Politics & Society

The best books on Why Russia isn’t a Democracy

recommended by Martin Sixsmith

Former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith chooses five great works on Russia's doomed democracies

  • 1

    The Russian Tradition
    by Tibor Szamuely

  • 2

    War and Peace
    by Leo Tolstoy

  • 3

    August 1914
    by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  • 4

    Ten Days that Shook the World
    by John Reed

  • 5

    V D Nabokov and the Russian Provisional Government, 1917
    by V D Nabokov

Former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith chooses five great works on Russia's doomed democracies

Martin Sixsmith

From 1980 to 1997 Martin Sixsmith worked for the BBC as their correspondent in Moscow, Washington, Brussels and Warsaw. From 1997 to 2002 he worked for the government as Director of Communications and Press Secretary to Harriet Harman, then to Alistair Darling and finally to Stephen Byers. He is now a writer, presenter and journalist. His books include Spin, I Heard Lenin Laugh and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: a Mother, her Son and a Fifty-Year Search.

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Tibor Szamuely?

 This is a more arcane choice. He was a Hungarian naturalised British historian in the late 70s when I was at university. His view of history was quite fashionable at that time and has stayed with me. Specifically, his view of Russian history. It’s a rather conservative, right-wing view that says Russia can never be a Western-style democracy or market economy in the way that we know it because of her imbibed tradition of non-freedom and non-democracy. It’s close to the view of Richard Pipes and other US historians, but I can’t say that I completely agree with it.

No. I find that Russians always say things like that, but we’ve all had autocratic histories.

I have some sympathy for Szamuely’s view, but I think he makes it too prescriptive, too definitive. It appeals to me because I was in Moscow during the coup in August 1991 when it looked like this tradition was being thrown off. Autocracy was being replaced by freedom and democracy – the Communist dinosaurs were booted out and so on. Well, it lasted for ten years, until 2000, and it didn’t work particularly well – chaos, recession, ethnic violence. And now Russia seems, on the face of it, to have reverted to the old traditions of autocracy. Everybody seemed very surprised that this plunge into liberal reform didn’t work out. Washington and London were taken aback. But, actually, if you look back through Russian history, this isn’t the first time it has happened. There have been many occasions when Russia could have thrown off autocracy and plunged into democracy – Catherine the Great, the Decembrists in 1825, the liberation of the serfs in 1861, the Witte and Stolypin reforms of 1905-1911 and the February revolution in 1917. All of these looked like they were going to throw off the autocratic tradition and bring Russia closer to Western-style governance. But on every occasion it failed. If you look at the long view we shouldn’t really have been surprised that in 1991 the shift to democracy didn’t work out. But who knows? Maybe Russia today can throw off the mantle of autocracy. We wait to see.

You’ve used the word plunge a lot and it seems to me that that’s more what went wrong than the attempt to be democratic. They do sort of plunge headlong rather than have a plan.

Yes, the US sent clever Harvard economists to tell Yeltsin he had to do everything overnight. They told him the Communists were lurking in the wings and if he didn’t create this immediate market democracy they would come back and he’d get booted out. Of course, there was a rationale behind that but it was a disaster. Giving away the whole of Soviet industry overnight…

How does Szamuely depict the Russian tradition?

He goes right back to the 13th century when the Mongols crushed the nascent democracy of the Kievan state – and it did have a certain amount of democracy. They had councils called veches (from the Old Church Slavonic vechat meaning ‘speak out’). The people could kick out the prince and elect officials. They were allowed to speak out. But Szamuely says the Mongols imposed a militarised, centralised, autocratic system which the Russians then assimilated for themselves. It worked well for them. They needed to protect themselves against the powerful enemies on their borders. So this ‘Asiatic despotism’, which is the shorthand Szamuely uses for the rejection of democracy, became Russia’s default position. Conservatives say Russia is so big and so disparate – all those time zones and ethnic minorities and different languages – that she can never have democracy. If you allow a freely elected parliament, you’ll end up with hundreds of ethnic nationalist groupings with their own agendas and the whole place will fall apart. That’s the argument.

India manages.

Yes, it’s big and it has democracy. But it isn’t an ethnically and religiously fragmented empire like Russia.

War and Peace.

Tolstoy also has a view of history that he sets out very clearly in the second epilogue. He writes the novel, he describes what happens in 1812 and the years around it, and at the end he says: Well, this is why it happened. I quite like that because his view is that politicians don’t make history, the great men don’t make history, the writers and journalists don’t make history though they all take credit for it post facto. Actually, what makes history is the work of the people. It’s a demotic theory of history, though not necessarily a socialist view.

Isn’t it a bit like chaos theory? Doesn’t he say that tiniest things that people do have this enormous effect?

Yes, but as a collective will. The tiny little things like Tushin the gunner who does this, or someone at Borodino who does that. But underlying that there is a sort of unremarked, subconscious collective will at work. It’s the will of the people. So, for instance, when the French occupy Moscow, he says: ‘It lies there like a fatally wounded beast, licking its wounds for five weeks and then, suddenly, with no new reason, the French turn tail and make a dash back to the West.’ When he says ‘no new reason’ he is suggesting that the insignificant soldiers, workers and peasants who are teeming through the pages of War and Peace, somehow come together in an expression of the collective will. In the case of Moscow, they ‘spontaneously’ set fire to the city. Tolstoy’s view is that the great men, like Kutuzov, move in tune with the laws of history. The foolish men, like Napoleon, try to change them, and we see the calamitous results of that. In the occupation of Moscow we see a bit of this Szamuely thesis cropping up again. We see that ‘Asiatic will’ surfacing, that steeliness that has been left with them from the Mongols. One of Napoleon’s own generals says: ‘These people are Scythians.’

That sounds very convincing. Why don’t you agree with him?

For me it’s just a bit too close to historical determinism, historical inevitability. It smacks of Hegel’s ineluctable march of history. Hegel said worldwide communism was inevitable. Well…

Solzhenitsyn, August 1914.

He’s the antithesis of Tolstoy in a way. August 1914 and the Red Wheel novels are a polemic against Tolstoy because he sees this Tolstoyan inevitability of history and he says: That’s wrong! People need to make a stand and try to change things for the better!

August 1914 is the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace. But Solzhenitsyn rejects Tolstoy’s belief that individuals can’t change history. He castigates General Samsonov who failed to resist the German invasion in 1914 and he abhors the sort of Tolstoyan fatalism that seizes the Russian leadership. Solzhenitsyn viewed 1914 as Russia’s last opportunity to save itself from the Bolshevik horror. It was that moment when people united against a common enemy, but because of political shenanigans, lack of will and incompetence, that was lost.

It sounds serious, but he’s quite mocking and joking. It’s a diatribe against Bolshevism and all its horrors and he uses every weapon including humour. There are nice passages about Lenin and his lover, Inessa Armand, who he took up with when he got fed up with Krupskaya. He describes Lenin having this great stroke of luck meeting the beautiful Inessa and Nadia Krupskaya goes along with it because free love had always been the policy of the Bolsheviks. In the early days it was a rejection of bourgeois morality but they got rid of it quite soon when they realised it was a recipe for disaster. Anyway, Lenin suddenly thinks that if Inessa believed in free love in theory then perhaps she was actually practising it! You see Lenin getting into this cold sweat and worrying that she was going off with someone else. Solzhenitsyn is using every trick of a great writer to pursue his tirade against Bolshevism. He describes how Lenin is in Zurich when revolution breaks out in Russia. Lenin’s eating his dinner and he looks round and says: ‘A revolution in Russia? What rubbish!’ So he goes on eating his boiled beef, making sure he gets ‘a good slice of the fatty bit’. It’s just lovely.

Do you know the joke about Lenin in Zurich? Stalin commissions this huge painting of ‘Lenin in Zurich’ and the unveiling takes place with enormous fanfare in front of thousands of dignitaries. The curtains are pulled back and the painting is of Krupskaya in bed with Trotsky and Trotsky is smoking a pipe. Stalin is outraged and shouts at the artist: ‘Where’s Lenin?’ The artist says: ‘In Zurich.’

I do. It’s one of my favourites. But all this stuff about the revolutionaries in exile refusing to believe that revolution had broken out is absolutely true. They all held this Marxian vision that you can’t have a socialist revolution until you’ve had your interim period of bourgeois democracy. This whole doctrine of Marxism – Marx thought Russia was the least likely country ever to have a socialist revolution, so when it happened Engels had do a bit of hasty revising: he had to rewrite the doctrine of Marxism to explain why the socialist revolution had taken place in Russia, even though Marx said it never would.

John Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World

I like John Reed because he’s a journalist like myself, like yourself, and he was on hand to paint this fantastic, vivid picture of 1917. As you know, Warren Beatty turned it into that movie Reds in the 1980s that made revolution fun, sexy and exciting. John Reed debunks the great Soviet myth that October was a huge heroic struggle by the masses. He said: No, it wasn’t like that. The Winter Palace had been abandoned, we just walked in, went into the wine cellar, tried the wines, people started looting things, we wandered around looking for regiments of defending soldiers but nobody was there.

He walks into the room where the provisional government had been sitting and there are all these bits of paper full of plans to save Russia, to save the government, and they are all screwed up and thrown in the bin. Reed took very much the Leninist view. He’s very much on Lenin’s side, and Lenin himself wrote in the preface: ‘I unreservedly recommend this book to the workers of the world.’

But when Stalin came to power he was furious that he is barely mentioned in the book, so he banned it and had all the copies burnt. He made a speech saying the book is full of ‘Arabian Nights fairytales’.

I haven’t read this book (though I’m going to), but I read all the reports written by the Times correspondent in Petersburg and was struck by how surprised he seemed that the revolution was happening.

In a sense, February really was the great chance for Russia to reform itself. Had the provisional government been more adept and had more time – it was on the way to producing a Western-style democracy. They were committed to a constituent assembly which would produce a constitution and free and fair national elections. The Marxist Mensheviks thought it was fine because they thought we need this period of democracy to precede the socialist revolution. It was only Lenin who said: No, we’re not going to let them get on with it. We’re going to have an armed uprising now. February had been a popular revolt, a genuine uprising of the people, but October wasn’t. That was a putsch, a coup d’état at the top level so people were surprised.

V D Nabokov.

He was an official in the provisional government. His moment of fame was when Nicholas abdicated and he wanted the crown to go to his brother Michael. Not all that surprisingly, Michael was a bit dubious about this because he was inheriting a real can of worms. So the provisional government sent a delegation to Michael to tell him he was now the Tsar. The delegation was led by Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, the father of the author. He drew up a rather equivocal statement for Michael that meant he was nominally the last Tsar of Russia though he never reigned.

These are the memoirs of a well-intentioned liberal. They reflect the provisional government’s lack of resolution and ruthlessness in the face of the unscrupulous Bolshevik machine. He was involved in the great historical events of 1917 and he’d go home in the evening and talk to his son, who was 17 at the time and would become one of the century’s greatest authors. If you read the young Nabokov’s memoirs, Speak Memory, you see how much he loved his father.

The Nabokov family had to go into exile after the October Revolution, but his father was still involved in émigré politics and was still friendly with Pavel Miliukov, the leader of the Constitutional Democrats, the Kadets. In 1922 they both went to Berlin to address a conference where Miliukov was speaking. Out of the audience came these two former Tsarist officers shooting at Miliukov, not at Nabokov at all. But Nabokov rather foolishly and bravely threw himself in front of Miliukov who was totally unharmed. Nabokov was shot dead. If you read Pale Fire, Nabokov Jr describes a very similar assassination in very moving terms. These memoirs are very informative but also they are a personal view of history that had a huge impact on one of the great writers of the 20th century.

You describe Russia’s chances at democracy as a series of missed opportunities. There’s something a bit sad and pathetic about it all.

There is. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the last 1,000 years has been a series of missed chances and that Russia has always reverted to centralised autocracy. I think we are seeing that again now. Putin has done a good job of bringing back order after the chaos of the Yeltsin years, but he has done it partly by trampling on civil rights and democracy. But who knows? Maybe there is a paradigm shift in the offing. It’s much harder for a regime to wield monolithic autocratic power in the modern world because of the internet, communications, international pressure.

He seems to be doing a pretty good job.

Yes. I agree. But one might say there is a possibility for the West to put pressure on them. The verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on 15 December will be a key litmus test. If he’s sent to jail for the 14 years they want, then we can say that the Putinist side of the Kremlin is asserting itself. Putin wouldn’t want him ever to be released. He hates Khodorkovsky. But if there’s an equivocal sentence – if he is convicted but only given a two-year sentence to take us past the 2012 elections – or if he’s acquitted, which isn’t likely, or if he’s convicted but offered a pardon, then it would be a real sign that the liberals still have a say.

I’m quite impressed by the liberality of not having had him murdered in prison.

Yes. It has happened to others. Maybe it is because of Khodorkovsky’s international standing. He is a man who was friends with Kissinger, George Bush, David Owen. It makes it harder for him to be murdered in jail.

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Martin Sixsmith

From 1980 to 1997 Martin Sixsmith worked for the BBC as their correspondent in Moscow, Washington, Brussels and Warsaw. From 1997 to 2002 he worked for the government as Director of Communications and Press Secretary to Harriet Harman, then to Alistair Darling and finally to Stephen Byers. He is now a writer, presenter and journalist. His books include Spin, I Heard Lenin Laugh and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: a Mother, her Son and a Fifty-Year Search.