Learning Democratic Values and Behavior

The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has led to a spirited debate among analysts about post-Communist transitions. This discourse hinges on one critical challenge: how to form the basic building blocks of civil society where none previously existed – or existed only in truncated form. A people’s history and cultural tradition are significant facets of the nation-building process, but Western observers often forget this.

Overcoming an Authoritarian Legacy

In a recent book by Professor Stephen White (University of Glasgow) entitled Russia’s New Politics: The Management of a Post-Communist Society, the author concludes his analysis by reminding the reader of the importance of understanding the cultural context of the changes in Eastern Europe and Russia.

White notes that democratic forms of government have been fragile outside northwestern Europe or lands settled by northwestern Europeans. While noting that Russia was and is a European power – and has been a Christian nation – White argues that democracy has been a product of the West, not of the Eurasian landmass. In the West, he explains, there was a separation of spiritual and temporal authority, a rule of law that laid the basis for constitutionalism and the protection of human rights, a social pluralism that encouraged the formation of representative institutions, and a tradition of individual rights and liberties. While traces of these aspects of democracy can be found in Russia at various times, they have not been as prevalent as in Western Europe.

In Russia, cultural patterns were such that social classes were historically defined by service to the state, the Orthodox Church served as an extension of government rather than a rival source of authority, and government itself accepted no legitimate limit to the scope of its decisions. These cultural patterns are not quickly changed. This does not mean, however, that post-Communist Russia will forever be an authoritarian state.

Russians need time to learn democracy and, as Professor White summarizes at the end of his study, “The evidence of the early post-communist years was that the educational process might be a lengthy one, that the outcome was still uncertain, and the establishment of formally democratic institutions would be of limited significance so long as they were not sustained by an active and participatory society and by a commitment to democratic forms of government for their own sake.”

Training in Democratic Values and Institutions

In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, two insightful American authorities on Russia, Timothy J. Colton and Michael McFaul, stress the importance of U.S. government support for building democracy in Russia. They argue that in the past our government has focused its aid on reducing the nuclear threat, on economic reform, and on humanitarian projects, but not on democratization. In their judgment, this must change and change now.

Colton and McFaul emphasize that “Russian universities today offer almost no public policy programs or sophisticated curricula for teaching democracy. At the lower levels, Soviet-era ideas and Marxist texts still pervade ‘social studies’ courses.” These observations are true, based on my experience of working with higher education institutions in Russia for the last eleven years.

At the Russian-American Christian University in Moscow, we have attempted to adopt practices and develop traditions in the daily workings of the institution to reinforce classroom instruction about democracy. Most Russian universities that I have visited are authoritarian in structure, with top-down control and little meaningful participation by students or, in many cases, by faculty. They are not training a new generation of Russians in democratic values and patterns.

We have attempted to build this process into our university in several ways. First, our students took an active role in drafting the school’s behavior code. Instead of staff or faculty formulating a set of regulations for campus behavior, including disciplinary action for cheating, RACU’s Vice President for Academic Programs formed a representative student committee and had them prepare the code and circulate it to other students for comment and review. Once this lengthy process was completed, and the document received input from faculty and administrators as well, the students were willing to accept guidelines that they helped to create. They understood that they were responsible for helping to shape the rules that govern the world in which they lived.

The university is also committed to giving students leadership opportunities in other aspects of the school’s community life. Students majoring in business are given opportunities to take leadership roles in the Business Forums sponsored by the university; in these forums, Russian and American business leaders are invited to discuss how their business practices are shaped by their ethical and moral values. Student representatives are also chosen to serve on a student council with responsibility for developing programs that shape community life on campus. These are all small things, in and of themselves, but they are designed to train young Russians in both the theory and practice of democracy. This is learning democracy at the grassroots level.