Jon Gair, though you expressed your views on Russia with eloquent justification and your Dec. 7, 2007 analysis titled “Recent elections leave more to be hoped for, desired” of the Venezuelan situation was spot on, the assertion that Sunday’s election in Russia taught us “the importance (of the fact) that the leaders of these states place on establishing a mandate of control from their population,” is simply wrong. The reality of the situation is that Russia has seen five Duma elections and four presidential elections since the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. All of those elections, even the dubious 1995-96-election season, were freer than the elections held in Russia last Sunday.
You are correct that it would be a significant step for the people of Russia to be provided some means of having their voices heard. However, when students are told by their teachers to vote for United Russia (UR) or else face failure or expulsion from school, the argument that their true opinions are being voiced sounds humorous. This was the case on Dec. 2. Factory workers were told to take pictures of their ballots to prove to their foremen that they had voted for the party in power. Teachers were told to check number ten or find a new job. People who did not vote and responded truthfully to security officers, when asked, were escorted to the voting booths and told who to vote for. The extent to which former intelligence officers and current intelligence agencies run the country is unparalleled in any modern democratic society, affording possible retribution to anyone who voted “incorrectly.”
I agree with you, however, that these elections did teach us-or at least remind us-of one very important lesson. It is the same lesson we first became aware of following the October 1917 revolution; the same lesson that Hitler so brilliantly utilized in attaining power. The lesson Dec. 2 taught us, and that we must strive to remain aware of, was not that government emphasis on public opinion is good. Instead, what we should learn from this year’s election is that when co-opted by an able, intelligent, and charismatic leader, democratic processes provide a justifiable means of subverting democracy itself by opening the gate for a legitimate transition back to authoritarianism. What we should learn is that when manipulated correctly, a democratic government transitions from a free and open society to the most oppressive and destructive one, because it does so with a mandate from its people. Both the Bolsheviks and Nazis rose to power via this avenue, what makes today even more terrifying is that Mr. Putin has learned from his predecessors and become one of the most skilled political tacticians of our time.
Furthermore, the emphasis President Vladimir Putin and United Russia are placing on public opinion is far from a contemporary realization. The Russians have long understood the power of the masses, and never better than today, having experienced three major revolutions in the past century. Additionally, both the Bolshevik and Nazi Parties invested stifling sums of money into absurdly thorough propaganda machines designed to rally the support of the populace. The recent campaign simply demonstrates Putin’s deep understanding of the function the masses play in his plan to retain power.
There still remains hope for Russia, but that hope is fading fast. You are correct that a truly democratic transition will take generations to build in a state with such an extensive totalitarian history. However, this election does not represent the first steps of an infant democracy, but the rejuvenation of a latent authoritarianism. To allow such processes to proceed unchallenged is a betrayal of our responsibilities as Americans.