Authoritarianism is an almost inherent culture imbedded in Russia’s capricious political shifts in the past century. Throughout Russian history, even stretching to as early as the era of Kievan Rus, Russian leaders have virtually invariably used their monopoly on violence and coercion, as a means to maintain their power and authority over the people; this would entail the brutal suppression of freedom and political dissidence in order to hold on to their thrones. This tradition is well preserved in the pre-modern and modern Russian states. Since the red communists, led by Vladimir Lenin, swiftly ascended to power following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the once-monarchical Russian Empire had been transformed into a communist state, whose founding principles were supposedly based on the idea of egalitarian—that is, equal gains and representation for all people; the new state came to be known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR in short. Ironically, over the span of a few years, the USSR predictably turned into an autocratic state in which the communist secretariat wielded dictatorial powers, often neglecting the needs and rights of the people, with so much power in the hands of a single person ruling the Russian state. Following the collapse of the USSR, a new, contemporary Russia was born. While the new regime of Russia, headed by Boris Yeltsin, initially introduced western values, such as democracy, the state quickly decayed into yet another authoritarian regime. In the status quo, the Russian state is lead by Vladimir Putin, a staunch dictator who was sworn into office in 2012; his aggressive, authoritarian policies have kindled debates that revolve around the legitimacy of the modern Russian state.
Thus, it is under this historical and contemporary backdrop that authoritarianism becomes one of the major critiques of legitimacy directed at the Russian state, as it violates the principles of consent of the governed to maintain its authority. To that end, to reverse Russia’s loss of legitimacy, I propose that Russia establish a system of fair elections and uphold its citizen’s freedom—such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press—and popular consent. For argument’s sake, this essay will only pertain to the discussion of the post-revolution Russia.
Criticisms of Russia’s authoritarianism take on many forms, one of which is Russia’s rigged elections. To begin, one of the most noticeable aspect would be Russia’s rigged elections in recent decades. Charges are made against the Russian government for illegitimate elections which have been marred with political scandals of corruption in other for the government to hold on to its power. For instance, in 2021, Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, was accused of an array of corrupt practices designed to rig the Russian elections; they ranged from ballot stuffing, registering “clone candidates,” delaying election results, to even the use of physical threats to coerce voters into casting their ballots for United Russia—for Putin (Dickinson, 2021). Even before the elections, many of Putin’s political opponents were forced into exile, restricted from being able to run in the elections, or even jailed. Moreover, Putin abuses his legal power: in 2020, the dictator decreed an executive order that enabled him to run for two additional six-year terms for presidency, a move that was fundamentally un-democratic—all to prolong the dictator’s reign.
Apart from rigging the elections, the government has also accused of using coercion to suppress Putin’s political dissidence; the Russian state does not shy from using its monopoly on violence to achieve its aim. The most infamous instance would be the attempted assassination of Putin’s most outspoken, critical opponent—Alexei Navalny: in 2020, Navalny was found to have been poisoned by one of Putin’s agents and was quickly hospitalized; he remained in a coma. Those who were politically connected to Navalny were labeled “extremists,” which gave Putin the justification to jail, arrest, or even exile them. Similarly, in response to the tidal wave of anti-war protests across the country following Putin’s incursion of eastern Ukraine—an ethnic-Russian territory, which includes the states of Luhansk and Donetsk, in Ukraine that Russia lays claims on—in February this year, Putin brutally uses violence to silence the protests, often in the form of threatening or harming them with physical intimidation. Following the start of the invasion, a new law was signed into the Russian constitutions, making it illegal for citizens to voice criticism towards Putin’s war or the Russian military and punishable for anyone who violates the law to be jailed for up to 15 years in prison (Italy, 2022). Moreover, apps and news sites were heavily controlled and censored by the Russian government in an attempt to direct pro-Putin propaganda content to Russian voters to manipulate the elections. Even prominent independent news broadcasters, namely Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, which reported factual news have been censored and even shut down by the Russian government (Harris, 2022). All of these actions have all been meant to help Russia’s ruling party maintain its unjust power.
The same theme of suppressing consent and freedom with violence also occurred during the Russo-Chechen War. In the 1990s, Chechnya, a muslim Russian republic, declared independence and sought to secede from the Russian Federation; the effort was quickly stopped by the Russian government, which sent armed forces into Chechnya to suppress the uprising. However, Russia’s armed response often disregarded basic human rights of the civilians in Chechnya. Russian aerial bombers, artilleries, and ground forces laid waste to the Chechen capital—Grozny—often times even bombing civilian infrastructures, such as residential buildings (Myre, 2022). Forcefully, with their general will, freedom, human rights violated, the Chechen population was re-integrated into the Russian Federation following the conclusion of the Second Russo-Chechen War. Thus, due to Putin’s monopoly on violence which he uses against his political opposition, Russia’s opposition was never able to significantly challenge Putin’s rule.
A common theme in these examples is the neglect of consent and general will by the Russian government, which fundamentally makes the regime illegitimate. According to many prominent philosophies, consent is a key factor that legitimizes a state’s exercise of power. In the “Preambles of the Declaration of Independence,” the founding fathers of the United States write that, “that all men are created equal […] with certain unalienable Rights […] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (p.2). In simple, this argument is composed of two parts: First, the role that governments play—or the social contract—is to secure basic rights, namely life, liberty, and happiness, for its citizens, offering the government legitimacy. Second, governments derive their power from consent, which legitimizes them. In the case of Russia, we see that the government violates both parts of the argument. To begin, the government fails to protect the liberty of its citizens by suppressing political opposition; it also puts the lives of its citizens at risk by using violence to coerce them into submission. Moreover, the Russian people no longer consent to the government, as shown by the widespread waves of protests against the government. This idea is further supported by Hobbes in Leviathan, whenhe writes that, “men agree amongst themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him from all others” (Hobbes, p.109) This voluntary consent is key because it separates a state from being directing by the general will of the people from making decisions unilaterally; without consent, the state is founded on coercion, which is illegitimate. Thus, the Russian government has already lost its legitimacy in these two ways.
In response to consent, some may say that the Russian people have tacitly consented to the Russian government. John Locke’s argument is in favor of this idea. In the Second Treatise, he writes that, “every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and, in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government” (Locke, p.322). Put simply, the fact that the Russian people owns possessions in Russia, they tacitly consent to the rule of the government. There is also the idea that, if the people are discontent with the rule of the state, they may choose to leave the state and form a new state that they would be more content with. However, Hume would respond to this argument by saying that, “[c]an we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artizan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? (1) We may as well assert, that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her” (Hume, p.5). He essentially argues that just because people live in a state does not mean that they tacitly consent to its rule; it may be because that they are forced to stay and cannot leave. In the case of Russia, we can see this idea manifest itself in the Russo-Chechen conflict. When the Chechens felt discontent with the Russian government, they decided to secede, just like what Locke argued for. However, this theory was quickly proven false in practice by Russia’s retaliation, forcing Chechnya back into the Russian Federation after the bloody war. This shows that first, people cannot simply leave their states, and second, just because people stay in a state, like the Chechnya people did after the war, it does not mean that they tacitly consent to the government’s rule.
To that end, in order to make the Russian state more legitimate, the state has to be reformed to adopt more democratic practices, such as ensuring fair elections and respect the freedom and general will of the people and increase the power of the state duma. To do this, Russia has to make its elections more transparent—that is, the state must refrain from rigging the elections in any form. In this way, by making the elections more democratic, the government would also be naturally democratic and would be more based on the principle of popular will, resulting in more consent. Moreover, the state duma should have more sway in the country’s policies, rather than the president of Russia himself having dictatorial power. While the overwhelmingly population of Russia does support the actions of Putin, it does not encompass all the interests of every faction of its population—especially those of the Opposition. Thus, by empowering the duma, there would be more potential for the Opposition and other minor factions to voice their concerns and have their interests guaranteed in Russia’s decision making moving forward. Thus, if the government is democratic, then it would be more ensured that the government would seek to uphold the interests of the people, namely life, liberty, and happiness, making it legitimate.
In conclusion, by violating the social contract and having lost consent of the governed,
through the suppression of political dissidence and rigging elections, the Russian state is deemed illegitimate. A course of action must be taken for Russia to re-legitimize its exercise of political authority. To do that, Russia has to become a function democracy by holding fair elections and preserve the freedom, consent, and will of the people. It is only then can Russia be truly recognized as a legitimate authority both by its citizens and the international community.
Dickinson, P. (2021, September 20). Why we must not recognize Russia’s fraudulent election. Atlantic Council. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/why-we-must-not-recognize-russias-fraudulent-election/
Italy, U. S. M. (2022, July 27). Putin’s latest crackdown on dissent and information. U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Italy. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://it.usembassy.gov/putins-latest-crackdown-on-dissent-and-information/
Harris, M. (2022, March 16). Russia’s latest media crackdown is its most oppressive one yet. Slate Magazine. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/03/ukraine-russia-media-news-censorship-meduza-contactia.html
Myre, G. (2022, March 12). Russia’s wars in Chechnya offer a grim warning of what could be in Ukraine. NPR. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2022/03/12/1085861999/russias-wars-in-chechnya-offer-a-grim-warning-of-what-could-be-in-ukraine