As Russia approaches its December 17th elections to fill the 450-seat State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament, important insights can be gained about the enormous difficulties which face a nation trying to rebuild after an extended period of Communist Party rule. The damage of the Marxist-Leninist heritage is much greater than most observers ever imagined.
In a society where there was only one official party for decades, one can now find 262 parties registered at the Justice Ministry and 42 parties or blocs vying for a place on the ballot for the December elections. There are political parties for beer drinkers, invalids, environmentalists, Orthodox believers, and bank depositors. There is the “Party for Indigent People” and a “Party of the In-Between Generation” — a twenty-somethings group (David Hoffman, “Proliferation of Parties Gives Russia a Fractured Democratic System, The Washington Post, October 1, 1995). This fragmentation of political life is just one sign of the crisis which Russians face today.
During my recent visit to Moscow in October, another evidence of the crisis emerged in the press. The head of the Central Election Commission in Moscow released the names of 87 candidates for the State Duma who have either served time or are now under investigation for criminal offenses. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia lead the way with 12 candidates from their lists who had served time in prison for criminal activity (Leonid Bershidsky, “LDPR Fields Most Criminal Candidates,” The Moscow Times, October 24, 1995).
One way the Russians deal with this is through humor. A weekly magazine, Argumenty I Fakty, recently divided Russian politicians into three categories and created a new homegrown political classification system. “Water pumps” (Vodokachki) are the ones “who speak in endless, run-on phrases laced with listener-losing metaphors.” The second category are “firebrands” (Zazhigalki) who “excite people like a man excites a lover, and then refuse to satisfy them.” The third group is made up of “fire extinguishers” (Ogneiushiteli) who talk in loping sentences filled with popular jargon which “make the listener forget the first part of the sentence by the time the second part comes around” (David Filipov, “Latest Legislative Lingo…,” The Moscow Times, October 1995).
Humor, however, does not answer the deeper questions which presently face the Russian people. The harshest judgments come from Russians themselves. One Russian journalist described Russia as “A Whole Society of Dissidents.” He began his analysis with these words; “The timeless imbecility, unscrupulousness and cruelty of the Russian authorities have produced a surprising result. Our history consists of centuries of idiotic nonsense and cruelty, when the empire expanded through pillage, when it cut itself off from the West and fought against the East. . . When it put its thinkers in chains, murdered its poets and put its artists in uniform. . . Somehow, by devoting every possible effort over the entire, thousand-year history of Russia to turning people into nothing more than a fragment of the state, the authorities have achieved the exact opposite: the complete alienation of the individual from the state” (Alexander Kabakov, The Moscow Times, February 5, 1995).
One month later, in the same newspaper, another Russian scholar offered “A Lesson in Pessimism.” He described Russia’s political culture as one that “remains in a very primitive state of development, which means that the threat of nationalism and revived communism is great. It also means that the population is generally skeptical and apathetic, willing to silently accept the next demagogue who comes along” (Konstantin Zuyev, The Moscow Times, March 19, 1995).
This skepticism and pessimism points to a much deeper malaise. What is missing is a vision for the “common good,” a real understanding of what democracy has to offer. After having been treated for decades as pawns of the state, the Russian people have little in their experience to help them see that democracy offers a government accountable to them and to the rule of law. In fact what is developing all over Russia and Eastern Europe is a distorted view of freedom. As one Hungarian scholar has noted, his generation conceived of freedom as “freedom for the individual as a nonpolitical being who is not defined by his membership in the political community. . . . but is romantically defined by belonging to a cultural and ethnic group.” As a result, nationalism in Eastern Europe and Russia is often anarchistic and apolitical. It does not recognize the idea that “citizens should work together for a common good, and that in order to achieve a common good, they must be loyal to institutions, that there are political obligations and civic duties that are independent of personal preference and personal interest. . . . People want the ‘good,’ but they don’t want the ‘common’” (G. M. Tamas, Institute of Peace’s PeaceWatch, Feb. 1995).
One consequence of this apolitical or anti-political perspective of Russians will soon be evident in the December elections. Vast numbers of Russians simply will not show up at the voting booths. This will especially be true of the youth. Fewer than one in five voters aged 18 to 24 voted in the parliamentary elections two years ago and the turnout this time is not expected to be any higher. Only 4% of Russians under the age of 35 belong to any of the 262 political parties or blocs and 75% of them say they are simply not interested in politics and government (Lee Hockstader, “Younger Russians: Open to Change, Bored by Vote,” The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1995).
Understanding the relationship between freedom and responsibility, between individual rights and the common good of society, and between self-interest and public justice requires more than a few courses in civic education. What is at stake is reforming a mentality which took years to shape, a mentality which will not be quickly remolded. Basic moral and spiritual values need to be re-discovered and articulated in the public square, values which offer a vision for a society that sees a proper but limited role for civil government and which respects individual human rights while at the same time building a just society for all people. What does it mean to live a truly human life in the world which God created? What does it mean to be a citizen in a political order where individual freedom exists but responsibility for others also is an expectation. These questions, as well as others, are the ones which Russians must address before we can expect to see any encouraging results in parliamentary or presidential elections.