October 27, 2017 - by Derek Fraser, Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria
This paper was presented during the conference "1917 and Today - Putin Russia and the Legacy of Revolution"
Those of us who live in well-established democracies tend to forget how difficult it is, and how long it takes, to achieve relatively stable democratic institutions and practices. It took the French over eighty years after their Revolution to reach this state of affairs. Of the European countries that emerged from the First World War with democratic systems, a large number in Central and Southern Europe succumbed, in the course of the next twenty years, to dictatorship, often precipitated by political or economic crises.
Russia has little democratic experience to fall back on. Instead, what is remarkable about Russian history is the strength of the tradition that the Russians had inherited from 250 years of Mongol rule, - that of a strong state ruled by an all-powerful sovereign as a means of mustering the resources of the country for war.[i]
By the time of Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia had none of the limits to the powers of the monarch that existed at that time in Western Europe even in absolutist monarchies: the Church was nothing more than a government department, the nobles were reduced to functionaries, national and regional assemblies had atrophied, cities were not autonomous.[ii] Peter also increased the repression and strengthened the secret police. Peter’s Russia has been described as a police state.
The basic elements of Peter’s absolutist monarchy lasted until the Revolution in 1917. The two major reforms of 1861: the emancipation of the serfs and the supervised local assemblies, did not diminish the Tsar’s powers. Neither did the parliamentary assembly, the Duma, conceded after the defeat by Japan in 1905.
The repressive Tsarist regime following the defeat of Napoleon spawned the Russian revolutionary movement. The revolutionaries wanted to destroy the aristocratic, slave-holding Russia and establish a new and more just society. The repression that followed the defeat of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 produced in due course further revolutionaries.
The radical intelligentsia that emerged were not democrats. Indeed, they were not influenced to any significant extent by Western ideas. Instead, they were, like Tsarist officials, hostile to pluralism, liberalism, or common law. They had no concept of human rights and a constitutional government. They shared the traditional Russian idea that the rights of the individual had to be subordinated, to one degree or another, to those of society[iii] [iv]