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Essay: A Comparative Study of Russia and Germany

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Lipset states that the most important differentiating factor for people regarding “their belief in various democratic norms of tolerance for opposition, to their attitudes toward ethnic or racial minorities, and with regard to their belief in multi-party as against one-party systems“ — values that are important in the formation in liberal democracies — was their level of education. In other words, the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to support democratic values and practices (Lipset 1959). In fact, education is said to “[increase] the likelihood of successful democratic revolutions against dictatorships” (Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer 2007).

Germany and Russia are both post-communist countries with highly educated populaces. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that Russia’s population is more educated in relation to Germany’s i.e a higher percentage of Russia’s population have completed upper secondary and tertiary education than that of Germany’s. If Lipset’s theory held true, however, Russia would be more likely to support democracy than Germany if we simply looked at the metrics of upper-secondary education and tertiary education rates. However, this is not the case. In fact, public opinion data indicates that Russians support authoritarian tendencies and reject democratic practices to a much greater extent than Germans. The Germans, on the other hand, support democratic practices and reject authoritarian tendencies to a greater extent than Russians.

The purpose of this paper is to compare Russia and Germany’s modernization (and its relationship to education) and how that has affected Russia and Germany’s democratization. This comparison, in turn will serve to explain the disconnect between the Russian people’s tolerance of authoritarian practices and existing literature on modernization, which suggests that increased modernization should lead to an educated population, which in turn should lead to an increased support for democracy. In essence, if modernization theory argues that education is important for the development of democracy, why does Russia not support it?

Justification for the Comparison of Russia and Germany

Russia and Germany make for a proper comparison, as both have a history of having had authoritarian communist regimes. Moreover, one can make the argument that Germany has had a harder time than Russia in accepting democracy in the face of modernization, due to the potential fragmentation that could have come about as a result of German Reunification — West Germany was a democracy, and East Germany was not. On the other hand, Russia has had communism present throughout the entire country during the Soviet area. In other words, the risk of ideological and political fragmentation that existed in Germany did not exist to the same extent in Russia (This is not to say that fragmentation in Russia does not exist in other respects, however). Moreover, in both Russia and Germany, having educated populations was not a buffer against popular support for authoritarian regimes. In Russia and Germany, Putin and Adolf Hitler enjoyed popular support in the face of modernization and educated populations. In that sense, Russia and Germany are both examples of anomalies from our conventional understanding of what modernization entails, albeit in different points in history. That being said, as Germany, or rather the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), modernized after the German reunification, the adoption of liberal democracy by East Germans was seemingly seamless and uneventful, as opposed to Russia, whose reaction to modernization and attempted adoption of a liberal democracy was fairly chaotic in the post-Soviet era. Moreover, Germans and Russians both have had experiences with semi-democratic structures in the form of parliamentary elections during the Soviet era. The Soviet Constitution of 1936 did guarantee secret and direct voting rights to all citizens (i.e. universal suffrage) in the Soviet Union for elections to the Supreme Soviet (Schapiro 1967). Article 22 of the 1968 Constitution of the German Democratic Republic (Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik) stipulates universal suffrage and voting rights to all East German citizens over the age of 18 (Constitution of the German Democratic Republic, 1968). That being said, however, the presence of semi-democratic structures in East Germany and the Soviet Union was evident in the presence of the procedures, not in the execution of these procedures themselves. Due to these factors and similarities, a comparison of Russia and Germany will be worthwhile.

Description of the Issue

In terms of education, Russia has one of the most educated populations in the world. It has one of the highest percentages of secondary school graduates and university graduates in the world. OECD writes, “In 2012, the Russian Federation continued to have the largest percentage of adults (25-64 year-olds) who had attained tertiary education out of all OECD and partner countries with available data: 53% compared with an OECD average of 32% and a G20 average of 27%. Moreover, 94% of Russians have attained at least an upper secondary education, which is markedly higher than the OECD average of 75%” (OECD 2014)

Germany also has one of the most educated populations in the world, in which most people aged 25-64 have at least an upper-secondary qualification. OECD writes, “Germany has one of the highest levels of upper secondary attainment: 86% of the country’s 25-64 year-olds have obtained at least an upper secondary qualification…Vocational qualifications are common in Germany. Nearly one in two (48%) upper secondary students is enrolled in pre-vocational or vocational programmes (dual system) that combine school and work… Most 25-64 year-olds in Germany (55%) have attained a vocational qualification at either upper secondary or post-secondary level, the fourth largest proportion among countries with available data… Due to the high incidence of vocational qualifications, and the fact that a general degree (mostly Abitur) is dedicated to further education and not to direct entry in the labour market, only 3% of adults attain a general upper secondary or post-secondary qualification as highest degree, one of the smallest proportions among OECD countries.” (OECD 2014)

Public opinion surveys were given to people in different countries, regarding the following beliefs that are important in the formation of liberal democracies:

“their belief in various democratic norms of tolerance for opposition”

“their attitudes toward ethnic or racial minorities”

“their belief in multi-party as against one-party systems”

The data suggested that most important differentiating factor regarding these beliefs for the participants of the survey was their level of education. In other words, the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to support democratic values and practices (Lipset 1959). If Lipset’s theory holds true, however, Russia would be more likely, or equally likely to support democracy than Germany. However, this is not the case. In 2017, the Pew Research Center asked participants in various countries the following question to measure their support for representative democracies. — “would a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law be a good or bad way of governing this country?” Of the Russians who responded, only 26% have responded “very good,” which is lower than the global median of 33%, and 23% have responded “total bad,” which is higher than the global median of 17%. On the other hand, of the Germans who responded, 46% have responded “very good,” which is higher than the global median of 33%, and 8% have responded “total bad,” which is lower than the global median of 17% (See Figure 1).

Moreover, the Pew Research Center, to gauge people’s opinions on autocrats, asked “would a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts be a good or bad way to govern the country?” The responses between Russians and Germans varied drastically for this question as well. 48% of Russians have responded “total good,” which is much higher than the global median of 26%, whereas only 8% of Germans have responded “total” good. The stark discrepancy in statistics between Russia and Germany strongly suggests that Russians support authoritarian tendencies and reject democratic practices to a much greater extent than Germans (Pew Research Center 2017). (See Figure 2).

Comparison (Lit Review)

In terms of definitions, the first term that will be defined is “modernization.” “Modernization,” a term used to describe the process through which “traditional” societies become “modern” ones, has come to be associated with economic development. This economic development, Lipset argues, is connected to urbanization, industrialization, wealth, and education, and those factors together carry the “political correlate” of democracy (Lipset 1959). Barrington Moore adds a cultural dimension to modernization, as he notes that Indian independence was brought about partly by a cultural desire for peasants to return to a village lifestyle. Moore argues that this cultural desire “dangerously limited” and prevented modernization in India’s countryside (Moore 1966). In essence, Moore implies that, in order for modernization to happen, people have to get rid of tradition. For the purposes of this paper, the education that accompanies modernization and its effect upon democratization will be focused on, as there is substantial amount of literature on the relationship between the causal effect that increased education has on the support for democracy.

The next term that will be defined is “authoritarian regime.” For this paper, Juan Linz’s definition of an “authoritarian regime” will be used. Linz defines “authoritarian regimes” as “political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones” (Linz 1964). In other words, an authoritarian regime is defined by the following aspects — limited political pluralism, no guiding ideology, little political mobilization, and a small group exercising power over the population (i.e. 1- party rule). For the purposes of this paper, Vladimir Putin’s regime in the Russian Federation will be considered an authoritarian regime, as Putin’s regime seems to fulfill all the stipulations of an authoritarian regime laid out by Linz. Linz’s definition of an “authoritarian regime” is crucial because it distinguishes an “authoritarian regime” from a democratic or totalitarian regime along 4 different dimensions — the number of political parties, the presence or lack of ideology, opportunities for mobilization, and type of leadership (Linz and Stepan 1998).

Linz’s definition of authoritarianism is also important because it does not exclude the possibility that democratic or semi-democratic structures can exist in an authoritarian regime (Putin’s regime does exactly that). In fact, the term “electoral authoritarianism” was devised to account for authoritarian regimes that implemented competitive elections in order to strengthen their legitimacy (Schedler 2006). In that sense, East Germany can also be called an authoritarian regime that practiced “electoral authoritarianism” for the purposes of this paper.

The next term that will be defined is “liberal democracy.” A “liberal democracy” is defined by Fuchs, first, as having the basic prerequisites of a democracy — which are the constitutional guarantees of subjective freedoms, political rights of participation, universal, free, and periodic elections, and rule of law. The supplemental elements of a democracy that make a democracy a “liberal” democracy is the existence of a political realization of social rights, coupled with a lack of a constitutional guarantee of social rights and lack of direct citizenship participation. While liberal democracies do have some form of a welfare system, what distinguishes a liberal democracy from other forms of democracy, especially socialist democracies, is the fact that liberal democracies can limit citizens’ demands on the state. A liberal democracy should not take responsibility for addressing all the needs and desires of all the citizens, which is also something the citizens in a liberal democracy should realize. As such, desires and demands of the citizens “must be determined and negotiated politically.” A liberal democracy is “not concerned with realizing a predetermined common good or notion of justice by means of political decision‐making processes. The political rationale of a liberal democracy is purely procedural, not substantive” (Fuchs 1999). For the purposes of this paper the current government of the Federal Republic of Germany will be considered a liberal democracy, as the current German government seems to fulfill the stipulations of a liberal democracy laid out by Fuchs.

Lipset argues that high levels of education and literacy create or sustain beliefs in democracy. He also states that a combination of increased wealth and education also contributes to the sustenance of democracy in that it increases the extent to which people in lower classes to cross pressures, which in turn will decrease the likelihood that lower classes will support extreme ideologies. Lipset also argues that, on the other hand, the existence of poverty and low levels of education will prevent countries in Asia and Africa from becoming successful democracies (Lipset 1959). To add to this, schools have the effect of raising civic engagement. Education raises the benefits of political engagement when people decide to support democracy. Education increases the universal support for the continuation of a democracy, as democracy requires high levels of participation to persist. Moreover, scholars argue that there have been a fair number of dictators that have fallen as a result of investing in education, with some examples in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Former Soviet Union (Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer 2007).

The logical next question is “were the Soviet Union and East Germany modernized countries?” As “modern” is a relative term, we would answer “no” to that question, as our understanding of modernization carries the connotation of increased democratization and acceptance of liberal values. As the Soviet Union and East Germany did not support liberal democratic values, they would not be considered modern by contemporary standards. Bunce, however, would give a different answer to that question. She says (regarding research put out by Lipset 1959, Dahl 1971, etc.), “writings [about democracy] appeared, however, at a time when democratic forms of government were the exception, not the rule…” (Bunce 2000). Based on this, an implicit criticism that Bunce makes of Lipset’s observations on the relationship between education and modernization (Lipset 1959) is that they are somewhat limited. As democracy has not always been the universally supported ideology that it is today, there was no consensus as to what normative expectations of what “modern” values were, especially during the time period in which the USSR and East Germany were in existence. As such, one cannot use a lack of a liberal democracy as a metric for measuring modernization. Moreover, modernization, and therefore the educated populace that comes with it, does not necessarily carry with it the effect of increased support for a liberal democracy.

In the modern day Russia, the highly educated population can be a legacy of the Soviet education system, by virtue of the fact that many residents of the former Soviet Union are still alive in Russia today. Looking purely at the percentage of the population who hold secondary and tertiary degrees overlooks the way in which the education system of the USSR was structured. In the Soviet education system, Marxist indoctrination started right at the beginning of one’s education. Education in the Soviet Union served not really to satisfy the needs of the individual, but the needs of the state. Compulsory education lasted for 10 years, which provided the Soviet Union 10 years to indoctrinate students. Soviet institutes of higher education served a purely vocational and utilitarian function. Unless a university student were to major in a subject in the humanities, courses in this area were not really required for graduation. Thus, if a university student were major in a science or engineering subject, he or she would specialize in these subjects and not take any classes outside their specialization. Afterwards, the university graduates were automatically placed into their first job, in which they had to spend three years working in (Ross 1960).

The guarantee of employment post-graduation most likely explains the high number of tertiary degree holders in Soviet Russia. Moreover, the western liberal arts style of education was just not present in almost any part of the Soviet education structure. While Putin’s regime is not inherently communist, the way in which the Soviet education system was structured can still explain the legitimate popularity of Putin’s regime. It can be theorized that the core value that students were indoctrinated with in Soviet schools — the surrender of the individual desires for the needs of the state — is also a core value within authoritarian regimes as demonstrated by the exchange of civil liberties for state stability that occurs in modern-day Russia.

The educational system in East Germany mirrored the Soviet education system. The socialist government of East Germany strove to bring East Germany away from a “bourgeois past.” The curriculum plans of the East German teachers contained a set of mandatory prescriptions, leaving no room for the teacher to approach the curriculum in an individualized fashion. The vocational focus of the Soviet school system was also present in the East German educational system, as demonstrated by the compulsory completion of a polytechnic education for all students. Where the East German education system deviates from the Russian education system, however, is in the university system. In East Germany, the personality-developing aspects of the universities, as opposed to the serious specialization that occurred in the Soviet universities, was not abolished, and was moreover demanded for as a necessary component of developing a “socialist” personality (Mitter 1990).

Based on this, it could be argued that the personality-developing aspects of the East German universities could have made East Germans more receptive to democracy than the residents of the Soviet Union. While this may be true on an individual level, the East German government did severely restrict the number of Abitur holders. One must write the Abitur exam in order to go to university in East Germany (Mitter 1990). This restriction therefore has had the effect of severely limiting the number of students who are allowed to study at university, which means that the argument that higher levels of education leads to increased support for democracy will only apply to very small portion of the East German population. Therefore, while education can be considered an explanatory variable in people’s attitudes towards a liberal democracy, it cannot be the most important explanatory variable. In other words, Lipset’s theory may be true, but it is too limited to explain East Germany’s transition to a liberal democracy and Russia’s adherence to authoritarianism
This indoctrination into socialist ideals is also a sentiment expressed by Dieter Fuchs, who proposes an alternate argument regarding socialization about the perceptions of liberal democracy in East Germany. He argues that a socialist socialization of residents in the GDR have made people more supportive of a socialist model of democracy, as opposed to a liberal model of democracy. Fuchs describes a socialist model of democracy as one that has the following guarantees — “constitutional guarantee of liberal basic rights,” “constitutional guarantee of universal, free, and periodic elections,” “constitutional guarantee of the rule of law,” “constitutional guarantee of social rights,” “constitutional guarantee of direct citizenship participation,” and “Political realization of social rights.” A citizens’ conception of the state in a socialist democracy is an “all-embracing welfare state” i.e. a nanny state.

That being said, Fuchs notes the lack of support for a liberal model of democracy amongst East Germans, as they are more supportive of a socialist model. On the other hand, West Germans support liberal democracies to much greater degree than East Germans. This indicates that there is a disconnect in the normative expectations of what democracy should be between East and West Germans. Despite this is disconnect, Fuchs presents an argument that could explain East Germans’ potential tolerance of the West German liberal democracy imposed upon them after the German Reunification. The socialist socialization of East Germans has left the East Germans to think that the state should be a sort of “nanny” state. This desire for a welfare state, however, is also strong in West Germany. In fact, the existence welfare state has been a German tradition since the Bismarckian era (Fuchs 1999). This firstly creates a set of shared interests for East and West Germans. Therefore, it can be argued that East Germans can tolerate liberal democracy, as their interests of having a welfare state, which is one of the hallmarks of a socialist democracy, will be supported by West Germans as well.

Moreover, the presence of a liberal democracy does not preclude the existence of a welfare state. While social demands to East Germany have been “addressed to democracy as a form of government,” social demands in West Germany (and therefore the present state of Germany) are addressed through “political parties and the incumbent government” (Fuchs 1999). In other words, the East Germans can still get their desired welfare state in the reunified Germany; it is just that the means through which social demands are addressed is different.

Rohrschneider supports a different and contrasting theory to Fuchs’, about the acceptance of liberal democracies in East Germany, however. Rohrschneider presents a theory surrounding value diffusion. He first indicates a support amongst East German elites for liberal democratic values. He then notes the fact that East Germans support liberal democracies as a result of television. East Germans were able to receive West German television, which transmitted western, liberal views, which, in turn, helped undermine the legitimacy of the East German political and economic system. Moreover, he argues that many people in Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe endorse liberal democracies, as they have the failures of an “authoritarian system” to compare the success of liberal democracies with (Rohrschneider 1994). While this theory of value diffusion has its merits, it still fails to explain Russian citizens’ support for an authoritarian regime. Rohrschneider’s findings are also limited in the sense that Putin was not in power when Rohrscheider presented his findings.
The welfare state theory that Fuchs proposes is also supported by David White. White says, “[Putin’s Russia] has to provide welfare as a legacy of the Soviet Union.” Putin is able to ensure adequate levels welfare to the people and acceptable levels of employment, by charging rents on oil and gas. This utilization of rents from the oil and gas industries also has the effect of insulating Putin from outside pressures, as it keeps the political elite on board with his agenda.

White also argues that “the provision of employment, welfare, and pensions through the redistribution of gas and oil rents has, in the past, mobilized support for the regime.” Putin’s success can be explained by a coupling of economic growth and provision of welfare (White 2017). This is a sentiment also expressed by Daniel Treisman, who argues that the Russian people’s support for Putin and disapproval of Yeltsin are highly tied to Russia’s economic performance in the times when Putin and Yeltsin were in power. In fact, the reason as to why Putin and Medvedev were able to maintain their approval ratings in the face of the 2008 economic crisis was because they succeeded in preventing the full damaging power of the crisis from affecting the general Russian population. Treisman notes, “despite an 8% drop in GDP per capita in 2009, real wages fell only 2.8%; real disposable incomes actually rose by 1.9% because of generous increases in pensions, which rose by 10.7% in real terms that year” (Treisman 2011). In essence it can be argued that, economic progress satisfies the political and economic elite of Russia whereas the provision of welfare satisfies the poor of Russia, which in turn has helped bolster support for Putin’s regime. Therefore, the support for authoritarianism can be tied to economic progress and the continuation of welfare provisions that have existed since the Soviet Union.


The findings indicate a deviation from Lipset’s theory of modernization when it comes to Russia and Germany. The connection Lipset makes between increased education and an increased support for liberal democracy fails to explain the East German transition to a liberal democracy post-reunification and the Soviet Union’s lack thereof. This is evident in two ways. In the Soviet Union, the education system is actually structured so that students are indoctrinated to accept authoritarian values. As many people who lived in the former Soviet Union are still living in Russia today, one can make the argument that the increased rates of education have actually increased support for the authoritarian practices carried out by Putin’s regime. In East Germany, Lipset’s theory does not hold because the East German government actively restricted the number of students eligible to attend university. While East German universities were fairly more liberal than Soviet universities, as the personality-building aspect of higher education was demanded for in East Germany, the restriction on the number of university students indicates that Lipset’s argument will apply to only a small segment of the East German population. The OECD 2014 report on the German education system effectively ignores the the high discrepancy in the number of people qualified to attend university in East and West Germany (Witter 1990). Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer are partially correct in saying that education instills certain types of values. However, if the values being taught in schools are not liberal values, then the logical conclusion is that students in those schools will not support liberal values, which are necessary for the formation of liberal democracies. Due to this, an alternative explanation is necessary.

For both Russia and Germany, an economic approach to explain the acceptance of liberal democracy and authoritarianism in East Germany and Russia, respectively, seems to make more sense. Fuchs notes that there was initially a disconnect between East and West Germans’ expectations of what a democracy should be when both halves of Germany reunified. While East Germans did not support liberal democracies and opted to support a socialist democracy instead, they were able to tolerate the liberal democracy imposed upon them by West Germany, potentially due to economic reasons. Due to the socialist socialization that occurred in East Germany, East Germans highly desired a welfare state, which has been a German tradition since the 1870s (the era of Bismarck), and this desire is shared strongly by West Germans as well. From a strategic standpoint, this means East Germans will have shared support from West Germans for their political desires. Moreover, the presence of a liberal democracy does not preclude the existence of a welfare state. It merely does not constitutionally guarantee it like a socialist democracy does. In essence, the means through which East Germans can express their political and social desires is not eliminated at all in liberal democracies; it merely changes. The alternative theory of value diffusion presented by Rohrschneider to explain support for liberal democracy, and rejection of authoritarian systems is attractive, but does not explain Russia’s adherence to authoritarianism.
White and Treisman also concur that the source of Russia’s support for authoritarianism is economic. Putin’s provisions of welfare are partially reminiscent of the welfare state present in the Soviet Union. Moreover, the economic growth that Russia experienced as a result of Putin’s policies have kept the political and economic elites happy with Putin. This has had the effect of Putin having support from both the upper and lower classes of the country. Putin’s active efforts to shield his citizens from economic crises and his commitment to welfare seem to be the reasons as to why Russian citizens support Putin’s authoritarian regime, even though Russia is one of the most educated countries in the world. For future research, I propose a comparative quantitative study surveying welfare recipients in different countries about their opinions about the current government in power.


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