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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