The characters of nature are legible, it is true; but they are not plain enough to enable those who run to read them.
—Edmund Burke, On Taste
Post-Communist Russia’s ten-year-old experiment in democracy, civil and political liberty, and a free market is not unlike the movement of a long, disorderly caravan on a vast and swampy plain—stopping, stumbling, occasionally all but drowning in muck, yet stubbornly creaking forward. Following closely behind this caravan, but never quite catching up, is a crowd of journalists and experts. Their heads are hung. They look neither backward to measure the road already traversed, nor to the sides to compare the caravan’s progress with that of neighboring nomads, nor yet forward to where the road might lead. Instead, their eyes seem to be fixed forever on the dirt covering the wheels, the ruts in the road, and the swamp creatures feasting on the piles of refuse in the wagons’ wake.
To the citizen of a mature liberal democracy, much in today’s Russia must indeed appear flawed and ugly. There is a great deal to point to, from rampant corruption, to brutality in Chechnya, to the abuse of military conscripts, to attempts to curb the independence of national television. And how could it be otherwise? Quite apart from the ignorance and venality that invariably attend enormous undertakings of any kind, post-Soviet Russia is a product of seven decades and four generations of a system in which mass murder, fear, and lies were routine. “History,” said Alexander Yakovlev, speaking of Soviet Communism, “has never known such a concentrated hatred toward the human being.”
The other half of the Soviet inheritance was an autarchic, obsolete, chronically retarded, coal-and-steel economy that, outside the military sectors, was decades behind the West, imported everything of quality, and relied on the sale of oil abroad and vodka at home for its two largest sources of revenue. According to a secret study commissioned by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, the end of state subsidies would have resulted in the instant unemployment of 40 million people. Corruption and thievery were near-universal. Poverty was crushing—in 1988, 43 million people in the Soviet Union, or nearly one in six, lived in families with per-capita monthly income of no more than 75 rubles ($7.50 at the underground exchange rate), a mere five rubles above the line officially separating those who did and did not have enough to eat. There was a housing crisis of mammoth proportions; hospitals and schools made do without running water or indoor toilets; the infant-mortality rate lagged behind Barbados and the United Arab Emirates. By the fall of 1991, the state was literally bankrupt and the country faced the specter of famine.
And today? The only sound, let alone fair, way of assessing a country’s progress is by examining it in the context of that country’s own history and in comparison with others similarly situated, not by the light of theoretical possibilities or the experiences of more distant and more fortunate lands. In the case of Russia, such an assessment is all the more urgent because of the suspicious attitude that has dominated the reaction both of many experts and of the U.S. media toward Russia’s remarkable show of solidarity with the United States since September 11, 2001.
The near-unanimous explanation for Moscow’s behavior has been that it is motivated by short-term, tactical considerations, and in expectation of a quid pro quo. If that is so, however, the payoff has yet to materialize. Last year, the United States went ahead and served notice of its intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. NATO’s eastward expansion became a certainty. The Paris Club of sovereign lenders would not give an inch on Russia’s debt-repayment schedule. No exceptions were made to facilitate Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. And after a brief post-September 11 lull, the State Department resumed its castigation of Russian behavior in Chechnya.
If Russia’s pro-American and pro-Western stance was designed to secure a return, it would seem to have been designed in error. But instead of reversing course, President Vladimir Putin proceeded to visit NATO headquarters—the first such visit by a Soviet or Russian leader—where he declared his country’s “readiness to cooperate and interact” with the alliance and signaled a softening of Russian opposition to NATO enlargement. A few weeks later, his summit with President Bush in Crawford, Texas marked a first in the history of U.S-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations: the two leaders disagreed on cardinal issues of arms control without damaging—in fact, while strengthening—overall relations between the two countries. Over the displeasure of the Europeans and the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, Russia accepted Washington’s abrogation of ABM and proceeded to sign a treaty that cut its own nuclear arsenal by two-thirds, thus undoing the principle—the “balance of terror”—that had ruled relations between the two superpowers for decades.
The simple truth is that Russia’s post-September 11 policies did not mark a sudden change of course prompted either by short-term tactical considerations or by the whim of its leader. Rather, they were the logical culmination of a longer-term change. That change is nothing short of revolutionary. Save for the eight months between February and November 1917, never in the four-and-a-half centuries of the modern Russian state has Russia been freer, or more open to the outside, or less militaristic and less threatening to its neighbors and to the world than in the past decade.
How did Russia get to where it is? And will it last? This is a story that must be told in parts.
The first distinct component of Russia’s revolutionary change is demilitarization. The extent of it may well be unprecedented in the annals of nations not defeated on the battlefield and occupied by the victors.
Following a huge cut in military procurement by the government of Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar in early 1992, the share of Russian GDP devoted to defense has gone down from at least 30 to under 5 percent.1 Last year, Putin proudly noted that for the first time in its history, Russia was spending more on education than on defense. From being the backbone of the economy, the employer and supporter of between one-fourth and one-third of the populace, and an omnipotent and omnipresent overlord, the military-industrial complex has been reduced to a neglected and often humiliated beggar.
The nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union has been reduced from 10,000 deployable strategic warheads to 6,000, and, as I have already indicated, is on its way down to 2,000 or lower. The four-million-strong armed forces of Soviet days had been halved to 1.7 million by late 1996. Today’s regular army of one million on active duty is slated to be reduced by another 350,000 men by 2003; the cuts are to include 240,000 officers and more than 380 generals. A plan drafted by two liberal parties, the Union of Rightist Forces and the Yabloko, and approved in the main by the president and the security council, envisions the abolition of the 300-year-old draft by 2010 and a transition to an all-volunteer force. No longer among the country’s sacrosanct institutions and the unchallenged master of its resources, the Russian military may soon stop owning the country’s young men as well.
Russia’s demilitarization is the result of two interrelated choices, adumbrated in Gorbachev’s “new political thinking” and implemented in the post-Communist era: the end of a messianic foreign policy and the abandonment of the USSR’s domestic and Central-European empires. Purged from post-Soviet Russian behavior is not only the “struggle against imperialism” (meaning relentless opposition to the United States and subversion of Western-oriented regimes around the world), “solidarity with world anti-imperialist forces” (that is, the establishment of Soviet-style regimes in the third world), and “proletarian internationalism” (the support of such regimes to the bitter end), but also the pre-Soviet legacy of pan-Slavism, or Moscow as the Third Rome. The break with the last-named was exemplified by Russia’s siding with the United States and its allies in Bosnia in 1992-1995; voting, in 1998, for economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and for a UN resolution demanding the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo; refusing to provide military or material assistance to Slavic and Orthodox Serbia; the firing by Yeltsin of Yevgeny Primakov, his staunchly anti-American and pro-Yugoslav prime minister; and joining in delivering the June 1999 ultimatum to Slobodan Milosevic that resulted in his giving up on Kosovo.
In 1992-95, Russia repatriated 800,000 troops, 400,000 civilian personnel, and 500,000 dependents from Eastern Europe. With the departure of the last Russian soldier from the Paldiski submarine training base in Estonia in September 1995, Russia returned, voluntarily, to its 17th-century borders. Of all the affected lands, Ukraine was the hardest and potentially the most dangerous to part with. One needs to recall the horrific bloodshed that accompanied the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan, or the demise of Yugoslavia, to appreciate the miraculously nonviolent birth of an independent Ukraine. In its own way, the 1997 treaty of friendship between Russia and Ukraine has been as central to the post-cold-war peace and stability of Europe as the French-German rapprochement engineered by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer almost four decades earlier.
The second component in the transformation of Russia has been the wholesale transfer of national wealth from state ownership to private hands. In 1991, an estimated 5 percent of GDP was produced in the nonstate sector; today, the figure is at least 70 percent. Over 900,000 private businesses have sprung up, with the actual number probably 30 to 40 percent higher if one takes into account unregistered enterprises. In the case of the largest firms, most of the new tycoons, or “oligarchs,” owe their positions to inside maneuvering, bribes, or rigged auctions; but the overwhelming majority of small and medium-sized business have been created from scratch. In the past two years, Russia has introduced a flat 13-percent income tax (which Putin claims is the “lowest in Europe”) and a 24-percent tax on corporate profits.
The state monopoly on the ownership of land, imposed by the Bolsheviks on their first day in power in 1917—and the last remaining bastion of socialism—crumbled after a 2001 bill opened 89 million acres of state-owned land in urban and industrial areas, followed by this summer’s denationalization of 548 million acres of agricultural land (an area four times the size of France). Even foreigners can now lease land for up to 49 years (or buy it through Russian nationals), and will no doubt be permitted in time to buy it outright. Among the next targets of privatization are the state monopolies in gas, utilities, and railroads, plus the state pension fund.
In a much pooh-poohed statement, Putin has said that he wants to see the Russian standard of living catch up with Portugal’s. But this, too, is a sign of epochal change: here was a Russian leader telling his people the truth about their condition, while making the improvement of that condition the goal of his government. Of course, the goal is still very far off: the poisonous residue left by the corruption and violence that attended privatization of some key state assets will impede for years, if not for decades, the emergence of what Russians call “civilized” capitalism.
The new prosperity is concentrated in the largest cities and especially in Moscow, which last year accounted for 30 percent of the country’s retail sales. It is much less noticeable in smaller towns, and it has completely bypassed the utterly impoverished countryside, ruined by 50 years of collectivized rural serfdom, mired in alcoholism, and largely abandoned by younger people. As for those employed within the languishing state sectors of the economy, including teachers and doctors, they are in many instances poorer than they were in the Soviet days. Finally, in the transition from the meager but guaranteed “iron bowl” of Communism to the benefits and uncertainties of a free market, the young are far better off than the old; pensioners have been especially hard hit by the cash shortages and inflation of the 1990’s, which left them penniless and hungry.
To be sure, these tragedies have deep roots. In the Soviet Union of the late 1980’s, hundreds of thousands of elderly women in rural communes, mostly World War II widows, survived on bread, salt, and potatoes grown on their tiny plots. Nor were such conditions confined to the countryside. After working as a physician for 50 years, my grandmother received a pension of 60 rubles a month that was nowhere near enough for her to pay the rent, buy clothes, and eat—and that was in the 1960’s.
But the longevity of these problems hardly makes them less real, and Russia’s failure so far to improve substantially the lot of its elderly citizens is an enduring blot on the transition. The same goes for the health-care crisis Russia inherited from the Soviet past. Until just a few years ago, life expectancy for the generation of men poisoned by the state-sponsored vodka binge of 1960-1985 continued to decline to the lower end of third-world levels. To make matters worse, an explosion of drug addiction, aggravated by a lack of disposable syringes and retrograde methods of blood transfusion, had resulted in a budding AIDS epidemic.
And yet, despite all these obstacles, and thanks to the release of enormous entrepreneurial energy, the reorientation of the national economy has already produced startling results. Of these, the single most important as far as the United States is concerned must surely be the success of the privatized and deregulated oil industry. Unlike the state-owned gas monopoly Gasprom, which may go bankrupt and is likely to be broken up and sold, the “big six” private oil companies have reversed the Soviet record of decline; in the past two years, Russia’s oil output has increased by 15 percent, and it is projected to grow by 11 percent this year.
Last February, for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia pumped more oil (7.28 million barrels a day) than Saudi Arabia, and it has since continued to outstrip the desert kingdom. Due to much higher production costs and much smaller established reserves, Russia is not likely ever to displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest exporter. But if and when Russian oil starts to flow into this country, it will significantly reduce U.S. dependence on the Middle East and add a rather thick layer of armor to U.S. foreign policy.2
For ordinary Russians, one of the most visible benefits of privatization has been something as simple, and as essential to human dignity, as fresh and delicious food available almost everywhere. Even before land was officially privatized, highly efficient “individual” farms, which had sprung up wherever regional governors or legislatures were too impatient to wait for Moscow, were already producing 40 percent of the total agricultural output on only 6 percent on the land. Ever since a wholly privatized wholesale commodity trade ensured market prices for farmers’ produce, half of the crop no longer rots in the fields or in grain elevators. Last year, for the first time since the early 1960’s, Russia not only managed to feed its people and livestock without the benefit of imports but exported over five million tons of grain.
In the late 1980’s, Russians were spending, on average, 54 hours a month in queues. Outside Moscow, meat appeared in stores twice a year; at all other times one could purchase—once a month and only with a valid ration coupon—“meat products,” which in the case of one large industrial city (Kirov) amounted to half a pound of “cooked sausage” and ten ounces of “smoked sausage.” On a list of 221 essential food products, according to a leading Soviet economist, only 23 were regularly for sale in state stores. Today, food shortages, rationing of butter and meat, and multi-hour queues for milk and eggs are an increasingly dim memory. Gone, too, is the crassest of inequities: food distribution according to political loyalty and usefulness to the state. The delights formerly reserved for the nomenklatura are easily surpassed by the fare available from a regular supermarket.
Russian cities, especially larger ones, have been transformed: brightly lit streets, clean sidewalks, repaired and repainted buildings, new construction, inviting shop windows. Private enterprise has turned 850-year-old Moscow into a young, bright, booming metropolis, and one of Europe’s best (and best hidden) gastronomic values.3 The lives of Russian women, especially younger and college-educated ones, have changed beyond recognition. Women own 40 percent of the country’s registered private businesses and have broken into occupations that were hitherto either inconceivable or nonexistent: newspaper columnist, party leader, banker, political analyst. When it comes to fashion, diet, physical fitness, recreation, the availability of contraception, average age of marriage and child-bearing, or career opportunities, the transformation from only ten years ago is astounding.
I have not listed other indicators of a vastly improved standard of living. In 1990, there were eighteen cars per 100 households; in 2001 there were 42, and this year the number is likely to increase to 52. In 2001, over 2.5 million Muscovites owned cellular phones—in a city of 9 million. In the past two years, the number of Internet users has grown by 40 percent.
Thanks to the profusion of private institutions of higher learning, there were 75 percent more colleges and 50 percent more students in 2000 than in 1992. The number of private charities has grown from zero in 1988 to 70,000 in 2001. In 1991, of 290 million Soviet citizens, about a half million traveled; last year, out of a Russian population of 145 million, an estimated 5.25 million did. Eighty percent of the books published in Russia today are brought out by privately-owned houses; with both censorship and state monopoly having become things of the past, Russian bookstores evince no “policy” other than selling as many wares as possible. In Moscow’s largest bookstore, volumes of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, Nabokov and Sakharov, Hayek and Keynes stand next to biographies of Bill Gates and Monica Lewinsky.
Between a quarter and a third of the population makes up Russia’s steadily growing middle class. It consumes half of available goods and services, and it produces, overwhelmingly through the private sector, at least 30 percent of the country’s GDP. The emergence of this stratum—from zero—is one of the most momentous results of privatization. Its values, its attitudes, are among Russia’s best hopes, and a forceful demonstration of the truth that economic policy in Russia is only one manifestation of a fundamental re-orientation of larger national objectives. The jettisoning of militarism and empire has been accompanied by a jettisoning of state expansion and control over society. For the first time, the well-being of the individual, not the glory and might of the state, are Russia’s declared goals.
Interviewed by an American reporter on the eve of parliamentary elections in December 1999, one new entrepreneur, a thirty-eight-year-old regional distributor of medical supplies in the city of Voronezh, said:
I don’t know who will be leading Russia in a year’s time. But in this little piece of Russia, I know what we will do. We will improve services. We will hire new people, we will improve salaries. These are our plans, and most of them are realistic. We will do what we can in our own house.
The third and final component of the Russian road to liberal democracy is de-Bolshevization, which amounts to less than democratization—and also considerably more. It falls short because it is not synonymous with creating free institutions and endowing them with the integrity, robustness, and independence characteristic of liberal-democratic states. But it also marks an unparalleled shift in political mentality, and is a necessary if not yet a sufficient condition of full democratization.
Again, the forest should not obscure the trees. Even in Moscow, Russia’s most liberal city, Bolshevism is alive and well, as evidenced in Mayor Luzhkov’s periodic round-ups of “dark-skinned Caucasians” or his appalling proposal to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinisky, the brute who headed the Soviet secret police, to Lubyanka Square. The mummified corpse of Lenin still reposes in its tomb in Red Square, and will stay there until the 20-25 percent of the population that votes Communist is reduced at least by half—which might take another decade.
Bolshevism lives in the appalling brutality of the Chechen war. The “forbid!” and “scare!” instincts of the Soviet past periodically inform Vladimir Putin’s dealings with his critics in the mass media. Even as a remarkable religious revival continues apace, local authorities, egged on by the Orthodox church, harass newly founded Protestant denominations, and last September a fifth Roman Catholic priest, with a parish in Rostov-on-Don, was denied a re-entry visa. A young scholar, Igor Sutyagin, remains jailed without trial on what appear to be trumped-up charges of espionage.
Yet, just as undeniably, several defining Bolshevik features have been abandoned. Among them, very early on, was mercilessness. In the struggle between Communists and reformers, the losing Communists got away not only with their lives but with their political futures. Not one of the leaders of the 1991 Communist putsch, who surrounded Yeltsin’s headquarters with tanks, was ever brought to trial, and two of these leaders were subsequently elected to the Duma on the Communist ticket.
The same goes for the 638 members of the rump Congress of People’s Deputies who with armed force defied Yeltsin’s 1993 decree dissolving parliament. Never in the blood-soaked history of the Soviet or the Russian state had such treatment—a blanket amnesty—been accorded to the members or supporters of a defeated armed rebellion. (Had Yeltsin and his supporters lost, their own fate, spelled out in the criminal code ratified by the rump Congress, would have been death.) Within a month, the opposition Communist newspapers, including Pravda, Sovetskaya Rossia, and the especially noxious and incendiary Den (Day), which changed its name to Zavtra (Tomorrow), were back on sale, as militant as ever.
In post-Soviet Russia, the guarantor of liberty and private property is the 1993 constitution, at the time a much-criticized document. But for nine years, including a period of severe financial crisis and currency devaluation in 1998, not to mention the “cold civil war” of 1995-99, when a pro-reform Kremlin and a Communist-dominated parliament were locked in battle, it has proved a surprisingly resilient framework. Its list of “foundations of a constitutional system” begins by declaring “man, his rights and liberties” as the highest value, which it is the duty of the state to recognize and protect. Among other such “foundations” are private property, ideological diversity, and a multiparty system. The state may establish no official ideology or religion. Separate articles guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. Censorship is prohibited. Not one of the enumerated liberties has been implemented fully or consistently; but all are alive, observed in the main, evolving, and becoming habitual.
Modeled on Charles de Gaulle’s 1958 constitution for the Fifth Republic, the Russian constitution was produced under similar pressures and was similarly designed to cope with an electorate deeply and passionately divided between Left and Right, and with a raucous and chaotic parliament in which no party was in the majority. In the words of the great French political analyst Raymond Aron, “When the nation is so profoundly divided, you get no common will. With the constitution of the Fifth Republic, perhaps, there will not be a common will, but there will be a will.” This objective was achieved in Russia as it was in France by explicitly skewing the balance of power away from the parliament and toward the executive, elected by all the people. Aron called the result an “elective monarchy” and an “authoritarian republic”; in its Russian version, it is even farther away from a liberal parliamentary democracy—but still, for Russia, an enormous advance.
To its credit, the Russian constitution departs from its French counterpart by withholding from the president some rather powerful tools. Thus, the federal assembly of Russia can override a presidential veto, and it is much harder for the Russian president to dissolve parliament. Indeed, the Duma, far from being impotent as it is often portrayed, has at its disposal some strong levers of influence—which, for better and for worse, it has not hesitated to use over the last years, including by blocking the privatization of land and state-owned monopolies.
Along with the renunciation of violence and cruelty in politics; freedom of speech, press, and protest; and freedom of electoral choice and opposition, a central element of de-Bolshevization has been the overhaul of the legal system. Russia’s heritage in this area was all but hopeless: 70 years of utterly politicized justice whose hallmarks were fear, secrecy, arbitrariness, and corruption; courts without resources and without power; poorly educated judges who earned less than truck drivers; all-powerful state prosecutors; and an acquittal rate of under 1 percent.
In terse, commanding sentences, the 1993 constitution laid the foundation for a Russian state of laws, and the following years have witnessed a harrowingly slow but inexorable inching toward implementation. For (once again) the first time in Russian history, ordinary citizens began to sue authorities—and win. Between 1993 and 1998 the number of such suits grew by tenfold, with the courts ruling for the plaintiffs in more than three out of four cases. The federal government and even the president were no longer immune from challenge. In what might be called Russia’s first class-action lawsuit, over 200,000 pensioners successfully litigated to force the government to recalculate benefits in their favor.
The jurisdiction of district and regional courts was widened dramatically in 1995 when they were empowered to rule on actions by both local and federal authorities. In one typical instance, the courts all but invalidated the reactionary Freedom of Conscience Law, passed in 1997 over Yeltsin’s veto and allowing local authorities to deny registration permits (and thus legality) to religious organizations—mostly Catholics and aggressively proselytizing Protestant denominations—that allegedly “incite hatred” or perpetrate “intolerant behavior.” Among the communities that owe to the courts their ability to function openly in Russia are Jehovah’s Witnesses in Orel, Pentecostals in Magadan, and the Church of Scientology in Moscow.
The single most effective tool of the post-Soviet legal revolution has been the constitutional court—aimed unprecedentedly at making a Russian government obey its own laws. Weeding out the remnants of Soviet totalitarianism, the court has struck down some key aspects of the local residence permits (the infamous propiska) that were long a requirement for obtaining a passport for foreign travel; banned the imposition of the death penalty until citizens of all regions have secured their right to a jury trial; and reinforced the rights of owners of urban real estate.
Most recently, after years of stalling in the Duma, the first post-Soviet code of criminal procedure has also been approved and signed by the president. By January 2003, only juries will hear cases of “grave” crime (murder, rape, or terrorism); in the absence of court review, individuals arrested by the police will have to be released unconditionally after 48 hours; judges will be able to rule out evidence obtained in violation of law; there will be provisions for plea-bargaining and bail; and the power to authorize arrests, searches, and seizures will shift from state prosecutors to judges. As a leading Russian daily put it, with the adoption of this new code “we are finally ridding ourselves of the atavistic Soviet judicial machine.”
No survey of the Russian situation can omit a look at the condition of Russian Jewry, both for its intrinsic interest and for what it signifies about the general health of society. For, like everywhere else in the world, only more so, the treatment of Jews tells volumes about the state of the Russian nation.
After two centuries of state-sponsored and state-enforced anti-Semitism, one should hardly be surprised to find post-Soviet Russia marred by its own quotient of anti-Jewish incidents. From hand-painted anti-Semitic posters to vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, burning of synagogues, and occasional harassment of religious and community leaders, the story does not differ markedly from that in Eastern Europe as a whole (or, of late, from the norm in certain countries of Western Europe as well). Even more disturbingly, the ultranationalist Russian National Unity party (RNE in the Russian acronym) has begun to spread its influence beyond the traditionally anti-Semitic regions of southern Russia, holding marches, mailing death threats to individual Jews, desecrating graves, and organizing public celebrations of Hitler’s birthday.
But the main anti-Semitic force in Russia today resides not in the marginalized RNE but (again like almost everywhere else) on the Left—and specifically in the Communist party, still the country’s largest political organization. Anti-Semitism was key to the electoral strategy of the party’s chairman, Gennady Zyuganov, in his 1996 presidential bid against Boris Yeltsin. (In his writings, Zyuganov named “transnational cosmopolitan forces,” “international financial oligarchy,” and the “Judaic Diaspora” as spearheads of a worldwide anti-Russian conspiracy, and his campaign’s anti-Yeltsin cartoons were suffused with anti-Semitic images.) At an October 1998 meeting of Communists and “popular patriots,” the Communist parliamentarian General Albert Makashov, who had commanded the Duma’s “defenders” in the 1993 confrontation with Yeltsin, looked directly into a television camera and intoned: “All kikes—into the grave!” Yeltsin demanded an investigation, but the party refused to condemn Makashov.
And yet here too one must retain perspective. In keeping with the new constitution, Russian domestic passports no longer contain the infamous “fifth point” (“nationality”), which in Soviet days was a primary tool of anti-Jewish discrimination in employment and education; all quotas on Jewish students in colleges and universities have been eliminated. And as for high government offices, judenrein since Khrushchev’s day, in the 1990’s these became conspicuously populated by Jews and half-Jews, especially among the main reformers. Jewishness did not impede the rise either of Grigory Yavlinksy, the leader of the (now-declining) liberal party Yabloko, or of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist proto-fascist.
Russian Jews, who make up between 1 and 2 percent of the population, were among the first to profit from the arrival of economic liberty in their country. Among the no more than twelve Russian “oligarchs”—the owners or majority stockholders of the largest industrial and financial groups—five are Jews, and the top managerial level of the Russian oil industry is heavily Jewish as well. Despite the fears of many in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and despite isolated anti-Semitic incidents, no popular backlash has materialized to threaten their position—or the position of Russian Jewry in general. Not only do all public-opinion polls show that ordinary Russians have accepted the visibility of Jews in the economy and in politics, but a pioneering study of Moscow Jewish youth organizations reveals that most young Jewish activists do not consider anti-Semitism to be a problem in their lives.
Between 1990 and 2002, the Russian Jewish community opened 75 kindergartens and 64 elementary schools. In Moscow today, there are seven Jewish day schools, three Jewish institutions of higher learning, and two rabbinical schools. Since January 2001, the Federation of Jewish Communities has been certifying Russian-made kosher foods, and three tons of kosher meat are shipped weekly to cities across Russia from a central slaughterhouse in Moscow. The city’s first Jewish camp opened in the summer of 1993 and took in 600 children. In the same year, the city government gave a building to a Lubavitch-run private school enrolling 200 boys and girls. When Natan Sharansky first returned to Moscow in 1997 as Israel’s minister of industry and trade—two decades after his arrest and eleven years after his expulsion from the Soviet Union—he experienced his “most dramatic sense of change” at a meeting with teachers in Jewish schools. “There were people from a thousand different schools,” an astounded Sharansky told a reporter. “To think that, twenty years ago, the big thing was an underground class of 40 students!”
Nor should it be forgotten that over one million native Russian-speakers live today in Israel. Every evening, tens of millions of television viewers all over the country hear paratroopers, tank commanders, rescue workers, and relatives of murdered civilians speaking in unaccented Russian about the reality of their lives in the Jewish state. Not only does this help to keep coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict refreshingly free of pro-Arab cant, but the sheer size of the immigration to Israel has forged close connections with that nation in the most unlikely places. In October 2001, an errant Ukrainian missile shot down a Siberian Airlines plane carrying recent Jewish immigrants to Israel who were flying home to celebrate Sukkot with their relatives and friends in Novosibirsk, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish tourists returning from a visit to Israel. As subsequent reports revealed, the Novosibirsk Jewish community runs a school, a synagogue, and a community center, among other institutions. On the day of the accident, the mayor of this city of 1.5 million, among whom there are no more than 15,000 Jews, came to the airport to comfort the grieving relatives.
In Russia, both people and officialdom take their cue from the head of state; in their relations to the Jewish “question,” both Russian presidents have set impressive public examples. In January 1996, at the start of his campaign against Zyuganov, who was supported by the anti-Semitic “popular patriotic forces,” Boris Yeltsin made a point of sending a personal representative to a meeting of the Russian Jewish Congress. And in the depth of the 1998 financial crisis, as leftist demonstrators burned photographs of the president with a Star of David painted on his face, Yeltsin spoke at the opening of a synagogue and Holocaust memorial in Moscow. In that “temple of remembrance,” as he called it, he declared ringingly that it was “terrible to see the appearance of homegrown [Russian] fascists, racial and ethnic intolerance. . . . It is inadmissible.”
As for Putin, in September 2000 he attended the dedication of a new Moscow synagogue and community center where he spoke about the need for ethnic and religious tolerance, and afterward he lunched in the Kremlin with Natan Sharansky. Three months later, in the presence of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin lit a Hanukkah candle and received a standing ovation at Moscow’s Lubavitch synagogue; accepting the menorah as a gift, he told the participants that “the light and warmth it radiates will illuminate the Kremlin.” In January 2001, the first kosher dinner ever prepared in the kitchen of the Kremlin was given by Putin for the visiting president of Israel, Moshe Katsav.
This past July, Putin awarded the Order of Courage to twenty-eight-year-old Tatyana Sapunova, a young Christian woman who was injured while trying to tear down a booby-trapped poster alongside a Moscow highway. The poster proclaimed “Death to Kikes.” “If we allow the bacillus of chauvinism to develop,” Putin said on this occasion, “we will destroy the country. . . . Thank God that here in Russia there are people who understand the true nature of the problem and are willing to fight.” “You are right,” the young woman answered softly. “There are many more people who would have done what I did.”
Is Russia safely on its way, then, to becoming a “normal country”? It is too soon to pronounce on this question with absolute confidence. After all, in the words of the scholar Egor Yakovenko, the end of the Soviet Union and the end of Russia’s Middle Ages occurred on the same day—August 21, 1991, when Boris Yeltsin took power and began to oversee the emergence of a secular, nonideological, empire-free Russian state. That was little more than a short decade ago. But what one can assert with assurance is that, since that day, all the crucial choices have been made by the Russian people themselves, peacefully and freely. And that is a sign, if not yet of normalcy, then of normalization.
Since the August 1991 revolution, Russia has held two national referendums; five successive elections to the Duma and the presidency; and at least three rounds of gubernatorial and legislative elections in each of the country’s 89 regions. In only one national ballot has the turnout fallen below 61 percent of eligible voters. In the two presidential elections, 69 percent of eligible voters came to the polls. The spectacle of 60 million people trudging in the dark and cold of the Russian winter to polling stations stretched over eleven time zones must be among the most moving sights any student of fledgling democracies is likely to encounter.
Most fatefully, in an April 1993 referendum the people continued to repose their confidence in Yeltsin and to support economic reform. In the 1996 presidential election, they preferred Yeltsin to the Communist party’s Gennady Zyuganov. And in December 1999, they shifted the plurality in the Duma from the Communists and their allies to the pro-reform Center-Right.
What has been occurring in Russia constitutes, most obviously, a dramatic break with Soviet totalitarianism in all its guises. But it also constitutes a no less dramatic break with the centuries-old political culture of Russia itself: blood-drenched, zero-sum, winner-take-all. Over a century ago, before the Bolsheviks appeared on the scene, Anton Chekhov wrote of Russia’s “heavy, chilling history, barbarism, bureaucracy, poverty, and ignorance. . . . Russian life smashes the Russian like . . . a thousand-ton rock.” And Chekhov did not shrink from naming what needed to be done: to “squeeze out the slave, drop by drop,” from the Russian soul.
This squeezing-out has been perhaps the most stunning result of the past decade and a half. In the words of Grigoriy Chkhartishvili, Russia’s most popular writer, “We have squeezed out a lot. In the past fifteen years, people living in this country have straightened their backs.” The “most precious product of this evolution,” Chkhartishvili continued, has been human dignity, a quality in “catastrophically short supply” throughout Russian history but seemingly inbred in the post-Soviet generation.
The voice of that generation, the first in Russian history to grow up neither under a dictatorship nor under a monarchy, nor to be brutalized by a civil war, was first heard in the 1996 presidential election when, according to exit polls, Yeltsin led Zyuganov by 71 to 23 percent among eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds. When asked to choose the basic elements of a decent society, three-quarters of those planning to vote for Yeltsin named equality of opportunity; only 22 percent named equality of income or of standard of living.
Given the distance Russia must yet travel, one may say today that it shows no more than the promise of true liberal democracy, a promise that may take decades to be realized. But considering the distance already traveled in so amazingly brief a time, that promise is fully credible, and worthy of the acclaim and the support of lovers of liberty everywhere.
1 The 30-percent figure represents the high end of CIA estimates. According to a March 1998 speech by Yevgeny Primakov, formerly in the top echelons of Soviet intelligence, no less than 70 percent of Soviet GDP had been “spent on defense and defense-related projects.” Compared with this systematic plunder of one of the world’s richest nations by its unelected dictators, the incidence of post-Soviet “looting,” about which U.S. columnists on both the Right and the Left used to work themselves into a lather, seems like small change.
2 See R. James Woolsey, “Defeating the Oil Weapon,” in the September COMMENTARY.
3 For a sketch of the Russian gastronomic renaissance, see my “Restauration” in the May 2002 Harper’s.
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