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Russian Elections

Elections in Russia are and always have been extremely peculiar processes. Until the advent of the State Duma of the Russian Empire in 1905, a sort of legislative body, there had not really been any elections in the Russian Empire. There was an election of a kind in 1905, that resulted mostly in a series of radical leftist parties obtaining seats. Tsar Nicholas II was determined not to take instructions or orders from the Duma that was created, and it very rarely sat and its composition was interfered with by the Tsar and those holding executive political power around him. In practice the 1905 Duma held little real power and served purely in an advisory capacity which advice was largely ignored. The 1905 Duma had been the product of an attempt to satiate popular sentiment in the Russian Empire against the monarchy and it had no precedent in Russian political traditions.

In the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin cited the Tsar’s wanton disregard for the 1905 Duma as one of his pretexts for fomenting revolution against the Russian monarchy and installing a socialist regime. In fact Lenin was no democratic and neither was his ideological mentor Karl Marx, who had written that democracy was a tool of the petty bourgeoisie to manipulate the proletariat (i.e. the working people) and therefore elections were a form of alienating people from their true wishes by pretending to them that they had political choice when in fact they had none: just different versions of manipulation and control by the petty bourgeoisie - what today we would call the middle classes. Therefore Marx advocated for, and Lenin endorsed, what he called a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which in practice meant a series of self-appointed representatives of the proletariat who would dictate to the petty bourgeoisie - and indeed to everyone else - what everyone was going to do. Hence with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Russian civil war, elections in Russia and the Soviet Union more generally were abolished.

However Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, re-instituted the concept of elections as an appropriate tool for the proletariat to convert their support for the governing party, namely the Communist Party, and in particular him. Stalin borrowed the idea of elections from the West and Sovietised them: that is to say, he ensured that the elections would have a predetermined outcome. Democracy as a theoretical concept became a central tenet of Stalinist communism, because democracy showed that the communist party and the communist system was overwhelmingly popular with the people and that the communist system was thereby legitimised. Because Stalinism involved the mass murder of millions of people in the pursuit of socialist central planning economic goals, the elections had to be fixed because communism was not of course popular - although if you asked anybody they would say that they supported it, because otherwise Stalin’s feared secret police, the NKVD (later the KGB, now the FSB) would take you away and murder you.

Thus Stalin had elections, and the only candidates were communist party officials. Often there was only one candidate on the ballot paper in Stalin’s election, and often it was Stalin himself. Citizens were “encouraged” to vote by the secret police, and ballot papers were counted, and newspapers controlled by the Communist Party  advocated citizens to go to vote for the official Communist Party candidate (there were no other candidates). The outcome of such elections was unsurprising and were the origins of what current Russian President Vladimir Putin calls “managed democracy” in which democratic procedures are formally and even meticulously observed but nonetheless the outcome is a sham and a foregone conclusion because people are being forced to vote and they are being forced to vote in a certain way. They may be forced to vote by men with guns who come to their homes and ask them to accompany them to the polling station, as has been reported in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories which Russia has illegally annexed into the Russian Federation. They may be forced to vote in a certain way because the ballot boxes are transparent and therefore voting officials (all members of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party) can see how you vote; they may be forced to vote because the only media content available to them is relentlessly pro-Putin and therefore it would not occur to them to vote any other way because it is a prerequisite of democracy that there is a diversity of opinions and views to which one is exposed and can choose from and if curtailments on freedom of the press are imposed then that variety of ideas from which to choose does not exist.

Vladimir Putin has developed the concept of managed democracy a step further than Joseph Stalin, in that he hand-picks weak or lackey alternative candidates to him and eliminates serious rival candidates in his repeated presidential elections, if necessary (as in the case of Alexey Navalny) by poisoning, imprisoning and murdering them. The dummy alternative candidates appear on the ballot papers by dictate of the President, to give the impression of real choice; the results are then a foregone conclusion, namely that Vladimir Putin wins an overwhelming majority of the vote and is legitimised as the ongoing absolute ruler of Russia. While the model of managed democracy may have more sophisticated over time, with multiple fake political parties and candidates, nonetheless the essential concept is the same. Western observers may complain all they like; but managed democracy really means legitimising absolutist dictatorship in societies that at least understand democratic European values and therefore a fig leaf of respect for those principles has to be observed.

The ingrained political hypocrisy in Russian society, in which institutions ostensibly designed to safeguard western values are maintained but subverted to perpetuate tyranny, is the sort of un-European model of government that Ukrainians are now fighting to escape from. It is an affront to western values that our cherished institutions are manipulated in such mischievous directions; the very integrity of our system of political values is at stake and that is why we must support the Ukrainians with all our might. The Ukrainians are fighting for the genuine implementation of liberal western values over concepts such as “managed democracy” and to draw a line across Europe against ideological tyranny. That is why they deserve our unconditional backing in political, military and economic terms.


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