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American and Russian Political Cultures: Enlightenment and Despotism Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Unlike the pluralist tradition in the US, Russian political culture was imprisoned by totalitarian Communism. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost'(openness) – accompanying the ‘pererstroika’ reconstruction initiative – enabled open discussion of public issues for the first time, with the introduction of the free press.. Russia had long consisted of a culture of regimental participation, whereas the USA has always encouraged voluntary participation. Despite this, civic-participation in America has declined. In Russia the opposite has happened.(Participate America,2004)

In America, educational opportunities increased in the 1960’s. This increased political participation giving marginal groups opportunities. On college campuses, students had the opportunity to voice their dissent through CND, women’s rights groups and anti-Vietnam protest groups. In Russia, the biggest educational change came with the corrupt Brezhnev government, where secondary education steadily increased. This fact was reflected in the workplace and dissent movement. Dissent was beginning to slowly emerge by the 1960’s because people were questioning the legitimacy of the Soviet system.(Gerber, 2000)

Rejecting the rigid beliefs of the Stalin generation, this generation became more liberal-democratic, and began criticising the government. This is rather like what happened in the US. A parallel that can be made is that the poorer war generations in both countries were more conformist. The younger, better-off generations were more likely to be dissenters – therefore more politically active. Nowadays, political participation is high in the US largely owing to the electronic media availability and convenience. In Russia over the last 10 years, only 6% of Russians resorted to protest forms of participation.(Institute for Comparative Social Research, 2004)

In 1989, there was great relief after decades of political instability and authoritarianism However, 15 years on,the results of democratisation have been criticised. Putin,a former KGB official,has been condemned for appointing former KGB colleagues to prominent positions. As one political commentator puts it:

“An entire political culture should not be based on the rule and qualities of one man.”(Lavelle,Pravda,2004).

The US leadership is also scrutinised. Committees are an essential apparatus ensuring the survival of democracy as they allow checks on legitimate power. This is an established American political institution. But it is still largely absent from present Russian political culture despite democratisation.

Nevertheless, Russia has made some democratic progress in the first five years of the post-Soviet era. By 1996 numerous political parties had participated in three free elections- two legislative, one presidential. Although the president enjoyed an advantage in media coverage, all sides agreed after the 1996 election that the people had spoken. Observers noted the similarities with America, including promises to special interests, roof-raising speeches, and “photo opportunities”. Never in the history of Russia had a head of state been subjected to open public evaluation and then been peacefully assured of a new term in power. Certainly this was a complete reversal of the Soviet Union’s programmed, one-party political rituals.

Unfortunately, anti-democratic tendencies have survived the democratic change. Polls indicate that Russians still believe primarily in individual rights, order, stability and security as opposed to American rights, freedom and law. Russians prioritise maintaining a strong state. Strong leadership is what the entire history of Russian political culture is all about. Electors are relying on Putin’s to confront authoritatively the Mafia, terrorism and the oligarchs, just as Bush is warring against Al Qaeda.

Values are important when determining political behaviour. According to recent statistical polls,Russians still hold somewhat Communist beliefs. As one Russian poet said:

“During the past 70 years,a new man has been created who is obedient and easily frightened. What has been created over the decades cannot be undone in a day.”(Okudzhava, 1989, Time Europe).

They believe in liberal rights for oneself, not opponents, which mirrors Stalin’s one party Communist philosophy. By comparison, Americans believe in liberal rights for all. State ownership for heavy industry is important to Russians, owing to the traditional Communist values of collectivism, and respect for the state and authority. But state ownership is largely condemned by Americans, chiefly owing to the Conservative values of Reagan and Bush which emphasise self-reliant independence from the State. As Reagan once said: “big government is a problem

and not the solution to problems.” (Reagan, www.dawn.com, 2000)

In the US, elements of McCarthyist dogma are still popular amongst Republicans and the older generation of Russians still hold anti-western views. In round one of the 1996 presidential election, Communist Gennady Zyuganov,won 32% indicating the still-strong Communist support. Therefore, perennial values overlap even radical political change.(http://www.pbs.org/, 2004)

Another contrasting aspect is’rights’. One such right, is ‘freedom of information’-an important scrutinisation tool in liberal democracies. Unfortu

nately, this is problematic in Russia. Putin has proposed a strategy to topple opposition. It is not

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as extreme as the CPSU’s monopoly-censored journalism. However, Putin’s vow to “control” and “make opposition media impossible” indicates a worrying direction. If Bush were to have and publicise such intentions, the constitutional statute of ‘the freedom of the press’ would act against him.

Most rights reforms took place from 1920-1960 in the USA. In Russia however it was not until the 1990’s. The Women’s Democratic Initiative campaigned on issues like domestic violence, employment, sexual discrimination,& political inclusion. Only three women were ever in the CPSU, as opposed to the thousands among Republicans and Democrats. The freedom of speech granted to Russians is exactly what the Americans have as a constitutional principle. But this could be threatened by Putin’s despotic behaviour, as well as the rather questionable 1993 constitution.

A history of brutality has left the Russians with scarred memories. According to recent polls, ‘power’ to the Russians is associated with military force and physical coercion. To the Americans, power means legitimate authority,status,knowledge and wealth. Legitimate authority, a democratic principle, is granted through free-elections and the implementation of the general will, something that is relatively new to Russians.

Money is of universal importance to both nations. American political culture is governed by heavily financed campaigns. This might soon affect Russia with billionaire Khordorkovsky’s plan to rival Putin. Khordorkovsky owns the Yukos Oil Company and is one of the class of ‘Oligarchs’ who seized former state assets to become wealthy and powerful. Because ‘wild capitalism’ as the Russians would call it, infatuates American society, one can see a similarity here, although a polarised one. It is a leftist tradition in America to demonise big corporations, just as it is in the interest of the Russian right-wing opposition to criticise the Oligarch’s.

When power is given to a political figure, it is his interests to exercise it responsibility and for the public good. For the American President, there is the obstacle of Congress, unlike the Russian president who has supremacy over the Duma and Federal Council.

Monopoly leadership been accepted by Russians ever since Tsarism. Consequently, the idea of “a sovereign people” was unfamiliar to them. A belief in authoritarianism still in the consciousness of many Russians. Several regional leaders have been labelled ‘feudal lords’, abusing their power at the expense of both their constituents and Russia as a whole.

America, by contrast, has separated and shared power branches of government so that state legislatures can impeach governors if necessary. Yeltsin has already conceded by euphemistically saying that the Russian people should not demand ‘outright independence’ in their respective States. Illyumzhinov is one example. He imposed direct rule through a network of personal representatives, violating the constitution. US governors though, act in popular accord with the State population.

Also, unlike in Russia, the US interests are represented satisfactorily. However in Russia, the change to Federalism has highlighted its efficacy. High demands from the semi-autonomous okrugs and the oblasts mean that federalism is not as orderly and well defined as it is in the US.

Another parallel is the protection and representation of minority groups. US history boasts numerous successful civil rights movements; for example womens’and black rights. Federal and constitutional reform cannot protect ethnic groups involved in the Chechnya-Tartarsan conflict, because of its extremity.

The extent of the separation of powers affects political cultures immensely. When Gorbachev weakened the CPSU’s power, party control of branches lessened. The US on the other hand has constitutionally guided separate powers which limit interference overlaps and allow the branches to be impartially controlled.

In Russia, the President can interfere with the State Duma & can initiate and veto legislation. And also, key to the governors’ power is the fact that they often control not only their regions’ executive branches,but also local legislatures,judges and media outlets. This has predictably led to widespread corruption and disregard for civil liberties. Also, some regions,like Bashkortostan and Tatarstan have written constitutions that contradict Russia’s federal laws. Likewise, leaders in many regions are elected and re-elected without even the pretence of democratic procedure.

This is not the only problem for Russia’s reputation as a legitimate democracy. The first Congress session in the new Russia was televised. Unfortunately the State Duma gained a reputation for corruption, criminal activities and sexual harassment, increasing apathy among electors. In the US, the interests of the electors and constitutional conventions prevent any such instance of unlawful conduct.

With regard to the 1993 Russian constitution, at present,one must question whether a democratic constitution represents the realities of a political system in the absence of a tradition of human rights, individual liberties and toleration of opposing political opinions. Stalin’s constitution introduced direct elections by secret ballot and universal suffrage but prohibited opposition parties. Russia, unlike America,lacks the ‘Enlightenment’ ideas about freedom and the representation of rights and interests; essential to democratic society. This possibly explains the low civic-participation. Only a bare majority voted for the 1993 constitution.

To add to his worries, President Putin has to put up with ethnic tension in Chechnya and terrorist attacks. Both administrations then have similar obstacles. President W Bush, ever since the 9/11 attacks, has used the war on terror to win over public opinion. An example of the impact of events on public opinion is the fluctuating stability in Iraq. Public opinion in Russia however seems to rest mainly on Putin’s strong stance against inter-ethnic violence. To avoid further problems a’Law of Political Parties’ was passed against any group undermining state security. Likewise, Bush introduced the Patriot Act to curb terrorism. In both political cultures then, the success of campaigns rest largely on security.

In conclusion both political cultures show similarities despite their evolutionary positions in terms of democratic development, notably because of the inevitable baggage that accompanies a capitalist society. However, unlike the US, Russia lacks a precise separation of powers, a progressive Federal system and a coherent and practical constitution. All that is left therefore, is a rather embryonic democracy.


Participate America, Last visited on the 21/04/04 at http://www.participateamerica.org/partamer/issues/alert/?alertid=1584316&type=CO,

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Nikolai Petrov, http://www.ishipress.com/ last visited on the 18/04/04

http://www.geocities.com/hmelberg/papers/981026.htm last visited on the 18/04/04

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