blinded by ideological or political considerations. Yet their oeuvre has, on the whole, been impressive. As long-time editor of the journal Problems of Communism, I remember publishing articles considerably more discerning than even the best that would later appear in samizdat. Since then, of course, there has been an explosion of information that few on either side of the ocean had predicted. But it would be salutary if Russians realized that in fact many of the disclosures of recent years had long been common knowledge to Western experts.

To make matters still more curious, many Russian observers also believe that they have a better grasp of the essentials of the American or other Western political systems than Westerners themselves, and that this gives them intellectual carte blanche to "replicate" certain Western institutions.

As an example of those structures, Russian "democrats" often point to Russia's presidential system, which is supposedly based to some extent on the successful presidential system in the United States. However, unlike the system introduced by the new constitution of the Russian Federation, the American president -- who boasts considerable powers -- is severely constrained by an elaborate mechanism of check and balances. You don't have to be a guru of the Carnegie Endowment or the Heritage Foundation (both institutions highly valued in Russia) to know that under this system the two other branches of government, the legislative and the judicial, have equally strong prerogatives -- strong enough to nullify executive orders.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, on the other hand, rules almost exclusively by decree -- 2300 of them in 1993, with perhaps even more expected this year. This is unheard of in any other democratic system, presidential or otherwise. If he cannot bend an emasculated Duma to his will -- that is, if the Duma doesn't give him the bill he wants -- he goes ahead and issues it as a decree.

The decree On Crime, which Yeltsin issued last June 14, is a particularly obnoxious case in point. The bill flagrantly violates basic human rights and several critical articles of the new constitution. For example, the decree allows law-enforcement authorities to hold a suspect for as long as 30 days without bringing charges, while the Russian constitution clearly stipulates only 48 hours. Even some of Yeltsin's most ardent supporters in the Duma denounced the decree.

But their protests have been to no avail, since Russia still does not have a constitutional court -- the only body that could adjudicate this matter -- and Yeltsin, who disbanded the former court, has been unable to break the logjam in the Duma concerning his nominees for the court. The "democratic" members of the truncated and non-functioning constitutional court spend their days just sitting around the court building and would rather not think about this problem. That, at least, is the impression I got recently when I spent some time with one of the court's most prestigious members. "Why criticize the boss?" To point to this as an example of how the Russians are replicating the American system is simply outrageous.

What is more, many Russian admirers of Western (usually, American) political systems seem to assume that power bestows nearly unlimited privileges on those who exercise it -- so why should Russia be any different? I am exaggerating, but not much. A fairly prominent liberal who held an important position in the Moscow city government one fine day gathered his family and departed, at government expense, for a week's jaunt to Southeast Asia. When a mutual friend of ours, an American, remonstrated him, the official replied: "Why, isn't this common practice in the West?" He was nonplussed when our friend explained that while some American officials also have a bent for expensive junkets, none of them would dare defend themselves on the ground that he was only doing what's expected of him!

The naivet? betrayed by the Russian official tells us something, I think, of the current wave of crime and corruption sweeping the country. It would be ridiculous to maintain that the extent of demoralization in Russian society reflects an attitude that it's somehow "all right" to steal, cheat, swindle and rob because, after all, "everybody in the West" is doing it.

Nevertheless, I think there is something to this idea. It has something to do with the sense that the society of prosperity and progress that Russia hopes to achieve, known as "full capitalism," must unavoidably entail the same kind of social ills engendered, say, by capitalism in England and the United States in the late nineteenth century. You cannot make an omelette, it used to be said, without breaking the eggs: This statement was supposed to justify the horrors of industrialization, collectivization and terror because of the ultimate triumph of "full communism." Now, unfortunately, the same complacent formula is being used to justify making a full capitalist omelette. Not much of a choice there, I fear.

Abraham Brumberg, former editor of Problems of Communism, writes frequently on Russian and East European affairs. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.