Nikolai Biryukov and Victor Sergeyev

Democracy and Sobornost’

Prospects for Russian Parliamentarianism


The notion of democracy occupies a peculiar place in Russian political culture. Though interpretation that dominates the Russian political mentality is, by no means, a unique Russian phenomenon and a number of Western parallels can be indicated, on the whole it differs sharply from the classical doctrine of democracy as developed by leading Western political thinkers. The two versions may be labelled populist and pluralist. Though definition of democracy (as, for instance, rule of, for and by the people) may be identical for both, the exact meaning thereof, and – more significantly – the respective institutional forms will differ depending on how this type of government is justified.


The difference between the two may be traced to the underlying models of social reality (the “socioontological beliefs”, “preconceptions”, or “patterns of pre-understanding”). These are defined as non-verbalised and non-rationalised beliefs that are, for the most part, taken for granted, but serve, however, as points of reference for the subsequent rational political thinking. They can be said to constitute the deepest and most conservative element of a political culture.


Populist and pluralist interpretations of democracy presuppose different social ontologies. “The people” (and the society) may be viewed as a community of individuals. In this case the ontological status of the community is secondary as compared both to the individual persons it consists of and to the primary groups that individuals unite into. These groups’ ontological priority, as well as their plurality, form the basis of the pluralist vision of society. The alternative view is holistic and collectivistic. According to this interpretation the social whole is to be regarded as the primary reality and the reference point for whatever individual activities occur within it.


The pluralist model of democracy proceeds from the assumption that society is constituted by a mutual (social) contract, and that apart from that contract, and the will behind it, there exists a rather unpleasant natural state to be escaped from. The populist model tends to view society as a kind of natural phenomenon, subject to “laws” of its own “nature” (hence the recurrent metaphor of organism).


Whereas for pluralism “the people” are always “them”, the populism would rather treat “the people” as “it”. If this unity cannot be shown as existing in actual reality, it is likely to be demanded and sought for on normative grounds.


The relationship between the two models can be included in a broader philosophical context and traced to the controversy of Medieval nominalism and realism. Whereas axiology and deontology of nominalism would regard any attempt to define “right” and “wrong”, apart from the individuals’ subjective wills, as eventually irrelevant, the realist attitude views both as determined by the objective properties of the reality (in this instance, of the social organism).


Within the political culture that adopts the latter view, political actors are expected to find solutions of social problems that are objectively “correct” or “true”, which makes the notion of social expertise a central point in political thinking.


Incidentally, since expertise is not an individual’s natural property and, moreover, cannot be attributed to everyone on an equal basis, the initial egalitarian disposition of populism is likely to be questioned.


This is a point of divergence. The traditional Russian populism (the movements of narodniks) tended to view the people as repository of ultimate wisdom. Paradoxical as this may seem, people benefit very little from this flattering attitude: since particular representatives of the people (whoever they are) cannot be counted on to provide the required expertise, the practical result is the irrational (i.e. procedurally meaningless) appeal to the people en masse.


This logic reveals the interdependence of the populist (egalitarian) and the elitist versions of the basic model. The Russian political culture, at least in the course of the last fifteen decades, has oscillated between these two varieties. The Western democratic tradition of pluralism has always remained marginal. Political developments before and after October 1917 testify to the fact. Not only did the populist rhetoric prove compatible with restrictions on traditionally defined democratic rights and freedoms, it was instrumental in justifying mass repressions that involved all strata of the people, despite the fact that the new overlords would incessantly swear their allegiance to it. On the other hand, the elitist doctrine of “the guiding role of the party” was assimilated without effort.


On the contrary, egalitarianism needs not be an initial component of pluralism, but, in the long run, it is likely to be introduced as a procedural convenience. Viewed from the procedural standpoint, the two models will stress different types of political behaviour and support different kinds of political institutions. Since political decisions are not expected to be justified by references to objective realities, the pluralist model will stress the need for procedures that provide for a solution acceptable for as many people involved as possible, because it is on the will of those people that their validity will eventually rest. The decision by a political (representative) body is right (valid), inasmuch as the decision-making has been abiding by the rules (procedures).


The populist (and/or elitist) model will, on the contrary, tend to present any given solution as independent of the will of anyone (the people included), since its validity is believed to be backed by objective reality which is supposed to eventually bend the will of everyone to its demands. But it will have to develop a ritual and rely on it to secure practical compliance. Or, to express it in a different way, consensus that pluralism expects to achieve through certain procedures, is taken for granted by the alternative culture, whether it is considered a matter of fact or of norm. Hence it is for the most part imposed rather than negotiated, and demonstration of consensus (unity) turns out to be the major legitimising ritual of this type of political culture.


This type of political culture is defined here as sobornost’ (it would be unnatural to insist on preserving the name of populism for the elitist version thereof, even though the two versions share common socioontological background). The notion was elaborated by Russian philosophers of the nineteenth century, but may be traced as far back as the Zemskie Sobors (the representative institutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Muscovy) and even farther – to the early medieval prototypes the Zemskie Sobors were modelled on. The sustaining myth of the culture of sobornost’ is the idea of consensus that is no one’s particular achievement, but arises spontaneously out of some primary unity of the body social.


In this perspective, assimilation of Marxism by traditional Russian political mind does not appear as incredible as it might seem. For adopted was not the doctrine of Marxism (alien, indeed, to the traditional culture), but the Marxist myth that was tied to the doctrine artificially enough. Whereas the Marxist paradigm of social analysis is based on the ideas of social stratification and class struggle, the Marxist vision of communist future emphasises social homogeneity and unity. Class differences are viewed as a social evil, inevitable, perchance, at some stages of historic development, but sure to be eliminated in the long run. The Marxist ideal would thus reaffirm the ontological pattern that the Marxist theory mocked and refuted. “Classless society” may be considered the Marxist equivalent for the alien notion of sobornost’ (alien, from the ideological standpoint, but, by no means, from that of the cultural typology).


The collapse of the Soviet political system brought about differentiation of the “populist” (traditional) and elitist (Marxist or, rather, Leninist) elements of the syncretism created by the Bolshevik revolution. The anti-bureaucracy (anti-apparatus, anti-party) rhetoric of the political campaigns of 1989-1991 resembled closely the rhetoric of pluralist democracy. However, the basic elements of the two political cultures remained radically different, as the institutional history of perestroika was to show.


The constitutional reform of 1988 created a representative institution modelled on the ideal of sobornost’. Analysis of debates at the Congresses of People’s Deputies of the USSR has revealed the predominance of sobornost’ as underlying the mental processes, parliamentary rhetoric and political behaviour of the bulk of the deputy corps: anti-procedural bias, rejection of pluralism (styled as “factionalism”), assumption of innate affinity between the electorate and the deputy corps, the “realistic” (in the sense outlined above) understanding of the nature of political issues and the respective expectations concerning their solutions. The fate of the Congresses testifies to the fact that this type of political culture, albeit censored, is very much alive.


The Russian representative bodies of 1990-1993 (the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet) inherited the institutional forms revived in the Soviet Union during perestroika. Despite changed circumstances and more or less conscious intent, on the part of a considerable number of Russian deputies, to imitate Western democratic institutions, their political behaviour tended to relapse into traditional patterns as soon as crises occurred. The dramatic conflict between the President and the Supreme Soviet took the familiar shape of controversy as to who had better right to speak on behalf of the people and demonstrated that neither party was ready to accept the principle of separation of powers as the working basis of democratic institutionalism.


However, more promising trends are also discernible. The new socioeconomic situation, while making some of the customary political skills obsolete, is prompting the Russian elite to learn new forms and new styles of political behaviour. This new operational experience may prove more important in the long run than the immediate ideological affiliations, especially as Russia seems to pass through a formative phase in her political evolution. Attitudes and patterns found rewarding are likely to get imprinted in the nation’s cultural memory and shape its political future. On the other hand, the cultural inertia seems to be a formidable obstacle to institutional modernisation. Whether the present, third, attempt to introduce representative democracy in Russia will be more successful than the previous two, remains to be seen.


The historic argument that underlies these Theses has been developed in detail in:

(1)       V. Sergeyev, N. Biryukov, Russia’s Road to Democracy: Parliament, Communism and Traditional Culture. (Aldershot, Hampshire: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd., 1993).

It can also be found in shorter form in three articles:

(2)       N. Birjukow, V. Sergejew, “Die Bürde der Tradition”, in Harms, M. and Linke, P. (eds.), Überall Klippen: Inner- und Außenpolitische Gegebenheiten Rußlands (Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1992), S. 81-103.

(3)       N. Biryukov, V. Sergeyev, “Parliamentarianism and Sobornost’: Two Models of Representative Institutions in Russian Political Culture”, Discourse and Society, 1993:1, pp. 57-74.

(4)       N. Biryukov, V. Sergeyev, “The Idea of Democracy in the West and in the East”, in D. Beetham (ed.), Defining and Measuring Democracy (Sage, forthcoming).

Recent findings relating to the Russian Parliament of 1990-93 have been presented in:

(5)       N. Biryukov, V. Sergeyev, “Dualism and Sobornost’: The Crisis of Traditional Political Culture and the Prospects for Russian Democracy”. (Paper presented at the Aspen Institute Conference on “Russia’s Path to an Open Society”, Berlin, 10-12 April, 1994; publication forthcoming).

(6)       N. Biryukov, J. Gleisner, V. Sergeyev, “The Crisis of Sobornost’: Parliamentary Discourse in Present-day Russia” (forthcoming in Discourse & Society).