Formidable Obstacles to Russia’s Democratization
July 24, 2023
  • Grigorii Golosov
    European University at St. Petersburg, Russia
Grigorii Golosov explains what makes Russia different from other countries that went through democratization and what hindered the emergence of players that could oppose the country sliding toward autocracy.
In 2001, the sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh, who had long before emigrated from the USSR and made his name in American academia, published a book called A Normal Totalitarian Society. This title referred to the controversy between the two leading schools of the then-dying discipline of Soviet Studies, one of which considered Soviet society “totalitarian” – i.e. abnormal by definition – while the other thought it “normal” – very similar to a number of other dictatorships and fitting in with them.

Those debates faded. However, comparing contemporary Russia with the USSR is not a useless exercise. In support of that idea, I will cite one of Shlapentokh’s theses. He wrote that there were “three mental worlds” in Soviet society: in the first, the people supported the regime; in the second, they hated it; and in the third, they largely ignored ideological matters and spent little time, emotion or thought on any world beyond everyday life. At the same time, Shlapentokh noted that the regime always enjoyed the support (active or passive) of the majority of the population.

Legacy of the 1990s

This description seems strikingly modern. I will not turn to figures from public opinion polls, the usefulness of which in the context of contemporary Russia is the subject of discussion. But this is what Russian society looks like to most observers: relatively small groups of active supporters and opponents of the regime coexisting alongside a large majority that is not very interested in politics but generally supports the regime. That support covers practically any action of the authorities that does not directly affect people’s private interests.

This situation is typical, as academic studies of several electoral autocracies that existed in the last century, from Mexico to Egypt and Indonesia, have shown. However, the regimes described in this literature have ceased to exist, and in each case a key role in the collapse was played by active actions taken both by the political opposition and by public organizations that previously had pursued non-political aims. Such organizations form the backbone of civil society. The question I would like to discuss is not whether Russia will take a different path in the event of democratization – the question is what obstacles it will have to overcome along the way.

These obstacles are formidable, and not all of them have to do with the current regime. Some of them are rooted in the past. To begin with, in the 1990s an extremely negative attitude toward any form of public self-organization – and especially in the sphere of politics – took root across society as a result of the discrediting of the communist regime and its institutions. This negative attitude seriously hindered the emergence of players that could oppose the country sliding toward autocracy, i.e. a political opposition and civil society structures.

Russian society is extremely individualistic and atomized. This puts the authorities – regardless of the political regime – in a clearly advantageous position relative to society. The absence of any effective opposition parties in the 1990s contributed significantly to the fact that the then-emerging democracy failed to fulfill its main task – ensuring the transfer of power through elections. This led to widespread disillusionment with the very idea of democracy.

The development of civil society was largely reduced to professional activists who enjoyed the support of foreign grant-givers.
Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the absence of civil society structures in Russia was the failure of independent trade unions to form, which in most countries are the biggest public organizations.
The Nashi youth movement, launched by the Kremlin in 2005, ceased its activities in 2013. Source: VK
The state’s dominance over society

Whereas in the 1990s the Russian leadership, benefiting from the social disorganization, did not push it in any way, the situation changed after Vladimir Putin came to power. Firstly, through systematic restrictions, the regime brought under its control the opposition parties inherited from the past decade. The creation of new opposition organizations was initially reduced to fiction, since a real alternative position made it impossible to be officially registered, and then completely blocked, as the experience of the last organization of this kind, Navalny Headquarters, testifies. Secondly, the obstacles to the creation of public organizations independent of the state gradually grew and eventually became insurmountable after the introduction of such legal qualifications as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations.”

Thirdly – this played the key role, in my view – the Putin regime succeeded, albeit not without significant effort, in suppressing freedom of the press. Given that the role of opposition parties and public organizations was already modest in the 1990s, media independent of the state became central to structuring citizens’ preferences, which made possible critical mass attitudes in relation to them.

As a result, the state’s dominance over society reached a degree that was not observed in the foreign authoritarian regimes mentioned above. Whereas opposition parties, civil society structures and independent media had already taken shape by the time democratization took place in Mexico, by and large there was only the opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood when it did in Egypt, while in Indonesia there were only public organizations, mostly student and trade union. But that was enough. In contemporary Russia, however, none of the above are present on a scale that would pose an immediate threat to the regime.

It is sometimes said that Russian society is depoliticized. This is generally true, though it needs qualification. A lack of deep interest in politics is a basic characteristic of any society. Political matters are usually far from most people’s everyday life. This in itself does not prevent a person from forming a clear view on who deserves support – the government or the opposition – by the time the main (for many, the only) political event, voting in elections, happens.

However, their views are not formed by innate intuition but rather on the basis of information received from political parties during election campaigns; gleaned from non-political civic activism and the social circles it spawns; and extracted from the media. If none of this is available, then politically relevant information acquires a one-sided nature and generates mass attitudes that translate into mass support for the regime as shown in public opinion polls.

A demobilization regime

Of course, such support can be exclusively passive. Some observers have expressed bewilderment (perhaps mostly rhetorical) that during Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny there were no mass displays of support for Putin. The reaction of the majority of Russians, as it was occasionally expressed in the public space, varied from fear to curiosity, but nothing more (see more about this in Grigorii Golosov’s interview). There is nothing surprising here, however – it is a regime that seeks to demobilize.

In the late USSR, the lack of active support for the communist regime was due in particular to the dilapidation of mobilization mechanisms – their transformation into empty formalities – whereas in contemporary Russia they are not even trying to create them.
All sorts of such initiatives, starting with the now almost forgotten Nashi youth movement, were invariably imitations, and their most visible outcome was usually the enrichment of activists, sometimes followed by their departure to live abroad.
Also note that the Russian regime does not have an ideology that invariably serves as an important means of political mobilization like in party-type regimes. Characters sometimes portrayed in the Western press as regime ideologues, such as Alexander Dugin, are only marginally represented in the mainstream media. The propaganda message that these media convey to the general public can be summarized in three points: (1) Russia is surrounded by enemies, so the people must rally around the government; (2) Russia is not perfect, but other countries are worse off; (3) Russia defends traditional values – namely, it opposes same-sex marriage. Otherwise, the content of traditional values is something like “we are for everything good and against everything bad.”

The passive majority of citizens express support for any action of the authorities. The population becomes aware of authorities’ actions from the mass media controlled by the authorities. Meanwhile, criticism is simply not expressed in the public media. It can be argued that the internet gives access to a wider range of opinions, and it really does; however, a person who is not particularly interested in politics usually does not put in the effort to specifically look for political information on the internet.

The jamming of most Western radio stations was not carried out in the USSR from the time the Helsinki Accords were implemented until the summer of 1980, when it was resumed due to events in Poland and Afghanistan. A shortwave receiver, though rather expensive, was still quite affordable for a considerable part of the population. However, the influx of information did not have a wide impact on the mass political consciousness or behavior, and the Soviet authorities did not see it as a threat that warranted taking shortwave receivers off store shelves.

The situation is the same now: the authorities, of course, are aware that the internet provides the population with access to alternative political information, and that the current restrictions are easily bypassed through VPNs, but this does not seem to be considered a priority problem. Indeed, for the majority in Russia, as in other countries, the internet serves chiefly as a means of everyday communication and a source of entertainment and practical knowledge.

What can undermine stability?

Of course, the above applies to the masses. The circle of people seriously interested in politics in Russia is quite wide and, according to international public opinion polls like the World Values Survey, is not smaller in scale than in most countries. This circle can be divided in two. The first part is a fairly significant (according to various estimates, from 10 to 20% of the population) group of people who do not support the regime and are very critical of any of its actions. This group represents, potentially, a source of opposition political activists. However, this potential cannot be realized amid the tough political restrictions and repressive legislation, which dooms this group to passive observation of what is happening. A fairly large, though hardly statistically significant, subgroup has left Russia in the last two years.

This group is the main consumer of information provided by the foreign-based opposition media, and also partly creates this information, generating it on social networks. This allows critical citizens to maintain their political identity. There is no reason to believe that they have become fewer in number since the start of the full-scale conflict in Ukraine. In this regard, the situation differs from that observed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when many previously critical citizens expressed support for the Kremlin’s actions. On the other hand, there are no preconditions for this group to grow at the current time. Its predominant moods are pessimism and disorientation. Unfortunately, these sentiments are fueled by some opposition media and bloggers oriented toward Russians who have left the country, focusing on “the collective guilt of Russians” and “the lack of a future for Russia.”
Igor Strelkov (Girkin), a warmonger who has harshly criticized the incompetence of Russia's war in Ukraine, as well as Putin personally, was arrested on July 21. Source: VK
In 2021-22, a second part of the politicized public emerged, which can be described as active supporters of the war. This group existed before as a dispersed community of radical nationalists, many of whom held views that were very critical of the Russian leadership. Now, this camp has been replenished with people who generally support the authorities, even if they are critical of certain actions of military leaders. This is the so-called “military bloggers” and journalists, who convey their position to their audiences through marginal TV outfits like Solovyov Live and voenkor Telegram channels. More critical (though not quite oppositional) attitudes are represented by Igor Girkin-Strelkov and his “Angry Patriots Club.”

The approach of the Russian state toward both politicized groups of the population and the leaders of public opinion associated with them has always been based on a combination of repression and co-optation: the groups have taken part in various kinds of consultations with the authorities but were almost never given access to the real levers of power. This situation remains generally unchanged, and
“Recently nationalists have increasingly become the main object of co-optation.
Summing up, we can say that the Russian state dominates over society by: suppressing any attempt at self-organization; maintaining a monopoly in the widely accessible press, which generates passive support from the masses; and marginalizing the politicized groups of the population, combined with targeted repressions against them. This system of relations between state and society has developed throughout the entire period of Putin’s rule and continues to develop. It has not undergone any significant corrections recently.

The relative stability of this situation is largely ensured by the absence of strong drivers that could prompt the part of the population that now passively supports the regime to accept alternative interpretations of what is happening, and on that basis to reformulate their political preferences. Such drivers could be a marked deterioration in people’s economic situation, a large-scale military defeat or an acute conflict within the ruling group. The experience of other authoritarian regimes shows that fundamental shifts in the mass consciousness can be swift, but only if the accumulated, latent discontent coincides with the sudden emergence of strong external incentives.

Currently, there are no clear grounds to speculate on what exactly could serve as the impetus for a change in the existing model of relations between the Russian state and society, and even more so on what ideological direction such a shift could take. The direction depends on two factors. First, situational conflicts within the ruling group and its security apparatuses – which now seem to be the most likely driver of future political dynamics – will play an important role. Second, it depends on the ability of the politicized groups of the population to effectively organize their supporters when the moment presents itself.
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