The rise of political authoritarianism or 'managed democracy' in Russia under President and now Prime Minister Vladmir Putin is the object of anxious fascination in the West. The geopolitical realities of dependence on Russian gas and oil ensure that western societies are keenly interested in the evolution of Russia's government. What has come to be known as 'Putinism' has involved the centralisation of political and economic power, the emasculation of parliamentary politics, the muzzling of the media, a return to the rhetoric of Great Russian nationalism and a bullying interference in the affairs of neighbouring states in what the Russians call 'the near abroad'.
The architects of this new authoritarianism are a powerful clique of siloviki, former members of the intelligence services and armed forces with influential positions within Russian business. Critics refer to the 'KGB spirit' that has taken over the country and Putin himself is ritually criticised as a KGB apparatchik who understands democracy primarily as something to be tamed and manipulated.
Yet Putin remains undeniably popular, supported by a majority of Russians as a welcome alternative to the chaotic freedom, lawlessness and kleptocracy of the Yehsin years. Western commentators usually explain Russians' enthusiastic embrace of the Kremlin's authoritarianism (and their cheerful disregard, excepting a few marginalised protest groups, of the niceties of civic, press and political freedoms) as part of the political legacy of the Soviet Union. For more than 70 years the Communist system stamped on dissent and promoted the orderliness of a military barracks. It cultivated in the population a fatal indifference to democratic debate and a preference for strong leaders who derive their legitimacy from a projection of control and power rather than their ability to govern by persuasion.
The authoritarianism of the Kremlin and its support base among a politically naive and manipulated population are both consequences of Russia's disastrous departure from liberal constitutionalism and representative democracy for the bulk of the 20th century. Or are they.') The preference for order over freedom in Russia today has reprised popular disillusionment with democratic institutions and values in the decade before the Bolsheviks came to power. In their retreat from democracy under Putin, contemporary Russians have followed their liberal predecessors down a path trodden originally in the country's first experiment with democracy between 1905 and 1917.
At the turn of the 20th century, Russian liberal reformers sought to modernise society in accordance with liberal values of the rule of law, respect for private property and the introduction of representative institutions of government. Imbued with values of reason, order and justice, leading liberal lawyers, newspaper editors, local government activists and professionals all believed that Russia's masses needed to be intellectually emancipated and politically enfranchised. Only then would it be possible to release the economic, moral and intellectual forces of the country from the dead hand of tsarism.
Fond hopes that the spread of democracy would heal the divisions within Russian society between a small educated elite and the impoverished mass of the Russian peasantry and urban poor suffered a body blow in the 1905 Revolution. The 'dress rehearsal', as Lenin called it, swept the Russian countryside in an orgy of violence and was only put down after a brutal campaign of pacification by the armed forces of the tsarist state. Terrorists claimed the lives of about 17,000 people between 1903 and 1911; indiscriminate peasant violence was visited upon the gentry, rural school teachers, village postmasters, anyone who did not hail from the peasants' own world. Revolutionary violence was accompanied by an upsurge in common criminality, an epidemic of suicide, sexual violence and pogroms which ravaged the empire's impoverished Jewish community. …