Vladimir Putin and his regime are a logical reflection of the fact that “almost no one [in Russia] wanted a real democracy with separation of powers and a vibrant civil society,” according to Levada Center head Lev Gudkov. Consequently, it is possible to say that “Russians have received what the majority of them wanted.”
In an interview with Radio Liberty, Gudkov says that today, an authoritarian regime “with recidivist aspects of totalitarianism has been established in Russia,” with the regime having “practically a complete monopoly on the media” and with “information channels having been converted into instruments of propaganda.”
Moreover, he continues, “all the authority of the political police has been restored and in fact any normal political activity has been liquidated. No space in fact remains for political competition and free discussion.”
And Gudkov points out, “even a new ideology has appeared, one that didn’t exist and is almost Nazi in character: this is the idea of the scattered nation that must be reassembled under the umbrella of ‘the Russian world,’” one that trumps talk about separation of powers, accountable government, and elite circulation with “a mythology of the organic unity of power and people.”
Russia has developed in this way, the sociologist suggests, because “in 1990, no one seriously raised the question about the transformation of Soviet society into something democratic.” There was a lot of talk, but most of it was about ending the Community Party’s monopoly of power. Fearful of witch hunts, “no one raised the question of lustration.”
As a result, “power was very quickly handed over from the [Soviet] nomenklatura [a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level government positions are drawn–Ed.] to a new group, outwardly anti-communist while still retaining in its hands all the instruments of power,” Gudkov continues. And that had an impact on everything else, including the entire “construction of power.”
The political parties which arose were “not parties which grew ‘from below,’ out of society itself and thus represented the interests of various social groups.” Instead, “these were simply various factions of the nomenklatura which were competing and struggling among themselves for power.”
The only people who took the idea of reform seriously were the economists, Gudkov says. And that promoted the redistribution of property with “its privatization into the interests of the former second echelon.” But “nothing was done” in the political sphere to promote the growth and institutionalization of democracy.
With the collapse in Boris Yeltsin’s level of support by the mid-1990s, the public opinion pollster continues, “expectations for an authoritarian leader grew” alongside intensifying “conservative or reactionary trends.” Yeltsin might have chosen to try to recover his popular support, but instead, he decided to rely on the security structures “and above all the political police.”
Consequently, according to Gudkov, Putin’s elevation was entirely logical, but in fact it would not have mattered that much “who became successor.” Others would likely have moved in much the same direction. And whenever popular support declines, such a Russian leader will rely on the police rather than trying to mobilize people by democratic means.
This could not have happened without a certain amount of popular approval or at least willingness to go along. The calculations of the president and the attitudes of the population were mutually “reinforcing” and there is no way to decide which is the chicken and which is the egg. “No propaganda could have been effective if it had not relied on definite structures of mass consciousness.”
The roots of this mass consciousness, Gudkov argues, lie in the sense of loss Russians experienced after 1991, and then the transformation of these feelings of loss in a “masochistic” direction, one in which Russians and their leaders acknowledged that they were not like others but bad, while at the same time insisting that others respect them.
“The result of this became the growth of dark lowlife nationalism and xenophobia and assertiveness in opposing oneself to the rest,” he says. Putin has exploited these feelings “very effectively” while turning increasingly to repression and the restoration of “institutions which existed in Soviet times, the centralization of administration and the rest.”
From this perspective, Gudkov suggests that the reason Russia did not become democratic is “because in general no one wanted this. No one raised the question seriously about the creation of parallel institutions, programs of political action and so on.” Some people talked about these things but no groups emerged to effectively act on them.
And as a result, “whatever the nature of the regime and whatever propaganda or demagoguery it engages in, its main force consists in the fact that resistance to it is very weak. There is no alternative – that is the main problem. Or there is no faith in the possibility of an alternative,” Gudkov concludes.