There is a grim saying: “Each country gets the leader it deserves”. Is it true, or how much of it is true, especially with regard to Russia?
Leaders in democratic societies
In Western countries there have been, and still are, people (overwhelmingly men!) with dubious character features: Nixon and Trump in the US; Sarkozy in France; Boris Johnson in the UK etc. Since these leaders always have to face a next election or, according to their country’s constitution, will have to leave office one day, their rule will always remain limited. One most recent example is Donald Trump, who lost office after four years.
My argument is that it is not so much about the individual characteristics of leaders but the democratic framework within which they have to operate. Firstly democracy – the rule of the people – is able to correct and punish mistakes by leaders. This is why genuinely free elections are so important: those elected know that they cannot do whatever they like.
Secondly, a democracy accepts that the rule of law is of overriding importance. Everybody in a given society has to be subject to it with no exemptions. Therefore, the independence of judges is one of the most crucial yardsticks for a functioning democracy. Even rulers can be accused and brought to court.
Thirdly, the freedom of the press allows investigative journalists to ‘look behind the screens of power’ and report the truth. Aware of the power of a truly free press, rulers have to be cautious and honest (at least in an ideal world). This is another highly important safeguard against the misuse of political power. The press as the ‘fourth estate’ have the duty to hold governments to account.
Democratic societies don’t believe that humankind is perfect. They rather expect imperfections and have created safeguards against possible mistakes and crimes of their leaders. People therefore should not worry too much about political scandals. They demonstrate that basic safeguards are working. However, misdemeanors must have their consequences (be it in No 10 Downing Street or elsewhere). In democracies political leaders are not expected to be the better, more moral human beings. They are being judged like everybody else and have to face the same consequences.
One could argue, therefore, that democratic societies do somehow get the leaders they deserve.
Leaders in non-democratic or totalitarian societies
Totalitarian rule means that political power verges on the absolute. There are no safeguards against the misdemeanors or crimes of their leaders and no termination of their rule. As soon as a totalitarian ruler has established his power (I am not aware of any significant female totalitarian ruler), the population is basically helpless. The only way out would be a coup attempt with its historically diminishing chance of success.
Absolute power is more easily gained in societies which have never experienced a truly democratic rule for some time. Russia is a classic example: Ivan the Terrible and Tsar Nicholas were in no way democratic. Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Russian provisional government for three months in 1917, had to face an ongoing war and a famine before being deposed by the Bolsheviks. Soviet leaders from Lenin to Stalin and Brezhnev were de facto totalitarian. Boris Yeltsin, although democratically elected as president of the Russian Soviet Republic, was not able to successfully deal with the post-Soviet chaos. During his rule he became involved in personal and family corruption and finally had to rely on the Secret Service to save his life in retirement. The Russian society, without hardly any experience of democratic checks and balances, nearly always tended to believe in or just to follow a strong leader.
There were a few exceptions. In the 1990s, during Yeltsin’s rule, there were indeed independent media, journalists, TV stations etc. Already during Gorbachev’s ‘Perestrojka’ some elements of a ‘civil society’ could develop, like ‘Memorial’, the organisation to investigate Stalin’s crimes. However, there never was a stable political process, there was no rule of law, no functioning legal system. Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 could only be engineered by the financial power of the oligarchs who had managed to gain control of Russia’s major energy resources and controlled many media channels. Without a stable political base and tangible success of his reform efforts, the ailing Yeltsin could not stay in power.
The KGB, the Soviet Secret Service, managed to survive the post-Soviet chaos. It is truly remarkable how it masterminded Putin’s rise to power. In summer-autumn 1999, within a few weeks, the former deputy mayor of St Petersburg became the head of the Secret Service, renamed Federal Security Service (FSB) and then prime minister. After the FSB-fabricated bombings of apartment houses in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999, the little-known Putin quickly gained prominence by naming Chechen terrorists as culprits and starting the ruthless second war in Chechnya.
Since the Russian constitution had foreseen that the prime minister would become president, if the acting one would become ill or stepped down, Putin ‘automatically’ and ‘legally’ became Russia’s new leader. After several weeks of FSB-engineered propaganda his election on 7 May 2000 just became a formality. After two four-year periods in office (allowed by the Russian constitution), Putin made Dmitri Medvedev his successor for another four years, while keeping real power as prime minister. Putin formally returned to presidential power by winning the election on 4 March 2012. By then the Kremlin’s propaganda machine had gained enough influence and election manipulation was extensive so as to guarantee the outcome.
This short summary shows how Putin’s grip to power was formally organised according to the constitution, but in reality engineered by machinations of the FSB, masterminding his dictatorship. This was possible because the major preconditions for a functioning democracy, summarized above, were non-existent. How much is Russia’s population to blame for it?
Serfdom in Russia was officially terminated only in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II. However, in reality some nine million farmers still were serfs until the revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks did not liberate the farmers either, Stalin forced the ‘Kulaks’ to become workers in ‘state-owned’ farms. Faced with Russia’s traditional rural society, the intelligensia in the major cities wasn’t able to create a strong base for a more liberal rule. This didn’t change during the 70 years of Bolshevik rule. On the contrary, those who objected to the dictatorship were either killed or sent to Siberia. Others emigrated. In the mid-1970s the US, Jackson-Vanik amendment opened up Jewish emigration as did Gorbachev’s ‘Perestrojka’. During Putin’s dictatorship, particularly in 2022, also many intellectuals, doctors, artists, journalists etc have left the country.
In consequence, there have never existed the basic conditions for creating a functioning democratic society in Russia. As we know from history, it has taken Western societies centuries to develop democratic systems – why should Russia have managed it faster?!
The Soviet heritage of 70 years not only concerns Russia. Ukraine and Georgia are still struggling with their authoritarian past. However, they have made some impressive steps towards developing free societies and democratic political systems. Some East and Central European countries also haven’t managed the transition. In several cases ultra-nationalism has replaced socialism like in Serbia and new EU member Hungary and, to some degree, also Poland.
My rather sad conclusion is that societies ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian leaders are paying the price for their country’s history and the inability of their elites to bring about a political system which guarantees freedom for their citizens.