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A very special version of Russian democracy

When asked whether their country is a democracy, Russians struggle to find a comprehensive answer.

Russia cannot be understood with mere intellect

Or measured by a common yardstick.

Russia is so special 

That you can only believe in it.

These famous lines, written by a Russian poet Feodor Tutchev in 1866, are rightfully timeless. Last week an independent Moscow-based market research agency Levada Centre published the results of its recent survey on democracy in Russia. At the risk of asking the obvious (according to its constitution, Russia is a democratic, federal republic), the respondents were given multiple choice questions and asked to determine whether democracy existed in Russia today. 62 per cent of Russians were certain or fairly certain that demos (the people) had kratos (the power) in Russia in 2015, as compared to 36 per cent five years ago. In addition, more people thought that things were getting better or at least fewer people were worried that the democratic standards were slipping (11 per cent in 2015 vs 20 per cent in 2010). 

Does democracy exist in Russia today?

 

March 2010

November 2015

Yes, definitely

4%

16%

Yes, to some extent

32%

46%

Not yet

36%

19%

There is becoming less of it lately

20%

11%

I don’t know

8%

9%

When asked “What kind of democracy does Russia need?”, almost half of the respondents (46 per cent) replied that Russia needed its own, very special version of democracy, in line with the country’s norms and traditions. It is this answer that prompted me to investigate what Russians meant by the “special kind of democracy”, which cannot be measured by a common yardstick. I asked Russians who live in Moscow as well as Russian expats in London and Zürich, who have been exposed to western values for over a decade.  

Most people I spoke to have indeed picked the “distinct form of democracy”, arguing that “an American model is unsuitable” for Russia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one could elaborate on the specifics of the desired model. One woman volunteered that “the ideal ruler for Russia would be someone like Peter the Great.” Once we have cleared that Russia under Peter was absolute monarchy, my respondent explained her reasoning: “Russia needs a strong leader, a disciplinarian. Russians cannot be ruled with a carrot, they understand only the stick.” In her view, Russians are too emotional and if they are granted too much freedom, they turn into loose cannons. She has a point. When Yeltsin, the most liberal head of state Russia has ever known, finally fuelled economic reforms, initialised by Gorbachev, the unprecedented market freedom has resulted in chaos, which culminated with Russia’s financial default in 1998.

The idea of a “strong ruler with wider powers” than would be implied by a Western constitution was echoed by others. “Russia needs a master,” said a mother of two who lives in Britain. “Russian people need clear directions and control, otherwise they’d just sit there like Brits on benefits, watching TV and complaining all the time.” Her argument gave a nod to Goncharov’s Oblomov, a fictitious nineteenth century character who wasted his life because he was lazy and lacked purpose. This disillusion with freedom explains well why Stalin has recently re-emerged in Russia as a symbol of order and united national spirit. 

A few people I spoke to were convinced that Russia did not need any democracy at all. They too citied Russia's history and its achievements under Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin. It’s little wonder that 85 per cent of the population supports Putin, according to the December 2015 poll by the Levada Centre. The special feature of the Russian mentality is that anyone but the tsar is to blame. Corruption, lawlessness, lack of social infrastructure and inequality are evident to all, but these are the problems associated with the “local imbeciles” and oligarchs, not the person presiding on the throne. 

Russians appear to be particularly allergic to the democracy of the “American kind”. “Look at the United States and what their democracy did to the Middle East. What about Ukraine, seduced by the US and Western promises, and now suffering from economic hardship?” said one entrepreneur. “The Brits may not want to bomb Syria, but their MPs voted to do it anyway,” pointed another. 

Western values, such as protection of the human rights, freedom of speech and equal opportunities for the minorities, appear to be too remote from the day-to-day lives to be considered as priorities. Another recent survey revealed that 58 per cent of Russians “have enough money for food and clothes, but considering such purchases as a TV set or a fridge would be a problem.” 14 per cent have enough money for food but not clothes and 3 per cent struggle to buy food. Just 3 per cent “can afford to buy a car”. Some people I spoke to offered that “minority rights contradict traditions of Russian Orthodox church”. Sadly, this religious argument to support the curtailment of the LGBT rights has become the focal point, as if the disabled in Russia enjoy fair treatment or the racism does not exist. “We have too many people for today’s oil price!” said my former classmate. I can only hope he was joking.  

It is, of course, not at all surprising that no one could come up with an eloquent description of an ideal model of democracy, especially moulded for Russian mentality. Quite simply, Russia has no experience of it. From the absolute monarchy, Russia barely had a chance to get used to having a parliament (or Duma), when the Bolshevik revolution had erased all traces of it and kept it under locks for 70years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia did the best it could to draw a new constitution, draft new laws and declare individual freedoms. Inevitably, there were teething issues, but instead of nurturing the nascent democracy, Russia’s current governing elite has been busy using its power over media to feed people an old tale about Russia’s unique path. “The Western model won’t work here”, the emphasised values of integrity, orthodoxy and “the national spirit” have once again conquered the Russian minds just like these ideas had been advocated by the tsar Nikolai I in the nineteenth century. New terms, such as a “governed democracy” and “sovereign democracy” have popped up to entertain the inquisitive minds. Other minds probably don’t even care. 

So what is Russia today? A special democracy or a just failed one?

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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder