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Groping Toward Democracy

June 2024
9min read

The Russians claim they want to be more like us— but do they have any idea who we are?

The Russian road to democracy is not going to be easy. In the forty-five-volume edition of Vladimir Lenin’s collected works, the index shows no entry for Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams, or James Madison. George Washington gets three mentions, but they all relate to well-wishers suggesting that Lenin is the George Washington of Russia. Monroe is listed four times—each time for the Monroe Doctrine, with nothing about the debates over the U.S. Constitution.

This striking indifference of the founder of the Soviet state to the American heritage of democracy and its authors is hardly a positive harbinger for the hopes of the many Russians (and their well-wishers on our shores) for the rise of a new and democratic state from the ruins of the dictatorship of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors.

Most Russians, when asked what they understand by the word democracy , assert: “Why, just the kind you have in America.” But, in fact, they have little or no idea of what that democracy is or where it came from. They are hardly aware that there ever was an American Revolution.

The Russian ignorance is much like that of the young American radicals of the 1960s who proudly wore Mao buttons but confessed that they had never read a line of Mao, not even his Little Red Book . “We’re spiritual Maoists,” they would say. Russia’s “spiritual democrats” are just as ignorant of the American democratic process, how it came about and how it has evolved.

This, as Pravda used to say, “is no accident.”

Lenin, following dutifully in the footsteps of his ideological father, Karl Marx, did not consider the American Revolution a true revolution. It was simply an insurrection of rich colonial planters and merchants inspired by considerations of trade and profits. Taxes, not class struggle, lay at its core. Lenin paid more attention to the almost forgotten Shays’ Rebellion. That had a real class character.

Marx—and later Lenin—fixed attention on the French Revolution; neither bothered with Jefferson or Adams. Marx drew his theories from Hegel and the English social critics John Locke and Adam Smith, and was fluent in the theories of the French Encyclopedists. Lenin did not broaden Marx’s base. He was interested in America but not as a source of democratic theory. He saw the United States as an imperialist state—what he called the highest form of capitalism. The American capitalist state was creating the structure, the tools, and the mechanism that Lenin believed would inevitably be inherited by the proletariat, which would rule not by democracy but by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—that is, by Lenin and his core group.

Lenin spent no time reading the Federalist Papers, but he was greatly attracted to the innovation of American industrial pioneers like Henry Ford who invented ways of reducing the cost of production. He was deeply interested in the Taylor system, an early time-labor-motion-study technique that had been introduced in American factories over the violent protest of labor unions. Lenin thought Taylorism was just the thing to spice up the sluggish inefficiency of Russian factories.

The first event in American life that really engaged the interest of Karl Marx was the American Civil War. He saw the United States as still in a semifeudal state and became a violent partisan of the North because of Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery. Of course it never occurred to either Marx or Lenin that the fledgling democracy of Jefferson, Adams, and Washington contained the germ of a social state far superior to Marx’s dogmatic concept of a classless society in which the exploitation of man by man would come to an end. Both Marx and Lenin were, at least until revolution actually occurred, Utopian extremists.

It was this absolutism in philosophical theory that caused generation after Soviet generation to grow up in almost total ignorance of the nature of democracy—or, even worse, with a cartoonlike distortion of it.

A quick look at the most recent edition of the Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entisclopedia discloses one column of print devoted to Jefferson, giving him credit for achieving the separation of church and state, for writing the Declaration of Independence (contents not elaborated on), for the Bill of Rights (nature not disclosed), for opposing slavery, and for fighting against “feudalism.” No discussion of Jefferson’s philosophy. Turn to the entry “Democracy,” and there is even less enlightenment. The reader is treated to extracts from Lenin, Stalin, and even Stalin’s doddering Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin on the evils of “bourgeois democracy.” It was precisely this morbid system, the encyclopedia proclaimed, that gave rise to fascism in Italy, to Franco in Spain, to Hitler in Germany, and through the Marshall Plan was attempting to enslave the world.


Only the dictatorship of the proletariat, the encyclopedia resonated, could liberate the people of the world “from the yoke of false bourgeois democracy.”

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.

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.

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