John A. Bernbaum

Russian-American Christian University (Moscow, Russia)
The Leading Edge: How NGO's Are Key Agents for Democratic Change in Russia

Dr. John A. Bernbaum is currently the founder and president of the Russian-American Christian University in Moscow, Russia. He also serves as a senior advisor for international programs for the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities. He holds both a M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in European and Russian history. He completed his bachelor's degree at Calvin College and earned an associate's degree from Trinity Christian College, which named him the alumnus of the year in 1997. Dr. Bernbaum has lectured and been published widely. Dr. Bernbaum has been instrumental in the development of several international educational programs as well as working for the Historical Office of the U.S. Department of State early in his career.

The Leading Edge: How NGO's Are Key Agents for Democratic Change in Russia

The frustration in the West over Russia's unwillingness to build democracy is cresting at the same time that Russia's ruling elites are increasingly critical of the U.S.'s hegemony in international politics.  With presidential elections scheduled in both countries for 2008, the short-term prospects for an improvement in relations between the two countries are not positive.

The resounding themes in most Western newspapers and foreign policy journals are that Russia is reverting to authoritarianism, (1) that Russia is "richer, bolder - and sliding back," (2) and that Russia has now left the Western orbit entirely and has started creating its own "Moscow-centered system." (3)  A bipartisan study issued by the Council of Foreign Relations is entitled "Russia's Wrong Direction" (4) and it makes this point in considerable detail.

While it is hard to oppose this conventional wisdom because of so many negative trends in Russian political life in recent years, I see things differently.  In my judgment, Russia is not moving away from democracy, it is not backtracking on President Yeltsin's achievements of the 1990s -- Russia never was a democracy.  Most nations in the Soviet empire, and Russia itself, when exiting from Communism, initially reached back to their immediate pre-Communist past.  Russia reached back to czarism, although this was not obvious initially.  President Yeltsin's brave climb onto the tank in the front of the White House on August 19, 1991, and his staunch anti-Communist actions in the early 1990s were viewed in the West as evidence of an emerging democracy.  But at its core, the Yeltsin regime was an electoral monarchy.  Yeltsin's election victory in 1996 and handover of power to Vladimir Putin, like a king to his dauphin, make this clear. (5)

The regime of President Putin is openly czarist -- a more precise term than "authoritarian" -- and the clearest evidence of this is that the presidency is the only functioning political institution of any consequence in the Russian Federation.  As one commentator noted, "politics in Russia today is court-driven and essentially Byzantine." (6)

Culture Matters
Recent scholarship has brought important new insights to bear on countries in transition, especially countries coming out of years of Communist Party rule.  This new body of literature has highlighted the fact that there is a relationship between culture and human progress (7) and "that some cultures and some religions do better than others in promoting the goals of democratic politics, social justice and prosperity." (8)

This literature has made the argument that cultural change, such as building a democracy and a market economy, can not be imposed from the outside, except in extraordinary situations.  Progress will only endure in a transitional society when it is driven from within.  Until a critical mass awareness emerges in a society, external pressures for change are likely to be resisted.  This is the case in the Russian Federation, in my judgment.

An Argentine scholar, Mariano Grondona, has developed a typology of 25 factors that influence political, economic and social development in emerging nations.  He described, for example, the following characteristics of a "progress-resistant worldview:"  1) a mentality that nurtures irrationality and is prone to either fatalism or utopianism; 2) a perspective that views wealth as a gift of fate, chance or natural resource endowment; 3) a belief that advancement comes through connections; 4) a society where group identity is elevated over that of the individual; 5) a culture that discourages punctuality and savings; and 6) a society that is characterized by a high degree of mistrust beyond the family or clan. (9)

While defining "Russia's DNA" is not a precise science, my sixteen years of work in this society would support the argument that every one of these "progress-resistant" qualities is evident in Russia.  Until these cultural characteristics are changed, there is little hope for significant progress.  When these cultural qualities are combined with the historical legacy of Russia, a legacy with almost no positive periods in which the "rule of law" was evident or where the power of the people was an effective counterforce to top-down authoritarian rule, (10)  we can see that the challenges of developing democracy in Russia are significant.    

Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of the U.S. Congress and one of America's leading experts on Russia, noted that the stakes are very high in Russia, because if we fail to help the Russians build democracy in their country, what hope is there for our efforts in the Middle East? (11) I agree and would add that the strategic factors related to Russia's critically important geopolitical location and its energy assets raise the stakes even higher.

NGO's Are Critically Important Players
In a society where the greatest losses suffered under seventy years of Marxist rule were the loss of trust, hope and a belief in truth, how can Russia be rebuilt without these core values?  Current U. S. and Western European foreign aid programs in Russia teach the techniques of democratic politics and the structures of a market economy, but they do not help Russians understand the essential moral values that underlie these economic and political systems.  Because many of the political elites in the U.S. and Western Europe only think in economic and political terms and are oblivious to religious and cultural factors in Russian society, they are unable to recognize what is needed to bring systemic change in a post-Communist society.  Russian elites are also blind to the deep religious and cultural roots of their own societies because of the ideological training they received under the Soviet regime.  It is here that people of faith in the West can make an important contribution.  They not only understand how moral values undergird their own society, but they can also help Russians by explaining these realities to help and by assisting them in rebuilding a moral foundation for their political and economic institutions.

Teaching these moral values that are common to the various historic Christian traditions are something that faith-based NGOs are uniquely equipped to do.  This involves grass-roots, bottom-up work in which individuals (not U.S. government officials) can teach quietly and mostly by example. (12) In a relational culture like Russia's, people-to-people projects can be a key to significant societal change.

Because "culture matters" and moral and ethical foundations are essential to the building of an open society where there is peace with justice, NGO's-especially non-profit humanitarian and educational organizations-can be the "leading edge" of societal development because they operate on the grassroots level and can help reshape development-resistant perspectives.  These PVOs (private voluntary organizations) hold the key to societal change.  Without the reconstitution of a moral and ethical foundation in post-Communist societies, there is little hope for the development of a healthy, just and peaceful nation, and private actors can be the real leaders in this drama.

1.    For example, see Anna Parachkevova, "Back to Russia's Future," The Washington Times (July 19, 2006) or Fred Hiatt, ""The Democracy Backlash," The Washington Post (July 10. 2006).
2.    "Special Report: Russia," The Economist (July 15, 2006), pp. 23-25.
3.    Dmitri Trenin, "Russia Leaves the West," Foreign Affairs (July-August 2006), p. 87.
4.    Council of Foreign Relations, Independent Task Force Report No. 57 (2006).
5.    Dmitri Trenin, "Reading Russia Right," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief #42 (October 2005), pp. 1-2.  Fareed Zakaria made this observation about Yeltsin's rule: "Yeltsin may prove to have been a herald of the future, a political leader of the type that is becoming increasingly common: the popular autocrat."  (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003, p. 90.)
6.    Ibid., p. 2.
7.    The leading book in this field is Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, edited by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington (New York: Basic Books, 2000).  Other relevant books include Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work (1993), Francis Fukuyama's Trust (1995), and David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1999).
8.    Lawrence E. Harrison, "The Culture Club: Exploring the Central Liberal Truth," The National Interest (Spring 2006), p. 96.
9.    Ibid., p. 97.
10.    As the Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky wrote, "It is easier to imagine Russia without the people than without a czar." ("What is Russian Civilization?" The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2006).  Michael Mandelbaum pointed out that "Communism in power in Russia and China . . . was in essence a war against the Russian and Chinese people. . . . The damage inevitably distorted and retarded Russian and Chinese efforts to conduct what qualified by liberal standards as a normal national existence."  (The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Public Affairs, 2002).
11.    Discussion with the author, April 30, 2004.
12.    A helpful source on grassroots organizations in Russia is Sarah L. Henderson, Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003).  One example of a private initiative that is changing attitudes in Russia in a positive direction is "The CoMission for Children at Risk."  Numerous humanitarian agencies, most of them faith-based, are linked together by this CoMission and are working with Russia's "street kids," the most vulnerable part of the population in terms of HIV/AIDS and prostitution.  The great untold story in contemporary Russia is the quiet work of hundreds of PVOs that are addressing serious societal issues that are being ignored by the Russian government.


James H. Billington, Russia in Search of Itself (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Sarah L. Henderson, Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia: Western Support for Grassroots Organizations (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003).

Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2002).

Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (Green Forest, AR: Balfour Books, 2006).

Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004).

John A. Bernbaum, "Reflections on Russia" - monthly essays available on RACU's web site at