The recent vote in the Russian parliament to crack down on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) marks another depressing milestone in that country's headlong retreat from democracy. The bill is bad enough in itself: it would force all foreign and domestic NGOs regardless of their funding sources to re-register with the authorities, inviting closer scrutiny of any group deemed threatening to the Kremlin's interests. But the manner of its passing -- in its first reading the bill was approved by 370 votes to 18 -- also underlines that the Russian parliament is now little more than a Kremlin-controlled puppet show. Democracy is not under threat in Russia. It has practically ceased to exist.
In trying to understand why this has happened, there is a tendency to resort to the old clichés: it is President Vladimir Putin's KGB past; it is the old Russian penchant for a strongman leader; it is the revenge of a bureaucracy made jealous by the rise of the oligarchs. This is the counter reformation, Russian style, in which the free-thinking heretics of the 1990s are put to the sword, as anyone who knew their Russian history always said they would be.
As surface explanations go, there is nothing much wrong with this kind of characterisation. But it fails to address the underlying problem. Consider a question that is sometimes posed but rarely satisfactorily answered: why have all Europe's post-Soviet bloc countries, with the exception of Belarus, fared better than Russia in the practice of democracy-building?
If it comes down to a pre-communist history of political liberalism, then 20 years of inter-war democracy in the former Czechoslovakia is about as much as it is possible to bring forward. It is not just Russia that has no democratic past to look back to. Another popular, but possibly circular, argument suggests that many countries in central and eastern Europe found the transition to democracy relatively easy because of the magnetic pull of the European Union (EU) and Nato. There is no doubt that the Euro-Atlantic structures speeded things up and smoothed the way through difficult patches.
But it is easy to forget that accession for such countries only became a prospect in the first place because of the democratic potential that was widely held to exist already. The EU and Nato helped secure democracy. But democracy, in most cases, was there to be secured.
Too often missing from the debate was the role of rising national identity in mapping out the landscape on which the new democracies were to be constructed. The core issue here is that while the peoples of central and eastern Europe saw the end of the Soviet Union as their gain, and used the totalitarian past as something to define themselves against in the post-communist world, many Russians have been unable to see that event as anything other than their loss and as something to define themselves alongside in a resentful echo of past glories.
No recent statement has been more telling in this respect than Mr Putin's assertion in his state of the nation address last April that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century". Such comments resonate deeply in a country whose people long derived their sense of self-respect from being the driving force behind a superpower. Polls in recent years have shown solid majorities expressing regret at the demise of the Soviet Union.
An important part of the Russian national narrative thus has it that the period of democratic freedoms has been representative of national decline. It is only a short step from there to viewing democracy itself as troublesome, if not worthless. No wonder, then, that Mr Putin has faced so little opposition in stamping it out.
The future of Russia as a democratic state will be determined above all else by its ability to formulate a new, more honest national narrative. Specifically, this will depend on whether someone, somehow, can reinvigorate a serious and wide-ranging debate about the Soviet past: the horrors of Lenin and Stalin; the psychiatric prisons for dissidents later on; the vast corruption; and the bloodstained tyranny of Soviet imperialism. Misplaced national pride is the root cause of Russia's continuing failure as a democracy. Condemning Mr Putin for his autocratic ways is fine. But until we are prepared to get to grips with the forces that stand behind him and, in important respects, define him, it will be little more than shouting into the wind.
The writer is an adjunct fellow of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. FT Syndication Service