From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin: The Unique Dynamics of Russian Politics Gizachew Tiruneh, Ph. D.

It was exactly one-hundred years ago, in October 1917, when Vladimir Lenin established a socialist political system in Russia. The country experimented with communism for about seventy years, reaching superpower status by the middle of the twentieth century. With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Russia had abandoned communism, but the country has not yet established a deeper democracy. In fact, Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, is believed to be more of a nationalist and an autocrat than a democrat.

Vladimir Lenin was a dedicated follower of Karl Marx, the nineteen-century German philosopher and political economist. Marx’s theory suggested that communism, which would be actualized through a proletarian, or worker-led, revolution, would help to bring about an equal distribution of income in a given society. Such as system, the argument follows, would also ensure political equality. About fifty years after the death of Marx, Lenin was the first revolutionary leader to attempt putting Marx’s theory in practice. Lenin was not just a follower of Marx. He extended Marx’s ideas by contending that imperialism was the highest and last stage of capitalism. Once imperialism — which included colonialism and international finance — ended, capitalism would fall, the argument goes, since capitalist countries would not have enough resources to appease workers who were prone to uprising. The experiment Lenin began in Russia spread to many countries including in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. By the 1980s, however, communism in the former Soviet Union was on its last legs, as it was underperforming economically compared to the more market-based economies of the democratic West. Both Marx and Lenin did not seem to anticipate the resiliency of the capitalist economic system. Marx and Lenin had thought that capitalism would create a small capitalist elite and a very large working class. Capitalism has rather led to the emergence of a large middle class and an educated citizenry in industrial democracies. Capitalism also seems to have become more humane over time: workers in industrial democracies enjoy minimum wages, better working conditions, and the right to organize.

Michael Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, recognized that the closed economic and political systems of the country required much needed reforms. The limited openings that Gorbachev allowed, however, led to a major watershed, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in much of the world (save China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam). With the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, Russia was one of the 15 republics that came out as a sovereign state. Russia, led by Boris Yeltsin, chose to turn to the values that Western countries have cherished: political democracy and market economy. The transition to these systems was not easy and the country had its economic woes especially in the 1990s. The ailing Yeltsin chose Vladimir Putin to become the new Russian leader in the late 1990s. Under Putin, Russia has modernized its military and reasserted itself as a global military power. Political democracy in Russia seems, however, to lag behind the opening up of the market and the modernization of the military. Russia has had a one-party dominant political system, where United Russia, the party of Putin, has won successive elections over the past several years.

What surprised the democratic West the most has been Russia’s new ideology, nationalism. Putin wants Russia to have its own sphere of influence especially in Eastern Europe and central Asia. He has been against the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) towards the western borders of Russia. This was especially true with the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania joining the NATO alliance in 2004. Georgia, a former Soviet republic, seemed to be turning toward the influence of the United States (and perhaps to NATO), when it found itself at war with Russia in 2008. Russia has since recognized and supported the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian protest against the pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych, Russia has reclaimed Crimea, a Russian-speaking republic that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave to Ukraine in 1954. The West has accused Russia of violating international law for seizing land from Ukraine by force. Russia has claimed that Crimea reunited with the country voluntarily only after conducting a referendum. Russia has also been accused of supporting two breakaway pro-Russian republics in southeast Ukraine. Consequently, tension between Russia and the West has reemerged, though it may not have reached to a level of a cold war.

What does the future hold for Russia? Russia will likely continue to develop its military potentials and continue to be a major military power. Of course, NATO will likely continue to deter Russia in the short term with its ongoing military buildup in Eastern Europe, but such an attempt may also lead to increased tension. In addition, Russia will likely do fine with its economic performance. What is not clear is the country’s commitment to a deeper democracy. It is, in fact, curious to observe Russia’s alliance and close relationship with non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Even more curious is Russia’s decision to lend military support for the Bashir al-Assad regime of Syria since 2015. If Russia establishes a deeper democratic rule, however, a long-lasting trust may be established between itself and the democratic West. It is also a well-known empirical fact that democracies have not fought with each other since the advent of modern democracies over the past two hundred years. If the past is a guide, democracies may not also go to war with each other anytime soon.

It took about seventy years for communism to end in Russia. It will probably take much less time for the country to abandon its excessive nationalism and become a full democracy. This is especially true if Russia is fully engaged in a market-based economic system. The development of democracy in countries surrounding Russia will also likely prevent unwanted conflicts from appearing in the region. In addition, it will likely be easier to resolve unsettled conflicts, if any, between Russia and its neighbors if the country’s political system becomes highly democratic. It is only then that Russia’s political values can fully converge to those of the democratic West.

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