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BORIS KARGARLITSKY: 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 years later.
KRISTIN 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 Russians cheered.
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 Vladimir Putin.
CHARLES MAYNES: 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 hears this:
[sound of classical music followed by a radio announcer speaking in Russian]
VYACHESLAV KRAINIK: [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 a coup.
[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 them.
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 never came.
[sound of a large, cheering, roaring, chanting crowd]
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 we defeat?
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 like me.
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.
BORIS KARGARLITSKY: 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, the failure.
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 na´ve. 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.
BORIS KARGARLITSKY: 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 affairs.
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 Yeltsin’s antithesis.
VIKTOR KREMENYUK: 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 Vladimir Putin.
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.
BORIS KARGARLITSKY: 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.
AMERICAN 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.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Crawford, of course.
PRESIDENT PUTIN: [via 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.
VASIL YAKAMENKO: [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 grade students.
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 well.
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.
RUSSIAN STUDENT: We 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]
RUSSIAN STUDENT: We 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.
MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0201. That’s Program Number 0201. To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That’s 563-264-1500.
PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our Web site: commongroundradio.org. Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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