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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.

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.' "

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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).

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