So--having acquired as much knowledge from the peoples that came before it as possible, the Roman Republic for century after century overcame shocks and crises, preserving its structure and liberties. And only during critical periods did power intensify and concentrate in one man's hands--like the wheel of the steersman in a storm and the reins of a coachman at a steep turn.Every time a news story about Russia comes out in the West, its contents and the reaction thereto are predictable. Putin is a totalitarian, he stifles dissent, he wants to restore the evil communist dictatorship. But, for some reason, the sentiments of Russians themselves do not match with this view: Putin is, and remains, a popular president, regardless of his authoritarian leanings. This fact is very difficult for Westerners to swallow, and they are inclined to attribute Putin's popularity to brainwashing, propaganda, and repression.
This is why power in Rome was never seized by a tyrant. There were no coups. And never did dictatorship become anarchy--for its time was restricted and its power was bounded, and a dictator who broke the Law was simply outlawed, with all the consequences that entailed.
(And only when some zealous and not very intelligent republicans killed Caesar, who had saved the country from corruption and internecine feuds and who wanted dictatorial powers for life, did the strict but proper dictatorship become replaced with an empire; and after the death of the wise and moderate Augustus, the emperors really had a ball...)
- Mikhail Veller, Великий последний шанс (The Great Last Chance), 2005 (translation mine)
But Russians have more experience with propaganda than, probably, any other country on earth. And for decades, they have taken a jaundiced view of the media; a popular Soviet proverb ran, "The trouble with newspapers is that Izvestiya [News] contains no truth, and Pravda [Truth] contains no news." People who have survived Stalinism and Brezhnevism, cracking jokes and not believing in tears, are the last people to blindly follow a charismatic strongman.
And yet it's true: there's little dissent in Russia, and what there is is easily suppressed. The West interprets this fact as prima facie evidence of totalitarian repression--yet Russians do not. Why?
I think it is because Russia, unlike every other Western democracy, never assimilated the rhetoric of republicanism on any kind of a large scale. Indeed, Russians' attitude to power has much more in common with medieval European peasants than with contemporary Europeans: it doesn't matter who rules over you, they're lords with their own interests and their politics have nothing to do with you.
The discourse and vocabulary of modern republicanism emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Northern Europe and America (Southern Europe received a modified version of it in the form of nineteenth-century nationalism). Republicanism reconfigured the relationship between the individual and the state: in any polity, even a monarchical one, it is the individual's responsibility to prevent corruption. Corruption entails both physical and moral ruin--so political participation in its various forms is actually a civic duty and not merely a privilege. Even though republicanism incorporates the idea of a natural aristocracy, the relationship between individual and polity is essentially non-hierarchical--even where no "general will" is recognized.
Reading Boswell's Life of Johnson, the modern reader can't help being struck by passages such as this:
He talked in his usual style with a rough contempt of popular liberty. 'They make a rout about UNIVERSAL liberty, without considering that all that is to be valued, or indeed can be enjoyed by individuals, is PRIVATE liberty. Political liberty is good only so far as it produces private liberty. Now, Sir, there is the liberty of the press, which you know is a constant topick. Suppose you and I and two hundred more were restrained from printing our thoughts: what then? What proportion would that restraint upon us bear to the private happiness of the nation?'Johnson is the very embodiment of the Englishman, and yet his contempt for English Liberties is evident. In fact, it belongs to an earlier world, and such remarks are part and parcel to his nostalgic recollections of feudalism. Republicanism presupposes the freedom of the public sphere as the arena where the surveillance of virtue is performed. The public persona, though an epiphenomenon of the private self, becomes linked to it with invincible bonds of virtue. Before republicanism, neither public self nor public sphere exist--and hence it is possible to conceive of private liberty and happiness distinctly from public liberty.
Politics in the West depends on a buried stratum of republicanism which presupposes the necessity and inevitability of publicness--and interprets the blockage or disappearance of publicness as corruption and tyranny, whose interests lie in preventing the surveillance of virtue. Politics in Russia, on the other hand, is "medieval"--it is the realm of personified, embodied power, which cannot fully subsume the private. The freedom of the press is received with prodigious apathy in Russia, because the surveillance of virtue is not regarded as either an obligation or an effective check on an already assumed corruption.
The singular figure of republican virtue is Brutus, who sacrifices his life to prevent the corruption of the Republic. Mikhail Veller, an intelligent and educated man (but a racist and a weird form of nationalist), has recently suggested the institution of a Roman-style dictatorship to reform Russian politics. But in the process, he suggests that Brutus was misguided and not even intelligent--and in a political world where republicanism exists, such a configuration of statements would be impossible. The rhetoric of the republic depends on the rhetoric of virtue.
Why did republicanism never really emerge in Russia? The enlightened absolutism of the eighteenth century is a tempting, but not a sufficient explanation, since the Germans eventually assimilated republicanism just fine. One reason might be that Peter the Great's reform project was embedded in a very traditional king-aristocracy conflict and hence operated in traditional terms. But then surely republicanism could have emerged in a more liberal/nationalistic form in the nineteenth century? Leaving aside the near-total social isolation of the nineteenth century intelligentsia, there were good reasons why republicanism couldn't emerge--for instance, the complete lack of enduring connection between political ideas and actual reform. Leninism and Bolshevism, of course, were not enough to create this transformation either.
So Russians see the political in a totally different way; and I think that, in many ways, we're right. Republicanism serves as an effective ideological smokescreen to mystify the real power relations behind the scenes. "Freedom of speech," and the politics that come with it, has its costs.