Page 2 of 2   <      

Which Way Did It Go?

Yet that wealth has not trickled down throughout the entire country, and even where it has, a sense of unease remains, a feeling of something lost. A recent poll by the Levada Center found that 15 years later, 61 percent of Russians regret the fall of the Soviet Union. I saw that repeatedly during my years in Moscow. Once at our own dinner table, a seemingly Westernized, 30-something Russian friend argued that the Soviet days were not so bad and that Stalin would be remembered as a hero.

And Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 until his death in 1982, has been recast as a father figure instead of the last major figure of the Communist gerontocracy. "In 1982, I could not have imagined in a nightmare that Brezhnev's birth centenary would be marked with such great interest," Vladimir Averin, a host at Moscow's Radio Mayak, said on air recently. "What is happening today is an emotional and sometimes aggressive attempt to counterpose -- everything was good then and it is bad today with this democracy and multiparty system. Here is an unexpected message: We had an ideology at the time and this is why everything was good, but we do not have any ideology today, which means that we cannot live well."

On the Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal Web site, the last vestige of an independent media empire systematically dismantled by Putin early in his presidency, Anton Orekh wrote that Russians were mainly nostalgic for the illusion of stability that Brezhnev provided. "People remember that wonderful feeling of not having to worry about anything because it was all decided for you and you had simply to live peacefully, go to work and pick up your wages," he wrote. "Give the people peace and quiet, immerse them in nirvana and they will celebrate your 100th birthday with pleasure."

As long as they remain peaceful and quiet, the Russian people can live relatively unbothered by the state today. Those who try to influence their country in a significant way, however, risk harassment, prison or violence. The killing of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning in London has captured attention in the West, but he is only the latest person out of favor to fall into harm's way.

In the last year alone, Marina Litvinovich, a former Kremlin adviser who had joined the small remaining political opposition, was attacked on the street in what many regarded as a politically motivated assault; hit on the head from behind, she lost two teeth, her leg and back were injured, and her face bloodied and bruised. Marat Gelman, another ex-adviser to the Kremlin who helped create a faux opposition party to foster the illusion of political competition in 2003, was beaten and his art gallery torn apart by 10 masked men. His offense: hosting a show by a Georgian artist at a time Russia was at odds with Georgia.

The list goes on: Anna Politkovskaya, the most prominent Russian newspaper journalist who had earned an international reputation for crusading coverage of atrocities in Chechnya, was gunned down in her apartment building on Putin's birthday. Opposition leaders such as chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov have been targeted by raids or financial investigation. When Kasparov and Kasyanov helped organize a rally last week, authorities sent 8,500 police officers to keep an eye on 2,000 protesters, some of whom were beaten.

Nor was Litvinenko the first to be targeted outside of Russia. Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned and his face horribly disfigured before he led the Orange Revolution and became president of that former Soviet republic two years ago. And Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed by a bomb attached to his car in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where he had fled. With U.S. help, the Qataris caught and convicted two Russian intelligence agents in the murder.

Whether Putin orchestrated such incidents remains murky, of course, but they are a standard feature of the Russia he has built. Putin even introduced a law passed in July permitting assassination of terrorists and enemies of the state abroad. Within the complex, factionalized world of Kremlin politics, any number of figures may have decided that such actions were to their advantage. And with Putin facing a constitutional term-limit end to his presidency in 2008, the struggle for power is well underway and seems to be playing out in macabre and indecipherable ways.

One theory of the Litvinenko case circulating in Moscow, for instance, holds that some in the faction of KGB veterans arranged the killing to make Putin look bad in the West, thereby pressuring him to try to remain in power beyond 2008 because he might fear the consequences to himself of stepping down. Twisted as that may sound, the fact that it seems plausible to many in Moscow says a lot.

At stake is not just political power. Putin's top lieutenants generally serve not only as cabinet ministers or Kremlin aides but also as chairmen of various state-controlled companies, giving them access to multibillion-dollar empires ripe for plundering. Lose the Kremlin and lose access to those accounts.

Little wonder, then, that Russian officials bristle when lectured by the West about democracy. As Rice said, it has not been a straight line since that promising moment 15 years ago -- and it doesn't look likely to straighten out soon. In Putin's view, the lamentations over democracy are a Cold War leftover, another way to keep Russia down. "There are devoted Sovietologists who do not understand what is happening in our country, do not understand the changing world," he said earlier this year. "There is no need to argue with them. They deserve a very brief response: 'To hell with you.' "

ref='mailto:bakerp@washpost.com'>bakerp@washpost.com

Peter Baker, The Washington Post's co-bureau chief in Moscow from 2001 to 2004, is co-author of "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution" (Scribner).


<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company