All these years later, so is democracy.
Today, Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian government in that same White House, a bulky 20-story skyscraper on the edge of the Moscow River. Occasional demonstrations in favor of democracy are small and largely ignored, except by the police.
Those who defended the White House thought they had changed the course of history, that in standing up so assertively the people had shaken off their Soviet subservience to the state and that the state would begin to serve the people. But today, elections are not fair, courts are not independent, political opposition is not tolerated and the reformers are widely blamed for what has gone wrong.
“The difference is this,” says Georgy Satarov, president of the INDEM Foundation and a former Yeltsin aide. “Then, people had hope. Now, they are disappointed and frustrated.”
Yeltsin’s voters wanted him to take them in a new direction, says Satarov, but the operative word was take. “We saw the old train was taking us in the wrong direction,” he says, “but we thought all we had to do was change the conductor and we would have comfortable seats and good food. Democracy would take us where we wanted to go, not our own effort. Sometimes you have to get off and push.”
Today, Russia works on bribes, and Putin’s opponents call his United Russia party the party of crooks and thieves. People can say whatever they want to one another, unlike in Soviet times when they feared the secret police knocking in the middle of the night, but television is controlled and any opposition is publicly invisible.
“They cannot let people on television who will say Putin is a thief,” says Igor Klyamkin, a scholar and vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation.
Many Russians despair about their country, its prospects and their own, but they say little and do less.
Not Satarov, who has made his life’s work researching and writing about that corruption.
“During the last 300 years, there has never been such an inefficient government,” he says. “The state is disappearing because those who have the job description of working for the state have much more important things to do. The problem is, the more they steal, the more they fear losing power.”
In 1991, there were leaders who could inspire people to act, he says. “Now, there are none, and anything can happen.”
Only a tiny percentage of the population takes part in civil society, about 1.5 or 2 percent, at the level of statistical error.