Tradition Breaks Reform
No. 4 2009 October/December

Russian liberals have been warning the U.S. administration
recently that making concessions and compromises with the current
Russian government only strengthens this authoritarian regime and
foils democratic and liberal processes in the country. They mostly
criticize U.S. realists who defend the need to respect Russia’s
interests and sovereignty.

This position taken by U.S. realists is supposedly based on the
assumption that the Russian nation is not ready to accept
democratic values and institutions, and, consequently, there is no
point in trying to promote democracy in Russia from the outside.
However, the realists’ concept implies no such argument regarding
the Russian nation.

This erroneous interpretation of the realists’ views has led to
a no less mistaken and persistent assumption that Russians are
striving towards democracy and have a good idea of what it is.
Remarkably, Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an
independent polling and research organization, co-authored an
article published in The Washington Post that stated such views,
although he should be more knowledgeable than most about the
results of opinion polls that show exactly the opposite.

The article, citing an opinion poll conducted by the Levada
Center in 2008, said Russians “would like to see their Motherland
becoming more open to the outside world, and would like the abuses
of power and corruption among officials to stop.” Meanwhile, when
asked in 2008 “Would you like to live in a country that actively
defends its culture and traditions or a country open to the whole
world and all modern trends?”, 77 percent of the respondents
preferred a country that protects its heritage, and a mere 18
percent chose the second option (the figures cited hereafter have
been released by the Levada Center). But it is illogical to string
together “openness to the world,” corruption and abuse of

“Two-thirds of Russians would like to see the establishment of
democracy and the supremacy of law in the country,” the Levada
Center reports. However, this is not supported by the results of
the poll. Moreover, when asked what kind of democracy Russia needs,
only 20 percent of those polled said it should be a Western-style
democracy, while 45 percent opted for “a completely different
democracy, which conforms to national traditions and Russian

It should be noted that since 1996 (near the end of the Yeltsin
era), Russia has profoundly re-evaluated its political system,
opting for the one that exists at present (i.e. Putin’s system),
and rejecting both the Western and Soviet systems. When asked in
1996 which political system is better, 39 percent of those polled
preferred the Soviet system; 28 percent selected the Western one;
and a mere 8 percent liked the Russian political system of that
time. In 2008, the answers were 24, 15 and 36 percent,
respectively. Clearly, Russians prefer authoritarianism to
Yeltsin’s democratic anarchy.

Recent propaganda targeting both the communists and the West has
had its effect, as well. This ideology also aimed to reinforce the
concept of “a hostile environment” where Russia is portrayed as a
besieged fortress. The ratio between positive and negative answers
to the question “Does Russia have enemies?” in 2004 was 41 to 22,
whereas in 2008 it rose to 68 to 14.

How then can we say that Russia is striving towards a society
“open to the whole world” if the same poll in 2008 reports that
four-fifths of the respondents, against just 15 percent, answered
in the affirmative to the question “Is our country noted for
special originality and spiritual culture, which surpasses all
other countries?” The assertion that “Russia is a great country
that can be understood only by believing in its great destiny” is
supported by 82 percent of respondents and rejected by 9 percent.
These figures signify the highest level of national conceit,
self-complacency and messianism in Russians.


Today the issue of power in Russia and the vector of its
political evolution boils down to a discussion of two problems:
first, why the country failed once again to implement a liberal
government system project – which envisions public control over the
authorities, power-sharing and mutual respect and trust between the
government and society; and, second, how to define the type of the
government system and inherent power relations that are sidelining
the liberal-democratic one. There are two different approaches to
resolve the first problem, with the controversy akin to the debates
between the geneticists and Lysenkovites (the dogmatists of
biology) in the first half of the 20th century.

The cultural-genetic premise holds that launching liberal
undertakings and borrowing liberal Western institutions run into
barriers created by differences in the systems of values, or even
deeper, archetypal and often subconscious correlations with
reality, which may be called “perception of the world” or
“sensation of the world.”

The genetically predetermined mistrust of the West, along with
rejecting the Western lifestyle and values, plays a fatal role in
forming the system of governance in Russia. Pollsters have ample
evidence on this account. In March 2006, the following answers were
recorded to a question about the specifics of democratic
development in various countries: 78 percent of those polled
claimed that each country was going along its own path (“sovereign
democracy”) and a mere 10 percent said all countries were moving
towards democracy along the same path.

In March 2001 (a year after Putin came to power), the problem
was subjected to a thorough study. The question “What kind of
government would you like to see in Russia?” was answered as
follows: 34 percent of the respondents wanted “a Western-style
democracy (including the market, private property, democratic
institutions, etc.)”; 28 percent preferred a socialist state with a
Communist ideology; and 27 percent opted for a state with its own,
specific government system. Another question was “Which historic
path should Russia take?” It turned out that only half of those who
wished to see Russia as a Western-style state said it should follow
the path of Western civilization common for all modern states,
while the other half said it should go its own way to achieve the
desired objective. So 15 percent of Russians supported both the
line towards a Western-style state and a common path, while 16
percent believed that Russia needs to find its own way to achieve
common goals with the West. In total, a special path (regardless of
what it implies) is supported by 53 percent of the respondents,
including 23 percent who believe that this will lead to a special
political system. If we compare these figures with the latest data,
we will see that the number of supporters of a special path for
Russia has increased during Putin’s administration from 53 to 70

Democratic values make up the core of the Western civilization’s
system of values, whereas they look marginal in the Russian system.
That democracy for Russians is not the necessary element of good
governance is shown by the results of a joint Russia-U.S. study,
conducted in April 2006 (1,000 respondents in Russia and 1,023
respondents in the U.S.). One of the questions was “What do you
think about the governments of China, the U.S. and Russia?” China’s
governance system drew positive opinions from 54 percent of
Russians and 14 percent of Americans (the ratio of negative
opinions was 14 to 80 percent, respectively). As for the U.S.
government, 54 percent of Russians and 83 percent of Americans
approved of it, against 27 percent of Russians and 14 percent of
Americans who answered in the negative.

Forty-seven percent of Russians and 26 percent of Americans
believe in the effectiveness of the Russian governance system,
while 42 percent of Russians and 68 percent of Americans think

It follows from these figures that Russians place the Chinese
governance system above that of the U.S., although the answers to
another question indicate that they regard the U.S. system as more
democratic. It is therefore obvious that Russians, unlike
Americans, do not think that a good government must necessarily be

A considerable portion of Russians do not believe that
authoritarian trends gained momentum during Putin’s rule, although
many experts and liberal politicians criticized him for that.

The results of a poll conducted in January 2009, which asked the
question “In what direction is political life developing in this
country?” were as follows: “democratic development” – 36 percent;
“chaos, anarchy gaining momentum” – 21 percent; “emerging
authoritarianism, dictatorships” – 14 percent; “a return to the old
Soviet order” – 8 percent; and 20 percent were undecided. It should
be noted that contrary to efforts by the authorities to revive old
Soviet symbols and style, and the opinion of some experts that
Putin’s government is associated with the Soviet period, a
relatively small portion of Russians see a return to the Soviet
past in government policies, despite the obvious infringement upon
the rights of the mass media. A majority of those polled say the
situation with the mass media improved during Putin’s rule.

A constant recurrence – at various stages in Russian history –
of relations and traditions peculiar to its civilization pattern is
quite obvious to anyone who takes a careful look at Russia’s
historical experience. For instance, Russian historian Vassily
Klyuchevsky defended the idea of genetic succession in Russian
history: “Why should we understand our past they say, if we have
renounced it, as we’re building our lives on entirely new
principles? But we ignore a key point: exhilarated and thrilled at
how the Reform [the reform of 1861 – L.S.] changed Russian
tradition, we forget how this tradition, for its part, changed the
Reform.” Similarly, is the traditional lifestyle not showing from
under the market and liberal-democratic guise of the present-day
reformed Russia?

The modern Lysenkovites in political science, not unlike their
predecessors in biology, believe that conditions play a crucial
role in forming a political system. Emil Pain, a staunch opponent
of the civilization concept, writes: “If traditional mentality
lives on, it means that either the conditions that generated it
have survived, or new conditions have emerged, which function as a
refrigerator or a hothouse for reviving seemingly withered
traditions.” It follows that in order to form civil consciousness
and a civil society, Russia needs an institution such as a
society-nation, i.e. precisely what cannot be achieved within the
context of traditional civilization specifics. This kind of logic
boils down to the proposition: “There is no civil society in Russia
because it has no civil society.”


Those who oppose the civilization concept fear it is close to
the idea of “a special way for Russia” professed by statism, which
provides the groundwork for isolationism as a means to protect the
country from the influence of foreign cultures and dependence on

But even these opposed to cultural genetics acknowledge that at
least some traits of an average Russian have “a much longer past
history (than the Soviet period), and are deeply rooted in the
traditions of Russian political or social serfdom” (Lev

Admittedly, the supporters of Russia as a great power are more
sensitive to the interests and aspirations of Russian culture and
history. But whereas finding genetic traits and historical
continuity have a positive meaning for them, liberals should be
careful not to underestimate the influence of traditional mass
sentiments on politics and state-building. One should always bear
in mind that the authorities in Russia tend to meet people’s
expectations in order to win more supporters. In addition,
government officials are Russians who share a special mentality
inherent in the nation. The most merciless definition of the
Russian situation in terms of cultural genetics was recently given
by Yuri Afanasyev, one of the ideologists of post-Soviet
liberalism, in an article called “The Special Way of Russia –
Running in Place in History” published by Novaya Gazeta. He writes:
“The character and type of the Russian government is as important a
system-making element of the ‘Russian track’ as a never-ending war
– accompanied by a constant and daily militarization – and
Orthodoxy. To put the idea in modern terms, the Russian government
could put the word ‘violence’ on one side of its business card, and
‘occupation’ on the other. ‘Occupation’ means that the authorities
treat the population of their own country as strangers, the

“A regime of self-occupation” and a type of government that can
be defined as “of the Horde” would most adequately describe the
Russian government system during all periods of its history,
including now. Elaborating on the “Horde-type government,”
Afanasyev includes, in addition to violation and occupation,
“autocracy, monologue instead of dialogue, a dictate instead of
negotiations, no compromise, an unwillingness to accept an accord
as a means of communication, and, lastly, Manicheanism.”

The author of the present article is probably the first to have
introduced the notion of “self-occupation” into the political
vocabulary (in Novaya Gazeta in 2004). At the dawn of perestroika I
wrote: “Power has been the primary value in Russia at all times.
All Russian social reality is arranged around the key notions of
chin (rank), and nachal’stvo (bosses) (both stemming from the
Russian word nachalo [beginning]). There is nothing more alien to
the Russian mentality than pluralism or power sharing. Power should
be single and hierarchical, otherwise the beginning will disappear
and a vicious circle will emerge.”

These traits of the national mentality have been confirmed by
public opinion polls in recent years. For example, 51 percent of
the respondents support the notion that the concentration of power
benefits Russia, compared to 29 percent who object to it.
Characteristically, it is mostly young respondents aged 18 to 24
who favor authoritarianism. There is no way that they could be
influenced by the Soviet lifestyle and their answer is a
manifestation of adolescent mentality, which is seen in many

An understanding of what was happening at the beginning of
market reforms and democratic changes from the point of view of
cultural genetics would protect liberals from too much euphoria and
show in what ways the tradition would inevitably disrupt the

It would be difficult to disagree with Yuri Afanasyev’s
description of the reforms: “Genuine changes only took place in a
small number of life-support sectors, but they did not affect the
very principles of the social order. They never touched the core of
the crucial element of the Russian system: the government, its
role, structure, function and its main pillars of violence and
reprisals: the army, the judicial system, law-enforcement, the
political police, the education system, etc. The government system
remains, as in Soviet times and before, a Horde-type – it does not
depend on society in any way, is unbalanced and uncontrolled by any
public forces or institutions. It is only guided by its own
material interest and a tendency for self-preservation.”


Russian society tends to form tiers of mafias through the
actions of the principles of hierarchy and rank-worship on the one
hand, and adolescent group solidarity on the other, with the
upper-ruling mafia as the occupational force. The social order has
been dismantled three times in post-Kievan Rus. This was
accompanied by an increase in social mobility and the establishment
of a new ruling mafia based on new recruiting principles and
socio-economic benefits. The first dismantling occurred in the
middle of the 15th century, when the mafia of boyars [the nobility
before Peter the Great ordered that rank depend on state service –
Ed.] sided with the Moscow princes. The second took place after the
Time of Troubles, when the boyars and the relatively independent
clergy were replaced by a new government and clerical class – the
gentry’s mafia. Finally, the emancipation of the serfs heralded the
end of the gentry’s mafia and the emergence of a mafia of
bureaucrats, which eventually turned into the elite of
functionaries after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The revolution
of 1989-1991 ushered the corporate mafia into the government, a
symbiosis of bureaucrats and business people on a clan/criminal

But after the triumph of the new principle of social order,
decades had to pass before a new stratum – the new mafia – could
fully triumph, as it needed time to mature for its final, murderous
assertion. For example, the supremacy of Moscow as a principle was
established after the arrival of the metropolitans; the appointment
of Metropolitan Iona (1446) independent from Constantinople; the
elimination of independent areas within the Principality of Moscow;
and after a majority of the largest principalities submitted to
Moscow. The final blow to the separatist mentality and its
advocates was delivered by Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniki, a squad
notorious for violence and massacres. The gentry-in-service
principle became prominent under the Romanov royal family and was
fixed in the Code of 1649, but the new mafia finally secured a firm
grip on power during the totalitarian period of Peter the Great’s
rule. The principle that brought together bureaucrats,
functionaries and intellectuals who did not belong to the gentry
replaced the class-gentry principle in 1861, but its final
establishment took place during the years of Stalinist repression.
If one follows this pattern the incumbent corporate mafia will only
be completely established by 2060. It is impossible to predict what
forms of totalitarianism will develop by that time; however, it
should be taken into account that all totalitarian periods in
Russian history have been ideocratic.