There was celebration in the State Department when Boris Yeltsin won re-election last July, but polls show that in Moscow and other Russian cities and towns there was no joy, only relief, a sense of having dodged a return to the past and the Communist Party. Political celebration, after all, usually welcomes a beginning, and the Yeltsin regime, everyone understood, was no beginning at all. Yeltsin had accomplished a great deal both as an outsider and as a president, but now, in his senescence, he represented the exhaustion of promise.

To prevail, Yeltsin had been willing to do anything, countenance anything, promise anything. Without regard for his collapsed budget, he doled out subsidies and election-year favors worth billions of dollars; he gave power to men he did not trust, like the maverick general Aleksandr Lebed; he was willing to hide from, and lie to, the press in the last weeks of the campaign, the better to obscure his serious illness.

Power in Russia is now adrift, unpredictable, and corrupt. Just three months after appointing Lebed head of the security council, Yeltsin fired him for repeated insubordination, instantly securing the general's position as martyr, peacemaker, and pretender to the presidency. On the night of his dismissal, Lebed giddily traipsed off to see a production of Aleksei Tolstoy's Ivan the Terrible. "I want to learn how to rule," he said.

In the new Russia, freedom has led to disappointment. If the triumph of 1991 seemed the triumph of liberal democrats unabashedly celebrating a market economy, human rights, and Western values, Yeltsin's victory in 1996 was distinguished by the rise of a new class of oligarchs. After the election, the bankers, media barons, and industrialists who had financed and in large measure run the campaign got the rewards they wanted: positions in the Kremlin, broadcasting and commercial licenses, and access to the national resource pile. Before 1991, these oligarchs had been involved mainly in fledgling small businesses—some legitimate, some not—and then, under the chaotic conditions of the post-Soviet world, they made their fortunes. Anatoly Chubais, who led Yeltsin's privatization and presidential campaigns, suddenly forgot his vow never to re-join the government and became chief of staff in the new administration, a position Yeltsin's bad health made all the mightier. Perhaps personifying the Kremlin's shamelessness, Chubais led the push to appoint one of the leading oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, as deputy minister of security. The few Muscovites with enough patience left to care about Kremlin politics wondered what qualifications Berezovsky, who had made his fortune in the automobile business, brought to his new job.

The new oligarchs, both within and outside the Kremlin, see themselves as undeniably lucky, but worthy as well. They righteously insist that their fortunes will spawn a middle class, property rights, and democratic values. No matter that the Kremlin lets them acquire an industrial giant like the Norilsk Nickel Works for a thief's price; they claim to be building a new Russia, and rationalize the rest. Mikhail Smolensky, who runs Moscow's powerful Stolichnii Bank from his offices in the restored mansion of a nineteenth-century merchant, told me, "Look, unfortunately, the only lawyer in this country is the Kalashnikov. People mostly solve their problems in this way. In this country there is no respect for the law, no culture of law, no judicial system—it's just being created." In the meantime, bribery greases the wheels of commerce. Government officials, who issue licenses and permissions of all sorts, "practically have a price list hanging on the office wall," Smolensky said.

The new oligarchs are humiliating to Russians, not because they are wealthy but because so little of their wealth finds its way back into the Russian economy. According to Interpol and the Russian Interior Ministry, rich Russians have sent more than $300 billion to foreign banks, and much of that capital leaves the country illegally and untaxed. Yeltsin's Kremlin capitalism has so far failed to create a nation of shopkeepers—the British middle-class model. It has, however, spawned hundreds of thousands of chelnoki, or shuttle traders, young people who travel to and from countries like China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates carrying all manner of goods for sale. This sort of trade is probably only a crude, transitional form of capitalism, but it is also uncontrolled, untaxed, and mafia-ridden.

Under Yeltsin, power at the Kremlin has become almost as remote from the people it is supposed to serve as it was under the last communist general secretaries. In its arrogance, in its refusals to answer questions from the press, Yeltsin's Kremlin seems to believe that its duty to observe democratic practices ended with the elections. The Russian people, understandably, believe the government has much to answer for. The poverty rate is soaring. Life expectancy for men is plunging. The murder rate is twice as high as it is in the United States and many times higher than in European capitals to the west. According to Russian government statistics, by late 1995, 8,000 criminal gangs were operating in the country—proportionately as many as in Italy. The fastest-growing service industry in Russia is personal security. Hundreds of thousands of men and women now work for private businesses as armed security guards. The police are too few, and usually too corrupt, to do the job.

Though far better than in Soviet times, the press is still not free. State television, which is largely owned by the new oligarchs, is extremely cautious, even sycophantic, when it comes to Yeltsin. After acting like cheerleaders during the election campaign, some newspapers and magazines have once again become aggressive and critical, even probing impolitely into the state of Yeltsin's health. An investigation by Itogi, a Moscow magazine, forced Yeltsin to go public with his heart ailments, which in turn led him to agree to quintuple-bypass surgery last November. But there is still no institution—not the press, not parliament, certainly not the weak judiciary—with the authority to keep the Kremlin honest.

One of the most troubling deficiencies in modern Russia is the absence of moral authority. The country lacks the kind of ethical compass it lost when Andrei Sakharov died in 1989. Human rights groups like Memorial, in the forefront of the democratic reform movement under Mikhail Gorbachev, are now marginal. If Sakharov had a leading protégé, it was Sergei Kovalyov, a biologist who spent many years in prison under Brezhnev and later helped lead the human rights movement. One of Yeltsin's most promising gestures was his appointment of Kovalyov as commissioner of human rights, and one of the most depressing events of his reign was Kovalyov's resignation when he recognized that he could not convince the government to end the war in Chechnya. Kovalyov is hardly a presence in public life these days—he appears more often in The New York Review of Books than in Izvestia—and no one seems to have replaced him. Even the most liberal journalists seem uninterested in Kovalyov or anyone of his ilk. After years of talking about ideas and ideals, they are cynical, intent only on discussing economic interests; the worst sin is to seem naive, woolly, bookish—or hopeful.

"The quality of democracy depends heavily on the quality of the democrats," Kovalyov told me after the elections. "We have to wait for a critical mass of people with democratic principles to accumulate. It's like a nuclear explosion: the critical mass has to accrue. Without this, everything will be like it is now, always in fits and starts. Our era of romantic democracy is long over. We have finally fallen to earth."


When and how will that critical mass accumulate? Russia should not be mistaken for a democratic state. Rather, it is a nascent state with some features of democracy and, alas, many features of oligarchy and authoritarianism. When and how will a more complete transformation of its political culture occur? Is Russia capable of building a stable democratic state, or is it forever doomed to follow a historical pattern in which long stretches of absolutism are briefly interrupted by fleeting periods of reform?

First, it pays to review the legacy—the damage—of history. Russia seems at times to have been organized to maximize the isolation of the people and, in modern times, to prevent the possibility of democratic capitalism. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church, for centuries the dominant institution in Russian life, was by nature deeply suspicious of, even hostile to, the outside world. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church distanced itself from transnational creeds like Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Buddhism. Xenophobia pervaded both church and state. During the Soviet regime that xenophobia only intensified. Under the banner of communist internationalism, the Bolsheviks successfully kept the world at bay until the glasnost policy was instituted in the late 1980s.

Russian absolutism has proved unique in its endurance and intensity. In many regards the authority of the tsars exceeded that of nearly all other European monarchs. As Richard Pipes points out in the June 1996 Commentary,

throughout Europe, even in countries living under absolutist regimes, it was considered a truism that kings ruled but did not own: a popular formula taken from the Roman philosopher Seneca that "unto kings belongs the power of all things and unto individual men, property." Violations of the principle were perceived as a hallmark of tyranny. This whole complex of ideas was foreign to Russia. The Muscovite crown treated the entire realm as its property and all secular landowners as the tsar's tenants-in-chief, who held their estate at his mercy on the condition of faithful service.

Tsarist absolutism was far more severe than the English variety because of its greater control of property. With the rise of the Bolshevik regime, property became, in the theoretical jargon of the period, the property of all, but in practice it remained the property of the sovereign—the Communist Party and its general secretary. And the communists were even less inclined to develop a culture of legality—of property rights, human rights, and independent courts—than the last of the Romanovs had been.

Likewise, under both the tsars and general secretaries, the government had only, in Gorbachev's rueful phrase, "the legitimacy of the bayonet." Violence and the threat of violence characterized nearly all of Russian political history. The two great breakthroughs—the fall of Nicholas II in February 1917 and the fall of Gorbachev as Communist Party leader in August 1991—came only after it was clear that both figures would refuse, or were incapable of, the slaughter necessary to prolong their regimes. Many Russian intellectuals today, including gulag survivors like the writer Lev Razgon, believe that the communist regime's policy of forced exile, imprisonment, and execution exacted a demographic, even genetic, toll on the Russian people's inherent capacity to create a democratic critical mass. "When one begins to tally up the millions of men and women, the best and the brightest of their day, who were killed or forced out of the country, then one begins to calculate how much moral and intellectual capacity we lost," Razgon told me. "Think of how many voices of understanding we lost, think of how many independent-minded people we lost, and how those voices were kept from the ears of Soviet citizens. Yes, I am furious beyond words at Yeltsin for the war in Chechnya and for other mistakes. But we have to look at our capacities, the injuries this people has absorbed over time."

Finally, Russia will have to alter its intellectual approach to political life. Even though Gennady Zyuganov failed to carry the elections last year with his nationalist-Bolshevik ideology, he proved that maximalist ideas still resonate among a certain segment of the population. In 1957 Isaiah Berlin, writing in the October issue of Foreign Affairs, accurately described the traditional Russian yearning for all-embracing ideologies rooted in the anti-intellectual and eschatological style of the Russian Orthodox Church. As Berlin pointed out, the Russian revolutionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were obsessed not with liberal ideas, much less political and intellectual pluralism, but were instead given to a systemic cast of mind—and in the most extreme ways. They first absorbed German historicism in its Hegelian form, in which history obeyed scientific laws leading it in a determinate direction, and then the utopian prophecies of Saint-Simon and Fourier:

Unlike the West, where such systems often languished and declined amid cynical indifference, in the Russian Empire they became fighting faiths, thriving on the opposition to them of contrary ideologies—mystical monarchism, Slavophile nostalgia, clericalism, and the like; and under absolutism, where ideas and daydreams are liable to become substitutes for action, ballooned out into fantastic shapes, dominating the lives of their devotees to a degree scarcely known elsewhere. To turn history or logic or one of the natural sciences—biology or sociology—into a theodicy; to seek, and affect to find, within them solutions to agonizing moral or religious doubts and perplexities; to transform them into secular theologies—all that is nothing new in human history. But the Russians indulged in this process on a heroic and desperate scale, and in the course of it brought forth what today is called the attitude of total commitment, at least of its modern form.

By the end of the process, Russian intellectuals—not least Lenin himself—derided the weakness, the unsystematic approach, of Western liberalism. For Lenin, Marxism provided a scientific explanation for human behavior. All he needed was the technological means of altering that behavior.

But while the Russian and Soviet leadership have been xenophobic, absolutist, violent, and extremist, there have always been signs of what the scholar Nicolai Petro, in his 1995 book The Rebirth of Russian Democracy, calls an "alternative political culture." If Russians today were to attempt to create a modern state purely from foreign models and experience, if there was nothing in Russian history to learn from, rely on, or take pride in, one could hardly expect much. But that is not the case. Perhaps Russia cannot rely, as the Founding Fathers did, on a legacy like English constitutionalism, but the soil of Russian history is still far from barren.

Even the briefest survey of alternative currents in Russian history must take note of the resistance to absolutism under Peter I and Catherine the Great or, in the nineteenth century, the Decembrist revolt against Nicholas I. While Nicholas was able to crush the Decembrists, their demands for greater civil and political authority did not fade; in fact, their demands became the banner of rebellion that persisted, in various forms and movements, until the February revolution of 1917. Alexander II's decree abolishing serfdom was followed by the establishment of local governing boards, or zemstvos, and out of that form of limited grassroots politics came more pressure on the tsar. In May 1905, after a long series of strikes, the Third Zemstvo Congress appealed to the tsar for a transition to constitutional government, and the tsar soon issued an edict accepting constitutional monarchy. The constitution published in 1906 guaranteed the inviolability of person, residence, and property, the right of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press—so long as the press was not criticizing the tsar.

Under Soviet rule, the Communist Party was far quicker to suppress signs of an alternative political culture than Nicholas II had been, but expressions of resistance and creativity endured. Under Khrushchev, in the thaw years, a few artists and journalists began to reveal the alternative intellectual and artistic currents flowing under the thick ice of official culture, and beginning in the late 1960s one began to see the varied currents of political dissent: Sakharov and the Western-oriented human rights movement; "reform" socialists like Roy Medvedev; religious dissidents like Aleksandr Men and Gleb Yakunin, both Russian Orthodox priests; and traditionalist neo-Slavophile dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and the authors of From Under the Rubble.

Yeltsin's government has not been especially successful in articulating the nature of the new Russian state. But, however formless, the new state has made a series of symbolic overtures. By adopting the prerevolutionary tricolor and double-headed eagle as national emblems, the government has deliberately reached back to revive a sense of possibility from the past. Similarly, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has had restored and rebuilt dozens of churches and monuments destroyed during the Soviet period, including the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the banks of the Moscow River. There is also a revived interest in Ivan Ilyin, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other ‚migr‚, philosophers who tried to describe Russian political and spiritual values. Academics are struggling to write new textbooks. Religious leaders are coping with the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church among a people with little religious education and only a sentimental attachment to their faith. These outcroppings are not mere kitsch or intellectual fashions but an attempt to reconnect Russians to their own history and the notion of national development that was shattered with the Bolshevik coup of 1917.


Although daily life in Russia suffers from a painful economic, political, and social transition, the prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before. As former Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar has said, "Russia today is not a bad subject for long-term prognostication, and a very inappropriate subject for short-term analysis." There seems no reason why Russia cannot break with its absolutist past in much the way that Germany and Japan did after World War II.

Since the late 1980s, Russia has come a long way in this direction. The decades of confrontation with the West are over. Russia has withdrawn its talons, and except for the need to vent some nationalist rhetoric once in a great while, it offers little threat to the world. For all the handwringing by Henry Kissinger and other Russophobes, there is no imminent threat of renewed imperialism, even within the borders of the old Soviet Union. The danger of conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea or between Russia and Kazakstan over northern Kazakstan has greatly diminished in the last few years. After centuries of isolation, Russia seems ready to live not merely with the world but in it. The peril it poses is less a deliberate military threat than chaos and random events like the theft of "loose nukes." Russians are free to travel. They are free to consume as much foreign journalism, intellectual history, and popular culture as they desire. The authorities encourage foreign influence and business: more than 200,000 foreign citizens reside in Moscow, many times the number before 1990. Communication with the outside world is limited only by Russia's dismal international telephone system, and scholars and businesspeople have finessed that limitation with personal computers and electronic mail, which are rapidly becoming more widely available.

In the short term, most Russians cannot hope for much, especially from their politicians. If after his surgery Yeltsin's health does not improve dramatically, there will likely be an atmosphere of permanent crisis in Moscow. "I lived through the last days of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, and I know how illness in power leads to danger," Mikhail Gorbachev told me shortly after the recent elections. "We survived back then thanks only to the inertia of the Soviet system. But Russia needs dynamic people in office and now, well . . ." Gorbachev has never been charitable to Yeltsin (nor Yeltsin, Gorbachev), but he was right.

The most important figures in the government will be Yeltsin's chief of staff, Chubais, the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. Such a government is likely to uphold a more or less friendly relationship with Washington and the West and to preside over a semicapitalist, semioligarchic economy. But unless the government begins to fight corruption, create a legal order, and strengthen the court system, the state will continue to be compared with the Latin American countries and the South Korea of the 1970s.

If Yeltsin dies sooner rather than later, his circle will either follow the letter of the constitution and hold presidential elections after three months, or it will find an excuse to avoid them. The latter choice would go a long way toward negating the limited progress made since 1991. Russia has yet to prove it can undergo a peaceful and orderly transfer of power—one of the most crucial tests in the development of a democracy. If the government does go forward with elections, the likely combatants would include Chernomyrdin, Luzhkov, Lebed, and Zyuganov.

Lebed's popularity is the highest of the four, but what kind of man he is and what sort of president he would be is unknown. He is considered flexible and educable by many Western visitors, but his is a flexibility born mainly of ignorance. Lebed is a military man, but unlike Colin Powell or Dwight Eisenhower—to say nothing of his hero, Charles de Gaulle—he has hardly any experience beyond the military. Lebed must be given credit for signing a peace treaty with the Chechens during his short tenure as security minister. He is also, by most accounts, a decent and honest man, which sets him apart from most who have set foot in the Kremlin. But he has displayed a willful, even outrageous, disregard for the president he was ostensibly serving. Aleksandr Lebed's first priority, so far, appears to be Aleksandr Lebed. It is discouraging that the most visible political alliance he formed after leaving the Kremlin was with Aleksandr Korzhakov, Yeltsin's crony and bodyguard before he was bounced from the government during the campaign. Korzhakov, for his part, has landed easily on his feet; he has decided to run for parliament from Lebed's home district, Tula, and should any of his old rivals threaten him, he has promised to release "incriminating evidence" against Yeltsin and his aides.

Lebed's potential rivals are more fixed in their views and political behavior, but they are not a promising lot. Zyuganov still has supporters, especially in the oldest and poorest sectors of the population, but he has little or no chance to win if he repeats the tactics and rhetoric of 1996. The communists would do well to jettison any traces of the past and adopt, as some are proposing, a new name for the party and younger faces to run it. A party of social democrats is inevitable in Russia, but not under Zyuganov.

Chernomyrdin represents a longed-for predictability abroad, but to Russians he represents the worst of Yeltsin's government: corruption, privilege, and an almost delusional disregard for the public. Chernomyrdin is also singularly inarticulate. The only way he could win the presidency would be to exploit the resources of the Kremlin and gain the support of the media to an even greater degree than Yeltsin did in 1996. As mayor, Luzhkov is extremely popular in Moscow—a kind of Russian Richard Daley—but he would have to cope with the traditional Russian tendency to be suspicious of political figures from the capital.

At this writing, the Kremlin depends on the heart tissue of one man and the conflicting economic and political interests of his would-be inheritors.

But not all depends on Yeltsin, or on Moscow. Russia is a far less centralized country than the Soviet Union was, for while Moscovite political life is rife with intrigue and gives off the whiff of authoritarian arrogance, it is also relatively weak. In Soviet times, regional party leaders looked to Moscow as if to Mecca. Now one decree after another is issued, but local authorities adopt what they like and ignore the rest. Development and progress are wildly different in the country's 89 regions, and much depends on the local political map. Beyond Moscow, in the most encouraging region, centered around Nizhny Novgorod, young, progressive politicians like Mayor Boris Nemtsov have made good on their promises to create "capitalism in one country." One of the biggest problems with the Soviet economy was its heavy militarization; Nizhny Novgorod, the third-largest city in the country, was one of the most militarized. Yet not only has the city managed, by privatizatizing, breaking up monopolies, and issuing bonds, to create thriving service and manufacturing sectors, it has also converted 90 percent of its collective farms to private ownership. Meanwhile, 500 miles down the Volga River, the communist-run city government of Ulyanovsk, Lenin's hometown, has refused to participate in radical reform. Ulyanovsk's economy is a shambles. Unfortunately, too many Russian cities have followed the path of Ulyanovsk rather than Nizhny Novgorod.

Not all regions, however, can thrive simply by adopting the market reforms of Nizhny Novgorod. The coal-mining regions of western Siberia will continue to suffer for the same reasons the miners of many other countries have suffered: the mines are nearly exhausted and no alternative industry has developed. Most farming regions have resisted the difficult transformation to private enterprise, largely because of the vast amounts of capital needed for modern equipment and the inevitable reductions in the work force privatization entails. Agricultural areas like the Kuban or Gorbachev's home region of Stavropol have only suffered since 1991.

The mafia and tough moral questions also play a local role in deciding how or whether reform occurs. The mobster Vladimir "The Poodle" Podiatev controls the city of Khabarovsk to the extent that he has his own political party and television station. Chechnya will continue to gnaw at the attention, if not the conscience, of Moscow. Grozny, Chechnya's capital city, is in ruins, and the local authorities consider themselves victors; the rule of Islam, not the rule of Moscow, now prevails.

When describing Russia's situation and the country's prospects, analysts tend to grope for analogies with other countries and eras. The rise of oligarchy summons up Argentina, the power vacuum evokes Weimar Germany, the dominance of the mafia hints at postwar Italy, and the presidential constitution recalls de Gaulle's France of 1958. But while Russia's problems alarm the world on occasion, none of these analogies takes into account the country's possibilities.

Since 1991 Russia has broken dramatically with its absolutist past. The almost uniformly rosy predictions for China and the almost uniformly gloomy ones for Russia are hard to justify. Political reform is not the only advantage Russia has. Unlike China, where rural poverty and illiteracy still predominate, Russia is an increasingly urban nation with a literacy rate of 99 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the Russian economy is in private hands. Inflation, a feature of all formerly communist countries, dropped from a runaway 2,500 percent in 1992 to 130 percent in 1995. Russia's natural resources are unparalleled. In their perceptive 1996 book, The Coming Russian Boom, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and John Parker, a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist, arm themselves with an array of impressive statistics allowing them to predict that by the year 2020 Russia "may well have outstripped countries like Poland, Hungary, Brazil and Mexico with China far behind."

Not least in Russia's list of advantages is that its citizens show every indication of refusing a return to the maximalism of communism or the xenophobia of hard-line nationalism. The idea of Russia's separate path of development is increasingly a losing proposition for communists and nationalists alike. The highly vulgarized versions of a national idea—Zyuganov's "National Bolshevism" or the various anti-Semitic, anti-Western platforms of figures like the extremist newspaper editor Aleksandr Prokhanov—have repelled most Russian voters, no matter how disappointed they are with Yeltsin. Anti-Semitism, for example, has no great political attraction, as many feared it would; even Lebed, who has his moments of nationalist resentment, has felt it necessary to apologize after making bigoted comments. He will not win as an extremist. Rather, he appeals to popular disgust with the corruption, violence, and general lack of integrity of the Yeltsin government.

Perhaps it is a legacy of the Cold War that so many American observers demand so much so soon from Russia. Russia is no longer an enemy or anything resembling one, yet Americans demand to know why, for example, there are no developed political parties in Russia, somehow failing to remember that it took the United States—with all its historical advantages, including its enlightened founders—more than 60 years of independence to develop its two-party system, or that in France nearly all the parties have been vehicles for such less than flawless characters as Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. The drama of 1991 so accelerated Western notions of Russian history that our expectations became outlandish. Now that many of those expectations have been disappointed, deferred, and even betrayed, it seems we have gone back to expecting only the worst from Russia.

The most famous of all nineteenth-century visitors to Russia, the Marquis de Custine, ended his trip and his narrative by writing, "One needs to have lived in that solitude without tranquillity, that prison without leisure that is called Russia, to appreciate all the freedom enjoyed in other European countries, no matter what form of government they have chosen . . . It is always good to know that there exists a society in which no happiness is possible, because, by reason of his nature, man cannot be happy unless he is free." But that has changed. A new era has begun. Russia has entered the world, and everything, even freedom, even happiness, is possible.

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  • DAVID REMNICK is a Staff Writer at The New Yorker and was the Moscow Correspondent for The Washington Post from 1988 to 1991.
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