Any society is governed in its ability to accept new possibilities, or to escape long-standing inhibitions, by its usually unacknowledged habits of mind. These constraints resist coherent analysis by natives as well as outsiders. Recognizing, deploring, or celebrating them is a protean, even myth-making, process. Western policymakers have tended to project on Russia their own assumptions of what common sense would dictate as to the best course of action for Moscow to follow. The Russians have largely returned the compliment, seeing the West as being moved by its own ruling prejudices. What follows is an attempt, no doubt distorted by my own prejudices, to look at how it happened that Russia looped away from the Soviet matrix in the late 1980s only to recreate so much of it between 1991 and now.
My abiding impression of the Soviet Union during my first two postings to the British Embassy in Moscow, between 1964 and 1966, and then 1979 to 1982, was of its overwhelming greyness. This was not at all to deny its international importance, or to ignore the fact that it included outstanding people within its borders, people indeed made all the more remarkable for the way they overcame the mendacious environment in which they lived. The contrast between Moscow in 1980–81 and what I saw in Warsaw as Solidarity began to reflect Poland’s yearning for self-renewal was telling. It was obvious why Moscow felt threatened by Poland’s vigor, just as it had been by events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and by domestic dissidents too, for that matter.
But the Soviet Union was proving how limiting it could be to resist not just change but even experimentation. I recorded in a memorandum dated September 29, 1981 (“The Soviet Union: Will it Change?” Enclosure in Document No. 112 [Sir C. Keeble to Lord Carrington, 29 September 1981] in Documents on British Policy Overseas: The Invasion of Afghanistan and UK-Soviet Relations, 1979–82 ):
[T]he essential characteristic of the Brezhnev regime had been to preserve the essence of the Stalinist legacy, shorn of its revolutionary brutality. In resisting change it had failed to establish a complex modern economy in the place of one so closely bound up with the political structure as to make real reform extraordinarily difficult. The Soviet authorities seemed at least as impressed by the fragility of their system as by its strength. But a refusal to deal with problems which seemed likely to mount would make the changes that would in the end have to be faced all the harder to achieve without sending the whole Soviet system into shock. I believed that the Soviet hierarchy faced a particular and immediate danger in Eastern Europe: radical change in Russia had been the product of disaster often enough, and a major failure in the Bloc could prove to be 1905, if not 1917.
The supposed front runners to succeed Brezhnev were then Kirilenko and possibly Chernenko, with Andropov presumed thwarted by heading the KGB and Gorbachev not yet brought forward by Death’s casting of its lots. So while we have to try to foresee the future if we are to understand the present, none of us has second sight. The possible parallels between 1981 and 2014, however arguable, are nonetheless worth pondering.
Gorbachev and His Legacy
Gorbachev wanted on becoming Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to make its dispensations work, not to destroy them. The Politburo that selected him shared his objective, if somewhat tentatively. None of those involved knew at the outset quite how to realize that general aim. The legacy they bequeathed to today’s Kremlin is the fear that reform will destroy the presently ruling elite, just as it swept its Soviet predecessors aside.
Imposing a framework on the continuum from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin is to simplify historical realities, but it is nevertheless also a necessary means of containing an argument. Succeeding generations of Russian politicians and analysts have done it freely: Gorbachev once seemed like a liberator; now he seems to them like a bungler, at best. Yeltsin was once a hero; now he is traduced as a drunken fool. Putin was a restorer of order; now…but we shall come to that later. The ongoing matter has been the disintegration and eventual transformation of the USSR, and of Russia within that, a process that continues, and is at present highlighted by what is happening in and around Ukraine.
Is it possible yet to say that a coherent and durable set of ideas of what Russia is or should be has evolved, or is in process of evolving? The disintegration of the Soviet hold over Eastern Europe and the implications of ethnic nationalism can be made to fit under the Gorbachev rubric. We should also look at the resulting disintegration of the Soviet Union, together with the attempt to create a new government and economic structure under the Yeltsin heading, before looking at how the complex has evolved under Putin.
Central and Eastern Europe
The liberation of Central and Eastern Europe in Gorbachev’s time was a major achievement. No other Soviet leader would have handled the reunification of Germany and the subsequent dismantlement of the Soviet bloc with the generosity and understanding that he showed. The withdrawal of Soviet troops was managed without significant opposition in the USSR, despite the humiliation inherent in the process (publicly recorded by Putin in his later account of his experiences in East Germany). The reunification of Germany was not presented in the USSR as the revival of a threat but as a step towards stability and cooperation in Europe and a partnership with the United States. One could argue that the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact was inevitable, given the reality that the USSR no longer had the economic, ideological, or political strength to prevent it at acceptable cost, but that is not to deny that the world—and in the end Russia too—owes much to Gorbachev and his supporters for what they did.
It has since been argued that, once the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, NATO should have followed suit—and even that promises were made by Western Powers that NATO would not be expanded. There were assurances given during the talks about German reunification, and German inclusion in NATO, as to where foreign troops could be based, but the right of Germany as a whole to remain in the Atlantic Alliance was affirmed in the agreement sanctioning the inclusion of East Germany within the Federal Republic. No promises were sought or made as to ruling out other former Warsaw Pact members from acceding to NATO. The question was not on anyone’s considered agenda at the time. Nor is it clear how any undertakings that could have been registered then would have bound future governments from seeking membership at a later date, as circumstances might warrant.
A sense of Russian grievance has nevertheless mounted over the years and become transmuted into an essential element of the now dominant story that holds that the West, in allegedly betraying Moscow’s trust and trampling on its rights, is responsible for the great majority of its setbacks from 1992, if not earlier, to the present day. The story goes wider than the fact of former Warsaw Pact countries joining NATO, but Russian insistence on that issue is one that has traction in the West. The question of why East and Central Europe, and the Baltics, wanted to join the Alliance is one that the Russians refuse to address. Nor will they acknowledge the proposition that widening NATO might have helped to stabilize the situation in the region. It has instead increasingly been taken for granted in Russia that NATO enlargement was directed against Russia by the United States, and continues to be a major threat. But given the instability elsewhere in the Russian neighborhood—in Ukraine, for which Russia bears a heavy responsibility—the logic behind the proposition that NATO is the major threat to Russia is not at all obvious. It only holds good on the deeply Soviet supposition that major power groupings outside Moscow’s direct control are necessarily a threat to Russia.
The contempt in Russia for Gorbachev in the 1990s, and since, reflected the evolution of the opinion toward the idea that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the countries of the former Soviet bloc was not a recognition of late Soviet realities, but a demonstration of the weakness for which Gorbachev was responsible and a move made under duress, for which the West was answerable. Many Russians have also thought of it as an act of generosity for which they should have received some reward. The Soviet Union had, so far as they were concerned, in no sense been defeated, and it retained its rights as a Great Power whose natural and rightful analogue was the United States. Russia inherited these rights when the Soviet Union disintegrated, with Yeltsin in at the kill. Russians to this day find it hard, even impossible, to see how others see them or to understand that there can be outcomes of mutual benefit. The mental inheritance of the Soviet Union is clear: Any benefit to one country or group of countries is paid for by another, usually Russia. Win/win looks good to Westerners but naive to most Russians.
Ethnic Nationalism in Russia
Soviet nationality policies were a mass of contradictions whose tensions were managed by the CPSU but bore strange fruit once the Communist apparat began to fray. All Soviet citizens had a nationality in their passports. The USSR was divided into units based on various national groups within its overall “unbreakable union.” These units were by no means fully ethnically coherent, and some nationalities had no such unit to their name—notably the Jews, and in a different way the Russians. The Jews were subordinate and suspect, the Russians dominant but their unit, the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, was of little independent ethnic account. The RSFSR included not just the dominant ethnic Russians but also a selection of constituent units, in the Caucasus for instance, or in the central regions inhabited by ethnic Tartars. Large numbers of Russians lived outside the RSFSR—and Russian was of course the common language of all in the Soviet Union.
Ethnic nationalism, expressed through the constituent units of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was a critical force in the break up of the Soviet Union, with Ukraine playing a particular role. (See for instance Serhii Plokhii’s The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union). So too as the process continued were, and are, the ethnic tensions within and around the newly emerging states, Russia not least. The break up of the USSR was particularly disorienting for the Russians, and the confusion as to what exactly a Russian might be was considerable. Were the Jews really Russian? How did the Tartars or the various elements of the Russian Caucasus fit in? What about Russian speakers in Kazakhstan or Estonia who had before ruled those roosts? What did it mean to be a Russian patriot? Were you one if you were for the attempted coup of August 1991, which was designed to save the Soviet Union, or were you a patriot if you supported Yeltsin’s Presidency in resisting it on behalf of the RSFSR and democracy? It was not surprising that many Russians see 1992 not as the year of their liberation, but as the year when they lost their national meaning. The Soviet yoke, after all, had been up until then largely theirs to wield and improve if they could. Now they had democracy—but what was that?
The Yeltsin Years
A well-understood and effective form of social contract that binds not just the ruled but also the rulers is fundamental to the development of any stable and successful democracy. Its existence is the prior foundation to voting—whether the votes are cast by a restricted electorate or by the masses. Especially in the latter case, voting without such a contract can easily lead to the election of rulers free of legal restraint. Yanukovych became such a ruler in Ukraine (Andrew Wilson’s recently published Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West gives a clear account of the process). The Common Law preceded democracy in the UK. After due deliberation the Constitution of the United States was made the legal, and admirably brief, foundation stone of the United States. It is possible on such foundations, which have their parallels in other established democracies, for societies and their accountable governance to evolve, according to the principle set out by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”
By 1992 the Russians had only the most recent experience, from 1989, of what genuine as opposed to sham elections might do; this experience was for many Soviet citizens alarming. Their longer history suggested that disagreements at the top were a prelude to trouble—not a sign of an incipient period of debate and change. There was from the beginning a division between those Russian citizens who saw their new country as a continuity with the Soviet Union and those who hoped for it to become in time a liberal democracy with a functioning market economy. That division was exacerbated by the fact that Russia inherited laws, and indeed initially a constitutional structure, from its Soviet past. Russia’s judicial and administrative systems, too, were part of the Soviet inheritance, both in terms of the people working in them and the ways they worked. The clash between the Supreme Soviet and Yeltsin was resolved in 1993 by force, not consensual agreement. The constitution that was accepted in 1993 by referendum—or, in the eyes of many, that was imposed on Russia—was typical of all too many modern constitutions in being too detailed and too long to allow for gradual evolution, popular understanding, or long-term emotional attachment.
The struggle between the Executive headed by Yeltsin and a Duma dominated by opposition figures of a Soviet mindset continued until the 1998 economic crisis forced a degree of unity between them and a grudging acceptance on the part of the opposition that a new and different Russia had emerged in 1992. What exactly that implied for the future was unclear, however, and the legal foundations of the new Russia remained fragile. Too much was decided by Presidential decree. The bedrock of Soviet law and the assumptions underlying it remained at odds with the market oriented and liberally inclined provisions of new laws superimposed upon it. Property rights were ambivalent. The relationship between the federal authorities and the regions had yet to evolve satisfactorily. Russia’s Constitutional Court had proved unable, or unwilling, to make effective and independent rulings as to what was or was not in accordance with Russia’s Basic Law. The historical contrast between it and the U.S. Supreme Court was and remains telling. The Supreme Court, operating often enough against the desires of the executive powers but in accordance with inherited and widely understood beliefs as to the independence and universal applicability of the law to all, high or low, has been critical to the evolution over time of the meaning and validity of the U.S. Constitution. It has also been a bulwark of the independence of the U.S. Judiciary.
No such beliefs have upheld the Russian system. On the contrary, the Soviet and pre-Soviet traditions of top down rule have retained their hold. Such rule is necessarily extra-legal at best, and inherently arbitrary. That does not mean to say that it is always unjust, though it often is, but it is to say that there is a clear division between subjects and rulers both in fact and in their understanding of their places in society. Dialogue between them is ineffective, and mutual trust limited, while formal declarations of allegiance are balanced by mutual suspicion. While there were moments in the process leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union when the separation between government and society was overcome, its reality under Yeltsin remained the dominant outlook. Liberal reform was imposed by the top, and experienced by the majority of the Russian population as unjust – particularly once the illusion that it would make for rapid change for the better was destroyed. Those who profited from the new dispensation were seen as thieves rather than the precursors of a better life for all. The new Russia appeared to many to have become a jungle, not a commonwealth.
New Economic Structures
The changes needed to face up to and deal with the collapse of the Soviet command economy were of course daunting, as leading Russian reformers of the time like Gaidar, Chubais, Aven, and Kokh have written. But the new elite, despite being composed of able members of the old nomenklatura—or maybe because of that background—were unskilled at explaining to the populace at large why radical changes were necessary, or to persuade them that the Soviet system was doomed. There were also very few accountable reformers to go around, with too much to do. Partly as a result, the inevitable loss of what were in nominal terms hefty amounts of personal savings, punishing inflation, voucher privatization, the 1995–96 loans for shares, the rise of the “oligarchs”, and the 1998 crash all added up to a widespread indictment of “reform” as a failure imposed at the expense of the ordinary citizen. In the absence of a popularly compelling account and justification of the switch to a market-based system, the supposition was given room to grow that things had been more reliable, or at least better for most people, under Brezhnev.
That perception was unjust—and I do not mean to imply that it was universal, merely that it was widespread and became more pervasive as time passed. The changes made by Prime Minister Gaidar and his colleagues were enough to commit Russia to the development of a market economy and to open Russia up to the possibility of recovery from the dead weight of its Soviet past (see for instance Anders Åslund’s Russia’s Capitalist Revolution ). But while that was by any standards a major achievement—arrived at in the most difficult of circumstances and one that should be remembered as such and recorded to Yeltsin’s credit—it was incomplete. Counterfactual history is always tempting, and it is legitimate to wonder what might have been the result if Gaidar had not in late 1992 been replaced as Prime Minister by Chernomyrdin, if Gazprom had been disaggregated and it had been feasible to address the problems of obsolescence and virtual bankruptcy of so much of the economic inheritance from the Soviet Union (my paper for Chatham House of July 2013, “The Soviet Inheritance”, and Bear Traps on Russia’s Road to Modernisation by Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes [May 2013]), if Yeltsin had not been incapacitated in 1996, if the Duma had not proved so intransigent, if the price of oil had been higher, and so on. But none of that happened. The initial push was effective, but under Yeltsin it could not be sustained. It remained conditional on a deepening of the separation between the state and business. The supposed power of the principal “oligarchs” instead remained dependent on a license from the Kremlin. Corruption was built into the new system set up on Soviet foundations. It became endemic and has indeed spread vigorously since 2000.
Gaidar’s “what might have been” list included his frustration, which he shared with other Russians and some in the West, at what he saw as the West’s small minded and ungenerous response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Had there been a Marshall Plan, he believed, more could have been done both internally and also to build trust between Russia and the West—notably the United States of course, which would have had to lead such an effort. It seems equally probable to me, however, that still greater Western involvement in promoting and sustaining radical and even brutal change would have heightened the suspicion of the West that grew steadily over the Yeltsin years. Western advice and the pressures put on Russia through the IMF and other agencies, while necessary and well meant, associated the West with Yeltsin in his enemies’ eyes. The West, for many Russians, shared the blame for the failures of those years. Some of them went further, nursing beliefs that the West was combining economic with political plotting to weaken and even dismember Russia. Such ideas came naturally enough to Russians fed on Cold War propaganda. Talk in Washington of a U.S. “victory” in the Cold War seemed to fit that pattern all too well.
A Yeltsin Score Board
The principal hope and expectation of leading Russians in the early 1990s, and one that was shared beyond their ranks, was that Russia would become a “normal country.” That phrase was imprecise, but it carried a European coloring. It also implied coming to terms with Russia’s past, most notably its Stalinist past, in order to overcome its toxic legacy. Russia is not the only country to have preferred to ignore that sort of invidious task, as far as possible. There are all too many human reasons to elide the scale of the Soviet tragedy. But without honestly accounting for its history to itself, Russia will never be a “normal country.” It will remain haunted by memories it would rather not acknowledge, and unexamined Soviet habits of mind. Access to the archives steadily diminished over the 1990s (see for instance Jonathan Brent’s “Inside the Stalin Archives” [November 2010]), thanks in part perhaps to Yeltsin’s decision not to proceed with the full disbandment of the KGB. But there were reports by for instance Memorial, and a number of revisionist histories were published at that time, along with accounts of what happened to individuals who had suffered. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is still on the official reading list for Russian schools. Yet the full weight of what happened under Lenin, and Stalin, along with the strains their successors faced in trying to deal with it, did not come home to the Russian people as a whole, and have since been shunted firmly into forbidden territory. Lenin was allowed to stay embalmed on Red Square. His presence there hangs heavier over Russia with each passing day.
The attempts made in Yeltsin’s time to work out a National Idea for Russia were indicative of a country in some sort of undefined transition. They failed either adequately to disavow the past or satisfactorily to define a future. Time might conceivably have resolved the matter, but Yeltsin and his colleagues lost popular credibility as they held on to office. Old certainties gradually revived. The Primakov outlook, which gained force after his appointment as Foreign Minister in 1996, and as Prime Minister after the 1998 economic crash, was founded on the idea that Russia would have to renew itself as a center of world power, and therefore to reassert itself against the West as it had had to do in the 19th century after the Crimean War. What he and others saw as the “unipolar moment” of American dominance had to be ended. While Primakov would not have put it so bluntly, Russia had to see itself once again as a fortress, somewhat as the USSR had been, and it had to be ready to defend itself against all comers. The Kosovo crisis of 1999 reinforced that attitude.
Various projects for union with Belarus, and ineffective attempts to give meaning to the Commonwealth of Independent States, showed up Russia’s continuing ambivalence as to its role in the former Soviet space. Defense expenditure and reform were neglected even as Russia sought to preserve what it saw as its due to be respected as a major power. Yeltsin’s attempt to subdue Chechnya by force led to trouble in the Northern Caucasus and terrorist incidents in Russia as a whole, feeding tension between the various peoples of Russia in the process and brutalizing the conscripts of the Russian army. When the war was resumed in September 1999, Western criticism was intensified, and duly resented by the many Russians who felt that Prime Minister Putin was right to deal, as he said he would, with the terrorists once and for all. Putin had the Chechens primarily in mind, but was understood more broadly as endorsing growing ethnic Russian distrust of the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus.
Lilia Shevtsova and I agreed to differ in the dialogue recorded in our book Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response (Carnegie, November 2011) as to the degree to which the Putin regime was the inevitable product of Yeltsin’s rule. I left the British Embassy in January 2000 believing that there was a chance of further constructive change coming about toward more accountable and effective government. No one expected rapid progress. But economic growth had resumed quite quickly after the 1998 crash, partly thanks to the rise in the price of oil but also thanks to the market oriented reforms that had been introduced, though not completed, under Yeltsin. Following the elections of late 1999, the Duma seemed better disposed than its predecessors to work with a new President. A shake up in the regions was in prospect with the scheduled retirement of regional Governors whose time had run out, according to most interpretations of Russia’s constitution. Such factors all had the potential to open up fresh possibilities. It seemed obvious enough that such change would be in Russia’s general interest. And Russia still then had the benefit of one of the greatest accomplishments of the Yeltsin era: a free press and a nascent civil society.
A free press can never be perfect; Russia’s in the 1990s certainly was not. The mass media were most notoriously recruited against the Communist candidate Zyuganov in 1996. Yeltsin might not have won the Presidency without their help. But the media had other credits to their names, including the exposure of corruption. Independent journalists and analysts played their parts in ensuring that behind the cacophony there was serious debate in the 1990s as to Russia’s nature, purpose, and direction. Partly because of that, and partly because of the changing nature of Russian society, the Duma and the Council of the Federation were most definitely a “place for discussion” at that time. That interplay of autonomous forces was, for some who were attached to the idea of top down rule, a sign of anarchy. All this, however, could also be seen as giving a chance of Russia resuming its stalling process of transition to becoming a “normal country.” Provided of course that this was what the next President and the institutions he worked with were determined to achieve.