Modern Russia: What Went Wrong?
When did Russia’s relationship with the West turn sour?
Perestroika and the subsequent end of the Soviet Union was, for most of us young, educated people with plenty of energy and optimism, tremendously positive news. Not only did we get rid of the oppressive communist regime. Rather, the advent of private property, freedom of expression and freedom of travel has promised us a great deal of personal liberty, ability to realize our dreams of becoming prosperous, independent, free-spirited human beings we always wanted to be.
In 1991, emancipated from the patronage of the state, constrains of planned economy and oversight of the security services, we thought of ourselves as a new generation of Russians capable of making our country an integral part of the modern world.
In 2014, some 25 years later, many of my friends and former classmates rejoice over “Russia’s civilization,” pure of liberal modernity and rich of autocratic Byzantine connotations. Suddenly, to be a part of the modern world became synonymous with degradation, decadence and inevitable decline. War with brotherly Ukraine is — if not fashionable — popular, even among some of the Moscow elite. The Soviet narrative of the beauty of isolationism is as pervasive as ever. What exactly did go wrong?
First Democratic Decade
Indeed, not all was peaceful these past two decades. Though collapse of the Soviet state was greeted with enthusiasm, the new Russian government’s abdicating its all and every social responsibility was less welcomed. Millions, though able to enjoy an unprecedented level of personal freedom, were thrown beyond the poverty line. The “wild capitalism” of the 1990s was the time of unprecedented — since the Second World War — hardship for most Russians, but especially for the intelligentsia, dreaming of a better future, but unable to sustain itself in the harsh reality of the present.
The first “democratic” decade in Russia has also proved to be particularly difficult. Criminal gangs reigned unabated. Mafia thrived in almost every Russian city, investing into gambling, crime and politics. State control became increasingly weak while bureaucracy indulged in corruption. The development of the middle-class was slow and painful, with the 1998 crisis hitting particularly hard at those who managed, even in the most adverse conditions, to do well — the new Russian bourgeoisie.
The determination to see Russia as part of the civilized world was so great that even the 1998 crisis was hailed as a sign of “our economy taking its rightful place at the world economic table.”
Internationally, things were also looking bleak. Though many hoped for speedy and smooth acceptance of Russia into the European family of nations, this was not the case. Instead of granting young Russians an opportunity of visa-free travel across the world, Western nations, under various pretexts, remained unwelcoming. As more people had money to travel abroad, queues at foreign embassies grew ever longer, as did humiliating cross-examination at the consulates.
An opportunity to welcome ordinary Russians — not oligarchs — into the Western world was missed. By 2000, all eastern European nationals, as well as citizens of former Soviet Baltic republics, were able to travel freely across the European Union (EU). However, “logistic and economic reasons” prevented the EU, under the influence of its new Baltic members, from welcoming the citizens of its “strategic partner” — ordinary Russians. The whole range of economic and social reforms needed for the visa-free agreement were too complex to be implemented in a decade or two, or so EU officials claimed.
Expansion of NATO has also proved to be difficult to reconcile with the spirit of common purpose and shared cultural identity — so widely talked about in the early 1990s. While for most Russians a united Europe meant the Europe free of military confrontations and border patrols, Western officials — it seemed — saw things differently.
Living in Estonia in the early 2000s, I could not fail to notice the transformation of the NATO narrative from one of security and prosperity for all of Europe, to the glorification of the “victorious West,” which managed to “subdue the Russian threat.” Equaling the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union in all but its ability to project power beyond its borders, Western politicians wasted no time remembering Andrey Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who advocated freedom for all, instead of security for a select few.
Still, public opinion back at home was favorable to cooperation, not confrontation with Europe and the US. Sending Russian marines to Pristina airport in 1999, at the height of the Bosnian War, was greeted with dismay rather than patriotic hysteria. Though some hailed the Pristina incident as “our country’s return to the world stage,” the majority of Russian intellectuals branded it as Boris Yeltsin’s outright attempt to resort to Khruschev-style adventurism.
The determination to see Russia as part of the civilized world was so great that even the 1998 crisis was hailed as a sign of “our economy taking its rightful place at the world economic table.” Vladimir Putin’s initial support of the US “War on Terror,” some years later, was also greeted with resounding approval. For a while, it looked like the path for a real East-West partnership was clear.
It seemed that by the early 2000s, the question of the future of Russia was settled. The majority was firmly for the cooperation with the West, for the adoption of modern democratic norms and practices, and the development of the law-abiding, thriving civil society. Various nongovernmental organizations (NGO), including many international ones, were opening their Moscow and regional offices across Russia. Russian military was cooperating with NATO, providing it with crucial material and logistical support in what it always considered to be its core sphere of influence: former Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Russian Space Agency was playing a pivotal role in constructing and operating of the International Space Station.
In 2004, the EU has reached Russian borders, with the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania becoming its members. By then, the EU and Russia were working together on a broad range of challenges of bilateral and international concern, including climate change, drug and human trafficking, organized crime, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, the Middle East peace process, the future of Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear program.
Unsurprisingly, in 2010, the Russia Happiness Index reached 75 points, an all-time-high since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many, the road ahead was clear: Years of struggle and hard work paid up. If not a full member of the North Atlantic community, Russia was its equal partner. If not quite Europe, a fast-growing economy was unharmed by the economic crisis. We have, it seemed, survived Yeltsin’s decentralization, Putin’s consolidation and, many thought, have found the equilibrium between conservatism and liberalism that will make Russia evolve peacefully and steadily into a modern, pluralistic society.
The Year of Illusion
It all ended in September 2011. Democratic transition of power failed to materialize. First, the parliamentary elections, and then the presidential elections, were rigged. Demands of the Russian middle-class for a fair share of the political process were rejected. Putin’s reaction to calls of reforms in 2011 was similar to that in 2003, when a group of oligarchs demanded — though not quite so publicly — a political role of their own. Then, as in 2011, Putin turned public opinion against those “determined to undermine Russia’s sovereignty.”
The trick, it seems, is as old as politics itself. Compared to the idea advocated by the “early” Mikhail Gorbachev — “socialism with the human face” — Putin’s is the one of a gilded mask of nationalistic indifference and arrogance.
Calls by the opposition for an international boycott of Putin’s regime were unanswered. Despite gross violations of electoral law, systematic abuse of those trying to exercise their legitimate right to protest, and incarceration of protest leaders, the West remained determined to affirm — rather than support the efforts to change — the status quo.
During a conference in Berlin in November 2012, I asked one high-ranking German official whether the EU and the US have had any luck in trying to influence Putin and his government. “Influence? If we need to we can have them change their minds in a day. Do not forget that not only everything, but everyone in politics is linked. And linking means knowing — enough to make them listen to us and listen very carefully,” he said. “But we need political will and consent. And not just of a single president or prime minister. Knowing Brussels it is impossible.”
Luck of internal coherence among the protesters, violent crackdowns, impotence or indifference of the world democratic community meant that by the end of what can be called “the year of illusion” — 2012 — Putin was as much in control of Russia as before. A period of what one of my friends called an “implosion” among those involved in protests has begun. For some, this meant immigration, for others — resorting to various forms of extremism, for many — withdrawal from any political activity whatsoever.
For most, the fear that the best 20 years of our lives were wasted on building a state-controlled economy based on giant, state-controlled, export-oriented industrial conglomerates with private business pushed to the background, overseen by an autocratic government with a strong security apparatus, with an army of bureaucrats in charge of every aspect of social, economic and cultural life, became reality. In short, on something we used to ridicule and despise, a Chinese version of opportunistic socialism.
The Gilded Mask of Nationalism
The severity of the situation was particularly palpable when talking to some of my former colleagues in the banking community. Nearly all of them considered emigrating as the only viable alternative for themselves and their families. “I don’t want them to have my past as their future,” said a person in charge of one of the biggest Russian brokerage houses, a former young communist league (Komsomol) executive now in his late 40s.
However, only two years later, more than 80% of Russians support Putin. How did he achieve this? The trick, it seems, is as old as politics itself. Compared to the idea advocated by the “early” Mikhail Gorbachev — “socialism with the human face” — Putin’s is the one of a gilded mask of nationalistic indifference and arrogance. Many of my Russian friends willingly put it on when talking about the war with Georgia, Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, Russian-speaking minorities in Kazakhstan and the Baltics.
The mask allows to speak, but not to listen; to argue, but not to see. The pose of grandeur, which masks their sorrow, the bitterness I sense every time we talk about all these years of struggle and hope, and thirst for a new Russia that is no more. It also makes them, if not to embrace the lies, to stop looking for the truth. The mask, which allows to keep living in Russia and not to flee, takes away the dreams about the future we managed to lose yet again.
As is often said, the war in Ukraine is civil war. Russians and Ukrainians belong to the same ethnic, cultural and religious realm and any conflict between them is national catastrophe, as is a war between any two European nations. But first and foremost, the war with Ukraine is a war against the future, free of lies, manipulations or fear.
In early August 1939, a British delegation sailed to Moscow in a slow merchant ship. An attempt was made to prevent a world war by concluding a mutual assistance treaty between Western powers and the Soviet government. By the time the delegation reached Russian shores, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was agreed — it only took four hours for the Germans to reach Moscow by plane. In December 2011, when mass protests began in Moscow and across the country, Russia was perhaps only a phone call away from launching a new political reality of a modern, dynamic and prosperous democracy in the heart of Eurasia. In August 2014, it may take yet another European war to help Russia find its way back.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.