Public Attitudes To Authoritarian Historical Figures In Russia

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Russia’s Soviet and Imperial legacy, and its notorious figures such as Stalin and the Romanovs have, in my opinion, greatly hindered the development of genuine democracy in Post-Soviet Russia. Democratisation is when a country introduces democratic principles such as: free elections, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. From what we can see in modern day Russia many of these principles have been half-heartedly introduced. Elections especially in Russia have come under much scrutiny from foreign governments for alleged rigging. One of the most famous of these is Putin’s 2012 re-election, when Putin declared himself the winner after only 20% of votes were counted.

To begin, we first have a look at how the nature of Russia under the Tsar’s rule might have caused Russia to be considered late in adopting democratic practices in comparison to Western Europe. Before the Soviet Union and Stalin, the foundations of the Russian state were of an authoritarian nature, even for their times. Tsarist Russia for all intents and purposes was a feudal state even up until its collapse, with practices and attitudes reminiscent of the 16th century in more modern western countries. The Tsar was considered to be God’s appointed sovereign and therefore infallible, following the divine right of kings. In the countryside the abolition of serfdom and the tying down of peasants to land was only abolished in 1861, a practice that western nations such as Britain had abolished in 1571. As we can see Russia had been lagging behind the rest of Europe for centuries the development of a more democratic system as well as the establishment of basic human rights. Due to the pragmatic nature of its conservative rule, Russia’s democratic development was very slow as in the Tsar’s eyes, there was no immediate need for any change, and being considered to be chosen by God as their ruler, the people of Russia did not have any reason to doubt him. This caused a stagnant period of time regarding democratisation, and shows how the people’s complete relinquishment of control over their lives to the Tsar might have hindered the democratisation of Russia.

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Russia’s first attempt at democracy in the February revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Kerensky government would be toppled only eight months later with the October revolution, and the establishment of the Soviet Union under Lenin. With the establishment of the Soviet Union, the authoritarian practices used during the Tsar’s rule continued with the use of war communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin’s policy of centralising control into the hands of the communist party and the extensive measures of the communist party to ensure control normalised authoritarianism in Russia and embedded it into the mind-set of the Russian people. Since Lenin was seen as the leader of the revolution against the oppression the Russian people felt they were under, his authoritarian policies where not seen as such, but rather corrective measures to the injustices against the working class which existed prior to the rise of communism. This might have engrained into the people’s minds that in order for change to occur, there needs to be a high level of control into the government’s hands, which would go against democratisation.

After Lenin and the rise of Stalin in Russia any democratic mind-set Russia was thoroughly crushed with Stalin’s mass purges of civilians and party members alike, and his establishment of his intense paternalistic personality cult. Stalin was seen as a strong man leader, with an intense emphasis is propaganda on how great he was and how he was making the Soviet Union thrive, however from this we can see the poisoning of the Russian mindset for nearly thirty years with an overload of propaganda glorifying authority and the established order as it leads to the ‘thriving’ of the state. As can be seen public attitudes to Stalin during his reign were incredibly for him, this was because you were not allowed to have a contrary opinion. It is almost impossible to gauge an accurate statistic for his approval while he was leading, but few can defiantly say that there was mass paranoia and fear, fear of being abducted by the secret police or worse. This shows how the attitude toward Stalin has made Russians not want to question their government which means it has created a pattern of complacency towards authoritarian and anti-democratic policies in Russia.

Although Russia has had immense progress in democratisation since the Soviet Union, the legacies of its authoritarian rulers still live on in its people’s minds. Alexander Lukin argues that “the liberal and democratic movements learnt how to use Western concepts and practices, but in effect assimilated them to the deeper authoritarian structures of Russian political culture.’’ (Routledge Handbook of Russian Politics and Society, pg. 36), making Russia’s political culture a legacy of its past. Positive public attitude to Stalin has steadily increased since the dissolution of the union in 1991. The Moscow Times reported in 2019 that “a record 70% of Russian respondents told the Levada Center that Stalin played a positive role for Russia. Stalin’s previous record approval rating stood at 54% in 2016”(The Moscow Times). Reason for Stalin’s increasing approval in Russian society are numerous. Russia under Stalin though a brutal police state was at its peak of its power, being able to rival the United States. It is not surprising then that many Russian’s would look back fondly at this time when Russia was an important player the international scene. This means that instead of remembering authoritarian leadership in a negative light, the romanticisation of a strong Russia has led to a subconscious acceptance of anti-democratic practices.

Another clear aspect of how attitudes to authoritarian figures have hindered the democratisation in Russia is the indifference of the Russian public towards media restrictions since Putin’s inauguration in 2000. After his inauguration Putin shut down hostile media outlets and also exiled the oligarchs that opposed him who controlled hostile media firms. After this being able to practically nationalize all remaining media to be pro-Putin, this established a firm state of control over Russia’s perception of him. With media firmly under Putin’s control, again, looking to Russia’s past we can see eerie similarities to Stalinist Russia, and the monopoly of information that the state had during Stalin’s rule. In addition to this little pushback has been seen from the Russian population at large to the State’s almost entire ownership over Radio and TV outlets. For a country that considers itself a democracy this is a major setback for democratisation in Russia. Since most people in Russia get their information from television and radio, and access to the internet is only mainly seen in cities, most citizens public attitudes are manipulated in Putin’s favour which enables his grasp over power despite the use of these anti-democratic practices. This shows that the public almost allows itself to be dictated their opinions of their leader, making the enforcement of things such as free speech unlikely.

However, it is not completely fair to say that public attitudes towards Stalin are the main reason for the lack of democratisation in Russia, Henry E. Hale states in his essay ‘The myth of mass Russian support for autocracy’ he associates Russia’s lack of democratisation too ‘institutional disintegration, economic collapse, political turmoil and mass bloodshed’. This is not hard to argue against, the shock of the collapse of the union and the shoddy foundations the new state found itself in with the rise of the Oligarchs and mass corruption in Government agencies meant that a thriving democracy is hard to create, this can be seen in other post-Soviet countries such as the Ukraine, who among others have many reasons to detest Stalin, they also have major democratic issues in their country that mirror Russia’s, making public attitude towards Stalin not the basis of the lack of democratisation in the country.

It is also important to understand that Russian’s viewpoint on democracy differs from what western countries define it as. A survey from TMOMSFS found that in response to the question of what democracy meant to them “over a quarter of the population (26%) proved unable to articulate an answer, and nearly a fifth of the population understood democracy in a way that is completely different from the way scholars generally define it”. From this we can see that Russians in general do not understand democracy in the same way that we do, therefore we cannot say there has been a lack of democratisation in their country when we have differing standards of what democracy entails. This means that it would be misguided to consider Russia as a country lacking democracy, when our definitions for what that means are different.

Overall, we can see how public attitudes to authoritarian figures have inhibited with democratisation in Russia. From the beginning we see how the imperial legacies of the Romanov’s and their belief in the divine right of kings affected the political landscape of Russia, many seeing them as God’s appointed and therefore infallible. This political climate was then adopted by Lenin after the civil war, many now began to see Lenin as the new saviour of Russia and the leader of the revolution, for change to happen there needed to be strong governmental control from the communists to achieve this, with the population under management from a very paternalistic and intrusive state. After Lenin the main contributor to the lack of democratisation Stalin introduced his policy of paranoia and terror on the Russian population, leading to what we see today of political complacency to authoritarianism and a lack of questioning authority. But we also see that there has been other factors for the lack of democratisation in Russia, mainly the economic collapse after the collapse of the union and the mass corruption in government agencies, as well a many in Russia have a very different take on what democracy is in comparison to western standards. In conclusion, although public attitudes towards historical figures in have played a role in what the western world considers to be a lack of democratisation in Russia, there are other contributing factors to take into account as well as Russia’s different stance on what they consider a democracy to be.


  1. Stalin’s Approval Rating Among Russians Hits Record High – Poll – The Moscow Times, The Moscow Times. Available at: (Accessed: 16 October 2020).
  2. Vladimir Putin’s critics cry foul over alleged voter fraud in Russian election (2012). Available at: (Accessed: 28 October 2020).
  3. Russia: The Democracy That Never Was Russia: The Democracy That Never Was (2013). Available at: (Accessed: 28 October 2020).
  4. The Myth of Mass Russian Support for Autocracy: The Public Opinion Foundations of a Hybrid Regime, Henry E. Hale


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