- Historic Sites
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
The gloomy picture of life in America painted by Gorky in his impressions of New York (in The City of the Yellow Devil ) stuck in the minds of many Russians like a cliché. “I have never seen such a monstrous city,” Gorky wrote. “I have never seen people who seemed so insignificant, so enslaved.” Gorky’s distaste for the American way probably was enhanced by the savagery with which he was received by the Hearst and Pulitzer press, in part because of his revolutionary views but more because he was accompanied by his actress companion, an act which they considered an affront to American morals and law.
It hardly could be expected that the Russian Revolution of February 1917 and the swiftly following Bolshevik coup d’etat of November 1917 would usher into the new Soviet state an era of enlightenment as to the nature of the American system. In fact it only heightened acceptance of the perception by Marx of America as “the ideal of all bourgeois; a country rich, vast, expanding, with purely bourgeois institutions unleavened by feudal remnants and hereditary proletariat [where] every one could become, if not a capitalist, at all events an independent man, producing or trading, with his own means for his own account.”
You will search in vain for any thoughtful analysis of how this system actually worked. American politics were written off as a fraud. As recently as the 1960s an intelligent Soviet foreign correspondent explained that the Soviet press had no interest in exploring the principles and positions of Democratic and Republican candidates for the Presidency because, in reality, all important decisions were made not in the capital but on Wall Street. (He did not explain why, if this was so, Tass and Pravda did not bother to cultivate banking and financial sources or members of the New York Stock Exchange.)
That attitude of the Soviet journalists was consistent with their posture toward Soviet government affairs. They attended press conferences and even sessions of the Supreme Soviet but seldom bothered to take notes. Official handouts were sent directly to editors to save the journalists the burden of deciding for themselves what the news angle was.
Thus, reinforced by their experience of how their own government arrived at decisions in private and announced them as faits accomplis , journalists regarded debate and controversy in the United States as a hypocritical sham. Bourgeois democracy and hypocrisy became indistinguishable in the Soviet lexicon.
Twenty years ago the University of Chicago Press commissioned two eminent Soviet historians, Nikolai V. Sivachev and Nikolai N. Yakovlev, both well known in the West, to write a volume on U.S.-Soviet relations from the Soviet point of view. Stalin had been dead for nearly twenty years. Nikita Khrushchev had come and gone from the Soviet and world scene, stirring up old conceptions and shibboleths on the way. Yet the fundamental views presented by Sivachev and Yakovlev would scarcely have disturbed the most pedantic savant of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.
Laboring under such a burden of historic misconception of American democratic values, and with little in their own experience to draw upon, the leaders of the new Russian democratic movement face a labor of Sisyphus. It was no easy task for the founders of American democracy to work out a rough draft of principles. The system is still creaky and cranky, as every American knows. The wheels need constant greasing, and again and again it falls short of the people’s aspirations. Winston Churchill was right to call democracy at once the worst and best of man’s experiments in government.
The American system was hammered out after an exhausting war among men deeply divided not only by varying views but by diverse, often contradictory objectives. After two centuries it is far from perfect. But it works.
The Russians, with enormous enthusiasm and goodwill—and hope, have set themselves to try to duplicate this achievement. They have virtually no democratic principles in their historic past. The czars were as absolute in their tyranny as their Communist successors. True, there was a brief, ineffective experiment with democratic process after the Revolution of 1905, and there was a short respite in the hectic months from February to November 1917. Not much of a track record, and the experiments took place before the living memory of all but a handful of survivors. To break with traditions that ran for three hundred years under the Romanovs and nearly another seventy-five under the Communists (not to mention the pre-Romanov tyrants) would be difficult under the best of conditions. To accomplish it in a disintegrated state in which large territorial units have declared themselves independent and the whole state apparatus and economy are in ruins would seem a miracle. One can only wish the Russians well. After all, the odds against the birth of democracy in the small, distant war-torn American settlement were no less than those now facing Moscow.