Leadership lessons for Obama in Russia's 1991 revolution

Calls for Obama to be a strong leader sound a bit like Russians who prefer Putin's strong-arm rule, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire began. But expressions of democratic values do not lie in one person. They must be more universal.

Well-wishers of President Obama who now wish he would be a stronger leader can take a lesson from an important anniversary today.

Twenty years ago, a failed military coup in Moscow began the collapse of the Soviet Union. And with it began the Russian people’s long struggle over whether the values of a free society are best expressed by the people themselves or left to a “strong” leader.

The bedrock truths of a democracy – the inherent rights of each person, equality before the law, freedom of expression, etc. – are universal. They cannot be embodied in one or just a few people. Yet in Russia, which was too long ruled by czars and communist bosses, most people still look to types of leaders who publicly flex their muscles in martial arts – as strongman Vladimir Putin does – and who don’t tolerate opposition.

Such thinking is why some democratic revolutions fail, and which makes the Arab Spring – at least in Egypt and Tunisia – so worth supporting.

Arabs have been out in almost daily protests that are largely leaderless, defying bullets and uniting behind ideals of freedom. They will likely carry that internalized responsibility for upholding these newly discovered values even after electing leaders.

Mr. Obama recognizes this. During his recent Midwest bus tour, he acknowledged that true power in a democracy lies not in him as president but with the people. In an Illinois stump speech, he asked the crowd to demand action from Congress: “If you’re delivering that message, it’s a lot stronger than me delivering that message, because you’re the folks, ultimately, that put those members of Congress into office. All right?”

The “all right?” was a subtle reminder not to neglect one’s duty as an active citizen, and only punch a ballot every couple years.

Leaders from Jesus to Mohandas Gandhi have grasped this type of leadership in which each individual is seen as capable of being self-governed by the highest ideas. “There go my people,” Gandhi supposedly said. “I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Russians had only a short time to absorb their brief burst of democratic values, starting with the moment that Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank Aug. 19, 1991, and rallied a few thousand people to defy communist hard-liners. Later he became Russia’s first freely elected president.

Not enough Russians, however, took up the cause or grasped their own responsibility, leading to two decades of rising corruption and declining freedom. Now a nostalgia for the false comforts and strict order of the Soviet era pervades much of Russian thinking.

Embers of civic action, however, can still be found. In a Washington Post commentary, Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute tells of traveling in Russia this summer and finding grass-roots groups infusing political life with “a vital social sensibility, which was in such short supply in 1991.” These groups “see society as equal to the state” and are both pragmatic and morally uncompromising.

The seeds of democratic ideas can take a long time or a short time to blossom. But once planted, they don’t die and they are difficult to suppress.

Mr. Putin fears that, while Obama welcomes it.

Which one is the “strong leader”?

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