Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


Flight From Freedom: What Russians Think and Want
By Richard Pipes


Richard Pipes is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He was Director of Eastern European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council in 1981-82.


The Truth Is Offshore

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, expectations were high that Russia, rid of communism, would take a firm pro-Western course: democratizing its political system, granting its citizens unassailable civil rights, and rejoining the international community. Such were the promises made by President Boris Yeltsin when he took charge. But after more than a decade, these expectations have not been realized. Since ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin took over as president in 2000, Russia's democratic institutions have been muzzled, its civil rights restricted, and its cooperation with the international community far from assured.

What accounts for these unwelcome trends? Polling data from a variety of sources suggest that the answer is more complex than meets the eye. Although actions undertaken by Putin and his associates play a large part, there is a good deal of evidence that the antidemocratic, antilibertarian actions of the current administration are not being inflicted on the Russian people but are actually supported by them. This evidence also indicates that no more than one Russian in ten cares about democratic liberties and civil rights.


Before examining what Russians say and think today, it is necessary to look back at Russia's past. Despite its reputation for unpredictability, Russia is a remarkably conservative nation whose mentality and behavior change slowly, if at all, over time, regardless of the regime in power.

As recently as 75 years ago, 80 percent of Russia's population engaged in agriculture and lived in scattered, largely self-sufficient villages. (The country had only two major cities — Moscow and St. Petersburg — themselves made up of sizable migrant peasant populations.) In a predominantly rural society, the kind of social cohesion that Westerners took for granted in their own countries was very weakly developed: Russia was not so much a society as an agglomeration of tens of thousands of separate rural settlements.

National feelings, therefore, were also poorly developed, except at times of foreign invasions. Until recently, Russian peasants were more likely to identify themselves as Orthodox Christians than as Russians. The pre-1917 tsarist government, which punished any attempt by its subjects to interfere with politics, was a remote force: it collected taxes and drafted soldiers but gave its citizens virtually nothing in return. Until 1861, the vast majority of Russia's population were serfs, beholden to the state or to private landlords. As such, peasants could legally be beaten by their masters, be exiled, and be inducted into the army, but they were forbidden to protest to the authorities about mistreatment. Human rights was an alien notion to them.

Private property and public justice were similarly underdeveloped, arriving in the country relatively late and in an imperfect form. Whereas in England land was treated as a commodity in the thirteenth century, in tsarist Russia all land belonged to the crown until the mid-eighteenth century, when ownership was granted to the nobility. The great majority of peasants lived in communes, which held title to village land and redistributed it periodically to households to account for changes in family size. Only a small . . .