Twenty years ago, in February 1992, I crossed the threshold of office number 426 on the fourth floor of the Izvestia daily building in central Moscow. I was 28 years old and invited to join the staff of Russia’s most widely read and prestigious newspaper. I took over the newly created position of diplomatic correspondent. This was a hectic and exciting time of enormous expectations and momentous change. The Soviet Union had passed into history only several weeks before. A young, urbane, and Western-minded foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was trying to shake the rigid and obsolete foundations of the country’s foreign policy by reaching out towards the West. He was trying to make Moscow a true ally of the United States and Western Europe on such issues as Iraq, the Balkans, and the Middle East peace process. Accompanying the minister to far-flung lands on his mission to establish Russia as a new global player and reliable partner, I felt I was not only witnessing but living and to some extent even shaping (by my writing) a unique period in history.
The period of 1991–94 remains in my mind as the time of highest hopes for my native country — hopes which were dashed and seemingly buried for nearly two decades after that. As expectations (and anxiety) rise in the wake of the recent wave of anti-government protests in Russia, it is worth casting a glance at all these years since the collapse of the ussr to try to find answers to difficult but inescapable questions. Why does this time seem to have been wasted? What kind of power do the Russians and their leaders worship? What type of weaknesses do they fear? And, finally, is there a way forward for Russia or is it condemned to gradual but irreversible decline?
To this last question most Westerners give a resigned and generally indifferent answer: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. They are hardly to blame for this because despite its p-5 status, nuclear weapons, and enormous reserves of oil and gas, Russia often seems to be provincial in its thinking, inconsistent in its actions, and ultimately, increasingly irrelevant in global affairs.
Russian politicians, top-level civil servants, journalists, and academics themselves suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. When they participate in Russia-themed conferences and seminars they can be forgiven for thinking that the world revolves around their country. But once they branch out into broader and more diverse international fora, the picture changes. Russia barely registers in comparison with such themes as the rise of China and India, climate change, or global financial and economic turmoil. Even on issues like the Iranian nuclear program or Middle East turbulence, Moscow, although a player at first glance, can only influence events by using its “nuisance factor” — for example, by playing international advocate to the outcast regimes.
Russia’s inability to connect with the Western world on the plane of ideas seems to me a product of the unfinished, peaceful, anti-Communist revolution of 1989–91. It failed to make a clean break with the past as Poland, the Baltic States, or even the post-Ceausescu Romania did. Looking back at our hopes and expectations in the early 1990s, I realize that they were unrealistic. Never in history had a state, a society, and a people had to undergo such a massive, complex, and painful transformation. For twenty years — and still counting — Russia has tried to achieve multiple transitions under enormous time pressure: from being the world’s last great land empire to a modern nation-state; from authoritarianism to democracy; from state omnipotency and arbitrariness to the rule of law; and, finally, from a state-controlled, planned economy to the market.
With certain qualifications, only the last of these goals can be considered achieved. The first one — making a shift from an empire to a “normal” state — seems to me to be the most important, by far the most difficult, and still the least accomplished. In the end the goal is to solve the crucial problem of helping the Russians to develop a new identity and, preferably, a degree of national cohesion. To make matters even more complicated, however, these multiple transitions have to be accomplished in a climate of suspicion and reluctance inside Russia itself.
The empire keeps its hold
As opposed to the Czechs, Poles, or Lithuanians, Russians could not conceive of these new, transitional tasks as things to look forward to. For the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe shedding the communist skin meant, first and foremost, liberating themselves from a foreign occupation. This, with hindsight, simplified their task enormously. Although these nations had their fair share of local collaborators and indigenous brutality, a lot of inconvenient truths could have been swept under the carpet for the sake of moving forward. Some dealt with these truths at later stages of transition; some are still struggling. But even such countries as Romania and Bulgaria, which by 1989 didn’t have Soviet garrisons on their territories, could reasonably argue that their troubles were the logical result of the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam agreements, in which Joseph Stalin played a crucial role.
The timeframe also mattered. In 1991 many twenty-year-old Estonians or Hungarians still had a grandfather or a grandmother alive who could have told them what life was like before the Soviets came. It may have been not a particularly democratic or prosperous life, but it had distinct local roots and was radically different from the one imposed by Stalin’s armies. This knowledge that life could (and should) be different from the communist existence played a key role in these nations’ transitions. I remember family friends, an Estonian couple, who, having gone through the hell of Siberian labor camps, still kept the portrait of Konstantin Päts, interwar Estonia’s first and last head of state, in their cupboard. Their relatives, who escaped in 1944 to Sweden, maintained intermittent contact with them and their children. Independent Estonia or Poland could be imagined and dreamed of because memories of their existence never completely faded away. They were kept alive by the emigre communities and even, in some cases, by governments in exile.
By 1991 there was hardly any twenty-year-old Russian (or even a 30-year-old one, for that matter) whose grandparents could have told him anything about life before 1917. Moreover, by that time, for the majority of the people, even the days of Stalin were a hazy memory. These were the relatively “vegetarian” days of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, which stood out as a passable time of stability and relative well-being (if tainted by boredom and a constant deficit of consumer goods). Still, if one did not listen to the bbc or Voice of America radio broadcasts in Russian at full blast and did not read samizdat books in public, safety and a certain low but stable standard of living were a given. In the early 1980s there were a few thousand political prisoners among the 290 million people of the Soviet Union — each particular case no doubt a tragedy, but collectively, a drop in the ocean compared to the heyday of Stalin’s Gulag. Of course the fear and general mistrust of everyone save the nearest family that the Red Terror, the Russian Civil War, and then the Great Terror of the 1930s generated never really went away. But it was safely housed in remote corners of the national pysche.
Russian communism, unfortunately, was a local brand that the Russians produced and tested amply on themselves. It was supported and boosted by the imperial grandeur which Stalin, ever an astute politician, regenerated and bequeathed to the postwar generations. Although everyone was supposed to be proud of living in his empire, it was the Russians who were its backbone. The dictator himself said as much in his famous ve-parade toast in June 1945, when he lauded the “perseverence” and “patience” of the Russian people. This was a permanent and effective consolation in the daily misery and drabness of the lives the people led. Pride of belonging to a superpower that stood up to the United States left a lasting imprint on the Russian mind.
The death of the ussr was such a shock and had such a long-term painful effect on the Russian mind because among the 151 million people that lived in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, the biggest of the fifteen consituent republics, very few wanted the ussr to disappear. Moreover, apart from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and the Greek Catholic western part of Ukraine, hardly anyone else wanted its demise either. Even the feuding Armenia and Azerbaijan were rather more indignant over the inability of Moscow to take their respective sides in murderous, interethnic strife than over its reluctance to let them go. Looking back at the events of 1989–91 I keep wondering how relatively few people — several hundred thousand in Moscow and St. Petersburg (which only got its historical name back in 1991), the restive Baltic peoples, and some Georgian nationalists — drove the communist state into the ground. The system was already weakened by economic inefficiency and undermined by external circumstances like the war in Afghanistan and Amercia’s economic and military rise under Ronald Reagan. Still, the speed and relative peacefulness of its disintegration (at least compared to Yugoslavia’s bloody chaos) was hard to believe.
But there was a flip side to this: The Russians were unprepared for the loss of what, for better or worse, they came to consider “their” country. In an added twist of historical irony, where the British and the French could sail away from their overseas empires and try to forget they ever ruled India or Mali (although that proved to be extremely difficult), the Russians could not do the same. The ussr was the world’s last great land empire to fold. Its former “colonies” never really went away. They sit right across what many in Russia still consider to be artificial borders. One can reach out and touch them. No wonder many Russians think this situation abnormal. They were probably indifferent to leaving behind mainly Muslim Central Asia and the restive Caucasus. But when it comes to Ukraine and Belarus, the feeling that these are just some kind of stray relatives who wandered off temporarily is very strong.
It was in December 1991, when the Soviet flag over the Kremlin was lowered forever, that the Russians found themselves living in a country that had never existed within such borders and where for the first time they were a dominant ethnic group. It had only one institution linking it with the pre-communist past — the Russian Orthodox Church, which was also morally disfigured by years of Soviet repression and forced servitiude to the authorities. This country could not claim to have been liberated; it had nowhere to go and no one’s shoulder to lean on. This again was in contrast to the former “socialist camp” inhabitants. Most of them immediately announced that their goal was to integrate with the transatlantic community. Russia remained suspended between epoques — too proud to take advice from the West, too weak to recreate itself as a great power.
It also had a political class that was thoroughly unprepared — like the rest of the country — for this rapid change and the challenges ahead. I always felt that modern Russia’s founder, Boris Yeltsin, much derided in Russia as someone who nearly destroyed the state and the society, was to the contrary too timid in his approach to dismantling the Soviet system. He wrote the country’s first democratic constitution, introduced free elections, and privatized state property on a scale hitherto unknown to mankind. But Russia’s first president failed to dissolve and reform the army’s top brass, police, and security services as well as the state prosecution service, prisons, and courts. After a brief period in the early 1990s when reformist intellectuals played leading roles in the government, the former Soviet mid-level bureacracy took over again, bringing along with it an outdated view of governance, communist-era phobias, and unbound cynicism multiplied by greed, which was now given an official sanction under the banner of “capitalism.”
In Russia, it is power that brings wealth, while wealth is usually completely dependent on the whims of those in power. To maintain this situation and perpetuate itself in power, Russia’s ruling class imposes its own cynical worldview on the governed in order to keep them in check. This has deep implications both for the country’s domestic politics and foreign affairs.
Russia’s political class is firmly convinced that in international affairs only interests matter; for values and moral judgment there is no place. This is a topic that finds huge resonance not only among Russian decision makers, but, with the help of state-controlled television, with ordinary people. At no time was this better demonstrated then during the 2011 crisis over Libya. In the spring of that year, just after the allied air operation started, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced a suspicion that Western nations went to war because they wanted to control Libyan oil. He overlooked the fact that Western companies worked in Libya perfectly well under Muammar el-Qaddafi until the disturbances started. The wealth and power of Russia’s political class stem from oil and gas, and so in their view the world revolves around hydrocarbons.
Mr. Putin also memorably touted an idea that the Arab mentality is inclined toward authoritarianism. This was also a projection of the Russian elite’s domestic attitudes. The idea of their own fellow citizens as eternal adolescents, who need, in turn, to be threatened, flattered, or bought off, is another article of faith among the majority of Russia’s politicians.
Still, starting from the 1991 Gulf War, through Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq, and Libya, the world that Russia’s leaders are clinging to is crumbling in front of their eyes. In the old world, states were reliably insulated from outside influences and their rulers were free to do what they wanted to their people. Noninterference in the internal affairs of other states was the number one rule of global diplomacy. In this world, which existed only 25 years ago, dictatorships used to enjoy essentially the same international legitimacy as democracies.
Not any more. The concept of “responsibility to protect,” which limits the ability of dictatorial regimes to kill their own people, gained even a un acceptance — a notoriously difficult task in an organization where dictators always felt welcome. The excuse of sovereignty as justification for repression has been significantly discredited.
This is not something that Moscow is yet prepared to accept. It is always the first to accuse others of double standards, and sometimes these accusations are true. But when it comes to its own foreign policy, it never shies away from practicing double standards. When it comes to the Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova — i.e., countries with relatively democratic governments, or at least governments aspiring to be democracies — Russia monitors the situation with unwavering attention and condemns perceived violations of democratic rules with vigor. A handful of old Waffen-ss stalwarts stage their ridiculous march in Latvia? The government in Riga hears from Moscow. Ukrainian nationalist radicals shouting anti-Russian slogans in Lviv? The State Duma takes time from its main session to adopt a harsh statement. But the moment something happens in a dictatorship, Russia falls silent. Ethnic Russians in countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, or political activists in Belarus, never get more than a fleeting mention in Russia’s official discourse, if any at all. This, for some strange reason, is presented as pragmatism by the Kremlin. Western countries are not immune from lapses of moral judgment in their relations with the world. But they never make such attitudes the cornerstone of their policies. Russia does — and instead of pragmatism this betrays a national moral vacuum that no amount of oil and gas contracts will ever be able to fill.
Attempts to introduce moral thinking into international affairs are doomed to be sporadic and inconsistent, and sometimes they will fail miserably. But they will no doubt continue. The Kremlin’s consistent opposition to this trend dramatically and paradoxically reveals not Russia’s strength but the insecurity and disorientation its ruling class feels.
Another symptom of this is the Kremlin’s — and unfortunately, the Russians’ — romance with conspiracy theories. They became a staple of Russian society twenty years ago. It was a reaction to the sudden and seemingly inexplicable collapse of the ussr. The most widely asked question on Russia’s censored television talk shows is, “Who benefits from this?” “This” could be anything: the Arab Spring, world economic crisis, or eu currency conundrum. Once you hear the question asked, you can be absolutely certain of the answers: America, the “world financial oligarchy” (read: the Jews), the Bilderberg Club, the Trilateral Commission, or George Soros.
But while in the 1990s it was a matter of opinion (albeit widely spread), in the last decade proponents of such views of the world firmly occupy leading positions in the state-controlled Russian media, now a de facto department of the Kremlin. These views have thus become semi-official positions. This creates and promotes a “Fortress Russia” mentality, which is a convenient distraction from the country’s real domestic problems and a useful foreign policy tool. For whenever the Kremlin does something together with Western countries (like signing a start-3 treaty or imposing sanctions on Iran), it claims it does it so against an overwhelmingly hostile public opinion — which is at the same time largely formed by the Kremlin itself!
ve-Day as a symbol and challenge
Domestically, “fortress russia” thinking is maintained by constant references to May 9, 1945. ve-Day is the only date in modern Russia’s historical calendar on which people seem to agree. Or at least, so the sociologists say. But even this is a precarious agreement, because at the same time no other date generates as much controversy. Every year on May 9, Stalin and the communist regime cast a long and ominous shadow over Russia’s past — and, sadly, its future.
First, Russia celebrates the second German surrender, which was staged at the insistence of the Soviet dictator. He had a big problem with the Germans capitulating a day earlier in Rheims to the Western Allies, and he had the power to insist on his demand. Second, the Soviet-era insistence that for the ussr the war started on June 22, 1941, overlooks the fact that Stalin’s regime was actively participating in the Second World War since its invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939. Stalin’s shameful alliance with the Nazis is something that is still defended by many in Russia as a strategic necessity. However, it is a very inconvenient truth to deal with for the public. Third, the cost of war and its consequences, leading to the hardening of domestic repression in the Soviet Union, and bringing new, communist occupation to Central Europe and the Baltic states is another contentious area for Russia’s historical memory.
One may argue that the Allies, too, have a few unpleasant things to account for. For instance, pre-war appeasement of Hitler, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fire-bombing of Dresden. The latter two in modern times would probably be investigated as war crimes. Twice occupied Central Europeans and Balts also share blame for participating in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.
But only in Russia’s tragic case does an undeniably heroic and crucial victory in the Second World War continue to serve as justification for a murderous political regime that no longer exists. Triumph and tragedy, liberation and enslavement, selfless sacrifice and cynical geopolitical games are inextricably linked in this unique moral maze. Heated debates in the Russian media about ve-Day prove this — it has become a pivotal date for the country, on which its new identity will be made or broken.
In 2011 the loyalist Presidential Council on Human Rights — a collection of decent people serving as a symbol of the Kremlin’s cognizance of such issues — advanced a timid suggestion of a “de-Stalinization” program for Russia. It met with fierce opposition. For a large section of the country’s public and the majority of the ruling bureaucrats, debunking the Soviet myths means undermining their own vision of new Russia — isolationist, undemocratic, xenophobic, a country with a passive population in thrall to the state authority. This nation is so much easier to rule than a democracy. The longer Soviet-era clichés remain untouchable, the more ve-Day will be not so much a day of remembrance and gratitude to the fallen that it justly should be, but a date to celebrate the idea of military conquest and nurture national complexes.
And so it goes. Twenty years since the end of the communist empire, questions of moral revival, redefining the country’s historical roots, and finding a new meaning to national life remain acute in Russia. During the 1989–91 democratic revolution, moral leadership, as opposed to political leadership, was insufficient. Andrei Sakharov, human rights campaigner and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner, died in December 1989, having barely seen the beginning of the demise of communism. Another titan and Nobel Prize laureate, writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, remained in the United States, to which the Politburo exiled him in 1974, until 1994. He was anyway skeptical of Western democratic values and unfortunately more than slightly disconnected from the realities of post-communist transition. Boris Yeltsin, with all his monumental achievements, was hardly a moral authority. All those Russians who took to the streets to defend Yeltsin’s headquarters during the August 1991 hardliners’ coup showed dignity and the courage of their convictions, which richly informed that period. But in the end there was no one among their leaders to carry on with Sakharov’s firmness of spirit and convictions.
Russia in search of moral compass
Today’s pro-democracy movement takes off where the previous one stopped. “Dignity” is again the buzzword. Active and spirited Russians, a minority, no doubt, but not an insignificant one, are trying to reclaim their roles in managing the affairs of the country — or, as some may say, claim them seriously for the first time. They do not seek revolution, many even abhor it, but they will not be satisfied as extras in a Kremlin-produced play. Their search for new ideas logically leads to the quest for moral vision and leadership. Of which in modern-day Russia, for reasons described above, there is so far precious little. It is interesting — and significant — that the passing of Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright-turned-dissident-turned-president, in December 2011 produced massive interest in his life and achievements among Russia’s intellectuals, a level of attention he never enjoyed when he was alive. This, to me, was yet another symptom of Russia’s thirst for such figures in the public sphere.
In my opinion, there is probably only one person that could lay claim to a Havel-like moral leadership in Russia: Mikhail Khodorkovsky. With all the differences in background, style, and life stories, the illustrious Czech and the controversial Russian have several things in common. Both chose peaceful resistance to the authorities as opposed to emigration or violence. Both understood that moral vision is equally important for individuals, the society as a whole, and for institutions of the state. Both acquired an ability to talk about politics without sounding like professional politicians.
Billionaire Khodorkovsky’s unique odyssey from rags to riches to prison to civic and political activism comes across to some as a symbol of redemption for all the real and perceived sins of the 1990s, a time that the majority of Russians still considers to be dark, chaotic, and full of injustice. No leader of the current protests can match Khodorkovsky’s moral stature or gravitas. There is, though, one major problem: He is in jail. And it is not clear whether he would want to become a political leader if and when he is released. This is an unfolding story, a drama not only of one man but in a broader sense of the country itself. It will play out in the coming years to a yet unknown outcome.
In the end modern Russia’s most acute existential problem lies in the absence of a moral compass. The quest for it, with or without outstanding, larger-than-life public figures, will continue. For Russian society, finding this compass will mean real empowerment to deal with its post-Soviet weaknesses and, ultimately, the only chance of making its long and hard way to a true revival.