This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

Christmas Day 1991. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev broadcast a message to his people announcing his resignation and the imminent dissolution of the USSR. Later that day President Bush addressed his fellow Americans triumphantly. The last few months, he said, had witnessed "the historic transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship… and the liberation of its peoples". He continued: "The Soviet Union itself is no more. This is a victory for democracy and freedom! It is a victory for the moral force of our values!"

The communist dictatorship was swept away, the USSR crumbled and out of its ruins a new democratic Russia emerged, led by Boris Yeltsin. Under his aegis the people of Russia would bask in the freedoms hitherto denied them, becoming enthusiastic participants in the liberal western world. Or so almost everyone thought.

As a BBC correspondent in Moscow at the time, Martin Sixsmith remembers sharing in the euphoria of 1991. He also recalls what happened next. "Under Yeltsin there were nine years of chaos when the economy collapsed. Capital fled, pensions weren't paid, factories fell apart, people lost their jobs and some were even starving. Business quarrels were being solved with guns. You could see people being shot on the street. Russia lost its great power status and the people felt humiliated and let down by the Yeltsin regime. Quite understandably they said: 'If this is liberal-style western democracy, we don't want it'."

What they chose instead was Vladimir Putin. In his two terms as president and currently in his role as prime minister, the former KGB man has brought economic stability and national pride back to Russia. On the flipside, concerns have been raised that the democratic reforms of the 1990s have been seriously eroded. Modern Russia may not mirror the totalitarian dictatorship of the Soviet days but it’s now some distance from the liberal democracies of the west. The return to a more autocratic form of government has been met with disquiet in several quarters, but Sixsmith believes that overall, Putin has carried the Russian public with him. “If Putin stood for election today in a completely free and fair poll,” he says, “he would be re-elected with a good majority.”

Autocracy in the blood

Since 2000 the majority of Russian people have welcomed a government that limits their own freedoms. Part of that is undoubtedly a response to the very poor experience of democracy that they had in the 1990s. Yet Sixsmith feels that Russia’s complex relationship with autocratic forms of government has much deeper roots.

Ever since 862 when a Viking called Rurik of Rus founded the country, Russia has been an expansionist power, driving outwards in several directions to conquer new lands. At its peak in the early 20th century it covered a seventh of the globe and spanned 12 time zones (down to a mere 9 today). Russia’s size gave it prestige but also problems. “It grew into such an unwieldy empire with 100 nationalities and 150 languages. Through the ages, the conservatives of Russian history have argued that if you have western-style parliamentary democracy, the parties that get sent to the central parliament won’t be representing shades of political opinion. Instead they’ll be representing nationalist and ethnic groups, all of whom have a vested interest in not being part of a unified state. They would all go to the central parliament with their own interests and the whole thing would fly apart.”

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The threat of internal divisions was one thing, but Russia has had to deal with enemies from the outside as well. A vast country is difficult to defend and Russia has frequently been menaced by invaders. Nowadays we tend to think of the gigantic assault launched by Nazi Germany in 1941 but for Sixsmith it was the Mongols who had the deepest impact on the nation’s development. After storming Kiev (the capital of the time) in 1240, the Mongol hordes would dominate Russia for a full 240 years. “From then on there has been a fear of the outside, the dangerous lurking enemies all around Russia’s borders. It has been deep-seated in the nation’s psyche,” says Sixsmith.

How could a country like Russia ever hope to protect itself from the warriors at its gates? One option, according to Sixsmith, was to imitate its conquerors. “The Mongols brought with them an Asiatic tradition of the statist model, where the whole of society is geared to protect and defend the state. During those 240 years the native Russian princes quite clearly saw the benefits of that system. In a strange version of the Stockholm syndrome (in which hostages have positive feelings for their captors), the Russians did assimilate a lot of the Mongols’ ideas. That’s really where that centralised iron fist originates in Russian history.”

Time and time again, when Russia’s tsars or dictators have felt menaced from within or without, they have relied on the autocratic methods of rule that were learned from the Mongols. This “pull of Asia” has remained with Russia, Sixsmith contends, even though the country has long had aspirations to be considered part of Europe. “Russia has been torn between the European attractions of democracy, liberal market values, freedom and individual civic rights on the one hand, and on the other a matrix of values connected with Asia: central autocratic rule where the state is the overarching priority.”

“Under Yeltsin there were nine years of chaos when the economy collapsed”

Bombs and ballots

The pages of Russian history are filled with strong autocratic leaders such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Josef Stalin but there have undoubtedly been times when the country could have followed a democratic path. Rather than stressing the inevitability of dictatorship, Sixsmith cites numerous examples of missed opportunities where, had it not been for a political error or an assassin’s bullet, Russia might have embraced the values of the west.

In the medieval period, several Russian cities were experimenting with forms of participatory democracy until the Mongol invasion put paid to that. Then in the era of the Romanov tsars, rulers such as Catherine the Great (reigned 1762–96) and Alexander II (1855–81) sought to reshape their empire on more western lines.

Catherine was inspired by the French thinkers of the 18th century and conducted enthusiastic correspondence with Voltaire, but the shock of the French revolution hastened a rapid switch to reactionary views. Alexander liberated Russia’s serfs in 1861 and 20 years later was preparing to implement a new constitution when he was killed by a terrorist bomb in St Petersburg.

Perhaps the golden opportunity for a democratic Russia was the spring of 1917. After Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in the February revolution, a liberal provisional government came to power. “It was a popular revolution, fuelled by demands from the people and the provisional government did try to answer what the people wanted,” says Sixsmith. “It did offer freedom; it freed political prisoners, abolished the death penalty and introduced legislation to outlaw ethnic discrimination. The provisional government was undoubtedly committed to western-style liberal values.”

Yet the brief flowering of democracy was dramatically halted that October by the coup that brought Lenin’s Bolsheviks to power. It was not so much the liberal ideas that toppled the provisional government but catastrophic policy mistakes, notably the continuation of the First World War, which weakened the fledgling regime sufficiently to allow the communist revolution to take place.

“There are all these moments when Russia looked like it might have gone either way. But up till now it’s always reverted to the direction it knows,” says Sixsmith. “However things are changing. There is the internet revolution, freedom of information, a greater amount of travel and world economies are becoming more and more enmeshed. So what will happen next is anybody’s guess.”

Martin Sixsmith was a BBC foreign correspondent from 1980–97, reporting from Moscow, Washington and Brussels among other places. He now works as a journalist and author of fiction and non-fiction titles.