The Revenge of Russian Political Culture

The Revenge of Russian Political Culture

Sovietologists who always thought that deep Russian cultural traits were a major factor shaping Soviet communism found Gorbachev’s perestroika and the rapid progress toward constitutional government under his leadership a perplexing innovation, though a welcome one. Now we know, unfortunately, that these insights were never really invalidated. Noting the recent steps toward presidential dictatorship by Boris Yeltsin, we can see that the old Russian habits of authoritarianism, centralism, imperialism, and conformism were never pushed very far below the surface during the last few years of reform.

There is, to be sure, an alternative strand in the Russian tradition, represented since the eighteenth century by the Russian intelligen- tsia, the class defined by its attachment to culture and ideas (especially Western) and its rejection of the prevailing social order. But the intelligentsia is purist and unstable. Gorbachev’s perestroika, for the first time in Russia’s history, drew in the intellectuals as a support for the government. Then, growing disillusioned with Gorbachev, many of them rallied to Yeltsin and became apologists for his new pseudo-democracy or for what they perceive to be the lesser evil.

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