An experiment in democracy
Jun 21st 2007
Finally, a book with real insight into Russia
A LOT of nonsense is said about Russia, and particularly about the West’s relationship with it. Among the fatuous questions is “Who lost Russia?” (as if a careless Western politician could lose it as easily as a set of keys). Equally fatuous is the idea that the answer is to “Forget Russia” (as if the largest country in the world were a poorly chosen girlfriend).
Leon Aron is an émigré whose sharp understanding of his homeland is matched by an appreciation of the mistakes that outsiders, particularly his fellow Americans, make in interpreting it. In a new book, “Russia’s Revolution”, he compares Russia’s first sustained experiment in democracy and modern capitalism to “the movement of a long and disorderly caravan on a vast swampy plain: stopping, stumbling…drowning in muck, yet stubbornly creaking forward”. Following closely behind are the Russia-watchers, who ignore the distance travelled, any comparison with other travellers, and the road ahead. “Their eyes seem forever to be on the dirt covering the wheels, the ruts in the road, and the ugly swamp creatures feasting on the piles of refuse in the wagons’ wake.”
That is harsh, but largely fair. The asinine “Who lost Russia?” argument hangs on the misconception that Russia in 1989 (or 1986 or 1996 or whenever) was ripe for reform, and that only the policies and their sequencing were wrong. If only privatisation had preceded price liberalisation, or if savings had been indexed, or if reform could have been more gradual—the wishful thinkers’ list of “what ifs” is as endless as it is vacuous. The truth is that with any conceivable combination of policies, the 1990s in Russia would have been horrible for most Russians, because of the appalling starting point.
Mr Aron, who emigrated in 1978, portrays the utter failure and despair of the late Soviet Union accurately. An admiring biographer of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s president from 1991-99, he reckons the 1990s were mostly a triumph. The planned economy was replaced by a functioning if messy capitalist one; the Communist revanche evaporated; a middle class grew quickly. That compares well with the record of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader from 1985-91, who admirably let the Berlin Wall come down, but also allowed his uniformed thugs to slaughter unarmed demonstrators in Lithuania and Georgia.
Some may find this assessment too Panglossian. But Mr Aron makes some irrefutable points in favour of the changes of the 1990s. “The nation that for ages told itself that it is lazy and unlucky and incapable of getting anything done right has become, among many 25- to 45-year-olds, a country of perfectionist workaholics.”
On a lighter note, he points out the colossal improvement in Russian food since the days of greasy gristle, shortages and squalor that marked Soviet gastronomy. He might have also highlighted improvements in transport by road, rail and air—where progress, incidentally, has accelerated since the Yeltsin years.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Aron deplores the direction Russia has taken under Vladimir Putin. He laments lawlessness (especially the arbitrary force of the executive), the failure to renew Soviet-era power infrastructure and the resulting risk of energy shortages.
He argues that Russia has neither the means nor the will to be a global superpower. It may complain, but it accepts the rules of the global game on issues such as terrorism and proliferation (old cold-war hawks may raise an eyebrow here). But his main point is that by centralising Russia and removing constitutional checks and balances, the Kremlin has made the system highly unstable. It lacks the military, political, economic and bureaucratic elements necessary to make Soviet-style authoritarian rule work properly. That—he says tantalisingly—may risk the unravelling of the Russian state itself.
Friday, June 22, 2007