In 2006, when global investors still flocked to Russia—and Russians still cared about their international reputation—former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke at an investment conference in Moscow. When her speech was over, an earnest young Siberian, speaking flawless English, asked why the United States kept picking on Russia’s human rights record when China’s was so much worse. “Because we expected more of you,” Albright replied.
Was it naive to believe that Russia would take a democratic turn after abandoning communism? As the Cold War ended, the West first embraced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, as democrats. The process of democratization began, with the Kremlin relinquishing its monopoly on politics and lifting restrictions on Russians’ ability to assemble, express themselves, and travel abroad.
But democracy did not take hold in Russia, and by the time I heard Albright speak in Moscow, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, was diligently dismantling the feeble democratic institutions that did exist. In their place, Putin patched together a facade that displayed all the rituals and institutions of a democracy—but was nothing more than an empty shell. After Putin extended his rule by another two six-year terms in 2020 and then poisoned and imprisoned his fiercest domestic opponent, Alexey Navalny, Russia emerged as an unabashed dictatorship. Seemingly at the peak of his power, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and threatened the West with nuclear war if it intervened militarily.
Both in Russia and the West, a popular explanation for Putin’s attack is that the United States and its allies are to blame because they expanded NATO eastward, forcing him to make a last stand in Ukraine. This narrative ignores that Ukrainians were deeply ambivalent about joining NATO before Putin first invaded their country eight years ago and that the alliance itself was divided over Ukraine’s membership, with Germany and France opposed and all U.S. presidents after George W. Bush completely uninterested in the prospect. Moreover, by seizing Crimea and kindling a low-level war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin effectively derailed Ukrainian NATO membership by creating an intractable territorial conflict the alliance would be loath to inherit. Putin has since made clear that his real objective in Ukraine is to reconquer territory once controlled by Russia.
Calling NATO the instigator of Putin’s war of aggression is a distraction, not a reason. Even with East-West relations at their worst since the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and its allies do not pose a military threat to Russia thanks to Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. That the Kremlin still plays up NATO as a bogeyman says more about Russia’s phobias than actual dangers the country faces. It is not the alliance’s enlargement that led Putin to attack Ukraine; it is Russia’s failure to become a democracy.
A democratic Russia would not have taken issue with an alliance of democracies moving closer to its borders. And a democratic Russia would not be waging war on another democracy, Ukraine, or threatening other European democracies. Russia’s failure to become a democracy is the root cause of its conflict with the West—and will be the country’s biggest burden in the era after Putin. This hard truth raises a big question: Can Russia, as long as it is run as an empire and afflicted with post-imperial phantom pains, ever become a democracy?
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Because of Russia’s long history of despotism, many in the West doubt that Russians are capable of adopting democracy. And in Russia itself, the belief that Western-style democracy is impossible is shared not only by Putin supporters but also monarchists, communists, nationalists, and Eurasianists. They all argue that Russia must follow its own culturally determined path and that exactly because of Russia’s unwillingness to bend to the diktat of liberal democracies, it inevitably finds itself in conflict with the West.
The argument that democracy is incompatible with certain cultures can be heard by defenders of autocracy around the world. Local political tradition plays a critical role in how fast democracy takes root in a country, but it is not deterministic. South Korea is a vivid example of how a country with no democratic traditions can transform itself into a leading democracy within a couple of generations, whereas North Korea illustrates how that same nation can be trapped in a dictatorship because of an arbitrarily drawn border.
Russia was not preordained to despotism nor to a clash with the West. In 1991, the first time I visited Russia, the Soviet state was in its death agony, but the people I encountered were ebullient. For an American to meet a Russian in those days was like a reunion of long-lost relatives. We found a convergence of worldviews that communism was bankrupt and that Western democracy, whatever its pitfalls, was a superior political system. For many Russians, used to shortages and shabbiness, the appeal of the West lay primarily in the gleam of its consumer products. But plenty of Russians also recognized the intangible value of political rights and freedoms, especially after seven decades of one-party tyranny. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia started its new existence as a multiparty democracy.
Now, 30 years later, Putin has turned his country into a revanchist dictatorship. When he is gone, either dead or deposed, there will be no joyous reunions between Russians and Americans. The relationship will be marked by mutual suspicion, recriminations, and clashing worldviews.
How did things go so wrong?
Although the Soviet Union and the Western powers—the United States, Britain, and France—were adversaries during the Cold War, they shared a common victory in World War II. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s alliance with Western democracies was the main source of the Soviet Union’s legitimacy as a world power, cemented in its position as a founding member of the United Nations. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s monumental human sacrifice during the war served as an alibi for Stalin to seize half of Europe.
The Soviet regime relished the prestige that rivalry with the West brought while jealously striving to compete with it in practically every field of human endeavor. That’s why Russia’s rapprochement with the West that I experienced as a college student in Moscow felt so natural and almost familial. There was a genuine eagerness among Russians to live as in the West, both economically and politically. But Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”) could not reform the Soviet Union—and instead sped up its demise.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991, 14 newly independent countries set out to transform themselves into nation states—to varying degrees of success. The 15th, the Russian Federation, struggled to redefine itself. The fall of the Soviet Union signified the collapse of an empire that Russia had been expanding for centuries. Stalin’s territorial gains in World War II stretched from Prague to Pyongyang—the absolute zenith of Russian influence. In 2005, when Putin called the Soviet collapse “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” he was not lamenting the Soviet Union per se but a Russian empire of unparalleled reach and power.
Russia under Yeltsin became the Soviet Union’s legal successor, with all the prestige (i.e. a nuclear arsenal, a veto on the U.N. Security Council, and a global network of embassies) as well as burdens (i.e. external debt obligations) that entailed. With 11 time zones and more than 100 ethnic groups, Russia remained a de facto empire, both in sheer size and mentality. There was no process of de-Sovietization or lustration, as a significant portion of the population looked back at the vanished empire with nostalgia and regret. Besides a few prominent name changes to their pre-communist antecedents, most places in Russia were not renamed. Statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin continued to overshadow Lenin Squares across the country, and Lenin’s mummy remained in its tomb in the Kremlin walls. Individual Russians were free to shake off the shackles of the past in their own lives, but a sense of loss rather than liberation defined the national mood. That feeling was exacerbated by the chaotic transition from a command economy, as millions of Russians lost their livelihoods and slid into poverty.
In 1993, a coalition of communists and nationalists in Russia’s parliament rebelled against Yeltsin’s painful economic reforms, forcing a constitutional standoff with the Kremlin. When Yeltsin put down the increasingly bloody rebellion by shelling the parliament, Russia first veered off its path of democratization. That detour took an even worse turn a year later, when Yeltsin ordered the brutal invasion of Chechnya, a tiny Muslim province in southern Russia.
As the Soviet Union began to democratize in the late 1980s, demands for self-determination grew in its constituent republics. Russia, by far the largest Soviet republic, contained some 20 “autonomous” territories in recognition of the ethnic groups who lived there. When the Soviet Union began to crack apart, a number of these Russian territories also pushed for greater sovereignty from the Kremlin—or, in the case of Chechnya, outright independence. It is likely that deeper democratization and a real attempt at federalization in post-Soviet Russia would have only accelerated the centrifugal forces first unleashed by Gorbachev. But while Yeltsin’s pitiless attack on Chechnya may have prevented Russia’s unraveling, it also marked the return to mass violence as a means of political organization.
Against the backdrop of the fighting in Chechnya, Russia’s former vassals—the three Baltic nations, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary—were in a hurry to join NATO. All of them had experienced Soviet invasions and had little reason to bet on Russia becoming a peace-loving neighbor anytime soon. From the point of view of Central and Eastern European nations, Russia’s divergence from a democratic path practically necessitated NATO membership as a guarantee against future aggression.
In 1996, Yeltsin agreed to a truce in Chechnya, but peace did not return to the war-torn territory. He left it to his handpicked successor, Putin, to launch a second, devastating campaign to crush Chechen separatism. Putin installed a ruthless puppet regime in Chechnya, buying its loyalty with petrodollars from an unprecedented oil boom. In contrast to Yeltsin, Putin was flush with the resources to paper over Russia’s fractures. He promised Russians restoration after a decade of disintegration. Stability, even prosperity, appeared to be at hand.
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One of the secrets to Putin’s popularity has been his ability to exploit the strange mixture of pride and shame that many Russians carry inside them: pride for belonging to a unique civilization and shame for its lingering backwardness. As he turned Russia into a revanchist power, Putin compensated for the humiliation of corruption, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity with an aggressive foreign policy. He solidified his rule on the inferiority complex of an entire generation.
The Kremlin began to call Russia’s increasingly dictatorial system a “sovereign democracy,” implying it was not inferior to any other democracies and need not abide foreign criticism. On paper, Russia has a bicameral parliament, a supreme court, and a plethora of political parties, though only those candidates sanctioned by the Kremlin are allowed to participate in elections.
The “sovereign democracy” that Putin presented to the outside world was clouded by ideological incoherence internally. The Communists became reactionaries while the Liberal Democrats advocated unvarnished Russian chauvinism. Politicians often labeled “pro-Western liberals,” including Navalny, at times espoused nationalist, even racist, views. The ruling United Russia party, whose only mission was to carry out the Kremlin’s legislative tasks, soon took on the role that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had once played.
For many Russians, the omnipresence of communist ideology during Soviet times and its glaring disconnect to daily life rendered any ideology meaningless. In post-communist Russia, ideological fervor, real or pretended, was replaced by cynicism and resignation to the powers that be. Similarly, admiration for Western democracies gave way to disillusionment after many Russians concluded that money and dirty deals were as much a part of politics in the West as they were in Russia. Political nihilism—the belief in nothing—has worked for Putin as a way to fill a vacuum and extend his rule. But that nihilism also reveals the weakness of his regime since few Russians will take to the streets to defend Putin if his grip on power is threatened.
Of course, the Kremlin’s appeals to rodina, or “homeland,” transcend politics. To the millions of Russians who were born in the Soviet Union, the word has an ambiguous meaning, since the borders of their original homeland shrank considerably in 1991. Not surprisingly, Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a jewel in the crown of Russia’s lost empire, was widely popular among Russians. In a world without ideology, imperial nostalgia still has a powerful draw.
Yet even self-proclaimed Russian nationalists are confused about whether they want to create a modern nation state, which Russia never was, or resurrect the Russian Empire. I once interviewed a nationalist leader named Vladimir Tor, who promoted a “Russia for Russians” and its separation from the majority-Muslim provinces in Russia’s North Caucasus region, such as Chechnya. When I asked him if Buddhist Buryats or Muslim Tatars had a place in his Russia, Tor seemed surprised by the question, then cheerfully amended his slogan to: “Russia for Russians and those who agree with that.”
In Russia’s ideological fog, only one label has real staying power: fascist. In the Russian context, the word conjures the armies that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler sent to invade the Soviet Union and has taken on the meaning of a monstrous enemy hellbent on annihilation. That’s why many Russians barely noticed as Putin’s Russia became more and more fascistic because Russians, by definition, could not be fascists—only their worst adversaries could.
The Kremlin’s branding of Ukrainians as fascists sounds absurd to Westerners because it so blatantly contradicts reality: The Ukrainian far right consistently performs much worse electorally than nationalists in established European democracies; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew whose family suffered in—and resisted—the Nazi invasion of Soviet Ukraine; and, perhaps most significantly, Ukraine holds regular, competitive elections with often unpredictable outcomes. But Putin’s use of the word “neo-Nazi” for Ukrainians is intended for a domestic audience that understands its Soviet context. Ukrainians are one people with Russians, according to Putin, except for the “traitors” who are turning Ukraine into an “anti-Russia.”
Ukraine is, in fact, losing any resemblance to Russia. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia and Ukraine remained closely bound through family ties and friendships as well as supply chains and pipelines. But even as older Ukrainians could look back on a common Soviet past with Russia, a new generation began to see Ukraine’s future as a European democracy. The country’s strong regional centers and competing oligarchs prevented the rise of an omnipotent ruler as in Russia. In comparison to Russians, Ukrainians were poor but free. The Kremlin had no problem with Ukraine being a nominally independent country as long as its government could be bought with cheap energy. But when a Kremlin-backed president fled anti-government protests in Kyiv in 2014, Putin started seizing territory to stop Ukraine from slipping out of his control. The violence he unleashed on the country made Ukrainians turn against Russia and view NATO as a potential protector.
Ukraine’s success as a democracy is a danger to Putin’s regime because of the example it sets for Russians. Independent Ukraine started in a very similar place as Russia and has struggled with many of the same challenges: widespread corruption, an archaic judicial system, and overbearing security services. What has distinguished Ukraine from Russia is the development of a strong civil society, forged during two pro-democracy street revolutions. In their belated process of de-Sovietization, Ukrainians became citizens of their own country, while in Russia, Russians remained subjects of their ruler.
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Ukrainian independence and Ukraine’s democracy are tantamount to a rebellion against the empire that Putin believes he must resurrect and lead. Putin’s rule, as eternal as it may seem, will also come to an end. But there are scant grounds to believe that his successor will be more conciliatory or democratically inclined. Even if a new Kremlin leadership agrees to end the fighting, grievances among Russian hard-liners may arise: that Putin was not violent enough or that the West prevented Russia from winning. It is hard to imagine a future Russian government voluntarily returning Ukrainian territory that Putin annexed.
The fundamental problem is that there is little prospect that Russians will come to terms with their country’s misdeeds in the same way Germans did after World War II. Even in democratic West Germany, it took four decades for the public to accept Nazi Germany’s capitulation as a liberation rather than a defeat. But an honest reckoning with the past was crucial for postwar Germans to overcome their imperialist legacy, reconcile with former enemies, and build a successful democracy.
For Russians of the future, the burden of the past will weigh doubly. If they are to find any closure, they will have to account not only for Putin’s crimes in Ukraine but also for more distant atrocities committed by his Soviet predecessors. During perestroika, Russians began to uncover the true scope of Stalin’s crimes. But in recent years, the Russian authorities hindered that painful work before making it all but impossible. What matters to Putin about Stalin is his “great victory” in World War II and the transformation of the Soviet Union into a superpower that rivaled the United States. For Putin, the last Russian empire has nothing to apologize for—and its ignominious collapse is a defeat worth vindicating.
If Russia is ever to become a democracy, it will depend on Russians unblinkingly examining their recent history and abandoning their imperial delusions. Only a Russia that owns up to the crimes committed in the name of empire can hope to begin to reconcile with its neighbors and earn their trust. Imperial thinking implies domination over others, competition with neighbors, and rule by an emperor. Democratic thinking means minority rights, international cooperation, and rule by the people. But as long as Russians do not see themselves as citizens of their own country—and instead as subjects of their ruler—Russia’s democratization cannot take place.
The challenges facing a post-Putin Russia appear even more daunting than those that the country faced after the collapse of communism. It is difficult to see what could move Russians to kill the empire in their heads and take the first steps to transform their country from a broken empire into a multiethnic democracy.
Russia had two chances at democracy in the 20th century: first in 1917, in the months before the Bolshevik Revolution began, and again in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Only Russians can decide if their next chance at democracy will be more successful.