Twenty years ago, on New Year’s Eve between December 31, 1991 and January 1, 1992, the red Soviet banner was lowered over the Kremlin and the Russian Federation was born. In our attempts at looking back we Russians often come back to that New Year’s Day, asking ourselves: was it possible to avoid? Was the collapse of the Soviet Union good or bad for us? Could history have gone down some other, less painful, track?
The New Year period, when 2011 becomes 2012 will be a special time for Russia. Two important anniversaries will be celebrated at the same time. The year 862 is the official (even though largely symbolic/ not based on much evidence or documents) date of the foundation of the ancient East-Slavic state, Kievan Rus. And 20 years ago, on New Year’s Eve between December 31, 1991 and January 1, 1992, the red Soviet banner was lowered over the Kremlin. The Russian Federation was born.
In our attempts at looking back at the last 20 years, we Russians often come back to that New Year’s Day, asking ourselves: was it possible to avoid? Was the collapse of the Soviet Union good or bad for us? Could history have gone down some other, less painful, track?
When reflecting upon the very complicated process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you can hardly find two people in Russia who agree. In fact, there were two very different processes taking place at the same time. The first process centred on the democratisation of society which had been under a totalitarian rule under the Soviet Union until the mid-1980s. This process included the reintroduction of private property, the freedom of press, and the creation of a legal opposition. This was certainly a positive development, which continued at a slower speed after 1991. We still reap its fruits, which are many (higher living standard for parts of the Russian population, a greater variety of media and other products).
Parallel to this we had a much bloodier and much more controversial development – the disintegration of a big country, formerly known as the Russian Empire and later as the Soviet Union. This was a painful and long process, which is not over yet. Wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, Georgia and Russia itself were manifestations of the conflict potential of this process.
The positive side of the events was the growing self-awareness of Russians. For the first time in our history we could build our own state with the population being 80 per cent Russian.
However, the road to democracy in this new state turned out to be much more difficult than optimists anticipated in 1992. The problem was that the events which took place in 1991 were supposed to be a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” as the Soviet textbooks labelled similar events in other countries. Unfortunately, our revolution was much more bourgeois than it was democratic. The new president Boris Yeltsin who came to power in 1991 and his billionaire friends (Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky) quickly realized that they could greatly enrich themselves in Russia, without resettling to Western countries. All that was needed was to take the old Soviet property (the nickel plants, oil wells and gas fields in Siberia, state-owned apartments in Moscow etc.) and squeeze it out financially, so that it would bring profits, which the Soviet state just threw into the wind. So, privatization was introduced. It was a failure for the state, but a great achievement for bourgeois revolutionaries themselves, who quickly elevated themselves to the ruling class in Russia. The auctions of state property bewildered Western experts with few benefits allotted to the state, and excellent benefits for the bourgeois buyers and sellers.
So, the bourgeois half of the revolution succeeded. The same could not be said about the second part, the democratic one. In fact, Russia’s so called liberals quickly realized that conducting modern neo-liberal economic reforms was in fact easier without democracy. The seeds of new authoritarianism were not planted by Putin himself, but by the ruling class as a whole, they were evident already during Yeltsin’s second term in power (1996-1999). Under Putin, they just got more organised and took on a logic of their own.
However, Putin’s tough style of management for the country which he continues to lead as if it was just one big company, was mostly domestic. Violence and long prison terms were used only against extremely aggressive “enemies to the state” murderous skinheads, for example. As for the burgeoning Russian middle class, it was initially quite happy with the “bourgeois” part of the equation. Russian middle class started demanding real democracy only recently, during the protests against fraud of the Duma elections. It is precisely this fact that makes these protests so interesting.
Soviet Union 2.0?
How soon will “the democratic” part join the “bourgeois” one? This is the question all the analysts are searching for an answer to. Besides this version of events, the optimistic one, let’s view the arguments of the pessimists.
Can a negative scenario prevail and can Russia return to authoritarianism, rebuilding in some form the old Soviet Union? Is this what Putin meant when he recently announced his suggestions for the creation of the new Eurasian Union? I don’t think so.
First, Putin is not so stupid as to think that he has the resources to rebuild a Soviet Union 2.0. Second, Putin’s aims are purely economic – he has few sentimental feelings about the old Soviet life. He only wants to facilitate trade and cooperation between Russia and its neighbours. But, while being pretty lucky with economically “fat” years and a marginalised opposition, Putin has proved unable at making Western leaders believe in his honest intentions. Continued mistrust with the West and especially with Poland is another negative aspect of the last twenty years’ heritage.
In fact, the view that Russia wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, while firmly entrenched in the strongholds of American and European Sovietology, is in fact wrong. This view became so popular that the words of Russian leaders, especially Putin, on post-Soviet integration are almost never taken at face value, even in the mainstream Western press. They are almost always subjected to some conspiratorial “translation”. Twenty years of the USSR’s absence did not bring Russia much closer to solving the problem of trust.
However, recent improvements in Russia-West relations, including a certain thaw with Poland, show that the times are slowly changing. Russia is not the epitome of democracy or an economically successful country, but it is not a danger to the world, including its neighbours. And this is a welcomed change, especially compared to the times of the Soviet Union.
Dmitry Babich is a well-known Russian columnist and political analysy. His columns appear regularly in Russia Profile magazine. He is a regular contributor to the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.