Old liberalism never really sunk in in Russia. When the winds of freedom swept over Europe in the 19th century, Eastern Europe was only minimally touched. Through the strong hand of the state, the Russian people were kept down. Only in 1860s was serfdom abolished. Even when reformers such as Czar Alexander II were in power, the government did not transform into a true democracy. To add insult to injury, whatever liberalization occurs is reversed as soon as said reformer no longer occupies the seat of power. Alexander III did so to the works of his predecessor and used his autocratic power to crack down on minorities. In the Soviet days, a similar pattern repeated itself with Brezhnev’s violent hostility to liberalization resulting in the use of arms to put down a marginally more liberal movement in Czechoslovakia. Through sheer force, democracy was never allowed to take root in Russia. Whenever the Russian people get close to become a true democracy, it is snatched away by a strong man.

Their current strong man is Vladimir Putin. Just like all of the czars and red dictators that ruled Russia before him, he is the antagonist of the reformer. Recently, Putin continued the pattern of hard handed government by cracking down on pro-democracy protestors in the streets of Moscow. Around 1,300 people were detained by police after gathering to demand electoral reform, specifically the ability for opposition candidates to run for local offices. The Heritage Foundation marveled at their size noting that they were the largest over a decade. When protestors attempted to tear down barricades, riot police sprang into action and wounded multiple protestors. Activists Van Zhdanov, Ilya Yashin, Valery Rodin, Lyubov Sobol, and Dmitry Gudkov were assaulted and detained. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny (more on him later) was also taken to a hospital with an “acute allergic reaction” in the aftermath of the protests which aroused suspicion of poisoning since that had never happened to him before.

It must be made clear that Russia is in no way, shape or form a democracy. The czars may be long dead and communism may have fallen but freedom has not arisen in its place. The Washington, DC based 501c group Freedom House makes this very clear. On a scale of 1-7, with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least free, Russia’s freedom rating is 6.5, their political rights are 7, and their civil rights are 6. Freedom House’s bleak summary of the situation in the country, they write:

Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition groups, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and inhibit genuine opposition. The country’s rampant corruption is one notable threat to state power, as it facilitates shifting links among bureaucrats and organized crime groups.

-Freedom House

The group also goes on to notes that in 2017 all of the state took many repressive actions. Among these were banning Putin’s opponent Alexei Navalny from challenging him, banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and two journalists were murdered in strange circumstances.

 What passes for democracy in Russia would be called authoritarianism in the west. Allowing opposition to go ahead unmolested is one of the hallmarks of a free society. What has been occurring in Russia in the past few years in this regard is not the conduct a democracy, it is one of despotism. Free countries do not kill journalists, imprison opposition leaders on irrelevant charges or arrest thousands of protestors with great violence and vigor in the streets of the capital. The very fact that events like these are not uncommon in Russia makes clear that Russia is not free and so long as Vladimir Putin is in power, it will never be.

Photo credit: “Protests in Moscow reveal a disparity in Russian democracy” via the Heritage Foundation

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