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The Anti-Revolutionary Revolution in Russia

Is the Russian experience over the last ten years so different from the great revolutions of the past?, asked Stephen Hanson, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Washington, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 2 April 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute. There are many definitions of revolution that apply quite easily to the Russian case, yet Western analysts have rarely used the concept.

The Russian revolution of 1991 and the revolutionary decade since have had a distinctive feature that sets it apart from other revolutions in history, Hanson stated. This is the first revolution in human history to be organized and directed against an officially revolutionary regime, Hanson argued. According to Hanson, "a revolution that was organized, directed, and consciously focused on rejecting a revolutionary regime is a revolution that cannot speak its own name. The moment that you say this is a revolution,' you are associating yourself with a discredited ideology of the past to which nobody wants to return." Furthermore, a revolution that cannot call itself revolutionary generates specific problems of legitimation, Hanson remarked.

According to Hanson, for the Soviet leadership up until 1991, the term "revolution" had positive connotations and was considered a source of legitimacy in official ideology. Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev spoke of a revolutionary transformation in the country, although the general public became increasingly cynical about such phraseology.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and leadership of Boris Yeltsin, however, revolutionary rhetoric disappeared. According to Hanson, Yeltsin--the "quintessential anti-revolutionary revolutionary"-- promised a return to "normal" life and to Europe, which was viewed in the Soviet Union as the antithesis of revolution. Such a plan was seen as Russia's natural fate, a return to something that had once existed but had been derailed by the Soviet experience. This strategy, Hanson argued, was likely the only way for the democratic movement in Russia to gain mass support.

Hanson stipulated that the problem with such a strategy is that the level of social transformation needed to attain the goal of liberal capitalism is inconsistent with the rhetoric of a return to "normal life," evolution, and gradualism. This inconsistency, Hanson stated, led to a disconnect between the aspirations of Yeltsin's supporters and the reality of fundamental social changes which would be both costly and disruptive. The result was a split between formal ideology and the mass base in the democratic Russian movement, Hanson remarked.

Even Yeltsin's opposition would not use the terminology of revolution, Hanson noted. It would be logical for Yeltsin's "inability to sustain social support for revolutionary transformation under the guise of a return to normal life" to produce ideologues to lead the revolution in an anti-liberal, anti-democratic direction. Yet, political figures like Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovski consistently claimed to be upholding tradition or centrism, not revolution. Meanwhile, genuinely revolutionary fascists and communists found little support. According to Hanson, the legacy of a "society that was forced into revolutionary rhetoric and to some degree revolutionary action...has actually undercut the social base for revolutionary movements of all types."

Vladimir Putin's strategy of "pragmatism and patriotism" continues Yeltsin's approach. The one difference is that Putin includes "radical liberalism" as another type of extremism to be avoided. However, such a policy makes it difficult for Putin to recruit genuinely committed supporters and establish lasting institutions. Thus, Hanson added, Putin's policy fails to overcome the uncertainty and unprincipled politics that have plagued Russia since 1991.

The irony is that the attempt to create legitimacy without the rhetoric of revolutionary ideology has sustained uncertainty longer than was seen in previous revolutionary periods. Revolutions usually end within a decade with the decisive establishment of an alternative ideological regime, Hanson stated.

Russia is attempting to live with the legacy of its revolution but lacks a clear focus or national identity. However, Hanson noted, the current regime cannot be easily overthrown because any figures with the desire to do so are immediately discredited by Russian public opinion. Most Russians do not want to return to any type of extremism. Unfortunately, Hanson added, even liberalism is now associated with revolution.

According to Hanson, the possibility that the current non-ideological regime might sustain itself for several more years is potentially a positive thing. Without a revolutionary figure taking charge, Russia can avoid the revolutionary outcomes of the past that were most disturbing for world stability and democracy.

American politicians, Hanson concluded, should therefore strive to take a long-term perspective. Russia might end up with an authoritarian regime, Hanson argued, but if so its lack of ideology and loyal supporters would limit its ability to sustain itself. The best case is one in which Putin does not fundamentally establish an authoritarian regime that the West cannot tolerate. If this happens, Hanson stated, it makes sense to think about a long-term process of transformation in which "the fact that ideology is gone represents an opportunity for global compromise and the spread of liberal democratic institutions."


About the Author

Jodi Koehn

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more