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Factors contributing to absence of democracy in Russia
The reasons why Russia was never able to develop a democracy based on the rule of law like its European counterparts is a very complex issue involving diverse political, history, geographical, and social issues. Simple things such as cold weather can have a profound impact on an entire people’s outward perspective of the world as well as their inner psyche. Historical events and their resolutions and outcomes can engrain habits in a people that once learned, are almost impossible to overcome. This paper attempts to provide a brief survey exploring the geographical aspects and historical precedent that in my opinion prevented Russia from ever developing into a democracy.

To understand why Russia could never develop into a democratic state, one must first look at its most gigantic characteristic: Geography. Russia is the largest country in the world. Even in its earlier form as Muscovy and even prior to this Rus territory covered huge distances. Although it is so expansive, Russian land from the beginning has been highly infertile and in conducive to what could be called comfortable human existence. Very little land can be cultivated, and the cold sub-arctic climate ensures a short growing season. Despite this, the early Russians would come to rely heavily on their weak agricultural yield to feed a already large and ever expanding population with hostile neighbors all around; since the basis for any advancing civilization is its ability to produce a high surplus to allow people to follow other paths other than producing food, Russia would always have this nagging and seemingly unsolvable problem.
“The indigenous Finns and Turks treated farming as a supplementary occupation. The Russians chose otherwise. Their heavy reliance on farming under adverse agricultural conditions is perhaps the single most basic cause of the problems underlying Russian history.” 1

The ineffectiveness of agriculture due to geography and climate afforded the average Russian with a marginal existence. Survival, the most basic and primal of human instincts, was always the priority. Being in a semi-constant state of survival meant that Russians had less free time, a factor necessary in order to produce specialists outside the arena of farming, but more importantly, free time is vital for humans to think. Thinking, in my opinion, has been highly underrated. We study the actions of history and the advancement of the human species, but somebody somewhere had to have thought of the action before it could have been done. The geography of Europe allowed for a longer growing season and higher yield which created a surplus which allows some people to concentrate on other ideas and professions. The climate and geography of Russia simply did not allow for this, and throughout the centuries, the Russian farmers would not easily part with their tried and true methods in place of new and potentially more productive farming techniques due in part to their fear of starvation if these new methods didn’t work. This resistance to new methods was not unique to just agriculture, but to political ideas as well such as democracy. 2

The sheer size of Russian territory was also a factor in its failure to adopt democracy and the rule of law. Long borders stretching thousands of miles meant diverting huge amounts of resources and money to the military. Russia’s military forces were always situated on its borderland holdings which contain an amazing diversity of peoples with equally diverse cultures and beliefs. The difficult task of mobilizing these resources in a gigantic empire hurt the economy which would remain underdeveloped until the 20th century. The mobilization of resources required a large and often ineffective (not to mention corrupt) administration. The Russian economy was also at a disadvantage since it was primarily based on external conquest and not internal technological innovation. An economy based on conquest is not a self-sustaining entity. The many diverse peoples within the empire mentioned before coupled with geographical size created a situation in need of an authoritarian state to control it, but the size of Russian territory ensured that an autocratic state could not directly control the lives of the population. Since local administration could never be fully realized, laws and the enforcement of law was never a realistic possibility.
“Having to improvise structures often urgently and in adversity, it has tended, therefore, not to create enduring laws or institutions, but rather to give official backing to existing personal power relationships….. Such relationships were articulated in the druzhina system and kormlenie in Kievan Rus and Muscovy, in the landlord-serf relationship in imperial Russia, and in the nomenklatura (personal appointment) system in the Soviet Union. Often the main function of the grand prince/tsar/ general secretary has been to mediate and adjudicate between cliques centering upon powerful personalities; both Ivan IV and Stalin tried through terror either to extirpate them or gain complete control over them, but failed.”

As seen above, personal relationships, like in Rome and also China, were the way in which the czar kept control over his empire from the top down from the proto state of the Kievan Rus to the Soviet Union. Russia would never succeed in adopting the rule of law because its leaders always would give official support to the existing power system in which neither an enforceable law code nor democracy could exist. 3

The Mongol occupation of Russia that lasted from approximately the 1240s to 1480 had a profound impact on the creation of an autocratic state with the God-appointed czar at the top. During the Mongol Yoke, Russia experienced an intense way of religious fervor. The rulers of the Golden Horde had complete tolerance for other faiths, and with secular Russian authority contained, the Orthodox Church flowered. During this period, the Russian identity would come to be found in Orthodoxy; ordinary Russians, if asked, would not call themselves Russian, but rather Orthodox. In 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the center of the Orthodox World fell to the Muslim Turks. The result was a religious power vacuum that the now powerful Russian Orthodox Church would fill. This came at the same time that Muscovy was throwing off the Mongol Yoke. It was from this that Muscovy and its capital Moscow with the God appointed czar would come to be viewed as the Third Rome that would lead the struggle to unite the world under Orthodoxy.
“Moscow now bore responsibility for the fate of the true Christian faith, handed on from the churches of Rome and Byzantium. If the grand prince [czar] of Moscow failed to be worthy of this awesome mission, then there would be no further chance—“there will be no fourth [Rome]”—and the end of the world was inevitable. In this vision of providence, Moscow took over authority within the Byzantine ecumene, but could exercise that authority properly only if it allowed itself to be guided by the church.”

It is from this new conception that the grand prince and soon to be called God appointed czar of Muscovy and later Russia would receive new legitimacy as a ruler of all Russian lands. The czar would become so legitimate in fact, that Russians will not be able to conceive any other form of government other than the autocratic God appointed “kind” czar as their ruler until the revolutionary period beginning in the 1860s. 4
Another important time period in Russian history that led to the further entrenchment of autocratic rule was the Time of Troubles of the 17th century. After Czar Boris Godunov’s murder in 1605, there were several factions competing for power. The boyars would elect the first and last boyar czar, Shuisky, but he was hated by everyone and killed. There was the pretender czar, Dmitry, with whom the Poles would come and occupy Moscow. He became suspect because he didn’t observe the Orthodox rituals and he too was killed. In addition to this, the Cossacks started pillaging the countryside, working for or against at different times both the Poles and boyars. Russian peasants started huge insurrections to lift their recent enserfment by Godunov and the Swedes would take advantage of these troubled times to conquer northern territory from Russia. After this turbulent period, the Russian czar, beginning with Mikhail Romanov, would gain further autocratic power. Boyars and clergy that had vehemently opposed Ivan the Terrible’s unlimited authority now embraced it as a protection against social rebellion and foreign invasions.
“…..the mood among most people—except those, like brigands and some Cossacks, with a direct interest in disorder—was naturally to yearn for peace and prosperity. As the zemskii sobor of 1613 showed, they were profoundly conservative in outlook and sought stability in a restoration of starina, the “old days” (even though they had not found those “old days” so attractive at the time). They recreated—or rather created—a monarchy with unlimited authority of a kind Ivan IV had aspired to but had never been able to achieve. The boyars and churchmen who had obstructed Ivan now fully supported untrammeled autocracy to protect them against social rebellion and foreign invasion.” 5

We now come to the time of great reform in Russia started by Alexander II. The need for reform began due to Russia’s dismal performance and loss in the Crimean War of 1850s. The start of the reforms would be with serfdom. The Manifesto of February 19, 1861 freed the serfs that had been held in bondage for over two centuries. However, the peasants were not satisfied with it. For one, their ex-landlords were given half the land, and peasants would have to pay for their newly acquired land to compensate the government that compensated the landlords for their lost land and serfs through special banks. Peasants wanted all the land; they believed it to all be rightfully theirs and would never accept the private property of the landlord. Because of this, they would become a permanently dissatisfied class.
Other reforms by Alexander II included: The abolition of preliminary censorship which created a quasi free press in Russia, local self-governing via an elected Zemstvo and municipal councils, judicial reforms ushering in modern institutions of bars, juries, and independent prosecutions, and educational reforms that provided for the freedom of universities. 6
Alexander’s reforms opened a Pandora’s Box in Russia. Student radicalism increased and reforms directed at the Poles sparked a new rebellion for Polish autonomy. The state squashed the insurrection, but it was now afraid of what it had achieved. Alexander came down hard on the Polish nobility exiling hundreds of them to Siberia replacing them with Russians, and a counter reform was soon passed cracking down on universities eliminating the freedom they had so shortly possessed. Within his reign, the revolutionary terror that would plague Russia for the next sixty years would be born resulting in his murder and culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
“Alexander II’s reforms had severely shaken the traditional personalized power structure but had not managed consistently to replace it with institutions of civil society or the rule of law. To plug the resulting authority gap, the regime had nothing else at hand but the police, backed up by emergency powers. Having set out to demolish an old building and erect a new one, the regime had then changed its mind and started repairing the ruins: the resultant hybrid architecture threatened the equilibrium of the entire edifice. The regime was in an insoluble dilemma, caught between perception of the need for civic institutions and inability to introduce them without undermining its own stability.”

Alexander’s reforms rattled the status quo of authority and the power of personal relationships, but it did not succeed in implementing civil society or the rule of law, two fundamental aspects of democracy. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Alexander’s reign is his death. On March 1, 1881, Alexander had just given his people a constitution for the first time in their history and was promptly murdered; blown up by the revolutionary Narodnaia Volia. Alexander had taken another major step toward democracy, and he was killed for it. 7
With Alexander III came the renewed triumph of Russian autocracy. He had been tutored by an arch-conservative, Konstantin Pobedonostrev, and would listen to him and his other conservative advisers who said that doom would come to Russia if it moved towards democracy and liberalism. The proposed constitution by Alexander II was immediately rejected by Alexander III, who in his manifesto condemned his father’s murder, declared that all people must unite with the monarch, and appealed to his people for a return to conservatism. 8

         In conclusion, the reader can see that geography perhaps played the most basic role in the development of the continental country of Russia. Its climate and location all contributed to the development of its people and dictated many aspects of Russia’s advancement and/or lack of advancement, but unlike its European neighbors, Russia’s historical precedence and its dialectic continued to favor autocracy and would not take it on the path towards democracy. Democracy in Russia is still elusive to this day.

1. James Cracraft, Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia (Lexington and Toronto: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994), 6-8; Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 3.

2. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 15.

3. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 3-5.

4. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 72-78, 103-104.

5. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 152.

6. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 287-300.

7. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 304-306, 317, 319.

8. Hosking, Russia and the Russians, 318.

* In paragraphs that do not contain endnotes, the information was taken from notes and class lectures.


Cracraft, James. Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia. Lexington and

Toronto: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994.

Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia and the Russians: A History. Cambridge: Harvard University

Press, 2001.
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