15 years later

Which Way Did It Go?

By Peter Baker
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fifteen years ago tomorrow, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the hammer-and-sickle flag over the Kremlin was hauled down and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, replaced by an independent, theoretically democratic Russia and 14 cousin states. But don't look for parades in Moscow to celebrate the anniversary. There will be no fireworks, no national commemoration of the epochal event of the last half of the 20th century.

By contrast, the 100th birthday of the late Leonid Brezhnev last week touched off a wave of nostalgia for the old apparatchik with the bushy eyebrows. Wreaths and flowers were laid at his tomb in Red Square, conferences were held on his legacy, a street and park were renamed for him. A state television correspondent rhapsodized about how he "was quite a hit with the ladies." A poll showed that more than 60 percent of Russians saw the Brezhnev era in a positive light compared with 17 percent who did not.

What to make of a Russia that today grows misty-eyed over a period of tyranny and stagnation while growling that the breakup of one of the world's most despotic regimes in 1991 was, as President Vladimir Putin put it, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century"? What to make of a country with all the trappings of a Western-style capitalist democracy but the KGB-style cynicism to seemingly reach out and kill a critic in exile using radioactive polonium?

Russia today defies easy characterization. It is not your father's Soviet Union. Everyday Russians enjoy enormous freedom to live as they choose without worrying that neighbors will rat them out for making a joke about authorities. They can travel abroad, start businesses, watch foreign movies and surf the Internet unfettered.

And yet the Kremlin has nearly completed a seven-year project to reconsolidate power and eliminate any serious opposition. It started by taking over television, then parliament, then business. It manipulated elections and then, when that became inconvenient, eliminated voting altogether for the country's 89 governors and now is considering the same for big-city mayors. It has intimidated human rights groups and assumed control of newspapers one by one.

So Russia in some ways appears a little like China, where the economy flourishes with new freedom but politics remain tightly controlled. Or in other ways, it seems like Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Or Augusto Pinochet's Chile. Or all of the above. There was a reason the old monarch was called the Czar of All Russias.

There are many Russias all coexisting together.

The 15-year path from the demise of Gorbachev to the rise of Putin is instructive at a time when Washington is talking about planting democracy in hard soil around the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this month that "it takes time" to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy. If Russia is any guide, it may take so much time that many of us won't be around to see that day.

"There have been some missed opportunities," Rice, who was a Soviet specialist at the White House as the Soviet Union headed toward collapse, told The Washington Post. "There have been some disappointments. It hasn't gone in a straight line. I think that the linking up of energy and politics is pretty troubling. But it's also not the Soviet Union, and personal freedoms are considerably greater than anything that we would have imagined when I was there."

The optimism of those first weeks after the Soviet collapse was infectious. Gorbachev succumbed to the pressures he himself had unleashed with reforms intended to save socialism. President George H.W. Bush hailed the end of the Soviet Union as "a victory for democracy and freedom" and welcomed "the emergence of a free, independent and democratic Russia."

Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia moved fitfully forward, but every advance seemed to encounter an equally powerful setback. Elections brought in a representative parliament only to trigger a tank battle with Yeltsin. State property was divested to private owners only to be stolen by newly minted oligarchs. The borders opened but the economy collapsed. Regions asserted greater autonomy but war broke out when Chechnya claimed too much. By the time an ailing Yeltsin picked a little-known former KGB colonel to succeed him on New Year's Eve 1999, the country was ready for anything resembling stability.

Putin's tough-fisted rule combined with soaring oil prices have transformed Russia. During my last visit there a few months ago, a massive new shopping mall -- the largest, it was said, in all of Europe -- had risen a block from my old apartment in less than two years. Ikea, which opened its first store in Russia the same week Putin was formally elected in 2000 and found 40,000 ravenous customers on its doorstep the first day, had five furniture stores and eight malls with plans for 11 more, making it the second-largest landlord in Moscow. Russia is swimming in money; its economy has grown fivefold under Putin, from $200 billion to $920 billion, and the once-destitute government has paid off its international debt in full and early.

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