Why Russia Doesn’t Want to Liberalize 

Helen Ast/Royal village

It isn’t common for a Russian head of state to be interviewed in depth by an American journalist. Expectations were understandably high when President Vladimir Putin’s interview on X—the social media site formerly known as Twitter—was released February 8, 2024. Tens of millions of viewers were frustrated that the former Russian leader spent almost 30 minutes of the interview talking about Russian history since its founding. After all, how is any of it relevant to his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s troubled relationship with the West today, or even the country’s deepening ties with the East?

The former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who conducted the interview, reluctantly commented that what he at first thought was a stalling maneuver by the President was rather a sincere statement of the historical and political perspective. Just as Xi Jinping’s theory of history has to be understood to understand how that powerful individual guides Chinese foreign policy, we actually must grapple even with these troublesome 30 minutes of exposition provided by the man in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin views this history as essential, and this is itself enough to make his perspective, the Ukrainian perspective, and of course the truth of the matter politically important to any U.S. statesman or informed citizen.

I would go further than this, since history isn’t mere material for ideology, rather it is a tool that can be used to answer fundamental questions about a country’s identity and purpose. History can also both explain and be used to justify actions by a country’s leaders. In truth, the cultural and historical differences that render the Russian president’s seeming obsession with history alien to Americans can also explain why Americans always viewed Russians as an “the other,” a nation at best possessing a mysterious soul, at worst being composed of Asiatic savages. Peddling such stereotypes is often what passes for insightful cultural analysis.

Americans, as individuals, find themselves part of a young and deeply charismatic nation. The pioneer spirit and frontier grit of people who settled the vast continent still echo in the national psyche. Americans conceive of themselves and are to a great extent an adventurous, larger-than-life, and completely ahistorical people. The complexities and nuances of world history seem to not apply, and are dismissed as irrelevant as a result.

The refusal to ascribe any bad intentions to U.S. policy makers, even when it comes to decisions with catastrophic consequences, such as the 2004 invasion of Iraq, can be seen as a consequence of this dismissal. Oblivious and optimistic Americans are indeed more frightening, more hawkish, more powerful, and paradoxically more innocent than those Americans who ground their thinking in history and nuance, who tend towards isolationism. They, after all, earnestly believe that they can change the character of other nations with force of will and an appeal to common—American—values. Democracy is seen as irresistible and war is seen as a charm offensive. The United States’ zealous embrace of liberalism is fundamentally rooted in an ongoing and, for now, seemingly successful history of experimentation that has shaped the entire American culture. 

While we could call Russians adventurous and even larger-than-life, their political charisma is usually lacking, and either in their Tsarist or Soviet incarnation cannot be called ahistorical. As a culture and people they are obsessed with history, and sometimes veer towards conspiratorial or cynical interpretations of events. Every ridiculous U.S. blunder in their eyes becomes evidence that the true story cannot be so simple, there must be some kind of masterful deception of hidden master strategists at play. In this mindset, an argument made from Russia’s history carries immense weight and rightly so. 

The contemporary Russian Federation’s reluctance to embrace Western liberalism is fundamentally rooted in a history of failed experimentation. Experiments that at first didn’t seem unwise, yet each chapter of Russian history has added another chapter filled with evidence they are risky at worst and ineffectual at best.

The Liberal Autocrat Who Courted the Educated Class 

Tsar Alexander II wanted to modernize the country he loved. He wanted 19th century Russia to live up to its potential, become a fully Western society and choose and reconstruct its own identity. Russia has historically struggled with its place in the world. Its vast territories have spanned from near the center of Europe to the easternmost limit of Asia. For the longest time, the country was seen as barbaric and backward by most major European powers, a perspective that echoes to this day. The reign of Peter the Great and the severity of his dedication to making Russia a modern European country transformed the nation into a major player on the world stage. But it was not enough.

By the time Alexander II came into power, it became clear that as long as serfdom persisted as a political system, Russia could not be considered a fully Western country within the fast-changing and modernizing landscape of the continent. The Tsar was morally and intellectually guided by the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, a humanitarian liberal and romantic. Alexander was in many ways an idealist in contrast to his father, Nicholas I, a very strong-willed and in some ways despotic man and a true autocrat.

Alexander rose to become Tsar at the age of 36, following the death of his father at the height of the Crimean War. As Russia struggled with Britain and France to claim the strategically important peninsula from the Ottomans, the empire’s embarrassing defeats revealed that it was still very much a backwards country. This in turn created a real yearning for change among Russia’s educated elite, a seemingly perfect constituency for the reform-minded ruler to appeal to.

On February 19, 1861, the Tsar signed the Emancipation Act and tens of millions of Russian serfs were given freedom. It was one of the most significant social reforms in Europe since the French Revolution. One of the most important consequences of the act was a complete overhaul of Russia’s judicial system. For the first time, Russia had a judicial system that could be compared to those of other Western societies. And reforms did not end there.

The severity of Russian rule in Poland was relaxed and rights were granted to Russia’s oppressed minorities, including Jews. Even political prisoners were released, and exiles were allowed to return. The ultimate goal of all those reforms was acceptance of Western culture and technology, the government and culture as a whole was choosing to be a Western country. This can only be explained by Alexander being at the time a true liberal reformer—following in the steps of Peter the Great—fully committed to his goal of making Russia an enlightened, liberal society where minorities had rights and dissent was tolerated. And then something unexpected happened.

Instead of being lauded as a great reformer and modernizer of Russia, another Peter the Great, Alexander witnessed an uprising in Poland and general unrest among Russia’s youth. Many young, educated Russians despised monarchy and for the first time became serious about overthrowing it. They engaged in radical politics, distributed pamphlets, and plotted the demise of the Tsar, including an assassination attempt on his life. 

Alexander survived, but the revolutionary fervor among Russia’s young and brilliant minds was spreading like contagion. There were attempts to shoot him, to blow up his train and even to blow up the Winter Palace. Finally, the plot to assassinate the Tsar succeeded in 1881 and Alexander died after being wounded by a bomb. Russia was in turmoil. Lenin’s brother later attempted to assassinate Alexander III, the Tsar’s son and heir, and was hanged for treason, an event that radicalized Lenin, with grave consequences for the Romanovs and the Russian people, who would suffer decades of brutal and oppressive communist rule. 

What seemed a promising attempt to live up to Enlightenment ideals, played out almost perfectly and seemed to disprove fundamental assumptions of liberal political theory. The Russian people did not greet Alexander II as a liberator, rather, dissatisfied elites previously held in check intuited a new political balance and pursued it, as the country collapsed over decades into revolution.

The Failed Economic Liberalization of Perestroika

It might surprise American readers that it is not a great exaggeration to say Mikhail Gorbachev is the most hated man in Russia. Whether or not he deserves that hatred is up for debate, but his actions did lead to the loss of the Soviet Empire, its painful humiliation on the world stage, and plunged millions of Russians into poverty and despair. 

In contrast to Alexander II, Gorbachev was a man of humble origins. The son of Russian peasants, he was the first person in his family to go to university. Gorbachev graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in law and went on to hold multiple posts in Komsomol, the political youth organization. Gorbachev rose to power quickly under the patronage of Mikhail Suslov, one of the leading ideologues of the Politburo. He was hard-working, smart, and untroubled by alcoholism. His honest and open face made him seem non-threatening and trustworthy. Ideologically, he was committed to de-Stalinization of Russia and believed that market reforms and technological advancement could end the long period of stagnation Russians experienced under Khrushchev. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union believed a more honest and humane socialism was possible. 

However, once more, his reforms failed to achieve the desired results: the Soviet economy did not recover as fast as had been hoped for and a decade-long war in Afghanistan was draining the empire’s resources. Gorbachev felt that there was an urgent need for decisive action. After all, it was his duty as the leader of a great country. He initiated two crucial reforms that would impact the Russian people for decades to come and usher the world into a new era: glasnost and perestroika

Glasnost specifically was implemented to loosen Soviet censorship and lead to democratization of the regime: “Those who attempt to suppress the fresh voice, the just voice, according to old standards and attitudes, need to get out of the way,” Gorbachev opined in a in a July 1986 speech, according to TIME. With Perestroika, Gorbachev intended to incorporate some features of a market economy in the Soviet Union, loosen price controls and encourage some private ownership of business. In a 1987 speech, he emphasized that “It is particularly important that the actual pay of every worker be closely linked to his personal contribution to the end result, and that no limit be set.”

Glasnost and perestroika proved to be too much change in too little time for a political and economic system like that of the Soviet Union. Hyperinflation set in, as the value of the ruble plummeted, and the economy fell into a depression. The Soviet Empire fell almost overnight. Russians and other nations of the crumbling union were suddenly much poorer, more aware of human rights abuses that took place under communist rule, and left completely humiliated. 

As the Soviet Union dissolved and Gorbachev was left the President of nothing, his successor in the new Russian Federation was Boris Yeltsin, a drunk who quickly became a laughingstock and an embarrassment. The country was torn apart by the new type of man that emerged from the ruins, a type that does not care about anything but his personal enrichment: the “New Russian.”  Oligarchs feasted on the very livelihoods of ordinary Russians as those in turn sank into despair. And then Putin came to power. 

The Divergent Ends of History and the Last Statesman

Vladimir Putin is indeed an authoritarian leader who murders his opponents and silences dissent. He is also genuinely popular among Russians. To outsiders, Putin may not seem like a good leader, but to the Russian voter, he very much does. Further, this evaluation of his leadership isn’t just a matter of optics or propaganda, but is backed by some hard data.

Since 1999, the Russian homicide rate—an excellent measure of demoralization, disorder, and lack of economic opportunity—has plunged 75% nationwide. This significant decrease in the murder rate was not accompanied by any drastic change in incarceration, which suggests that there was a general improvement in quality of life that led to a decrease in homicides.  

There has also been an increase in the fertility rate—another important indicator of the will to live. This was often raised in the many articles over the years of Russia’s impending depopulation. In 1999, Russia’s total fertility rate fell to 1.2. It rose to a high of 1.8 in 2015, though it fell again to 1.5 by 2022. There was also a significant drop in the number of abortions performed in Russian since 2000. For comparison: the number of abortions performed in Russia dropped from 2.1 million in 2000 to just over 500,000 in 2022. 

Arguably the important metric is, of course, the increase in life expectancy over the course of Putin’s career as head of state, which increased from roughly 65 to 73 by 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. This directly demonstrates the end of what were once called deaths of despair in the country. Empirically, the individual sense of humiliation has ended for modern Russians. An indication that the middle class has strengthened can also be found in Russia’s Gini index—a measure of income inequality—which has decreased significantly since 1999 and is forecast to continuously decrease between 2024 and 2029.

The death of liberal dissident Alexei Navalny enraged many Western liberals, like Anne Applebaum and Ian Bremmer. And while it was a tragedy, it is worth noting that Navalny was not very popular among Russians and Putin’s real rival is the Communist Party, which won 19% of the vote in the last election. Democracy does not seem to be that appealing to ordinary Russians, and who can blame them after the latest failed experiment with political liberalism?

This is a judgment Vladimir Putin personally shares, if we are to trust his telling of Russian history since its founding in the year 882. If so, he isn’t wrong. Every time Russian people attempt to emulate the West, everything goes terribly wrong, and a period of darkness and humiliation follows. There are many ways to explain this observation. Maybe liberal political theory is fundamentally flawed, and doesn’t work as advertised, even in the Western context. Maybe Russians are simply not Western after all, and lack the social technologies needed to make such political liberalism work. 

It is hard to predict what comes next for a civilization that seems incapable of embracing Western-style democracy, but gave the world Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. Something worth considering in imagining Russia after the Putin era: in many ways, Russia is engaged in its own task of nation-building, transitioning from the historic empire to something closer to the nation-state which 19th century anarchists attempting to assassinate the Tsar imagined it to be. Whatever new society is built at the end of this process, it will—just as its historical experience—remain fundamentally politically and ideologically distinct from the United States.

Monica Sobchak is a New York-based writer and is one of the hosts of the Temple of Friendship, an art salon podcast. You can follow her at @mochak123.