Russia's Unpopular Intelligentsia

Democracy-loving Russian intellectuals don't enjoy popular support.

This weekend the Obama administration, in keeping with the provisions of the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, will make public a list of Russian citizens deemed to have committed human rights abuses in connection with the 2009 death of the Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. The publication of the list will no doubt be occasion for numerous op-eds and press releases from the members of what Dimitri Simes has memorably called the “democracy-promotion complex” in both the United States and Russia. This vanguard—of academics, think tank scholars and activists—are a group of elites that exercise enormous influence on the U.S. Congress and high-profile shapers of popular opinion such as 60 Minutes or the Washington Post editorial page.

But are the repeated calls by this elite—for an end to Putin’s rule and the implementation of Western democratic norms in Russia—popular among the people on whose behalf the democracy promoters purport to speak? Polling data from Pew Research and the Levada Center would suggest not.

Surveys taken by the respected Levada Center in this past January show fairly stable popular support for President Putin: some 65 percent of respondents support him, compared with less than 1 percent popular support for activist Alexi Navalny. Even at the height of the opposition protests in late 2011 and early 2012, nearly six in ten polled objected to the idea that “Putin must go.” The Pew Research Global Attitudes survey released just weeks after Putin’s second inaugural found that nearly 60 percent of those asked preferred a “strong leader” over a “democratic government” to tackle the nation’s challenges.

What is the cause of this divide between elites and the average citizen? The first and most obvious explanation is differences in income and education. Pew’s data shows a correlation between income and the importance respondents place on institutions such as a “fair judiciary” or an “uncensored media.” Only 28 percent of those with a “secondary education or less” believe that Russia should rely on a “democratic” system, as compared with 48 percent of those who have at least some university education.

A second and less remarked upon reason for the popular-elite disconnect might well have to do with Russia’s collective memory. Twenty years later, pro-democracy advocates appear to have forgotten just how easily the intellectual class shook off its commitment to democratic norms when the tide of popular sentiment was running against them. It is here that the thought leaders and members in good standing of the democracy-promotion complex might profit from reexamining a slight but powerful work by the dissident and camp survivor Andrei Sinyavsky, The Russian Intelligentsia.

After two decades in exile, Sinyavsky returned to Moscow in 1990 and was not a little distressed over the rhapsodic tone many leading intellectuals took when writing about Yeltsin. Citing the sociologist Yulia Vishnevskaya, he remarks on the “similarity between the loyal ecstasy of the Russian intelligentsia at the beginning of the 1990s and people’s behavior in the 1930s.”

It was in 1996, on the eve of Boris Yeltsin’s second term, that Sinyavsky—by then arguably the living embodiment of Russian literature—gave a remarkable address at Columbia University that became his book. In addition to his dismay over the supine posture that the intellectual class took in the presence of Yeltsin, he took to task some of the most prominent members of the Russian intellectual class for their acquiescence in (and in some cases, vocal support for) the shelling of Russia’s democratically elected Parliament in October 1993. “Even after the firing on the White House,” intellectuals continued to appeal to Yeltsin to take repressive measures against the Communist and nationalist opposition.

Much to Sinyavsky’s chagrin, some in the intelligentsia put in a repeat performance for Yeltsin’s reelection bid, even after war atrocities in Chechnya began. Film director Mark Zakharov went so far as to ask in an op-ed in Izvestia: “Are we really in such need of presidential elections in 1996?” In mistaking the democratic form for the substance of a free society a generation ago, Russian democracy advocates may have done themselves—as they surely did their country—irreparable harm.

Why does this matter now? Should we expect those seemingly far off events—and the economic, demographic and humanitarian catastrophes that followed—to resonate today with ordinary Russians? But consider an American parallel: do the Bill Clinton years seem all that far off? Some of the fiercest cultural and policy debates of the 1990s are still fresh in the American consciousness (debates over the legality of a universal healthcare provision and gay marriage come to mind). And these debates were relatively tame when compared to what was going on in Russia at the time.

The Yeltsin years saw one crisis follow another: runaway inflation, debt crises, bank runs, rampant unemployment and hitherto unheard of levels of crime. In the 1990s, if one listened close enough, one could hear the death rattle of a once great nation. I suspect the memory of both Yeltsin and his “democratic” enablers has not vanished. This, much more than Putin’s perfidy, may account for the lukewarm support the democracy-promotion complex engenders in the Russia of 2013.

James W. Carden served as an advisor to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011–2012.