Soviet Reunion

Russia's future is looking frighteningly like its past.


When I left Moscow as a teenager in 1980, the Soviet regime seemed eternal—virtually impervious to internal change or external defeat, at best containable in its imperial ambitions. When the changes then known under the blanket term glasnost began toward the end of the '80s, my first reaction was that all the talk of reform and openness was just a cosmetic gloss for Western consumption. However, a few years and five trips to my former homeland later, I was inclined toward a new conviction: Whatever happened in Russia, good or bad, there was no going back to the old days of the Cold War, enforced ideological conformity, a docile press, and pervasive fear of the powers that be.

In recent months, though, I have occasionally wondered if, having once overestimated the permanence of the Soviet system, I had more recently overestimated the permanence of change. The news from post-Soviet Russia, never particularly heartening, increasingly evokes grim and queasy feelings of déjà vu.

Consider these disturbing data points: An American student is arrested for alleged drug possession, then hit with espionage charges that are never formally pursued but hang over him nonetheless. Employees at scientific institutes and laboratories are ordered to keep the Russian Academy of Sciences informed of all their foreign contacts; they must now provide copies of applications for international grants and of articles submitted to foreign publications, to disclose visits by foreigners, and to file written reports on business trips abroad. All of this is ostensibly to prevent the leakage of classified information.

Broadcast media outlets critical of the government become targets of transparently political investigations and takeovers. The pro-government press bristles with anti-Americanism while the country's leadership cozies up to communist China, Cuba, and the pariah state of North Korea. Izvestia columnist Yuri Bogomolov noted sarcastically that "Russia was slightly made up to look like the U.S.S.R." for the recent visit by North Korea's Kim Jong Il, though not to the extent of filling the streets with joyous throngs to greet him.

The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin's predecessor, the erratic Boris Yeltsin, certainly had numerous faults. Rapacious corruption was, perhaps, the least egregious of them. Under Yeltsin, steps toward a market economy based on private property and competition were minimal and haphazard, while oligarchs who had managed to personally privatize a chunk of the Soviet state's assets had free rein to give capitalism a bad name.

Nor was there much progress toward a government based on checks and balances. In the 1997 presidential race, the skewed allocation of campaign resources and overt, relentless bias in the media so blatantly stacked the deck in favor of Yeltsin and the ruling party that only the awfulness of his opponents kept champions of democracy, at home and abroad, from crying foul.

However, on two points, Yeltsin and his administration deserve whatever credit they can get. They genuinely respected freedom of the press, and they explicitly treated the rise of democracy in Russia as a clean break with the country's communist past. They may not have gone nearly as far as many dissidents and pro-democracy activists wanted; no program similar to de-Nazification in post-World War II Germany was enacted, and even the mummified Lenin was allowed to rest in his mausoleum on Red Square. Yet the repudiation of the Soviet legacy was fairly unambiguous.

The change in tone under Putin couldn't have been more startling. The symbolism alone says a great deal. Less than a year after his rise to power, Putin pushed through a proposal to adopt the old Soviet anthem as the new anthem of Russia (with updated lyrics), much to the horror of those Russians for whom the Stalin-era tune is an attribute of an evil empire. The red Soviet banner, albeit without the hammer and sickle, was also restored as Russia's military flag.

The official literature of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) now openly treats the Soviet-era KGB as a respectable, if imperfect, predecessor. Putin himself is a career KGB officer who takes unabashed pride in his career. At times, he has publicly referred to himself as a former "Chekist," a word that rings much like "Gestapo agent" to pro-democracy Russians. It is derived from the Cheka, the Soviet regime's first secret police, created as an instrument of Red Terror in 1917. (Of course, Yeltsin too was a former Communist functionary. But his fame arose when he broke with the party bosses and joined the opposition bloc in the Soviet parliament, alongside dissidents such as the late human rights activist Andrei Sakharov.) Nor does Putin make any bones about the fact that he views Yuri Andropov, the onetime KGB chief who briefly succeeded Brezhnev at the helm of the Soviet regime, as his mentor.

The deference to security services isn't just symbolic, as the surge of spy mania in Putin's Russia attests. In a recent incident that gives off a strong odor of the bad old days, an American economics and social studies lecturer at Omsk State University, Elizabeth Sweet, was called in for questioning by the FSB because of a project her students were involved in—interviewing local people about their life stories, including, apparently, some workers at a factory with ties to the defense sector. Sweet was cleared of wrongdoing but was still asked to turn over her students' papers.

When it comes to freedom of the press, the red flags are equally visible. In April, Russia's only independent television station, NTV, was taken over by Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant. This was ostensibly because of financial mismanagement, but the real political motives were obvious. Despite promises to maintain its distinct political voice, most media observers agree that NTV has been brought to heel. While the Putin administration still comes in for some criticism, the president himself is mostly off-limits. One post-takeover segment of the cutting-edge satirical puppet show Kukly, which used to skewer Putin mercilessly, made fun of NTV's ousted director for raising the alarm about threats to free speech.

Meanwhile, in the loyalist press, opposition leaders and activists who criticize Russian policies, especially the brutal war in Chechnya, are attacked in all-too-familiar terms as dupes or paid lackeys of Western powers.

It should be noted that, for every blast from the past, one could cite a counter-example that shows just how much Russia has changed since the Soviet era. In several cases, the courts have refused to convict whistle-blowers on charges trumped up by security services. The journalists who resigned from NTV to protest the takeover have not been muzzled completely. They have found a new home on a smaller independent station, TV-6. The station is not available in about a third of Russia's territory and is plagued by poor reception, but nonetheless provides a platform for often harsh criticism of Putin's policies and of Russia's authoritarian drift. At least at the time of this writing, the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, part of the Media-Most empire that also used to include NTV, has avoided being brought under Gazprom's thumb through the sale of a critical block of shares to former liberal economic affairs minister Yevgeny Yasin. And in the print media, voices of opposition remain fairly strong.

But when listing all these signs that Russia's fledgling civil society is not moribund, one feels compelled to add: for now.

It is true that Russia now has a generation of young people who have been raised in a relatively free society. Elizabeth Sweet's students in Omsk, for instance, reportedly thought it was hilarious, rather than terrifying, that the federal security service was interested in their research papers. But, once again, that's true for now. History shows, alas, that fear is not too difficult an emotion to instill, particularly in a country that has such ample experience with it. Privately, many Russians say the old habits of mutual mistrust and fear of saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong person are already coming back.

None of this is to say that Putin really wants a return to the way things were—if only because he is surely smart enough to know that such a return is impossible. He understands the need for at least civil relations with the West, even as he seeks to renew ties with old Soviet allies. He dutifully pays lip service to civil liberties, hailing a free press as "the most important guarantor of the irreversibility of our country's democratic course" in a meeting with journalists. He even reminded his former KGB colleagues at a banquet last year that their new task was to protect the constitutional rights of Russia's citizens.

When it comes to economic reform, moreover, Putin the authoritarian may deserve better grades than Yeltsin the democrat. Under Putin's administration, taxes have been cut and the tax code simplified. After a decade of foot-dragging, it looks like private ownership of land may at last be legalized.

Yet while socialism is not the part of the Soviet legacy that Putin and his supporters seek to reclaim, a powerful state most certainly is. In Moscow Times last March, Russian commentator Evgenia Albats wrote that Putin's ideology is "one of extreme statism pragmatically married to a market economy." The word for that is fascism. And under a statist regime in which the rights and freedoms of the individual are viewed as secondary, the market economy will always remain, to some extent, at the whim of whoever happens to be in charge of the state.

When Russia embarked on its course of political change, some observers argued that it would have done better to take the same road as China, emphasizing market-oriented economic reform first in the hope that civil liberties, ideological openness, and freedom of expression would come later.

Nowadays, with new reports of brutal crackdowns on political dissidents or followers of an innocuous meditation-and-exercise movement trickling in from China nearly every day, the Chinese way looks less and less like a positive model. Russia's problem is not that it started with political change, but that it didn't take the changes far enough.

Indeed, perhaps the real message of the current events in Russia is that moral issues take precedence over economic ones after all. Those among the Russian democrats who said that the most important task facing the country was an honest accounting and repentance for the crimes of communism may have been right. If this task had been tackled, Russia could not have ended up with an ostensibly "democratic" government that sees itself as an almost-proud heir to the Soviet state.