Russia Viewpoints


For most of the twentieth century the word Russia was often used synonymously with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. The Soviet Union emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in which Vladimir I. Lenin and his followers took over the vast but tottering Russian empire and imposed a totalitarian system of communist rule. Russia became the core of the USSR’s fifteen republics. Lenin and his successors maintained and expanded the multiethnic empire they inherited, banned private property and forcibly collectivized farms (a process that resulted in the deaths of millions), and embarked on programs of rapid industrialization. The Soviet Union became a global superpower during and after World War II when it turned back Germany’s attack, achieved military domination over Eastern Europe, developed atomic weapons, and engaged in a military and diplomatic competition with the United States in what became known as the Cold War. Throughout this time the Soviet Communist Party maintained a tight control over people’s lives that restricted their freedoms of movement, family life, work, expression, and religion. A privileged elite of bureaucrats and party officials ran the country.

Then, following a remarkable series of events, the Soviet Union was no more. In the second half of the 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms providing greater political and economic freedoms to people that were meant to strengthen the nation’s economy and revitalize public support for the communist regime. Instead, Gorbachev’s reforms revealed the extent of economic stagnation in the USSR and unleashed pent-up dissatisfaction with the system. In 1990 several Soviet republics declared their independence from the Soviet Union, and the parliament of the Russian Republic declared Russian law took precedence over Soviet law. In 1991, hard-line Communists attempted to seize control of the government from Gorbachev—and failed in the face of public resistance led by newly elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and was replaced by fifteen independent states, including Russia.

Yeltsin’s government inherited Moscow (the USSR’s capital), three quarters of the former USSR’s territory, and twothirds of its people. However, it also inherited significant challenges in replacing the communist ideology that had provided economic and political direction over the previous decades. Columbia University political scientist Alexander J. Motyl has argued that two enormous challenges confront Russia and other former Soviet states: the need to build effective economic, legal, and political institutions from the ground up to replace the collapse of the Soviet system—and the need to do these all at the same time. Failure in one area hampers progress in another. During the 1990s Russia’s new leaders sought to end state control of its economic resources, including its factories, mines, and farms, and replace them by a system of private ownership. At the same time Russia’s system of laws and government had to be reformed to replace the pervasive control of the now-defunct Soviet Communist Party. The challenge in creating a market economy and a democratic political system is further complicated by weaknesses in Russia’s public sphere; the actual functioning of Russia’s government has been severely weakened by widespread tax evasion, lawlessness, organized crime, capital flight, and political corruption. While a few Russians have grown enormously rich, many have suffered from the loss of social welfare provisions of the former communist system. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell to 12 percent of what was produced by the Soviet Union at its peak, according to some estimates.

The Soviet collapse also had significant repercussions for Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Russia inherited the Soviet Red Army, most of its nuclear stockpiles, and the diplomatic ties and obligations of the Soviet Union. However, Russia’s neighbors, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, are now independent states who are often fearful and hostile toward Russia. Ethnic conclaves within Russia itself—notably Chechnya—have been the site of military conflict. Russia’s influence over Europe has declined, and its relationship with the United States—its ideological and military rival during the Cold War—now embraces some elements of cooperation as Russia’s government seeks to embrace Western-style democracy and capitalism.

Russia’s loss of its former territories and superpower prestige has not proceeded without some misgivings. “The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of imperial possessions has left a mental and psychological vacuum that Russians have great difficulty filling,” argues Russia expert Richard Pipes. He argues that there is a “battle for Russia’s soul” between those who seek a Western model of capitalist democracy, and an older generation “suspicious of . . . Western ways and nostalgic for the more secure Soviet past.” Pipes and others fear that Russia’s leaders will be tempted to engage in aggressive foreign policy ventures rather than work on the difficult challenges of reforming Russia’s government and economy.

Although Russia is not the superpower it once was, it remains a pivotal nation in world affairs. Russia remains the largest country in the world in surface area and in the length of its border, which stretches from Europe to Asia. It is the world’s second leading nuclear power, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons. It retains a seat on the Security Council in the United Nations. Russia’s geostrategic importance ensures that other nations—including the United States—will continue to have a vested interest in Russia’s political and economic evolution. Russia in Crisis: Opposing Viewpoints examines some of the leading issues concerning Russia in the following chapters: What Are the Sources of Russia’s Domestic Problems? What Are the Prospects for Democracy in Russia? Does Russia Pose a Threat to the Rest of the World? What Should U.S. Foreign Policy Be Toward Russia?

Russia Chapter 1 Preface

When Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in 1991, many people predicted a bright future for the nation. Instead, the Russian people have endured numerous hardships as the nation has attempted to transform itself from a dictatorship into a democracy and from a command economy to a market economy. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by almost 50 percent during the 1990s. The savings of many people were wiped out by inflation and currency troubles, including a monetary crisis and devaluation of the ruble in August 1998. Sixty million people—about half the population—live below the official poverty line. Many workers have gone without a paycheck for months. The life expectancy in Russia has declined to levels comparable with some developing nations. Corruption within the government is widespread, and organized crime became an endemic and serious problem. Billions of dollars of capital have been taken from the country.

Many observers, both in and outside of Russia, have blamed reforms encouraged by the United States for Russia’s economic and social difficulties. With U.S. support and assistance, the Russian government under President Boris Yeltsin removed government controls on the prices of goods, made the ruble convertible to foreign currency, and placed state-owned companies and assets into private ownership. These so-called “shock therapy” reforms have been controversial. Critics charge that they have provided more shock than therapy and have enabled an oligarchy of businesspeople, former communist officials, and organized crime figures to cheaply obtain public assets and gain a stranglehold on Russia’s economy and government. Defenders of shock therapy, such as Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, argue that similar reforms have worked as intended in Poland and other countries, but that in Russia these reforms have not been implemented correctly or completely and have not been fully supported by other nations. The authors of the following viewpoints provide several perspectives on the origins of Russia’s social and economic troubles.

Capitalist Reforms Created Russia’s Economic Crisis

Russian scientists were once famous for launching the world’s first space satellite. Their counterparts today survive by growing vegetables in their small yards. These are not retirees enjoying some well-deserved leisure-time gardening, but prime age workers—miners and teachers as well as scientists— trying to meet basic needs in the face of economic collapse. People go to work every day and do whatever their employer asks, yet weeks and months pass without a single paycheck. They stay on the job because at least it provides some fringe benefits, and no alternative paying job exists.

This has been the meaning of Western-inspired “reform” to a majority of public and private sector workers in Russia. But the media began calling it a crisis only in August of [1998], when Russia stopped making timely payments to Western bankers and other investors who had taken a chance on Russian bonds.

The IMF Program
After imposing years of suffering on ordinary Russians, Russia’s Western-inspired “neoliberal” program for rapidly building capitalism appears to have finally collapsed under its own weight. This program was devised [in 1991] by top economic advisors to Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government, working closely with specialists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Any visitor to Russia can see the effects of the IMF program. The nation’s economic output has fallen by half and its investment by three-fourths since 1991, with no recovery in sight. Money is so scarce that half of economic transactions are conducted through barter. A small group of influential insiders has been handed ownership of the former Soviet Union’s most valuable properties, while the majority has been plunged into poverty and hopelessness. The economic and social collapse has caused more than two million premature deaths since 1991, due to sharp increases in alcoholism, murder and suicide, infectious diseases, and stress-related ailments.

Despite the unprecedented economic depression, until recently Russian bankers kept getting richer and the stock market soared, buoyed by the lucrative trade in Russia’s valuable oil, gas, and metals. Western banks helped to finance the speculative binge that drove up Russian stock prices, making it one of the world’s best-performing stock markets in 1997. Then in the late spring of [1998], Russia’s stock market began to fall and investors started to pull their money out of the country.

The Clinton administration, fearing that Yeltsin’s government would not survive a looming financial crisis, pressed a reluctant IMF to approve a $22.6 billion emergency loan on July 13. This bailout proved unsuccessful. Four weeks later the financial crisis resumed as investors fled and Russia’s government had to pay as much as 300% interest to attract buyers for its bonds.

After Washington rejected Yeltsin’s desperate plea for still more money, Russia did the unthinkable: it was forced to suspend payment on its foreign debt for 90 days, restructure its entire debt, and devalue the ruble. Panic followed, as Russia’s high-flying banks teetered on the edge of collapse, depositors were unable to withdraw their money, and store shelves were rapidly emptied of goods. The financial collapse produced a political crisis, as President Yeltsin, his domestic support evaporating, had to contend with an emboldened opposition in the parliament.

What Caused the Financial Crisis?
Two immediate developments turned Russia’s euphoria into financial crisis. One was the growing realization that the IMF had failed to resolve the Asian financial crisis, despite huge loans and the imposition of severe economic measures (known as “structural adjustment programs”) upon the suffering Asian countries. This created a ripple effect in the late spring of 1998, spreading fear of the world’s “emerging markets” among international investors. Equally important was the sharp drop in oil and other raw material prices during 1998. This caused the value of Russia’s oil exports, its main source of foreign currency earnings, to fall by almost half in the first six months of 1998 compared to the same period of 1997. Together, these two developments led investors to begin removing their funds from Russia.


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Capitalist Reforms Did Not Create Russia’s Economic Crisis

Bill Clinton had hundreds of affairs early in his marriage, he told Monica Lewinsky, but after he turned 40 he resolved to be faithful to his wife. He cut back on his sexual adventures. Yet Clinton still committed adultery, and he still got in trouble. [Editor’s note: President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 by the House of Representatives for offenses related to an affair he had with Lewinsky, a government intern. He was acquitted by the Senate in 1999.]

The conclusion is obvious: Fidelity is a crock, a “utopian religion,” “the great illusion of our era.” If it weren’t for his blinkered devotion to the foolish ideology of fidelity, Clinton wouldn’t be facing the possibility of impeachment.

Not even the fiercest Clinton defender would make such a ludicrous argument. No one in his right mind would claim that Clinton’s reckless sexual behavior and its consequences stem from a zealous dedication to marital fidelity. And no one who offered such a patently ridiculous line would be respectfully interviewed on PBS news shows or published in the Washington Post.

But if you’re talking about Russia, a different standard applies. It’s conventional wisdom that fidelity leads to adultery.

Too Much Capitalism?
From experts both inside and outside Russia, we hear that the country’s economy is falling apart because of unregulated free markets and too much reform. Leftists are ecstatic. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union they’ve been looking for a club with which to beat back the idea that markets lead to progress and prosperity. What could be better than economic turmoil in Russia? It’s even the same country that made socialism look so bad.

Economics columnist Robert Kuttner puts it most rhetorically, calling the “Russian implosion” a casualty “of the great illusion of our era—the utopian worship of free markets . . . an almost lunatic credulity in pure markets and a messianic urge to spread them worldwide. . . . With serious aid, we could have helped true reformers build an effective democratic state and a modern mixed economy. Instead, the Russians got laissez-faire gangster capitalism.”

Markets equal the mafia.

New York University professor Stephen Cohen, a former Sovietologist and [former Soviet Union leader Mikhail] Gorbachev devotee, is more measured, as befits a man whose talking head appears regularly on PBS. But, like Kuttner, he blames Russia’s troubles on an “American crusade to transform Russia into a replica of American democratic capitalism,” a model he doesn’t like much anyway. He says, “We have to drop this dogma about the notion that there’s only one way to reform the country. Russia’s changing course. . . . The state is coming back to try to save the nation.” In this morality tale, the Russian state apparently withered away in 1991, taking with it all business regulations and social spending; it is only now reviving.

Now that Russia is done with its foolish experiment in free market capitalism, goes this line of argument, the country’s economic policies can be pragmatic and humane. “Now there is hope for a more realistic policy,” former Gorbachev economics adviser Oleg Bogomolov told the New York Times after the ascension of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov brought communists back into economic-policy positions. “Now it is not just one side that can express their ideas, like our liberal radical economists. We are all in favor of reforms, but not reforms for their own sake, but reforms which serve people.”

From these accounts, and less tendentious ones as well, you might well think that Russia has been following some sort of laissez-faire model for the past seven years: that Moscow had become the new Hong Kong. Like Bill Clinton’s ventures in fidelity, however, Russia’s experiment with “free markets” combined a small change in behavior with a lot of good-sounding talk. In truth, Russia no more adopted a market economy—even in a mixed, social-democratic European way—than Clinton stayed...

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Russia’s Crime Problem Stems from Its Failure to Replace the Soviet State

Alexei Yablokov was driving down a dark country road one night, headed for his weekend cottage with his treasured white Opel jammed full of food and books, when suddenly car thieves tried to run him off the road.

They rammed his car and shouted, but Yablokov sped faster. After a harrowing chase—at one point the thieves jumped onto his hood—the white-bearded environmentalist made it safely to the cottage and called police.

But even a career spent challenging Russian authorities on nuclear-waste policy and other such issues had not prepared Yablokov for what happened next. When he went to press charges, he recalls, “It was explained to us that one of the attackers is the ‘little son’ of one of the...

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Russia’s Crime Problem Is a Direct Legacy of the Soviet State

Russia is experiencing an organized crime epidemic. Its Interior Ministry says there are more than 9,000 criminal organizations operating inside the country, employing nearly 100,000 people, or about the same number as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The Analytical Center for Social and Economic Policies, a government-sponsored think tank that reports directly to President Boris Yeltsin, estimates that four of five Russian businesses pay protection money. They also indicate that more than 8,000 Russians mysteriously have vanished from their homes, which have become lucrative pieces of real estate since the collapse of communism.

American news accounts of Russia’s organized crime epidemic continue to suggest...

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An Environmental Crisis Underlies Russia’s Problems

During nearly two years as a journalist in Russia, I craved, more than anything, fresh, clean air—that and water that I could drink straight from the tap. And more than anything among the manifold blessings of life in America, it is these that I savor now that I am home.

Certainly I had had other complaints in Moscow. A little sunlight in that perpetually bleak and cloud-covered city would have been nice. And I missed good vegetables, such as tomatoes that I didn’t suspect could power a small nuclear reactor. But most of all, I longed for clean air and water.

In the former Soviet Union, where for decades the government promoted production at all costs, one of the costs the nation paid was in the purity...

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A Public Health Crisis Underlies Russia’s Problems

Health in Russia is even worse than most Russian and foreign commentary would indicate, and the consequences for Russian society, the Russian economy, and the Russian military will be enormous.

Environmental issues lurk behind much of the publichealth problem. Radioactive contamination is rife. Chemical contamination, such as by dioxin, is largely to blame for the fact that life expectancy for both men and women in the town of Dzerzhinsk, in the region of Nizhegorodskaya, is no better than fifty years. At least until 1995 [the pesticide] DDT continued to be used, despite an announcement by the Soviet government almost three decades ago of a ban on its production and use. Bad water nationwide has led to high rates not...

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Russia Chapter 2 Preface

On July 3, 1996, Boris Yeltsin pulled off a remarkable political comeback when he was elected to a second term as president of Russia. A prominent Communist Party official in the old Soviet Union who became an opposition figure when he was ousted from the ruling Politburo in 1988, Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Federation in 1991 when it was still a part of the Soviet Union. By early 1996, with a mixed record on economic reforms and an unpopular military campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya, his approval ratings had fallen below 10 percent. But with assistance from newly enriched Russian capitalists and a group of American political operatives,Yeltsin was able to convince a majority of voters that electing his chief opponent—Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov—would be an unacceptable return to the Soviet undemocratic past.

The election was hailed by many as a triumph not only for Yeltsin, but also for Russian democracy. Most observers agreed that it had been carried out with minimal fraud and violence. After his defeat, Zyuganov sent Yeltsin a congratulatory telegram rather than calling for strikes or protests. It was a far cry from the one-candidate elections held under the old Soviet Union.

Russia held its next presidential election in March 2000. Vladimr Putin, a former spy who had been serving as acting president since Yeltsin resigned abruptly at the close of 1999, emerged victorious. Despite the successful and peaceful transfer of power from Yeltsin to his designated successor, democracy’s future in Russia remains uncertain. “Free elections are necessary for democracy,” states political science and Russian studies professor Stephen Cohen, “but they are not sufficient.” Obstacles to a stable democracy include an insecure middle class, the lack of the rule of law, and Russia’s long tradition of authoritarian rule. Critics of Yeltsin pointed to his tendency to rule by presidential decree, ignoring the legislative and judicial branches of government. Whether democracy becomes a permanent fixture in Russian society under Yeltsin’s successor remains open to question.

Russia Has Failed to Achieve True Democracy

How does Russia look to Europe at the present moment? Usually, the attention of Western observers is not focused on Russia’s overall condition and the forces at work in the country but on the latest developments, like the elections to the Duma, the presidential contest, . . . Boris Yeltsin’s heart surgery. Any broad, deep view of what is happening gets lost.

As far as I can judge, two strongly held opinions are widely shared in the West: that during the last few years democracy has unquestionably been established in Russia, albeit one under a dangerously weak national Government, and that effective economic reforms have been adopted to foster the creation of a free market, to which the way is now open.

Both views are mistaken.

What is known today as “Russian democracy” masks a government of a completely different sort. Glasnost—freedom of the press—is only an instrument of democracy, not democracy itself. And to a great extent freedom of the press is illusory since the owners of newspapers erect strict taboos against discussion of issues of vital importance, while in the outlying parts of the country newspapers get direct pressure from the provincial authorities.

No Democracy in Russia
Democracy in the unarguable sense of the word means the rule of the people—that is, a system in which the people are truly in charge of their daily lives and can influence the course of their own historical fate. There is nothing of the sort in Russia today.

In August 1991, the “councils of people’s deputies,” though only window dressing under the rule of the Communist Party, were abolished throughout the country. Since then the united resistance of the president’s machine, the government, state Duma, leaders of the political parties and majority of governors has prevented the creation of any agencies of local self-government.

Legislative assemblies do exist at the regional level but are entirely subordinate to the governors, if only because they are paid by the provinces’ executive branches. (The election of governors is only a recent development and far from widespread; most governors were appointed by the president.)

There exists no legal framework or financial means for the creation of local self-government; people will have no choice but to achieve it through social struggle. All that really exists is the government hierarchy, from the president and national government on down.

That hierarchy is duplicated by a second, consisting of those appointed as the “President’s representatives” (spies) in every region. The Constitution of 1993, which was passed hastily and not in a manner to inspire confidence, groans under the weight of the president’s power. The rights it allocates to the state Duma are exceedingly constrained.

The 1996 Election
Given that structure of power, it is the presidential elections, held every four years, that are most important to the fate of the nation. But the 1996 election was not an occasion for serious deliberation, nor could it have been. A “communist cloud” hung over the elections—could the Communists really return to power?—and that hampered the voters. Mr. Yeltsin’s side harped on that threat, presenting itself as the country’s sole salvation. But even the Communists themselves were wary of coming to power, seeing no way out of the overall crisis.

The worst sorts of costly campaign spectacles were staged, at state expense, of course. Under such conditions, there were no campaign debates or speeches of substance. No one even discussed the candidates’ programs.

Presented to the public only some ten days before the election, the published programs consisted of one hundred to two hundred pages of vague text. There was no time for the electorate to sit down and read the proposals, analyze them, and receive answers to their questions. Every last channel of the state-owned television network broadcast incessant barrages of propaganda favoring the incumbent head of state; there was no possibility of presenting opposing...

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Russia Has Made Significant Progress in Achieving Democracy

Suddenly everyone is asking, Who lost Russia? . . .

Unfortunately, this important debate is being conducted like a kangaroo court. Not only have the accused— both Americans and, especially, Russians—been tried and found guilty in absentia, but, contrary to the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, the discovery stage, when the underlying facts are established and each side presents its version of events, has been skipped entirely. Before the sentence is handed down, ought we not at least try to find out whether, in fact, a crime has taken place: Has Russia, indeed, been “lost” to the cause of the free market and democracy?

A hodgepodge of facts, half-truths, clichés, and distortions, the case for the prosecution comes down to a few simple postulates. First, free-market reforms have failed to make Russia a prosperous country with a growing GDP. “Reform” (a word rarely used without quotes these days) was nothing but the “entrenchment of a kleptocracy in which corrupt officials ally with a few business magnates to send wealth out of the country,” according to Fritz Ermarth in the New York Times of September 12 [1999]. “Reform” never enjoyed even a modicum of popular support but was forced on a defenseless country by “reformers around Yeltsin” and their Western, especially International Monetary Fund, advisers with the connivance of the White House. After eight years [since 1991], goes the indictment, Russia still does not have even an approximation of a market economy. Instead, “reform” resulted in universal impoverishment. Today’s Russia is a handful of thieving “oligarchs” feasting amidst the general penury.

In the political sphere, democratic institutions have not taken root. This “Weimar Russia” is an unstable, “failing state,” in the words of [foreign policy expert] Condoleezza Rice, . . . who has mentioned Russia in the same breath as the “failed states” of North Korea and Iraq. As House [of Representatives] majority leader Dick Armey so elegantly put it, “Russia has become a looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy.”

In foreign policy, asserts the prosecution, [Russian president] Boris Yeltsin has not delivered where America’s core national interests are concerned, and the “investment” in him by the Clinton administration was wrong and a waste. All these failures have soured the Russians on capitalism, democracy, the West in general, and the United States in particular and made them ripe for Communist revanche, anti-Western nationalist dictatorship, or an even scarier combination of the two.

Amnesia About Russia’s Past
One of the most puzzling features of the argument that Russia has been “lost” is its ahistoricism. Post-Communist Russia is discussed as if it had no past. There seems to be total amnesia about the conditions that were so memorably exposed by glasnost in the waning years of the Soviet Union. For instance, in 1989, the last year of relative stability before the crisis became uncontrollable, the average salary in the Soviet Union was 200 rubles a month: $33 at the official exchange rate, $13 on the—still illegal—free currency market. (The average salary in Russia today [in 1999] is $75.) The Soviet Union was in 77th place in the world in personal consumption. Of 211 essential food products, only 23 were regularly available in state stores. Russians spent between 40 and 68 hours a month in queues. . . .

According to the minister of health, a total of 1,200,000 hospital beds (35 percent of the total) were in facilities with no hot water; every sixth hospital bed was in a facility with no running water at all; 30 percent of Soviet hospitals did not have indoor toilets. The Soviet Union had a higher rate of infant mortality than 49 nations, behind Barbados and the United Arab Emirates. Half of Soviet schools had no central heating, running water, or indoor toilets.

By the time Boris Yeltsin took over Russia in the fall of 1991, the country’s economy was collapsing. Domestic production declined by 13 percent that year, the budget deficit soared to 30 percent of GDP, the annual inflation rate was 93 percent, hard currency and gold reserves were nearly exhausted, and the USSR defaulted on its international loans. No one who was in Moscow in the fall of 1991 will ever forget the absolutely bare shelves of the stores, the ration coupons for sugar, tobacco, and soap, and the sacks of potatoes stored on the balconies of apartment buildings in the center of Moscow, as their inhabitants prepared for famine.

Brief as it is, this sketch belies the postulate of a Russia “ruined” by reform. The picture we are offered of a handful of oligarchs presiding over a sea of starving millions is an equally crude caricature. Today the queues in stores—bane of four generations of Russians—have disappeared, and Russian shops, for the first time since the mid-1920s offer a cornucopia of quality food and goods. In 1997, for the first time in 40 years, Russia was self-sufficient in grain. In fact, it exported millions of tons of grain in 1998, even as agrobureaucrats in the Kremlin and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were arranging shipments from the United States to meet a nonexistent emergency.

While it is true that millions of people—especially retirees, collective farmers, and workers in the mammoth military-industrial complex—were impoverished by galloping inflation and cuts in state spending, millions more—urban, younger, and better educated (who voted for Yeltsin in overwhelming numbers in the 1996 presidential election)—saw a dramatic improvement in their professional and personal lives. For the first time in Russian history, there is a sizable middle class and intelligentsia outside state employ. . . .

The new Russian middle class suffered greatly in the [monetary] crisis of 1998, and it may take a few years for the standard of living to return to pre-crash levels. Yet there is no reason to doubt that this will happen. It may currently be all the rage in Washington to speak of Russia’s “virtual economy,” but we are suddenly discovering that a Russian market economy does exist after all and, despite its deep distortions, responds to economic stimuli much as any market economy would. In full accordance with supply-side theory, the continuing absence of price controls, a cheaper but stable national currency, and a drastic reduction of imports have unleashed domestic production. Russian-made food and goods fill the stores. Industrial production (or rather its registered and taxable part) was 4.5 percent higher in the first six months of 1999 than in the first six months of 1998, and it grew even faster after that. Contrary to many a forecast, there is no starvation. . . .


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Russia’s History and Culture Preclude the Creation of a Democratic Society

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.

Russia’s Anti-Democratic Heritage
Hopeful Western observers (and not a few opportunistic...

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Russia Has Overcome Its Authoritarian Heritage to Create a Democratic Revolution

Even a brief look at Russia’s history reveals centuries of brutal oppression. Today, the nation that succeeded in liberating itself is in the midst of a democratic revolution.

More than six centuries ago the nomad hordes of Ghengis Khan erupted from the steppes (prairies) of Mongolia, riding west for thousands of miles. They burned, looted, raped, and killed until they came to a halt in what is now Austria. Their devastating and murderous sweep across Russia was followed by two hundred years of brutal occupation. . . .

The Mongol occupation collapsed after two centuries, although their raids continued for another century. The Russian nobles and bishops remembered all too well the horrible price they had...

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Russia Chapter 3 Preface

For forty years after World War II, the United States viewed Russia—as the central part of the Soviet Union—as the world’s leading threat both to U.S. interests and to world peace. In an October 1999 speech at Harvard University, deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott noted that “when Russia was the core of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it posed a threat to us because of its size; its military might; its habit of intimidating and suppressing others; its doctrinal and geopolitical drive to extend its power on a global scale; . . . its hostility to American interests and values. That was the Russia whose strength we confronted and contained.”

The collapse of the Soviet Communist dictatorship profoundly changed the nature of Russia’s influence on the outside world. Russia’s hold on Eastern Europe has been broken, and its once-formidable military machine has shrunk. The size of the Russian armed forces decreased from its peak of more than 5 million members to 1.2 million in 1999. Russia has changed from being a military superpower to an economically weak developing nation—albeit one with nuclear weapons. “Russia has gone from being a strong state to a weak state” concludes Talbott.

However, he and others note that Russia’s weaknesses have created their own set of problems. The weakness of the Russian government in enforcing laws has assisted the rise of organized criminals whose activities have expanded to other nations. The debilitated state of Russia’s military establishment has caused concern over its ability to control Russia’s remaining nuclear arsenal and prevent weapons and materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. The viewpoints in the following chapter examine some of the ways in which Russia might yet remain a threat to its neighbors and to the rest of the world.

Russia Poses an Expansionist Threat

In the upcoming [June 1996] Russian election, attention has inevitably focused on the competition between President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. But whatever the outcome, America’s Russia policy requires an urgent reappraisal. If Zyuganov wins, such a reassessment is inevitable. But a Yeltsin victory, too, would impose a new approach. For even under Yeltsin, Russia is pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which already opposes American notions of world order in many parts of the world.

The administration will have no choice but to disenthrall itself from the flawed premises of its Russia policy: the conceptual misapprehension of the nature of the Cold War and its overemphasis on personalities. Many policymakers of Clinton’s generation hold the view that the United States has its own heavy responsibility for the Cold War, which they believe could have been avoided had the United States pursued a policy of reassurance rather than of confrontation toward the Soviet Union. As a result, Clinton’s Russia policy has emphasized domestic reform and psychological engineering. It has concentrated on promoting internal change and on reassuring the Russian leadership rather than seeking to influence Russia’s actions outside its borders.

Because Yeltsin is viewed as the guarantor of market economics, democracy and peaceful international conduct, Clinton has attended more summits with him than he has with any other foreign leader and with a far greater show of personal warmth. Though the president has never visited Beijing or invited a Chinese leader to the White House, he has been to Moscow three times and has met with Yeltsin on American soil twice (in addition to meetings at the annual economic summits of industrialized nations). Yet despite these efforts, Yeltsin has embarked on foreign policies which differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov, perhaps to stave off the Communists—which have become the largest political party in Russia—or perhaps acting on the basis of his own convictions.

The relationship between market economics and democracy— and between democracy and a peaceful foreign policy- is not nearly so automatic as Washington has postulated. In Western Europe, the process of democratization took centuries and did not prevent a series of catastrophic wars. In Russia, which has no tradition of capitalism and participated neither in the Reformation, the Enlightenment nor the Age of Discovery, this evolution is likely to be particularly ragged. Indeed, the early stages of the process may provide incentives for leaders to mobilize domestic support by appeals to nationalism.

Yeltsin himself is hardly cast in a Jeffersonian mold. Nearly his entire adult life has been devoted to serving the Communist Party—a career to which the gentle-hearted have rarely gravitated. In his rise through its ranks, Yeltsin surely had little exposure to pluralistic principles. And while he was courageous in concluding that the moribund and inefficient Communist Party was doomed, Yeltsin has shown few signs since that democratic values, including acceptance of dissent, are a central part of his value system. In short, equating foreign policy with Russian domestic politics has unnecessarily identified America in the minds of too many Russians with the weird Russian hybrid of black markets, reckless speculation, outright criminal activity and a state capitalism in which big industrial combines are run by their erstwhile Communist managers in the guise of privatization.

This has enabled Russian nationalists and Communists to claim that the entire system is a fraud perpetrated by the West to keep Russia weak. Failure to recognize these realities has caused the administration to emphasize objectives that require a long period of time to evolve, and to neglect matters that need to be shaped in the present.

Our reliance on Yeltsin has lured us into endorsing, if not actually encouraging, such high-handed actions as the military assault on the Russian Parliament and the dismissal of the Russian Constitutional Court—acts difficult to reconcile with democratic pretensions, whatever the provocation. The assumption that Yeltsin must be coddled explains why American high officials, including the president, justified Russian pressures on the newly independent states of the Caucasus as being comparable to American actions in the Caribbean. It is presumably also why they felt it reasonable to compare the Russian military campaign in Chechnya to the American Civil War.

The obsession with participating in Russian domestic politics undermines our ability to conduct a foreign policy geared to the external conduct of the Russian state. Yet it is precisely the external actions of Russia that present the greatest challenge to international stability. And, paradoxically, the very domestic drama of which we have made ourselves too much a party provides some of the incentive for Russian adventurism.

Foreign policy has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia’s elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past. Russia has always displayed a unique set of characteristics—especially when compared to its European neighbors. Extending over 11 time zones, Russia (even in its present, post-Soviet form) contains the largest land-mass of any contemporary state. St. Petersburg is closer to New York than it is...

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Russia Does Not Pose an Expansionist Threat

An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could only find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments in the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive, greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other nations: the glory, the riches which it hopes for, consoles it for the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, upon his knees, dreams of the conquest of the world.

—The Marquis de Custine, Russia in 1839

During the Cold War, Americans by and large forgot [French author] Custine, perhaps the grumpiest tourist and most scathing vilifier of Russia who ever wrote. Locked in conflict with a totalitarian state, we thought that the main reason the Soviet Union made trouble for us, and for the world at large, was that it was not a democracy. Take away Bolshevik ideology, the command economy, and the power of the Politburo, and you’d be a long way toward normalcy. Dissolve the Warsaw Pact, slash military spending, give the non-Russian republics their independence, and it would be hard to see what we might fight about. Adopt a constitution, end censorship, respect religious freedom, hold elections, then hold more elections: Could a country that did all these things really be a threat?

Apparently, yes. Political institutions, we are now told, solve much less than was once imagined. They do not address deep psychic and socio-cultural torments, and legions of new Custines have begun to argue that for Russians no torment is deeper than that of being a fallen superpower—unless perhaps it is that of being a fallen superpower while also undergoing the transition to a market economy. In any case, the pain is excruciating and is said to be relieved only by an increasingly belligerent foreign policy, ideally by re-establishment of the Soviet Empire. . . .

The Diagnosis
An exceptionally diverse group of analysts and political commentators subscribes to some version of the diagnosis just set forth. It is embraced by those who were the most ardent critics of the Soviet order and those who are trying their best to restore it, by lowly working journalists and eminent former officials. Despite their differences, they agree on this: Russian imperial consciousness is not dead. To the contrary, writes Richard Pipes, perhaps our greatest historian of Russia, the loss of empire “has produced bewilderment and anguish.”

[N]othing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline in their living standards or the prevalence of crime, and nothing so lowers in their eyes the prestige of their government, as the precipitous loss of great-power status.

Anatoly Lukyanov . . . (a leader of the revived Russian Communist Party) seconds this view. “We communists,” he has said (this is an admission he would hardly have made in the old days, when good communists despised bourgeois liberties), “always understood perfectly well that the Soviet man, the citizen of Russia, had fewer political rights than a European. But that shortfall was compensated for by the sense of belonging to a great nation, a great state.” [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin undid this formula, thereby making Russian democracy vulnerable to a communist revanche.

He took away that sense of world importance. Any party which takes advantage of this today will be on top. That is why the communists have so many patriotic slogans, slogans of statehood, of nationhood.

The reason that popular government does not mean peace, in short, is that the people don’t necessarily want peace; they want to be on top again. As [former secretary of state] Henry Kissinger has put it, “[W]hat passes for Russian democracy too often encourages an expansionist foreign policy.” Yeltsin can hardly let the Communists be the only ones to tap the people’s mood, so he ends up taking positions that “differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov,” his Communist challenger in the June [1996] presidential race. As one measure of how domestic political pressures work, Russia is now inclined “to conduct adventurous policies in Asia for no other purpose than to augment its prestige.”

For Kissinger, this mad preoccupation with “ancient glories” is no mere election-season phenomenon, but something more durable—and more dangerous. “Foreign policy,” he announces, “has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia’s elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past.” . . .

Toward a Second Opinion
The mere fact that our leading foreign-policy commentators have started to talk like therapists does not, of course, prove that they are wrong. But the mode of analysis is, to say the least, a little unusual—not least because it is so often combined with a vehement insistence that U.S. policy toward Russia must not be, as Henry Kissinger himself put it years ago, “a subdivision of psychiatry.” Let us therefore try to verify the diagnosis.

The geotherapists assert the following four propositions. First, that public opinion creates irresistible pressures, to which Russian leaders have to respond, for an expansionist foreign policy. Second, that the Russian elite retains a strong imperial mindset and, in particular, is determined to regain control of the old Soviet Union. Third, that Russian leaders are dangerously preoccupied with questions of prestige and status, and believe that in the past these were their country’s proudest asset. And fourth, that the indulgent attitude of the West, and above all the United States, toward Russia, even when it defies us, is making all these pathologies worse. (There are, it has to be said, some differences among the various commentators who argue this case. Some feel more strongly about one proposition than another. But we will be in a better position to decide how seriously to take these little nuances once we see whether even one of the propositions stands up.)

Evaluating these four claims should not be hard. A patient in such terrible shape is going to give daily proof of how much is wrong with him. If Russia really were as sick as this, we should find useful evidence everywhere we look—in domestic struggles for political power, in the conduct of foreign policy, in the strategic concepts embraced by officialdom and the intelligentsia. Do we?

The Traumatized Public
The Russian political system lacks legitimacy; it can’t deliver bread, only imperial circuses; expansionism, and expansionism alone, diverts the popular mind from its misery. For symptoms of this problem, we can start with the recent [June 1996] presidential campaign—a political event that in many countries does bring neuroses to the surface. Boris Yeltsin, it should be remembered, ran for reelection on the basis of a dual strategy, and it was often a quite unedifying sight. On those issues where the Communists had him on the defensive, he pandered and dissembled. Hence his promises to pay all back wages and to end the war in Chechnya. At the same time, on those issues where he had them on the defensive, Yeltsin turned up the pressure. Hence his lurid evocations of the Communist past and policy initiatives, like his decree on private land ownership, that were meant to frame the election as a choice between politicians who accept the new order and those who don’t.

Now, where did imperial nostalgia fit into this strategy? Leave aside for the moment the fact that those candidates who put nationalist themes at the center of their campaign lost badly, and that exit polls put the number of voters who were swayed by foreign policy at only 2 percent. If the geotherapists were right about the country’s mental state, we should have seen Yeltsin scrambling to prove that he is part of the revisionist patriotic consensus. Instead, we saw him use foreign policy as a tool to demonstrate the differences between himself and the Communists, and to remind voters of what they don’t want to retrieve from their “glorious” past.

The issue was not simply a matter of rhetoric and mood, but of conflict between the legislature and the executive. On March 15, 1996, the Russian parliament passed two Communist-sponsored resolutions annulling the acts under which the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. It declared that the agreement to create a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in place of the USSR “did not and does not have legal force,” and charged that the officials who had “prepared, signed, and ratified” this decision had “flagrantly violated the wish of Russia’s people to preserve the USSR.”

With this bold move, the opposition clearly thought that they had Yeltsin trapped. On the one hand, he could hardly endorse a resolution that personally denounced him. On the other, opposing it would put him on the wrong side of a supposedly supercharged issue. As things turned out, however, the Duma’s action proved to be the moment when Yeltsin’s campaign got on a winning track for good. It gave the president and his allies their first, best opportunity to persuade voters that the Communists really were bent on restoring the old order. Yeltsin called the resolution “scandalous” and, showing that he had no fear of seeming too attentive to foreign opinion, immediately instructed Russian diplomats to tell other governments that the vote would have no effect.

There is a Moscow witticism that goes: Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart; anyone who wants to restore it has no brain. The Communists bet that people...

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The Proliferation of Russian Nuclear Weapons Is a Serious Global Threat

“It was an arrest that should have been reason for rejoicing.”

Turkish customs agents in Istanbul arrested eight men Sept. 7 [1998] on charges of smuggling nuclear material from the former Soviet Union.

Posing as buyers, the agents seized about 5.4 kilograms of uranium 235 and 7.1 grams of plutonium powder.

The material was being peddled for $1 million (U.S.) by three men from Kazakhstan, one from Azerbaijan, and four from Turkey. One suspect was a colonel in the Kazakh army.

While the seizure kept nuclear material out of the hands of rogue states or terrorists, the incident once again raised the spectre of terrorists—or an outlaw nation—detonating a primitive nuclear device....

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The Threat of Russia- Sponsored Nuclear Proliferation Is Exaggerated

Since the Soviet collapse, the American public has been bombarded with the “loose nukes” myth. It maintains that Russian nuclear weapons and materials are leaking to terrorists or rogue states such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea.

Despite warnings from the Clinton Administration; in the last [104th] Congress from Senators Sam Nunn (D.- Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.); the Russian government; editorial pages; the Central Intelligence Agency; a General Accounting Office report released in March, 1996; and testimony before the Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee that same month, the “loose nukes” myth survives. Nevertheless, it is not credible, for several reasons:

Fissile materials are not...

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The Russian Mafia Is a Serious Threat to the United States

I The director of a small, lucrative Moscow real estate brokerage firm once explained to me why he avoided paying taxes. It wasn’t just the high rates, then approaching 40%, he said. What particularly worried him was the requirement to provide a statement of income to state bureaucrats, whom he feared would pass on the information to local Mafia lords. He knew what would happen then—a demand for an increase in the protection rate he was already paying to the same armed groups in order to remain alive in the city’s Wild West economy.

That was in 1993, less than a year after the introduction of “capitalism” to the new Russian state. Things have only gotten more sophisticated since then. This week [in September...

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There Is No Russian Mafia Threat in the United States

Wanting to make familiar what is unfamiliar is a generally acknowledged phenomenon. One result of this is a tendency on the part of some in law enforcement and the media to too readily adopt simplistic, stereotyped perceptions. This has certainly been true in the case of Soviet émigré crime, where the term Russian mafia has been loosely applied. As with all stereotypes, this one serves the purpose of simplifying what is otherwise a complex and varied subject. It provides a shorthand characterization that enables law enforcement to communicate among themselves and with the media. The media, in turn, then communicate to the public using this same generally understood term.

[Freelance writer] Scott Anderson...

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Russia Chapter 4 Preface

The United States enjoyed a period of friendly relations with Russia in the first years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. U.S. presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton engaged in productive summit meetings with Russian president Boris Yeltsin. The United States and its allies gave billions of dollars in loans and assistance to Russia as the onetime center of world communism sought to reform itself into a capitalist democracy. The United States also provided assistance to Russia to help dismantle its nuclear weapons. The governments of the United States and Russia successfully negotiated and signed the START II (Strategic Arms Reductions Talks) agreement in 1993, which called for both countries to significantly reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals. The two countries agreed in 1994 to “de-target” their nuclear missiles aimed at each other. Russia lent its support to several U.S. initiatives, agreeing, for example, to participate in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in 1995.

However, as the 1990s drew to a close the relationship between the two former rival superpowers became strained. Western aid to Russia has decreased as concerns have been raised over corruption and economic mismanagement. START III talks have been stalled by the refusal of the Russian Duma (parliament) to ratify the START II agreement. Russia has also voiced opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and other parts of the world.

A central thorn in U.S.-Russian relations has been the status of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance created in 1949 linking the United States and Western Europe as common defenders against a possible Soviet Union attack. The collapse of the Soviet Union has caused some observers, both in Russia and the United States, to question whether NATO should continue to exist— and whether Russia should still be treated as a threat.

The viewpoints in the following chapter present several perspectives on NATO and on American foreign policy concerning Russia.

The United States Should Continue Its Strategic Partnership with Russia

Iwelcome the opportunity to discuss with the [Senate Foreign Relations] Committee developments in Russia and U.S. policy toward that country. . . . Russia is much on our minds these days, and rightly so. Secretary Albright is at the United Nations this week [in September 1999], and she has heard repeatedly from our friends and allies around the world that Russia is much on their minds too. They are counting on us to manage U.S.-Russian relations with skill, foresight, and clarity of purpose.

Not for the first time and not for the last, the Russians are undergoing what many of them call “a time of troubles.” Those troubles pose a complex set of challenges to American foreign and national security policy. The trouble that has received the most attention of late is a spate of allegations and revelations about large-scale financial malfeasance, including charges of money-laundering through American banks.

The challenge to us is threefold: first, to ensure that we are enforcing our own laws and protecting Americans from international organized crime; second, to ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the integrity and effectiveness of our bilateral and international assistance programs; third, to intensify our supportive and cooperative work with those Russians who realize—as Foreign Minister [Igor] Ivanov stressed in New York when he met with Secretary [of State Madeleine K.] Albright on Monday and with President [Bill] Clinton yesterday [September 21 and 22, 1999]—that their country and their people are suffering from rampant crime and corruption and who are therefore committed to fighting back against that scourge.

Russia has other troubles too. Continued fighting between insurgents and Russian troops in the northern Caucasus is claiming hundreds of lives. Terrorist bombings in Moscow and two other cities have exceeded the death toll of Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center combined. Like crime and corruption, terrorism is not just a Russian problem—it’s a global one, and like crime and corruption, it won’t prove susceptible to just a Russian solution.

On both issues, the Government of Russia has sought help from us and from others. One of the several issues we in the Executive Branch are discussing in our current consultations with the Congress . . . is the terms of our ability to provide that help and the strategic goals that our support for Russian reform is meant to serve.

America’s National Security
Let me, before going to your questions, suggest an overall context for that discussion: First and foremost, our policy must advance the national security interest of the United States—both in the short term and the long term. The test we must apply—day in and day out, year in and year out, from one Administration to the next—is whether the American people are safer as a result of our policy. This Administration’s Russia policy meets that test.

When we came into office, there were roughly 10,000 intercontinental nuclear weapons in four states of the former Soviet Union; most were aimed at the United States. Today, there are about half as many—some 5,000; they’re only in Russia, none are targeted at us, and we’re discussing significant further reductions in overall numbers and further steps to diminish the nuclear threat in all its aspects.

That’s one of several issues of vital importance to the U.S. that Secretary Albright and Minister Ivanov grappled with earlier this week, along with peace in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in the Gulf—and in the Caucasus. My point is simply this: Corruption is an important issue that we are taking very seriously. But as we probe its cause and as we refine our response, we must keep in mind that it is part of a much larger process underway in a vast and complex country—a country whose nature as a state and whose role in the world will have a lot to do with what sort of 21st century awaits us.

An Extraordinary Transformation
For a decade now, Russia has been undergoing an extraordinary transformation. In fact, it is undergoing three transformations in one: from a dictatorship to an open society; from a command economy to a market economy; and from a totalitarian empire and ideological rival toward becoming what many Russians call—and aspire to as—a “normal, modern state,” integrated into the international community of which we are a part. We’ve been helping keep that process going.

Just as one example, the FREEDOM Support Act [a U.S. foreign aid program to Russia and other former Soviet states] and other programs have helped Russia make dramatic improvements in the protection of human rights and religious freedoms. All of us are realistic about the difficulties. Russia’s transformation has encountered plenty of obstacles, none greater and more challenging than the crucial need to create the laws and institutions that are necessary to fighting crime and corruption in an open society and market economy.

Still, the transformation continues and so must our commitment to...

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Russia NATO Enlargement Endangers

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 by the United States and several European nations. For the next four...

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NATO Enlargement Should Eventually Incorporate Russia

In April 1998 Congress voted to approve the inclusion of three countries—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic— into the North Atlantic...

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Russia Bibliography

Chapter 1 Periodical Bibliography
The following articles have been selected to supplement the diverse views presented in this chapter. Addresses are provided for periodicals not indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the Alternative Press Index, the Social Sciences Index, or the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

Anders Aslund “Russia’s Collapse,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1999.

Nicholas Eberstadt “Russia: Too Sick to Matter?” Policy Review, June/July 1999.

Fritz Ermath “Seeing Russia Plain,” National Interest, Spring 1999.

Mikhail Gorbachev “Russia Needs a Change,” Nation, October 5, 1998.

David Hoffman “Russia’s Capital Flight Problem,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, September 6, 1999. Available from Reprints, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.

Garry Kasparov “Tycoons Flourish as Russia Heads for the Rocks,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1998.

John Lloyd “Who Lost Russia?” New York Times Magazine, August 15, 1999.

Andrew Meier “Russia in the Red,” Harper’s Magazine, June 1999.

Thomas Nowotny “The Russian Crisis,” Dissent, Spring 1999.

Michael Schwellen “Russia’s Environmental Mess,” World Press Review, February 1995.

Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames “The Journal’s Russia Scandal,” Nation, October 4, 1999.

Hillel Ticktin and Susan Weissman “The Russian Crisis: Capitalism Is...

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