The extraordinary protests that followed Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary elections continue to resound. Still more extraordinarily, the Kremlin refrained from using armed force to put down the massive demonstrations that took place across the country, a week after the disputed vote. And yet no one can be sure whether these events are signs of deeper change. In the run-up to the balloting, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev emphasized the challenges facing Russia when he publicly accused the Kremlin of reverting to its old authoritarian habits and predicted that the contest would be rigged (charges that the government quickly denied).
A long and brutal past remains very much a living force in present-day Russia. The ruling elite are the products of centuries of history, of personal and collective ordeals, of indoctrination, and of the psychological ability to survive those ordeals and accept that indoctrination. Chekhov wrote of Russia’s “heavy, chilling history, savagery, bureaucracy, poverty and ignorance.” As he put it, “Russian life weighs upon a Russian like a thousand-ton rock.” At the time, he was looking back on centuries of extreme despotism.
But in the century that followed his verdict, the country went through much that was even worse. Czarism may have been the most repressive regime of its time in Europe, but Lenin’s Soviet Union was far more violently repressive than anything the continent had seen in centuries—never mind the greater horrors that followed Lenin’s death. It can hardly be maintained that Russian communism was merely a continuation of what came before.
Lenin and his successors ruled by consolidating their machinery of power and by subjecting the populace to saturation barrages of propaganda. At the same time the politico-economic apparatus solidified into a new caste. The central, classical demonstration of what might be called ideological insanity in practice came with the campaign in 1929–33 to collectivize the peasantry. Lenin invented the term “kulak,” signifying a newly prosperous peasant, in order to wage class warfare and seize the holdings of small landowners. Millions of human beings perished, and the agricultural economy was wrecked.
After the disaster of collectivization, the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.
The confrontation with the West was another product of the Soviet order’s mental distortions. The prevailing mindset required an unceasing struggle with other cultures, and spawned what Gorbachev would later describe in his farewell address as an “insane militarization,” which ruined the country.
I learned that something in Moscow had radically changed when I first met Gorbachev. The Soviet leader was on his 1990 visit to America, and we held a small seminar for him at Stanford. One of those present was a seismology professor, who asked Gorbachev about the devastating 1988 earthquake that had killed at least 25,000 people in what was then the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The seismologist noted that the Armenian event had been roughly the same intensity as the 1989 California quake that killed 63. Was Armenia’s toll so much higher because its quake had hit ancient villages dating back long before modern earthquake-resistant building codes—unlike most of the structures in California?
Gorbachev’s answer shocked me. No, he said: both places had laws that set quake-proofing standards for building construction, but in Soviet Armenia these had not been observed. Here was the leader of the Soviet Union telling the truth, in an abrupt departure from his country’s 70-year tradition of falsehoods! (And in the process, conceding that the supposedly powerful Soviet state failed to deliver on its promises to citizens.)
Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslavian former Communist who became one of the best-known critics of the system, wrote that the rule of Soviet leaders was “anchored in Ideology, as the divine right of kings was in Christianity; and therefore their imperialism, too, has to be ideological or else it commands no legitimacy.” This, he added, was why Westerners were mistaken in hoping the Kremlin might be pressed or humored into a truly comprehensive détente: “No Soviet leader can do that without abdicating his title to leadership and jeopardizing the justification of Soviet rule”—which is precisely what finally happened.
The decisive step was the launching of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. Gorbachev and the brighter of his colleagues had at last seen that his predecessors’ policy of massive and continuous falsification was not only ruinous to morale, but also incompatible with economic success—and even that the prevention of free speech was stultifying the whole political and social order.
When your inland seas begin to dry up—as the Aral Sea did under Soviet rule—it’s hard to stomach a government-issued fantasy of beaches and breakers. So as glasnost grew, the struggle became ever more intense. Foreign radio broadcasts had already convinced many Russians that their country’s official truths were untenable, but when glasnost hit Russian state television, the effect was stunning. The televised debates in the Supreme Soviet, with Andrei Sakharov standing up to Mikhail Gorbachev and speaking out for democracy, disrupted production at factories all over the country, as workers clustered around the sets.
Modern technology greatly encouraged the emergence of civic connections in place of the country’s previous social atomization. As crowds filled the streets in August 1991, during the hardline Communists’ last-ditch effort to topple Gorbachev, fax machines helped keep communication open, and copies of declarations from the country’s farthest reaches, from Pskov to Vladivostok, were plastered all over the lampposts of Moscow and Leningrad.
By then, glasnost had brought a huge mass of officially banned knowledge out of hiding. The first public mention in Russia of The Great Terror, my book on the Stalin era, was when Katrina vanden Heuvel interviewed me for the weekly Moskovski Novosti in the spring of 1989. When I finally arrived in Moscow later that year, it was everywhere. In the preceding decade there had been little reply to the book from the Communist Party, even though copies had been printed for Politburo members. But now, at the final plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, the Stalinist writer Aleksandr Chakovsky denounced me as “anti-Sovietchik No. 1.” Too late: the Russian edition was already being serialized in the literary monthly Neva, a million copies per issue.
The Soviet Union had been a vast kleptocracy for years. Money began to play a major role above and beyond the longstanding perquisites of power, foreshadowing what Alain Besançon called a sort of “savage capitalism.” The already large criminal element had, in fact, become almost institutionally intertwined with the bureaucracy. There were—and continue to be—stunning illegalities.
To this day, Russian politics has seen something less than a rapid and painless modernization (putting it mildly), partly because no trained political class existed. In fact, the habits necessary for good governance were effectively discouraged on a systemic basis. Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”
The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.
Gorbachev was certainly an improvement, at least able to see that the system was unworkable. When “conservative” elements within the Politburo launched a military coup to remove him, Boris Yeltsin —supported by 100,000 Muscovites who formed a human barrier around the Russian White House—was instrumental in spiking the conspirators’ revolt. But a few months later, Yeltsin signed treaties abolishing the U.S.S.R., creating in its stead the Commonwealth of Independent States. As Russia’s first post-Soviet head of state he weathered a second mutiny in 1993, and ushered in an era of political and economic reform—and unbridled greed: a handful of oligarchs became billionaires via the privatization of old Soviet industries. After nine years Yeltsin became the first Russian leader to relinquish power voluntarily, handing over the presidency to Vladimir Putin.
But through it all, the apparat remained—and in effect, remains. When the socialist order failed, the only class with access to and experience in economic matters was the state bureaucratic stratum. The leading elements used the emergence of the market to loot Russia’s resources. Lesser bureaucrats continue to parasitize the economy by demanding bribes for permits and so on. The country remains, as described by Larisa Piyasheva (then a consultant on economic issues to Russia’s Council of the Federation) in a 1995 interview, “a limited democracy with a semistate, semiprivatized economy ... anarchic, corrupt and oligarchic.”
The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society. And yet the case for freedom is about far more than abstract morality. It’s a practical matter, as the communist heroine and martyr Rosa Luxemburg explained in 1918 when she argued against Lenin’s suppression of hostile opinion, and against the closed society: “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element ... [S]uch conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life.” Subsequent decades proved how right she was.
Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.
One can have “reform” without liberalism, and Russia’s regime remains far from the rule of law—something even more important than “democracy.” The Russian bureaucracy has not abandoned its habit of failing to fulfill its contracts and obligations. In democratic countries, contracts are enforced, delinquents fined or dismissed, and when we speak of the rule of law, we mean contract law as well. But Russians remain justifiably skeptical about the political process. The problem is not primarily economic or even political. It is a certain lack of much feeling for community in the sense of a civic or plural order.
That may be changing among the young, educated class. Yet Putin has reverted to the Soviet habit of blaming unrest on outside agitators, suggesting that “American partners” are manipulating the protesters. The question, especially from the West’s point of view, is whether Russia will descend into expansionist chauvinism. Even if it were not of the global, absolutist type that was typical of the U.S.S.R., that would still be an unwelcome development. Still, the world coped with a much worse Russia. Let us be optimistic.