Russia is in crisis again. Bad debts, devalued currency, corrupt officials, a political system that verges on paralysis, competing visions of the future that allow no room for compromise—the list of problems grows longer as its components become more complex.

Observers attribute the crisis to the huge difficulties connected with trying to transform a once-inert socialist economy into a dynamic capitalist one. They see the crushing weight of Russia’s Soviet heritage as the evil force underlying these problems. And they hope for a knight in shining armor to save Mother Russia in her hour of need.

Hopeful Western observers (and not a few opportunistic Russians courting Western support) insist that the knight will wear the mantle of Western-style democracy. But the facts of Russian history argue otherwise. Not only has Russia not tried democracy until now, but its history shows that its leaders have always attempted to solve its many crises by antidemocratic means.

The currents of Russia’s anti-democratic heritage run broad and deep. More than 70 years of Soviet life instilled attitudes that worked against democratic institutions. And, except for a few decades before the Revolution of 1917, Russia’s historical experience under the Romanovs followed the same course. Russia’s historical legacy calls upon its leaders to command and its people to obey. Taking responsibility for their nation’s destiny is not something that ordinary Russians have done in the past. Nor do they seem ready to do so now.

Whether Romanov or Soviet, Russia’s heritage is autocratic. Reform in Russia has always come from above, from a czar or commissar who has imposed change upon a nation of self-serving interest groups that have been unwilling to think in terms of national interest. Russia’s masses have not been accustomed to serving their nation. They have instead served rulers who have imposed national service upon them.

In the past, national interest has been a matter for Russia’s rulers to define. And progress toward national goals has usually come when those rulers decided that the nation’s interests required change. This was true of Peter the Great and Alexander II (who freed 45 million serfs and state peasants from bondage in the 1860’s). It was also true of Lenin and Stalin, and more recently Gorbachev.

The belief that reform must be imposed from above has made Russia’s rulers jealous of their power. That principle has lain at the heart of their policies, and it has stood in the way of every effort to draw the Russians more directly into public life. Open participation in civic affairs—what the Russians nowadays call glasnost—has been tried only rarely in the past, and almost always with unfortunate results.

Whenever Russia’s rulers have tried to open public debate about their nation’s course, they have inevitably confronted the dilemma posed by popular expectations that rise more quickly than their ability (or willingness) to meet them. Catherine the Great initiated a public debate on Russia’s relationship to the West in the 1760’s, but she had to end her experiment when attention shifted from the issues of culture and enlightenment to the problems posed by serfdom and the arbitrary authority it encouraged.

Alexander II tried glasnost at the beginning of the Great Reform era in the 1860’s, only to be obliged to cut the debate short when it began to question the viability of autocracy itself And a century and a quarter later, Gorbachev saw his effort to open public debate about the shortcomings of communism destroy the Soviet Union in the space of six short years.

Difficulties with glasnost in the past have shown Russia’s rulers that any public participation in government can threaten their ability to impose change from above. And the fact that the Russians have historically been either too divided or self-interested to think in terms of their nation’s best interests has made rulers hesitant to relinquish their power to impose change. Too often, the alternative to a strong and determined ruler has been a society fragmented to the point where all sense of national interest has been lost. We are seeing that today, in the conflicts within the Duma and the tensions between the Duma and Yeltsin’s government.

Russians today simply lack that sense of civic responsibility that underlies the proper functioning of democratic institutions in the West. Men and women made cynical by the blatant abuses of power they witnessed during the Soviet era do not understand that, in a democratic society, citizens are expected to take responsibility for the well-being of their communities and their neighbors. Most of all, citizens in a democracy must take responsibility for themselves, but there is no deep-rooted sense among present-day Russians that requires them to think of their nation’s welfare, pay their taxes, and discharge their justly-contracted debts.

Yeltsin’s government (as Russian governments have done for hundreds of years) continues to exploit its citizens by devaluing the currency and defaulting on loans. Its citizens continue to respond by evading taxes and embezzling government funds. Russia’s leaders do not understand that a government has to be based on promises made and promises kept. Nor do citizens understand that democracy requires them to honor and serve any government the people elect to represent them.

Although Russians have traditionally been willing to bow to their rulers’ authority, there was a brief time when a broadly based sense of civic responsibility seemed about to take root. The Great Reforms of the 1860’s and 1870’s not only freed millions of serfs, but also created new institutions of local self-government, a modern judicial system, and a citizen army. These required the Russians to take responsibility for themselves, their communities, and the defense of their country as citizens are supposed to do. Such changes did not come overnight, but by the end of the 19th century, they had taken firm root.

For a time at the beginning of this century, this growing sense of civic responsibility led Russia’s citizens to seek a voice in determining their nation’s destiny. Some believed that czar and people should unite in a monarchical or democratic polity. Others shared a more revolutionary vision, in which the will of the people alone could determine Russia’s course. And both groups looked toward a future in which the voices of citizens would be heard. Both argued that making one’s voice heard was a citizen’s duty.

In 1917, conflicts between these two visions of Russia’s future led to a revolution that destroyed the sense of civic responsibility that had begun to take shape. Lenin and his triumphant Bolsheviks shaped Russia’s political values around party loyalty and party discipline, not the civic virtues that encouraged independent thought and dissent. Many of the men and women whose call for civic responsibility had played a part in bringing on the Revolution fled abroad. Those who remained in Russia disappeared into execution chambers and forced labor camps.

By the time Stalin seized power in 1928, all vestiges of an independent citizenry had been swept from Russia. Because there was no place in a society governed by party discipline for the sort of civic responsibility that could lead to disagreement or dissent, the all-powerful Soviet state took charge of its citizens’ welfare. In the long term, this may have been the most corrosive of all the legacies that the Soviet experience bequeathed.

In return for guaranteeing the minimum of human needs and social benefits required for survival, the Soviet state deprived its citizens of any power to shape their lives. Russians had to pay lip service to the principles that would best enable them to get ahead in a world in which the state held command of life’s luxuries and necessities.

In Soviet times, the state spoke in the name of the people, while each person sought to wrest whatever he could from the state. State propaganda applauded the people’s participation in state-controlled civic life, but in reality it was every person for himself, with each trying to serve as many narrow personal interests as possible. It became every citizen’s task to negotiate directly with the state for the small perquisites that could make life better.

A better apartment, a free vacation, tickets to the opera, and access to special stores became each person’s urgent concerns. For what separated poverty from luxury in Soviet Russia was neither wealth nor talent, but the favor of the state. That favor could be purchased only by loyalty, and expressions of that loyalty were expected at every level of human endeavor. In such a society, the possibilities for corruption were endless. The moral imperatives that go hand-in-hand with civic responsibility in democratic societies simply had no place or meaning in Russia after 1928.

Whether looked at from the perspective of decades or centuries, such historical experiences are not the material from which democratic societies arc easily fashioned. The hard truth may be that Russia’s is not the sort of experience from which democracy can be forged at all. For centuries, reform, progress, change, law and order, the definition of national priorities and interests, and the visions of where Russia needs to go and what its future ought to be all have been handed down from above. It is small wonder, then, that the Russians are carrying little sense of civic responsibility with them as they approach the 21st century. The belief that one must answer for oneself and one’s community cannot be legislated into being, nor is it one of those self-evident truths that are destined to be eagerly seized upon whenever the forces of history make it available.

Few people would deny that a great deal of Western money is stolen by Russian officials, bankers, and businessmen. Money from the West simply creates more opportunities for the sorts of corruption in which Russians have engaged for centuries. “We all steal,” one of Peter the Great’s closest advisers remarked at the beginning of the 18th century. “The only difference is that some of us do it on a larger and more conspicuous scale.” Bolstered by the eradication of civic responsibility that the Soviet experience demanded, that statement is more true today than ever before.

Although it has deprived them of those values and experiences that lie at the heart of the successful workings of democracy, history has given the Russians a powerful sense of national pride. At different times, Russia has claimed to be the last refuge of true Christianity and the forerunner of the new communist world order. It helped to rid Europe of the tyranny of Napoleon, played a key part in the destruction of Nazi Germany, and reigned as one of the world’s two superpowers for more than 40 years.

Of these claims and accomplishments, the Russians are intensely—and justifiably—proud. Being reduced to the status of poor cousins in the community of great powers is not something that they can accept with good grace. If the experiment with democracy fails to restore the Russians to the place in world affairs that they consider to be rightfully theirs, then one can expect to see leaders and people embrace those principles that have served them so well in the past. In that case, they will turn sharply away from democracy and re-establish those regimes that marshaled the nation’s human, political, and economic resources with so much success in days gone by. The impact of such a turn is difficult to calculate. But it certainly will take Russia in a ver}’ different direction from the one that Western leaders want it to follow.