No discussion of the former Soviet Union is complete without talking about the lack or increase of “democracy” and “freedom.” Many Americans, in particular, grow weary of these terms by the time they reach adulthood. I think for my generation, we became burnt out and cynical not just because of the changing economy, but in particular because we experienced eight years of a president whose every speech since 11 September 2001 seemed to consist of few nouns beyond “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy.”
The understanding of democracy in Putin’s Russia is naturally more cynical. They call it “sovereign democracy,” as though all those other republics have no sovereignty. I’ve often seen Russian Kremlin supporters say that “democracy is an illusion,” or they take the ultra-literal definition of democracy: “Democracy means rule by the people! Do the people really run things in America?!” Many Americans and Europeans ask that same question, but the reason I find it funny coming from Kremlin supporters is that unlike those Westerners, they’re not proposing a system closer to that literal definition, i.e. anarchism or “true” communism. No, the solution to American or other forms of liberal democracy not being perfect and not allowing more participation is apparently a system that is by definition less democratic.
If you want to hear criticism of liberal democracy, and specifically American democracy which I can thoroughly savage for hours, I’m your man. But after living in Russia so long, and particularly after witnessing the rapid deterioration of the country’s politics post-2012, I’ve come to adopt one very important rule when it comes to critiquing conventional examples of democracies. It is so simple even a child, can grasp it, though it might sail over the head of your average “geopolitics expert”:
If you want to criticize existing forms of democracy, you should be in favor of a system that is arguably more democratic than that system you are criticizing.
Oh America’s two-party system is shit? I agree. What’s your alternative? A system where the whole parliament passes presidential initiatives unanimously and the same guy has run the country for nearly 15 years, only taking a break to switch with his little buddy? No, sorry. You don’t get to criticize.
Granted, there have been countries in history where the lack of certain democratic rights was largely a product of external forces, but I’m sorry that doesn’t describe Russia no matter how paranoid its leaders are about “color revolutions.” Moreover, if a system is legitimately less democratic due to some kind of historical or contextual cause, it doesn’t mean these measures should be advocated or seen as positive. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but those measures ought to be revised and preferably eliminated when the threat is no longer present.
That being said, part of the problem with cynicism towards concepts like democracy is the continual overuse of the term. This is especially a problem among people from traditional liberal democracies, who are unable to fully appreciate many of their rights simply because they have never been fully informed or deprived of them. I know that any time I get in a discussion over the question of personal freedoms with an American, they won’t fully grasp what it’s like to be deprived of certain rights. Most of the time they’ll make some inaccurate comparison or bring up some injustice which is often very real, but they can’t see the difference because they don’t experience what I’m talking about.
Another major problem when it comes to the overuse of terms like democracy and freedom is the lack of any accurate way to measure these things. American think tanks like Freedom House make it seem like democracy is something scientifically measurable and quantifiable, when in fact that is a highly contentious claim. After years of seeing these absurd “freedom ratings,” it seems like someone has finally taken aim at the idea that democracy can be easily quantified. What is more, a recent article from Buzzfeed shows the high costs of “promoting democracy” without actually understanding what that means.
As the Buzzfeed article is about Cuba, it’s very interesting to compare that country with Russia. Cuba had extremely legitimate reasons to oppose US attempts to “spread democracy,” which began with such interesting initiatives as the Bay of Pigs invasion, armed insurgencies, and numerous attempts on the life of Fidel Castro and others. All of this, of course, was accompanied by a cruel blockade of the Latin American country which managed to fight on in spite of the pressure.By contrast, Russia under Putin enjoyed massive investment from Europe and the US, and I know for a fact that in spite of all the capital flight, American and European companies do continue to invest in the country, as inadvisable as that is. The idea that the West is tying to destroy Russia is nothing but a paranoid fantasy, whereas the idea that the US was trying to crush Cuba is an indisputable fact. In any case, I think it’s clear that the US government’s attempts at “promoting democracy,” while possibly having good intentions in many cases, do more harm than good, especially in this age of foreign satellite media that just uses these efforts as proof that democracy is really just a propaganda tool in service to US-run hegemonic conspiracy.
Obviously liberal democracy is fraught with problems, and people need to use what power they have to resolve those problems, even if it means replacing it with a system that is more democratic, not less. Russia does not provide a viable alternative in this respect. If you want to see a real critique of liberal democracy, one which explains its irreconcilable contradictions, I recommend starting with this lecture: