Culture and Regime Forms

One of the principal ways in which a legacy argument has been mounted has been in terms of values viz. a particular country follows an authoritarian path because the culture is suffused with authoritarian values that provide an inhospitable environment for democracy to take root (Gill 2015, pp. 2-5). In this view, a country will have an authoritarian political system because it has an authoritarian culture. This has been a particularly prominent line of argument with regard to Russia. Some have sought to argue along psychological lines, that Russia has a particular ‘national character’ reflected in popular attitudes or that the Russian people have particular psychological traits (e.g. Dicks 1960; Gorer & Rickman 1949; Mead 1955). Others have eschewed psychology while still arguing that Russian culture was dominated by authoritarian values (e.g. Szamuely 1974; Billington 1966; Berdyaev 1948). Yet others have argued that Russian history and its perceived patterns reflect authoritarian popular attitudes towards authority (e.g. Pipes 1974; White 1979). This approach underpinned much of the ‘political culture’ literature of the 1970s.

The basic approach here was to see Russian history and culture as being characterized by a model of authority in which supreme power was vested in an autocratic leader, that that power was legitimated by a higher authority, and that the populace owed total loyalty and obedience to the authority figure. No opposition was possible, although there was some room here in the traditional notion ofthe right to rebel against a false tsar. Nevertheless, the basic model saw initiative and innovation coming from the top with the people as the passive receptors of direction from the authority figure. The people were not seen as active participants in political life, but as the passive receivers of wisdom from above. This was clearly an authoritarian conception of power that was deeply unsympathetic to democracy. This conception of authority was seen as underpinning tsarist autocracy, being carried forward into the Soviet era and, because of the dominance of Russia and the Russians in the Soviet period, of leaching through into the non-Russian parts of the USSR as well. Furthermore, those non-Slavic parts of the Union were also seen to have indigenous political cultures sympathetic to such a conception of authority.

The explanation here seemed simple: an authoritarian political system was underpinned by and consistent with an authoritarian political culture. The dominance of authoritarian values constituted a buffer to non-democratic rule because it portrayed such rule as the norm. In this sense, an authoritarian regime would gain a sense of legitimacy through the popular value system. Such legitimacy would have been absent had authoritarian political forms faced a political culture where ideas of democratic accountability and popular control were dominant because the modus operandi of the system would have seemed so at odds with the cultural values. This logic seems simple and compelling, but it does obscure some important qualifying factors (e.g. McAuley 1984).

One is the question of causality. The assumption behind much of the literature is that Russia has an authoritarian political culture and that this has shaped the political system. The problem is that this assumes that causality runs only one way, the political institutions are determined by cultural values. However, the culture itself is partly shaped by the state and what it does. One need only think of the way in which state-directed socio-economic change in the USSR, especially collectivization and industrialization, reshaped society, including in particular driving the process of urbanization that transformed much of the populace from village-based peasants into cityliving workers, with the accompanying changes in social values. This means that values and structures interact in an important way, each shaping the other in a dynamic relationship. Accordingly, models that posit values determining structures is too simplistic and misunderstands the complex ways in which they interact. But once we accept that they interact rather than one being caused by the other, the danger is that the argument could become circular: institutions shape values which shape institutions.3

Much of the political culture literature also makes questionable assumptions about the nature of the values in a particular culture. One assumption is that a culture remains largely unchanging and is standard across the society. Clearly values change over time, and a political culture rarely remains in the form in which it originally emerged. Furthermore, it can change at different speeds and in different ways in different parts of the society; attitudinal differences between city and country is a common distinction observers have drawn consistently across cultures. Once it is acknowledged that values can both change and be differentially distributed across the society, it is difficult to argue for a direct causal relationship between a society’s values and its political structure. In addition, when scholars seek to identify the dominant values in a particular culture, they are selective in the choice of what they see as being important. This means that some potentially contradictory elements in a culture may be downplayed. For example, the model of authority assuming popular passivity outlined above and said to belong to Russian culture is sharply at odds with the history of rural revolts and revolutions in Russia, while the presumed absence of democratic principles jars with the dominance of democratic rhetoric in many of the official pronouncements of the Soviet regime. This is not to say that the authoritarian elements in Russian culture were not there; but there were contradictory elements as well. The culture was not homogenous, and therefore it is difficult to draw a direct and unambiguous link between values and structure.

This does not mean that values did not influence political institutions and the way they developed, nor that they had no relevance to questions of regime legitimacy. If there is a discrepancy between popular values and regime form, the buffer of popular support enjoyed by the regime is likely to be thin and the credit the regime enjoys with the people is limited. If values and the regime form align, the popular basis of the regime is likely to be stronger. But given the points made above, the precise relationship between values and regime is more complex than it may at first appear. Probably the most that can be said is that while values may help to shape regime outcomes, they do not determine them.

Applying this logic to the different regime trajectories evident in Table 3.1, it is striking that democracy has appeared most consolidated in the three Baltic republics which because of the date of their incorporation into the USSR (1940/1945), were exposed to Soviet values for a significantly shorter period than most of the rest of the country. A similar point can be made with regard to one of the only three countries whose democratic credentials have strengthened over the last 25 years, Moldova. This clearly does not prove that culture was decisive in shaping regime outcomes, but it is suggestive that it may have had a role to play. But it is really to elsewhere than culture that we have to turn to explain regime trajectories.

Another legacy/path dependent explanation relates to the circumstances of the collapse of the old regime in each state. This will be analysed after reviewing arguments about the importance of agency.

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