Perestroika and the Challenge of Democracy in Russia

By Sakwa, Richard | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Perestroika and the Challenge of Democracy in Russia


Sakwa, Richard, Demokratizatsiya


Russia has been engaged in a process of accelerated change for two decades. The process began as the reform of the Soviet system, dubbed perestroïka (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 perestroïka 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. After the period of crisis comes to an end, there is a striving for "normality," a theme that was particularly accentuated under Putin. At the same time, Gorbachev did not begin by repudiating the achievements of the Bolshevik revolution, and thus perhaps a better comparison is with 1794 and Thermidor, rejecting the excesses of Robespierre's (or Stalin's) dictatorship but striving to salvage what was perceived to be the rational and progressive elements of the revolution.

Gorbachev realized that the system was suffering from major problems, with declining economic growth, stultifying secrecy in scientific and political life, and with politics dominated by an increasingly dysfunctional elite.1 Gorbachev believed that the old system remained viable and only needed to be reformed to be able to enter the world as an alternative to capitalist modernity. By starting a "revolution within the revolution," Gorbachev hoped to save the essentials of the system, especially the leading role of the party and the planned economy.2 Gorbachev was the last exponent of "reform communism," the program of communist revival that had been attempted twenty years earlier by Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia under the slogan, "Socialism with a human face. …

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