Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Perestroika and the Challenge of Democracy in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Perestroika and the Challenge of Democracy in Russia

Article excerpt

Abstract: The period since the onset of perestroika is examined as a single process in which a number of fundamental metapolitical factors are identified. These processes transcend the specific personalities of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, yet shape and constrain their leaderships. Path dependency is important, but cannot be entirely determining. Postcommunist restorationism shares some features with earlier restorations but its focus on the rebirth of politics and a set of normative values is distinctive. Charismatic leadership cannot be taken in isolation and is a crucial factor in helping shape the character of institutions and the state. The appropriation of the concept of civil society in postcommunist Russia differs from its practices in Central Europe, as does the relationship between the state and regime. Two types of politics can be identified, the ideological and the axiological, but the triumph of the latter in the exit from communism has not allowed the displacement of sovereignty, typical of the Soviet period, to be transcended.

Key words: axiology, charismatic leadership, civil society, Gorbachev, ideology, metapolitics, path dependency, perestroika, postcommunist restoration, Putin, regime, sovereignty, state, Yeltsin


Russia has been engaged in a process of accelerated change for two decades. The process began as the reform of the Soviet system, dubbed perestroika (reconstruction) by Mikhail Gorbachev, and developed into the revolutionary transformation of that system followed swiftly by catastrophic breakdown, accompanied by the disintegration of the country. For an emerging Russian government, the challenge was to establish the institutions of the polity, the sinews of a national identity, the framework for a political community, and the foundations of a market economy. In the decade and a half that has passed, Russia has at best had mixed success in achieving these goals. The aim of this article is to examine the degree to which the processes that operated during perestroika shaped the postcommunist Russian system.

This article focuses on a number of key dimensions of political life that emerged out of perestroika and still impose their imprint on contemporary politics. The focus on elements of path dependency allows us to achieve a broader appreciation of political processes in the two decades since the onset of perestroika. I will not devote attention to institutions as such, although clearly the emergence, for example, of an executive presidency in 1990 marks a crucial turning point. Rather, this article looks at what can be called the metapolitical issues that continue to shape current affairs. Metapolitics are the processes that lie between the civilizational attributes of a particular society, including political culture, and the everyday conduct of political life. As with so much in contemporary Russia, there often appears to be a "second reality" behind the formal development of institutions and policies. My purpose here is to identify some of those realities as well as the roles they have played in Russian politics. At the same time, by constructing the article this way, there will be an inevitable tendency to highlight the features of continuity, although there are clearly substantial differences even, or perhaps especially, at the level of metapolitics, in the periods associated with the three leaders who have dominated the politics of the country since 1985--Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91), Boris Yeltsin (1991-99), and Vladimir Putin (2000-). At various points, I will note, but not develop, these elements of disjuncture. The focus will be on the continuity of overarching political processes.

Postcommunist Restoration

Gorbachev's perestroika began the process of restoring the great disruption represented by the October 1917 revolution. In many respects, 1985 is comparable to the beginning of other great restorationist periods in history, notably 1660 in England after Cromwell's Commonwealth and 1815 in France after the Revolution and Napoleonic empire. …

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