Russia is not normally regarded as a shining example of democracy or free elections. But, in the past, the world’s largest country has often led the way in political progress and democratic transformations.
Here are ten unknown chapters from the long and diverse history of democracy in Russia.
Sovereign Russian democracy
In the Early Middle Ages, the East Slavs had parliaments long before they had any organised state. This was a popular assembly called a veche (the name derives from the same root as the word “soviet”). The veche held sovereign power in the medieval republic of Novgorod, which was once the world’s largest democracy.
‘Parties’ competed in elections and every executive post was elected, so losing public confidence meant losing office. For example, Prince Vsevolod was imprisoned in the bishop’s house “along with his wife and children and mother-in-law” after fleeing a battle in 1135. Archbishop Arseny was dismissed after a long period of rainy weather in 1228.
The Zemsky Sobor
Although Ivan the Terrible rebuked Queen Elizabeth I for allowing merchants into the House of Commons – “they are trading peasants”, he explains, in a letter of 1570 – the tsar founded Russia’s first national parliament in 1549. The Zemsky Sobor or ‘Council of the Land’ was more representative than many European equivalents. In the 17th century, only 2% of the English population could vote or stand for election, while the corresponding figure in Russia was 4%. Peasants directly participated in at least two parliaments and had their interests partially represented at others.
Around 60 Zemsky Sobors were held between 1549 and 1689, which technically ‘elected’ every monarch from Boris Godunov in 1598 to Peter the Great in 1682.
Votes for women
The Russian Empire was the first place in Europe where women gained political equality (Gurian Republic in 1905) and voted in local elections (Latvia in 1905) and national elections (Finland in 1907). All women were given the vote by the Provisional Government following a mass rally of 40,000 demonstrators in March 1917. This was well ahead of all Western countries, including the United States (1920), Britain (1928) and France (1944).
The Provisional Government also appointed the world’s first female cabinet member (Countess Sofia Panina, deputy minister for welfare and education).
All Power to the Soviets!
Soviets – ‘councils of workers’ deputies’ – sprang up during the 1905 revolution. They had nothing to do with Western Marxism and emerged from such domestic traditions as the veche or village assembly. At first, Lenin and other exiled Marxists did not fully understand them. It was only after some soviets started to depose the local authorities and establish independent statelets that Lenin spotted their potential as “the embryo of a new organ of power”.
The world’s first ‘soviet republic’ was born in November 1905 in the eastern Siberian city of Chita. For two months, the workers ran the transport, postal, telegraph and other services, until the ‘Chita Republic’ was surrounded and overthrown by government forces.
‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred on 9 January 1905, when troops opened fire on striking workers carrying a petition to the tsar. A similar event happened on 5 January 1918, when a peaceful demonstration in support of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly was marching to the Tauride Palace on opening day. Red Guards fired on the crowd, killing over 20 people. The dead were buried on 9 January next to the victims of the 1905 massacre. Similar attacks took place in other Russian cities on ‘Bloody Friday’, with at least 50 demonstrators killed in Moscow.
Dictators and democracy
Lenin ran for the Second Duma in 1907, but failed to get elected. In November 1917 – now technically the head of government – he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, but still came second in his constituency to sailor Pavel Dybenko.
Primaries were abandoned in Soviet general elections after Stalin lost a vote in 1937, although he continued to hold ballots at Party congresses (he hired a handwriting expert to identify who had voted against him). In 1947, Brezhnev went to such lengths to falsify his own election to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet – stuffing ballots and removing pencils from polling booths – that he was the subject of an MGB report on “constitutional distortions in the recent elections”.
American “Interference” in Russian elections
During the Constituent Assembly elections in 1917, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries both benefitted from American cash. The first use of US political consultants was in March 1991, when Gorbachev was holding a referendum on a new union treaty. President Bush wanted to help him and sent an American expert to find ways to boost the ‘yes’ vote.
During the 1996 presidential elections, Yeltsin employed a team of American spin doctors to run a Western-style campaign. But they nearly killed the president by suggesting he dance onstage at a pop concert, causing a heart attack two weeks later (one of Yeltsin’s campaign slogans was, ironically, ‘vote with your heart’).
Although Gorbachev only got 0.51% in the 1996 presidential elections, he and his wife, Raisa, recorded a dream-trance track for his campaign which became an unexpected mega-hit at raves and discos. The sample was inspired by a book presented to the couple by Margaret Thatcher after their first visit to Britain in 1984. The start of Glasnost is sometimes dated from Thatcher’s trip to the USSR in March 1987, when she was allowed to speak freely for an hour on Soviet TV.
Later, in 1997, Thatcher wrote privately to Yeltsin about the harm caused to Russia by his alcoholism, citing her own problems when her husband drank.
“We Have So Many Parties”
The mid-1990s were a golden age of multi-party politics in Russia. Half of all votes cast in the 1995 general election went to single-issue parties, such as the Beer Lovers’ Party, which polled almost half a million votes. ‘Women of Russia’ (their Duma faction included a man) came fourth in 1993, when the environmentalists also won a constituency. Tiny electoral blocs were given prime-time TV slots to present their manifestos. By contrast, the pro-Kremlin ‘party of power’ always performed disastrously.
Yeltsin told Strobe Talbott in 1996: “I’m sure you see how pluralistic Russia has become – too pluralistic, perhaps. We have so many parties.”
Under Putin, political parties turned into ‘virtual’ corporations with no programmes beyond supporting whoever was president. Election results are now reported to the media by telephone from the Kremlin – leading to such mind-boggling results as 104% and 109% for ‘United Russia’ in the Duma elections of 2007.
However, the first ‘fake party’ was probably created by Gorbachev in 1990. This was the Liberal Democratic Party, allegedly founded with Kremlin money to control and direct nationalist moods. Party leader Zhirinovsky was long suspected of being a KGB agent and tried unsuccessfully to seek funding from European liberals, such as the FDP in Germany. The Kremlin’s investment paid off in 1999 when Zhirinovsky’s party saved Yeltsin from being impeached.
Kenneth MacInnes lived and worked in Russia for two decades (1991–2011). He has translated over 300 books, read papers at history conferences, investigated art crimes and defended himself against the Russian navy in a court martial. Returning to Britain in 2016, he worked for the UK Parliament in London. He is the author of When Russia Did Democracy: From St Vladimir to Tsar Putin (Published by Amberley, 15 January 2023).