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Groping Toward Democracy
The Russians claim they want to be more like us— but do they have any idea who we are?
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Knowledge and understanding of the democratic process had been feeble in Russia since very early times. The liberal czar Alexander I had showed some interest in the American experiment and even engaged in a brief correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. But this interest hardly spread beyond the walls of the Winter Palace. When Alexander died mysteriously, on November 19, 1825, young officers demonstrated in Senate Square for Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Konstantin, and for a constitutional monarchy. Their troops shouted for Konstantin i Konstitutsia , many allegedly thinking they were shouting for the grand duke and his wife, Konstitutsia. The reactionary Nicholas I ascended the throne, not Konstantin, and the rebel officers, the Decembrists, were executed or sent to Siberia. Not only was there no public discussion of democracy, but even the printing of the word revolution was banned until 1905 brought the first revolutionary winds of the hurricane that was to bring down the Romanov dynasty.
From Catherine II to Mikhail Gorbachev, no Russian ruler paid any serious attention to the democratic system evolving in the United States.
It is literally true that from the time of Catherine II in the late eighteenth century to that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late twentieth century, no Russian ruler paid any serious attention to the democratic system evolving in the United States. Nor, under conditions of press censorship and rigid control of school and university curricula, was there much opportunity for popular understanding. The successive generations of young people who sought in the latter half of the nineteenth century to overthrow or reform czarist absolutism skipped over the democratic alternative of which they knew little and plunged into violence, trying with bombs and assassinations to destroy the imperial colossus.
Catherine II had displayed a lively interest in the fledgling American republic. She enjoyed her correspondence and patronage of French philosophers and even gave some of them financial support. She toyed with radical ideas, but all of this came to an end with the outbreak of the French Revolution. The violence, the overthrow of France’s monarchy, and her sudden fear that the sparks from the French bonfire might ignite Russian tinder coincided with a violent peasant revolt at home that came close to toppling her throne.
The empress’s increasing hysteria reached a peak when an obscure customhouse official named Alexander Radishchev incorporated what he called an “Ode to Liberty” in a rambling and rather tedious volume, Journey from Petersburg to Moscow . Radishchev hailed the liberties of the new American democracy—the Bill of Rights, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. Catherine was apoplectic. The poor customhouse man was tried and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to Siberian exile. Radishchev ultimately committed suicide.
Ironically, when the Bolsheviks came to power, they eulogized Radishchev as a martyr to the cause of freedom but carefully suppressed his advocacy of America’s First Amendment principles. Lenin, Stalin, and company were as fearful as Catherine about publication of the word revolution let alone democracy . Under Stalin even books about the violent young revolutionaries of the 180Os and the assassinations of czars and grand dukes were banned.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Russian regimes’ abiding interest in the United States lay in the sphere of balance-of-power international politics, not in Jeffersonian ideology. The czarist state had sympathized with the revolt of the American colonies because it weakened England. Russia showed support for America in the 1812 conflict for the same reason, and sided with the United States in the dispute with Britain over the Pacific Northwest. Russia showed its flag on the Northern side in the Civil War while England leaned toward the South. The sale by Russia to the United States of Alaska and its North American territories in 1867 climaxed the warm relationship of the two continental powers whose internal political systems were so wildly contradictory.
The images possessed by Americans of Russia and by Russians of America entered an era of swift change in the early years of this century. On the American side the horrors of the czarist exile system and the concentration camps of that day began to be limned in the travel inquiries of George Kennan (a relative of the contemporary George Frost Kennan) in Siberia and, as time went on, by the fearsome details of brutal pogroms against the Jews. Mark Twain said after attending one of Kennan’s lectures, “If such a government cannot be overthrown except by dynamite, then, thank God for dynamite.”
On the Russian side the blank or benign pictures of America began to be replaced with vignettes of the enslavement of Russian emigrants (often Jewish) in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, dismal pictures painted by Russian writers like Korolenko and Gorky who visited the United States. The United States was described as a racist land in which octopus corporations had usurped rule—all of this before Lenin had begun to wield his razor.