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Russia February 11, 2008
The Myth of the Democratic Model
By Sean Guillory Browse author Email

Stanford poli-sci prof and Commissar of Transitionology, Michael McFaul, is quiet no more. After a few years of relative reticence, McFaul, once known as the most gregarious cheerleader for the Yeltsin regime, was smoked out of his academic hole by Time's recent crowning of Vladimir Putin as the "Person of the Year." McFaul's first response was a comment in Slate titled "Putin? Really?" The second was a lengthy quasi-academic condemnation in Foreign Affairs called "The Myth of the Authoritarian Model." In the Slate piece, McFaul said that Putin's accolade "most certainly doesn't 'feel right,' and most certainly doesn't feel like journalism."

The fact that Time's decision doesn't "feel right" to McFaul shouldn't surprise avid eXile readers. What doesn't "feel right" to him is the possibility that "as political freedom [in Russia] has decreased, economic growth has increased." This is what McFaul has dubbed the "myth of the authoritarian model," which he argues is based on "a spurious correlation between autocracy and economic growth." After all, giving Putin any credit for anything except being a mini-Stalin, the second coming of Hitler, or simply a fire breathing hydra, is an affront to academic political correctness.

For McFaul, the main problem with this myth is the way post-Soviet Russia's story is being told. According to him, it erroneously overemphasizes that during the Yeltsin years "the state did not govern, the economy shrank, and the population suffered."

McFaul is clever enough not to paint the Yeltsin years that he was once so closely associated with in overly rosy colors. The Russian state was virtually non-existent and the economy was in the tank. Nevertheless, he claims that while "Russian democracy . . . did indeed coincide" with these, "it did not cause either." Similarly, Putin's "autocracy" has coincided with economic growth, but it too "has not caused it." For a political scientist to claim that politics has nothing to do with economics is pretty strange. I guess this is the type of abstraction that passes nowadays in a field where Whig interpretations of history, number crunching, and modeling are the analytics of choice.

But not so fast. Politics and economics are linked in McFaul's mind. Their relation is simply only visible when it's the right politics (i.e. "democracy") combined with the right economics (i.e. "free-market capitalism"). If the equation is anything different, then it doesn't fit his ideal, and therefore, simply cannot exist. If only the Russians realized this, McFaul laments. Then they would know that "whatever the apparent gains of Russia under Putin, the gains would have been greater if democracy had survived."

I'm not sure how McFaul knows this. Last I checked we are not living in one of Marvel Comics' What If. . . ? storylines. Perhaps McFaul is privy to some secret knowledge. Maybe he's The Watcher's drinking buddy or plays poker with Kang the Conqueror. It's possible that as a token of friendship they periodically let him peer into alternative realities. "Michael the CONQUEROR has a message for the WORLD! BID AUTOCRACY GOOD-BYE!" (See Avengers #129 for reference.)

Interestingly, while McFaul rejects the Putinistas' narrative as "spurious," his rebuff is based on an equally spurious fiction that hackademics like himself have been propagating for years. What fiction would that be? That in the 1990s Russia was a democracy or at least in the process of "transitioning" to it. In this nautical tale, Captain Boris Yeltsin stood at the helm of Steamboat Russia. This great anticommunist democrat thrust his mighty vessel hard to starboard to avoid the ominous hardline Communist reefs. He then swung hard to port to circumvent the ultra-nationalist rocks. Steadfast and true, Cpt. Boris held the helm steady, allowing Russia to transverse the great Seas of Transition to the liberal democratic promise land. The waves of shock therapy, privatization, and neoliberalization that battered Russia's bow were merely the inevitable troubled waters that every great ship has to confront in its historical journey. But then came Putin. He ruined everything. Putin took the helm from a drunken, blurry eyed Yeltsin and steered Steamboat Russia right into the rocky banks of autocracy just as it about to reach the Cape of Freedom. And that is where Russia now lays. Hopelessly shipwrecked on the jagged banks of history. This is basically the narrative that allows McFaul to conclude that while Yeltsin was "far from a perfect democrat," he nonetheless governed a system that was "unquestionably more democratic than the Russian regime today." What a whale of a tale. All that is missing in this comedy is for someone to play Gilligan.

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