I first started reading Dmitrii Furman while living in Moscow in 2008, after seeing a discussion of his work in an essay on Russia by Perry Anderson. I was immediately charmed and amazed. Furman, born in 1943, was part of the generation of intellectuals who had cheered on the fall of communism and then watched as much of the former Soviet Union descended into anarchy and despair. Many in his generation of Russian liberals had thrown in their lot with the 1990s reforms, and in the aftermath of their failure had become crabby and defensive, blaming everyone but themselves. Others had retreated into their academic disciplines, focusing on Tolstoy or Byzantium; still others had taken up academic posts in the West. Furman moved in the exact opposite direction. During the Soviet era, he had been a comparativist scholar of religions, had written books on highly obscure topics, but perestroika pulled him into his country’s present. In the post-Soviet era, he started producing a series of books and articles on the political development of the states of what had once been the Soviet Union. He was funny, shrewd, and morally unforgiving. He cleared away a vast edifice of selective memory and self-justification. He was unlike any Russian political observer that I had read.
The thing that Furman did, which others of his time and place for various reasons failed to do, was look at the other post-Soviet states: at Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, the Baltics. From this vantage, one could see that Russia, for all its uniqueness, was far from unique.
Somehow or other, while some of the post-Soviet states had established stable democracies, and others had established unstable ones, a select few (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia) had established what Furman called “imitation democracies.” To varying degrees, the imitation democracies carried out the rituals of democracy and paid lip service to the will of the people, but actually gave the voters no real choice. Furman was not alone in defining a number of states in this way—the same period gave us the concept of “competitive authoritarianism,” and one theorist inside the Kremlin had even come up with the clunky term “sovereign democracy”—but Furman’s insight was about the instability of these regimes. This instability came to the fore during elections. It was alleged electoral fraud in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan that brought about the Rose and Orange and Tulip Revolutions in those countries in 2003 and 2004 and 2005, and in the coming years, disputed elections would cause massive protests in a number of post-Soviet states, including Russia in 2011 and, much later, Belarus in 2020 and 2021. Though the authorities knew that elections were fake, and though voters basically knew the same, somehow the simple act of going through with the ritual could sometimes infuse elections with meaning. Like many of Furman’s observations, this one was both shrewd and useful.
Furman was unique among his liberal contemporaries for the absolute moral clarity with which he saw 1990s Russian liberalism. The story as it was told at the time (and even now, to some extent) was that the reforms were never given a chance, that Russian democracy was strangled in its cradle by Vladimir Putin and the resurgent KGB. Yeltsin, to many, remained a romantic figure, flawed but heroic, the man who stood on a tank to put the final nail into the Soviet Union; the real villain was Putin, whom Yeltsin had mistakenly entrusted with power, when he should have chosen someone else.
Furman saw through this. For one thing, he writes, Yeltsin, in comparative perspective, was hardly the dissident that he came to seem in the last few years of Soviet power. Looking at the other post-Soviet states, Furman notes that some, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, simply transitioned their first secretaries into the presidency. But others, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Georgia, elected actual former anti-communist dissidents, people who had spent time in prison under the communists. Russia did something in between: Yeltsin was a member of the Politburo who had fallen out of favor and rebelled against the leadership. A kind of rebel angel of communism, he seemed to many Russian anti-communists like the best of both worlds; as it turned out, this was not the case.
The problem, for Furman, was that the “democratic” movement that came to power in Russia in 1991 was always a minority inside the country. Yeltsin himself was briefly very popular, but the programs of reforms and the dismantling of the USSR never had majority support. That did not mean it could not win; it could win, and it did. “A vigorous, powerful minority,” Furman writes, “with a fortuitous leader,” Yeltsin, “could well rise to power, as it had in 1917 and as indeed it would again in 1991. What it by definition could not do was rise to power—let alone entrench itself firmly in power—through democratic means.” The Yeltsin government, elected during the Soviet period but ruling past it, lacked democratic legitimacy. Yet it had a great deal of moral certitude. Russia needed to be transformed, the liberal economists who accompanied Yeltsin to power believed, and fast. If that meant holding on to power through means that were not entirely legitimate—as Yeltsin, cheered on by the Moscow intelligentsia and the Clinton Administration, held on to power through the 1996 election—so be it. “Russia’s democrats came to regard their own victory as utterly inseparable from that of democracy,” Furman writes. “There was simply no awareness of the straightforward and obvious notion that democracy is affirmed not through the victory of any one party—not even the most democratic—but rather through the cycle in which one party is defeated and an opposition . . . rises to replace it.”
This concept of a rotation in power was crucial to Furman. It was the ultimate test of a democracy. Many countries in the post-Soviet space had managed to do it—to hold an election in which the opposition actually won. Some, like Belarus and Azerbaijan, had managed to do it only once; others, like Ukraine and Georgia, a few times. But Russia had not ever managed to do it.
There was an important reason, according to Furman, that Yeltsin refused to give up the presidency. Yeltsin himself felt personally implicated in some of the actions he had undertaken as the head of a minority government, specifically the signing of the Belovezh Accords that dissolved the Soviet Union. Their legality was uncertain, and in their aftermath, Yeltsin could never give up power to the opposition for fear of what would happen to him. When he could no longer function as president, he had to hand power to a successor who could guarantee his legal and personal safety. It was not an anomaly or a terrible mistake that Yeltsin chose a former KGB agent to succeed him. In fact, it was perfectly logical. Writes Furman: “The transfer of power from Yeltsin—a leader among ‘democrats,’ an associate of Sakharov’s and in certain ways his successor, a man who had once had ample reason to fear the KGB—to a ‘KGB man’ presents an ‘irony of history.’” Sadly, it was not. The seeds for the rise of Putin were sown by the democrats of the early 1990s. That is what Furman saw.
Imitation Democracy: The Development of Russia’s Post-Soviet Political System, in Ian Dreiblatt’s deft and witty translation, is the first of Furman’s books, and almost the first of any of his texts, to appear in English. (In 1981 the Soviet propaganda house Progress Publishers did issue his Religion and Social Conflicts in the USA, but it is hard to track down a copy.) Written in 2009 and published in 2010 as Dvizhenie po spirali (Spiral Motion), it is a remarkable account, step by step, detail by detail, of Russia’s gradual descent into perdition. Furman begins by stating that, in effect, time is up for the “transitionological” narrative. “It has now been eighteen years since the fall of the USSR and the communist system,” he writes. “That is a very long interval. All the countries that were actually transitioning to democracy over this period have managed to do so.” Russia has not. The question is why.
The fundamental reason, as we have said, is that the Yeltsin regime began as a minority regime in 1991. But still there would be many ironies, and even some potential off-ramps, in the years to come. Furman recounts the key events in the decade after Yeltsin came to power in 1991. He describes the dramatic stand-off with the Supreme Soviet in the fall of 1993 (a stand-off in which the red-brown alliance in parliament became a defender of Russia’s constitutional order); the rise of Chechen separatism and its tragic aftermath; and the dramatic reelection of Yeltsin in 1996. Furman points out, as few others do, the commonality with other imitation democracies across the post-Soviet space, which also saw parliaments disbanded when they crossed the president. And he is alive to other possibilities, such as the brief period of hope, during the premiership and then presidential candidacy of Yevgeny Primakov, when it looked like Russia might actually see a transfer of power. But it was not the path that Yeltsin took. Anyone still nostalgic for the Yeltsin years will be well cured of that nostalgia by reading this book.
Throughout Imitation Democracy, you can see the traces of Furman’s background as a scholar of religions. He places great emphasis on the cultural and historical background of the peoples he writes about. In a remarkable passage, he describes the many “more or less plausible” stories various countries, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan to the Baltic states, tell about their pre-Soviet democratic histories. Russia lacks this history; it was, since the 16th century, the imperial oppressor, not the colonized oppressed. In the words of the historian Stephen Kotkin, “It’s been a long time since the Kingdom of Novgorod.” The formation of a viable democracy was always going to be a challenge.
Furman can sometimes seem either naive or absolutist about democracy. For him, in these pages, a country either is or is not democratic, according to whether it allows for the consistent transfer of power to an opposition. And whether it is able to do this is largely determined by whether it has been democratic in the past. Democracy comes to seem a bit of a closed circle. There is less room in this view than one would want for the idea that a nominally democratic country can backslide. From the vantage point of 2022, given the state of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, for example, Furman’s confidence in the Central European states seems premature. The same might be said of the state of democracy in the United States. Furman, writing still in the long wake of the Soviet collapse, believed that all countries were moving, inevitably, in the same direction, that is, toward democracy. In 2022, that belief seems less self-evident than it did ten years ago.
Furman, in his emphasis on electoral democracy, leaves some things out—chiefly, as his most eloquent English-language expositor Perry Anderson has written, economics and geopolitics. While Furman is keenly aware of what he calls the “market romanticism” of the Russian reformers, he does not spend much time on the nature of the Soviet and post-Soviet economies and how these affected the prospects for democratic transition. He is also not that interested, again as Anderson points out, in Russia’s position as a geopolitical subject—in its relations, for example, with NATO—or in its actual and imagined interests in the post-Soviet space.
Furman died of cancer at the age of 70, in 2011. He did not live to see the large (but not large enough) Russian protests over the fraudulent Duma elections of 2011. He also did not live to see the much larger and more determined protests in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 that brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovych and triggered the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Russia, the aftermath of both the protests in 2011 and 2012 and then the Ukraine invasion has been dramatically heightened repression against the tiny political opposition, non-governmental organizations, and journalists. These culminated in the attempted assassination, by poisoning, of the political activist Alexei Navalny in the summer of 2020. As I write, Russia has again, at much greater scale, invaded Ukraine.
I do not think Furman would have been surprised by these developments. Even while writing at the height of the relatively “vegetarian” period of the tandemocracy, when Dmitrii Medvedev was temporarily president while Putin served as prime minister, he predicted that the system would not be able to reform itself. If Yeltsin could not safely transfer power to the opposition, then the likelihood of Putin being able to do so was that much less. The only way out was an acute crisis. “We paid for the stability enjoyed by Russia’s 19th-century autocracy, contrasting so starkly with the turbulent history of Western Europe, with the catastrophic events of 1917,” Furman writes. “It is very likely that the cost of the Putin era’s stability and manageability will similarly be repaid through a coming period of chaos and collapse.”
For Furman this was a tragic possibility, but not one without hope. His image of a spiral, which gave the original Russian edition of this book its name, was one in which history advanced, but slowly, and with frequent retreats. One moved along the spiral toward freedom, often backsliding into authoritarianism and unfreedom, but then moved on again. The reason to read this wise and intelligent book and to think more deeply, and again, about what went wrong with Russia after 1991, is that there will likely someday be another chance to get it right.