Importance of political tradition, and what it means for russia (and Ukraine)
Last two months have been mind bending, life changing, soul emptying, and in general an experience I wish I never had to go through. Russia started a full scale war against Ukraine, killing tens of thousands of innocents, destroying our cities, occupying our land and pretty much running a war to eliminate Ukrainians and our culture.
This prompted me to do a lot of reading, talking with people, and searching for an answer to a simple question - how does a country like russia, that went through so much suffering in the past, including stalinism and stalin’s terror, elects and supports a leader like putin once again.
Reading Obama’s Audacity of Hope, together with works by US Founding Fathers points to one potential explanation.
Countries in the western world have a centuries old tradition of politics and debate. They went through numerous struggles - political, economical, and military. They have political systems that were crafted through many years of people and their leaders arguing against each other. And while these arguments weren’t always peaceful, they created this culture, this tradition of deciding even the most complex questions and disagreements in the process of public discourse.
In Europe and North America people often disagree with each other. Even more, after living in Ukraine, Russia, US and UK it often feels like people argue even more relentlessly with each other in the west than in russia. But even through these disagreements, the civil society in these countries works through the conflicts, disagreements, mutual accusations and achieves a compromise that allows the western nations to move forward in a more peaceful, civilized manner.
On the other hand, in russia there has never been a period of good, successful democracy and public debate that lasted long enough to bear fruits. When things go well and the country is moving forward - people there just wholeheartedly support the leaders, developing an almost cult-like following (or at least that part of the population that is not hurt by the policies of these leaders). And when things don’t go well… Well, russia also has a history of violent, bloody revolutions that reset the entire order of things. The problem is that even after a “good”, democratic revolution, the civil society in russia doesn’t embrace the internal disagreements and conflicts. Instead, they choose a new leader or cult again and again, which brings the country back into the darkness of dictatorship, despotism, police violence and terror against the minority that disagrees with the ideals of majority.
This cycle is very concerning. I have no doubts that Ukraine, and the civilization of freedom, democracy and liberal values will win this battle, but the real war can only be won when we eliminate the fundamental reason that brought putin’s regime to life - the society that resents search for a compromise and internal political diplomacy.
How do we improve civil society quickly, ideally within the current generation (as any longer may lead to the next power-thirsty leader to start the next war and next cycle of violence)? I don’t have an answer for this, but we really need to find one. In the past, the West tried to do this by including russia in the global markets and global political system. This clearly hasn’t worked as intended - and I believe that is because such approach is very easy to game, which enabled putin to use the economic success of the russian state to cement his power, while still allowing him to build his vertical system of total control. We also see signs of such approach not working well in some other countries in Europe (i.e. Hungary) that seem to embrace these anti-liberal and anti-democratic values.
Now is the time to find a better approach. One that focuses on education and on providing opportunities for people to learn and embrace western values. One that embraces internal conflicts, and incentivises people to resolve them peacefully, and also teaches people to learn how to agree to disagree and to find compromise.
But first, we need to protect Ukraine, Europe, and the whole western civilization - so please help Ukraine!.