If we accept that Russia is not different from most other societies and does experience change over time, the really important question becomes what are the factors and circumstances leading to changes in political systems and political cultures. A wonderous thing that’s been happening over the last 20 years or so is emergence of a superb body of historical research around questions of political change—in particular, around the crucial question of how it is that more liberal societies emerged in the first place. France and Germany of 200 years ago were much more like Russia then than they are like Russia today; for England, you need to go back a bit further… but not that much. They were all dominated economically and politically by a coterie of organized, rent-seeking elites well-schooled in the arts of violence. But over time, in some places, they’re dominance over politics and super-rents has been eroded, with other, much larger groups gaining a seat at the table and coercion and exclusive privileges losing some ground to more broadly enjoyed legal protections….
Coming back to the essential issue—society’s nearly inescapable dominance by violent, organized rent-seeking elites—that sad fact has been the norm throughout most of recorded history, and it remains prevalent in many places still today, including Putin’s Russia. You and I had front row seats to its transformation in the 90s (and since). But coercion’s fatal flaw is that it doesn’t confer durable legitimacy. So the regime resorts to window dressing and high-falutin ideological smokescreens about managed democracy, Eurasian exceptionalism, the true Europeaness, etc. to justify its rule in the eyes of the more gullible. But since the decline in divine monarchy and Marxist theory, nothing can quite compete with saying you’ve won an election (even with a thumb on the scales) when it comes to explaining why you get to run things. Perhaps that’s the one point I would take issue with in your essay—the election kabuki is not for the West, it’s mostly for domestic consumption.
As for that ambivalence you talk about in Russia, it’s not always ambivalence within every individual; rather, it’s conflicting views among individuals about how society should be run. Those tensions were present in pretty much every society that has approached thresholds of political change ushering in more liberal orders. Russia’s order today—for all its shortcomings—is certainly more liberal than the 1950s or the 1850s. So things have objectively changed in Russia. And there’s every reason to believe they will continue to do so. Part of what we can do as historians is to identify how things have changed in the past, what caused those changes, and where things might be headed going forward…”