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Using the term “democracy” with a lot of irony because we see that all these
forms, they do not guarantee anything.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Russian democracy 10
MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter.
December marked the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Still, for many the crippling blow to the Soviet system came just a bit sooner.
In August of 1991 democratic forces in Russia overturned a hardline Communist
coup. It marked the beginning of the end. The images of those days were nothing
if not powerful. Boris Yeltsin defiantly atop a tank; the statue of KGB founder
Felix Dherzhinsky dangling from a noose as tens of thousands of ordinary
MCHUGH: Common Ground Correspondent Charles Maynes revisits those heady
days and examines how the ensuing disappointments, unmet hopes, and failed
expectations that followed better explain the rise of current President
Imagine if you can it’s late summer, 1991, in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and
you’re in Vyacheslav Krainik’s shoes. Getting ready for work that morning,
about 7:00 a.m. or so, Krainik puts on the tea kettle, flips on the radio, and
[sound of classical music followed by a radio
announcer speaking in Russian]
[via a translator] I turned on one station and they’re playing classical music
instead of the usual program so I switched to the second station and it’s
playing the same classical music. And then the third station, again that
classical music. And right away it reminded me of when Brezhnev died, how for a
week they just played music instead of making announcements as they figured out
who would run the country. And so it was absolutely clear to me: there had been
[more classical music]
MAYNES: Hardline Communist forces
in Gorbachev’s cabinet ordered the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake across Soviet airwaves after seizing power and declaring
a state of emergency. For the coup plotters the move was an attempt to stem the
chaos wrought by Gorbachev’s reforms under perestroika,
a last-ditch effort as they saw it to save the Soviet system.
[sound of people talking on the street, followed by
someone speaking over a loudspeaker]
MAYNES: But the coup plotters
miscalculated when they failed to arrest the Russian Republic’s populist leader
Boris Yeltsin. With Swan Lake
sounding the initial alarm, the news spread by word of mouth: Yeltsin had come
out in opposition to the coup and his supporters were gathering at his
headquarters, in the so-called Russian White House. There, Krainik was among
KRAINIK: [via a translator] When I
went to the barricades I really never thought I would come back alive. Because
in the Soviet Union those things didn’t happen. Every time the people rose up
it ended in bloodshed or prison sentences.
[sound of street demonstrations]
MAYNES: Over the next three days
Krainik and some 50,000 others faced down Soviet tanks in defense of Russia’s
nascent freedoms. And this time things ended quite differently. With the army
unwilling to turn its guns on the people, Yeltsin prevailed; within four months
dismantled the Soviet Union once and for all. For many those days in ‘91
signaled the birth of democratic Russia. It’s why Krainik and other
demonstrators returned to the White House this past August, the 10th
anniversary of the failed coup.
[sound of someone giving a public speech over a
public address system]
MAYNES: Yet what was striking was,
despite the outward trappings of a celebration the day really was a nonevent.
Here you had the Russian Fourth of July, the stuff of national myth, and no one
showed. Crowds were sparse, no major politicians gave speeches, and even those
who did seemed at pains to explain the significance of ‘91 to the few younger
people that had bothered to show up—for a free rock concert.
MASHA LIPMAN: They were talking about the
events back in ‘91 as if they were talking about the Civil War in the beginning
of the century, as if there was no chance anybody would remember it.
MAYNES: Masha Lipman is a
Moscow-based journalist and former Deputy Editor of Russia’s Itogi Magazine.
LIPMAN: Many of them would begin
their speeches by saying, “Of course you don’t remember what happened, but this
is important for you. You may not appreciate it now but maybe you will in the
future.” It sounded like they were survivors of an epoch long gone, of another
age. Which in a way is true.
[sound of someone giving a public speech over a
public address system, followed by a large, cheering, roaring, chanting crowd]
MAYNES: The euphoria of those days,
the “spirit of ‘91,” as Russians came to call it, it wouldn’t last. Still,
those who were there said they felt as if, just for a moment, their actions had
wiped Russia’s historical slate clean.
KRAINIK: [via a translator] We felt
then a great enthusiasm, that a new era was starting in Russia, an era of
democracy. We really thought we were creating history, that we were defeating
those party bosses who had promised a better life all those years, but which
[sound of a large, cheering, roaring, chanting
LIPMAN: It looked for a moment back
in ‘91 that we overcame. We triumphed over the enemy. And the enemy is…? And
then there’s a pause. Who is or who was the enemy? There suddenly were the coup
plotters who were arrested. But is it true that Communists were the enemies?
That it was Communism that we overcame and we overthrew? It is a difficult
concept in Russia, unlike Eastern Europe, where Communism and Communists were
associated with an alien force coming from outside. And by driving the Soviet
Army out of their countries they could tell themselves, “We won.” In Russia
Communists could not be driven out. A, because they had no place to go; there
was no home for them other than Russia itself; and also because after seven
decades they were very much part and parcel of the Russian life. They could not
be defined as executionists because they were also the victims. They were on
both sides of the barricades in ‘91. Yeltsin was very much part of the
Communist nomenklatura, just as
Gorbachev was and just as the coup plotters were. So who was the enemy? Who did
MAYNES: According to a recent poll
of themselves only some 10 percent of Russians still consider August ‘91 a
democratic revolution over Communism. In fact, a majority now view those days
as insignificant, little more than a power struggle among the Soviet elite.
It’s indicative of the great disappointments that followed in the wake of high
expectations and grand hopes. Dismantling the Communist state, it turned out,
was much easier than building a just democratic one in its place. Yeltsin’s
Russia brought with it new important liberties. Russians can now travel abroad,
speak and worship openly; but those achievements were often overshadowed by the
side effects of a flawed transfer to a market economy. Economic reforms meant
an end to chronic shortages in queues, but touched off hyperinflation, mass poverty,
and a sinister form of unbridled corruption. Criminal Mafia groups seized large
swathes of the Russian economy and a few well connected insiders plundered the
jewels of Soviet industry and amassed great fortunes in the process. Meanwhile,
a population accustomed to full employment and social provisions found itself
exposed to the rigors of the market. Living standards plunged. Today, per
capita income still remains well below what it was before the Soviet Union’s
collapse, with a third of all Russians living below the poverty line.
[a man speaks in Russian]
MAYNES: Valerie, a retired pilot
who attended the failed coup anniversary celebrations, says it wasn’t for this
life that he manned the barricades back in ‘91.
VALERIE: [via a translator] The most
important thing for us was that the country was becoming a just one, that it
could be a place where a person could live by the sweat of his brow and with
dignity. But everything ended up the other way around. We never had these
millionaires, these billionaires before; now take a look. I worked as a pilot
for 40 years and my pension is $50 a month. Is it possible to live on $50 a
month? Of course not. And I’m not just talking about me. There are millions
MAYNES: Many blame Boris Yeltsin,
who turned out to be a far cry from the dynamic leader Russians had seen during
the coup. As president of post-Soviet Russia he proved unable—and some would
argue unwilling—to implement the democratic ideals that had brought him to
power. Instead Yeltsin ruled like a latter-day Czar, amassing enormous powers
with which he enriched friends and destroyed enemies. His 1996 election over a
Communist rival came through outright manipulation of the press. According to
political commentator Boris Kargarlitsky, the system Yeltsin built was intended
to maintain power for power’s sake. A democracy in name, but name only.
Russia was never a democracy, not a single day. And it needed a lot of
hypocrisy on the side of the West to call it a democracy. Because democracy
means that people decide. And this is the only little aspect which is absent.
The rest you have. You can have the elections, but there is massive fraud. You
can have courts which are formally independent but basically they do what their
officials tell them to do. And so on and so on. So you’re gonna have all the
decorations, you have all the formal elements there but not the substance. And
that’s why people are now using the term “democracy” with a lot of irony,
because we see that all these forms, they do not guarantee anything.
MAYNES: Yeltsin’s health didn’t
help matters. In his latter years in power the Russian leader was a rare sight
in the Kremlin, appearing only to remind prime ministers who was in charge by
ordering their sacking. With Yeltsin’s behavior increasingly erratic, Russia
teetered constantly on the edge of chaos, crises, and collapse. The hero of the
people had become the one most despised by them. The dreams of ‘91 had
dissolved into a decade-long nightmare. Just listen to the tone of Yeltsin’s
voice, taken here from his resignation speech, New Year’s Eve, 1999, and you
get a sense of just how wrenching the changes and just how exhausting, really,
BORIS YELTSIN: [via a translator, in a
shaky voice] I want to ask your forgiveness for the fact that many of our
dreams didn’t come true. And the fact that I didn’t make good on the hopes of
the many who believed that we could in one leap leave our totalitarian past for
a bright civilized future. I myself believed, but it turned out we were naïve.
Many of the problems turned out to be too complex. But I felt your pain in my
heart and it kept me up many sleepless nights as I thought, “What can I do to
make people’s lives a little bit better.” There was never any goal more important
than that. I am stepping down. I’ve done all I could.
MCHUGH: Vladimir Putin’s Russia,
next on Common Ground.
When many people see Putin as authoritarian, they are right only in one sense,
that Putin inherited a system which was authoritarian even before him.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and
audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the
broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the
Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide
range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world
MCHUGH: Since coming to power a
seemingly endless debate has surrounded Russian President Vladimir Putin. To some,
he has brought much needed order to Russia’s unruly house. Yet others see in
Putin an autocratic streak. He brings order they say, but at the expense of
civil liberties and hard-fought freedoms.
PORTER: In the second half of our
report on the new Russian democracy, Common
Ground’s Charles Maynes takes a nuanced look at the “who is Putin” debate.
And he talks with a new generation of post-Soviet Russians about where they see
the country heading.
[A news announcer speaks in Russian]
MAYNES: In Yeltsin’s place stepped
Vladimir Putin, a tough-talking political unknown whom Yeltsin had chosen just
months before as his prime minister and preferred successor. Putin seemed an
odd choice. He’d spent some time in the post-Soviet government, a reformist
mayor in his home city of St. Petersburg, but built his career as an officer in
the KGB, an institution Yeltsin despised. A man who’d never held political
office, Putin had no experience, no credentials, and yet if he had an asset
says Viktor Kremenyuk of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, it was that he was
Because Mr. Yeltsin, he has brought so much disappointment to the Russians. His
habits, you know; his inclination toward alcoholism; you know, his inability to
work. They have made the people sick. Because Russians are accustomed to
something like a strong hand leader. Like, not necessarily Stalin, but you
know, someone highly responsible at the top, doing the job, you know. Just
every day, every night. Well, Yeltsin didn’t feel any responsibility for
anything, you know. He could just afford too many things, which made the
Russians sick of him. And from this point of view, who is Mr. Putin, who is
younger, physically well fit, responsible in his words. Of course he produced
the impression that, “Ha, this is the leader we need.”
MAYNES: From the outset Putin built
that reputation on a promise to end the chaos. His goal, he said, was to revive
the state and restore Russia’s military and economic might.
[sound of artillery fire, small arms fire, and
soldiers yelling in battle]
MAYNES: But as the prime architect
of the Kremlin’s antiterrorist operation against Islamic militants in the
breakaway republic of Chechnya, his political fortunes rose on the heels of a
brutal war that has brought accusations of widespread human rights violations
by Russian troops. Indeed, in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections,
the war was more candidate than the man. Putin himself offered no platform,
refused to debate opponents, and ran no advertisements. Let voters judge him,
he said, by his actions rather than words. The Russian army making gains in the
ground campaign: he won the election overwhelmingly. For many observers the
ascension to the presidency of a mysterious law-and-order man who seemed to
have little appreciation of the democratic process suggested Russians had,
using the ballot box, rejected democracy itself. Yet Viktor Kremenyuk reminds
that Russian society had become corrupted to the point where institutions could
no longer function. Something was needed, suggested Kremenyuk, maybe even
KREMENYUK: The fact that the person
who was elected is not the ideal leader, for say, those who share democratic
values, does not necessarily mean that this is bad. Because yes, you know, the
ten years of democracy in Russia have led to a chaos in the country. So there
should be something like a strong hand. Someone who would, at least, you know,
do something in order to put an end to all this sea of, let’s say, disorder,
chaos. Maybe it’s a necessary step for Russia? Because the Russian society have
lost a lot of the chains which were created by the Communistic regime. But
having lost those chains, you know, it has become unlimited [laughing], and
sometimes too unlimited. So it is the time to think about some limits.
[a news announcer speaks in Russian]
MAYNES: In Putin’s Russia, limits
have come in the form of the “dictatorship of the law,” the Kremlin’s catch
phrase for putting an end to Yeltsin era cronyism and building a civil and
prosperous society in its place. Yet many critics see the dictatorship of the
law as a mere euphemism for centralized, Soviet-style control. In a country
where the past ten years have left few innocents, Putin’s slogan has proven a
blunt and some would argue, selective tool for destroying opponents and
muzzling dissent. Federal prosecutors have moved against members of Russia’s
Yeltsin era business elite, but primarily those whose television, print, and
other media holdings were most critical of government policies. As a result,
the voices of Russia’s independent press have been, if not silenced, then cowed
or marginalized. Meanwhile, other Soviet aspects have returned on Mr. Putin’s
watch. He has reestablished Moscow’s hold over the regions, stripping provincial
governors of their powers; tamed the once fractious Russian Duma into a
legislative rubber stamping body; and appointed former KGB officials to key
government posts. State secrecy, one-time hallmark of Soviet society, appears
again on the rise.
EDMUND POPE: [responding to a reporter’s
question] Morally, I’m not very happy, of course, being here in this situation.
MAYNES: Last year saw the arrest
and conviction of American businessman Edmund Pope on charges of espionage.
Pope, a retired naval intelligence officer, had been working in Russia seeking
what he said were commercial uses for declassified military technologies.
Ultimately the American was pardoned by the Russian president, but only after
some eight months in a federal prison. Meanwhile prosecutors have launched
similar cases against a host of Russian scientists, environmentalists, and
researchers with foreign contacts. Moscow-based journalist Masha Lipman says
the increased focus on national security is part of a culture of spy mania,
inspired even if only indirectly by Putin’s presence in the Kremlin.
LIPMAN: By his background, by some,
even though not all of his moves and statements, he sends a signal to all sorts
of conservative forces in the country, people who really would, would want Russia
to go back to the Soviet days, people who really would want Russia to be a
national security state. And the signal is, “Our time is coming,” or has come.
MAYNES: Yet according to political
commentator Boris Kargarlitsky, Putin’s strong-arm tactics shouldn’t come as a
surprise. Any authoritarian seeds, he argues, were planted in the far reaching
powers of the Russian presidency as constructed by Boris Yeltsin.
When many people see Putin as authoritarian, they are right only in one sense,
that Putin inherited a system which was authoritarian even before him. And he
is acting according to the rules of this system. All the tools, all the
methods, all the possibilities of the rules he inherited from the previous
regime. And in that sense these very people who applauded Yeltsin a few years
ago for doing what he was doing and creating all these instruments, and they’re
now very often getting really scared when Putin starts to use these instruments
they helped to create, but not in the way they expected them to be used.
MAYNES: Actually, not in the way
anybody expected. One of the ironies of Putin’s leadership is he has used his
unrivaled power to push pro-Western policies as well as pro-market and
sometimes even pro-democratic reforms. While some measures such as overhauls of
the tax and land codes are clearly intended to get the Russian economy moving,
other steps such as judicial reform, new labor codes, and support of the US-led
war on terrorism run directly counter to any suggestions of Putin as an
isolated strongman. Indeed, the image of the Russian president as a modern,
thinking world leader was on high display during Putin’s charm offensive at the
November US summit with President Bush.
SCHOOL GIRL JANE HELLER: My name is Janna Heller. And I’m in eighth grade. And I was wondering,
what is President Putin’s favorite thing about Texas.
Crawford, of course.
a translator] We in Russia have known for a long time that Texas is the most
important state in the United States.
MAYNES: But herein lies the paradox
of the Putin era: authoritarian and reformist tendencies run side by side. And
in part it explains his popularity. Seven out of ten Russians approve of
Putin’s performance at the helm, largely because there’s something there for
just about everyone, whether nationalist, communist, Westerner, or marketeer.
Analyst Viktor Kremenyuk cautions, however, this approach of all things to
everyone carries with it certain risks.
KREMENYUK: We still have a confronting
society; we still have half of the society devoted to the past ideas, the
Communistic—and half of the society, or the other half of society which wants
something different. Not necessarily Western-type democracy, but something
different. And in this conditions, you know, when the leader tries to sound
ambiguous and not very, let’s say, outspoken, maybe that may create for some
period a visibility of some unity. But at the same time, each of the sides will
think that Mr. Putin is on their side. And that may lead us, you know, to
something like a serious domestic conflict.
MAYNES: Indeed, the first signs of
discontent have emerged in recent months. Putin’s decision to open Russian
airspace for US forces launching operations in Afghanistan, as well as hints he
may acquiesce to American plans to build a missile defense shield, have not
gone over well with conservative elements in Russian society. But whether these
latest gripes will materialize into a real opposition is unclear. For now Putin
remains the sole towering figure of Russian politics, steering the country in
the direction he sees fit. A majority of Russians don’t seem to mind. With
Russia’s economy and international reputation on the mend, with stability
restored to the political arena, there’s a great deal of enthusiasm surrounding
Putin these days. So much, in fact, that admiration for the Russian leader
smacks of a cult of personality, sometimes even fostered by the Kremlin itself.
[young people shouting pro-Putin slogans in Russian]
MAYNES: The pro-Putin youth
organization, Moving Together, has been at the forefront of Putin mania. On the
anniversary of the Russian president’s first year in office the group assembled
thousands of young supporters to march on the Kremlin, all wearing T-shirts
emblazoned with the Russian leader’s image. Though many of the youths had
received stipends in exchange for attendance, Moving Together leader Vasil
Yakamenko says their support is genuine. Putin, he says, has awakened in young
Russians a sense of lost national pride.
[via a translator] For 70 years they tried to convince us that our country was
the best in the world. And everyone knew, “Well, OK, maybe it’s not exactly
true.” And then, over the past ten years the democrats tried to convince us
that our country was the worst. Again, everyone thought, “Oh, boy, here we go
again.” But now, under Putin, people are starting to face the country which
they turned their back on. Now practically for the first time people are
starting to value what we’ve got.
MAYNES: Yakamenko raises an
interesting point. What have they got? Certainly not the Soviet Union, nor is
it the Western-style democracy the new Russia was supposed to be modeled on.
Russia today is rather a work in progress, something in between. As often-used
labels like “command democracy” and “Soviet light” might suggest. However,
what’s unclear is whether the democratic ideals which ushered in the
post-Soviet period, the spirit of ‘91, will be part of the mix. Or, judging by
Moving Together Vasily Yakemenka’s words, even a desired aspect of it.
YAKAMENKO: [via a translator] The last
ten years have taught me one thing: not even the best idea that has come out of
the West is acceptable for Russia. It was a big illusion to think that you
could give people freedom and suddenly they would turn around and build
something with it. Man has never been given freedom in Russia. First there was
Czarist rule, then the Communists. You need a tradition of freedom, like
England, like in America. But here, it won’t work here.
[sounds of a Russian school room]
MAYNES: The challenges ahead are
not lost on Amir Gusenev. An economics teacher at School 898 on the outskirts
of Moscow, it’s Gusenev’s job to explain the current Russian reality to his 9th
UMIR GUSENTEV: [Maynes translates Gusenev
as he speaks to his class] Russia today, he tells them, has a divide bigger
than most Latin American countries, where 10 percent are rich and the majority
live in poverty. But, suggests Gusenev, maybe one of you might come up with a
more rational system, a system without such inequality where everyone lives
MAYNES: [with sounds of the
classroom in the background] It may be some time before an economist emerges
out of this crowd, but their teachers words are a reminder that a new
generation with new ideas is coming to the fore.
[sounds of a Russian school room]
MAYNES: [with sounds of the
classroom in the background] To these kids the Soviet Union is another world, a
lifetime they barely remember. And for them it’s unimaginable their parents
were once forbidden contact with foreigners. These kids listen to rap, watch
MTV, and increasingly use the Internet. They’re a generation with completely
different attitudes than their parents. No past, only a present and a future.
And while that future is far from certain, polls find young Russians are
adaptable and self-reliant in ways their parents are not. Unencumbered by the
Soviet legacy and less tarnished by the post-Soviet disappointments, this
generation is clearly willing to write new rules as it goes along.
think Russian tradition can be very economic and industry country. If we, a new
generation, will be good worker, I think our country will be a great country.
[the school bell rings]
must go to our class.
MAYNES: Ultimately it takes a leap
of faith to believe a brighter future is assured. There’s still so many
problems to solve and hurdles to overcome. Yet there’s something in the culture,
a kind of ingrained optimism, or I suppose patience, that you run into all the
time. You hear it in the phrase, “Nadeencya luche,” “We hope for better.” And
it’s cause for both optimism and dismay. As long as Russians have been around
they’ve always hoped for better.
MAYNES: A dingy stairwell may seem
an odd place for a wedding party, but these friends have assembled here to sing
songs, drink, and toast the newlyweds.
MAYNES: After awhile they launch
into an old Russian custom: chanting the word “gorka” or “bitter” repeatedly.
[the group shouts out “gorka!”]
MAYNES: Then they count upwards as
the couple embraces in a kiss. The idea here being the longer the kiss, the
sweeter the life ahead. Ten years into Russia’s post-Soviet journey, Russians
are far from leaving the bitter life behind. But there are reasons to think
they might just get there yet. With a little luck it’s just one long, long kiss
away. For Common Ground Radio, this
is Charles Maynes in Moscow.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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