What Happened to Russia

The end of the USSR is rife with what-ifs and could-have-beens

The Russian officer stared at me with cold contempt.

“What are you doing here? You are not allowed here.”

“But I’m an accredited journalist, and I have a permit,” I said.

Next to his Kalashnikov my case was weak: pulled from my car at a hastily created checkpoint in Chechnya, I feared more for my Chechen driver than for myself, in a war where death and disappearance were daily fare.

“This is our territory,” said the officer. “And we can do as we please.”

We can do as we please.

That phrase echoed back at me as I read The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, sociologist and long-time peace activist Metta Spencer’s multi-layered personal, political and cultural analysis of Russia’s tumultuous march toward democracy from the 1980s to the fall of communism and its acrid aftermath.

Democracy goes hand in hand with the rule of law. But over a decade of covering Russia, from the 1990s to the early years of Vladimir Putin, I had watched it wither as impunity flourished. The critics of the government were once again the enemies of the state. The constitution guaranteed free speech and assembly, but they came at the price of lives.

So many lives.

Journalist Dmitry Kholodov, blown apart by a bomb while investigating corruption in the Russian military. Politician Galina Starovoitova, known for her liberal and democratic views, shot in an apartment stairwell. Crusading reporter Anna Politkovskaya and her friend and human rights source Natalya Estemirova, assassinated for chronicling appalling rights abuses under the Moscow-installed government of Chechnya. Their collaborator, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, gunned down along with investigative journalist Anastasia Baburova.

More recently, whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died an agonizing death in Butyrka prison after accusing officials of a massive tax fraud scheme. And dissident former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky is serving the ninth year of what may be a 13-year term in conditions that hark back to the Soviet Union.

All paid an enormous price for their quest for democracy in Russia. And they are only a few of many who have done so since the Cold War ended. Vladimir Putin is once again actually as well as virtually in charge of the sprawling country, after an election widely decried as unfair but rubber-stamped by the international community.

Nothing in Putin’s governing style is likely to change. But the nascent protests in Moscow and some other large cities are a sign that the desire for democracy lives, and with it the rule of law.

It was not supposed to be like this. To convinced democrats, the crumbling of communism was meant to end abuses.

For them, Metta Spencer’s intimate, painstakingly documented account of the peace- and democracy-seeking Russians and westerners who struggled for decades to bridge the gap between them, makes for sobering reading. Spencer, the doyenne of Cold War peace activists, travelled to Russia and interviewed its cautious, covert and courageous reformers there and in the West over 28 years. She well understands the paradox that still faces Russian democrats today.

The early Cold War reformers had a more momentous task ahead of them. In the early 1980s—so near, yet so far from today’s geopolitical landscape—championing change was an even more audacious act. Overcoming the isolation and massive suspicion that lay between East and West was an effort that took place over years and decades. And here Spencer’s sociological view gives a unique perspective, dwelling not only on what happened, but on how the process of change took place.

Her engagingly written book is a treasure trove of personal anecdote and political history that documents Russia’s progress to reform, face to face. It helps to debunk the received wisdom that the death of communism resulted solely from an American foreign policy coup led by President Ronald Reagan, who drove it down through ruinously costly military and economic confrontation.

Rather, Spencer shows, it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision and courage that launched a gradual process of democratization, from a foundation laid by lesser-known theorists as well as celebrated critics who risked their lives and health to oppose the totalitarian regime. Her analysis divides reformers in two parts. “Barking dogs” like Andrei Sakharov snapped at the heels of the Kremlin with outspoken denunciations of human rights abuses. They were stern and uncompromising in their quest for justice, and took the greatest risks. But ultimately, their impatient and unbending stance toward Gorbachev, as a representative of communism, although admirable, “cannot claim to have left … either a functioning Soviet Union or a flourishing civic culture.”

Lower profile were the “termites,” who worked from within to quietly undermine the old order, and eventually surfaced as prime movers of reform. Gorbachev—the hero of Spencer’s book—was the exception, working from the top down. His dramatic conversion from doctrinaire communism to cautious liberalization built on the work of the less known but tireless individuals who had toiled in relative obscurity to change the system.

Nor was their task easy or smooth. Because most of the fledgling reformers were intellectuals, they risked losing prestigious posts, and with them apartments, travel privileges and their families’ futures.

In the topsy-turvy world of the Soviet Union, the termites were valued for their knowledge of the West, while held under deep suspicion for their expertise. Academic Victor Sheinis, fired from his university job as “unreliable,” was hired by a prestigious Moscow institute where he was to “generate (top secret) predictions about world development until the year 2000.”

However, “one day a high-level party commission visited, looked at the predictions and issued a denunciation: ‘Revisionists are working in IMEO! They predict that in the year 2000 capitalism will still exist!’”

That comic example says much about the travails of the termites, who took them with varying degrees of patience and humour. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, their efforts were less frustrating, and their opinions crept into the open. But by the time his famed glasnost and perestroika policies were launched a year later, Spencer points out, the damage may already have been done, in Russia’s political and economic, as well as environmental spheres.

“The Soviet Union reforms might have succeeded, had the scholars whom I have named been able to publicize their research,” she writes, citing an impressive list of recommendations that might have averted the Chernobyl disaster, reformed the still-backward oil sector, laid the groundwork for vital military reforms, brought impressive growth to the economy by adopting the Chinese model and even ended the Cold War much sooner. “When perestroika began, these honest researchers were expected to produce critiques and plans instantaneously. But too much time had been lost. For haste and confusion there is a high price. For years to come Russian society will pay that price.”

It is hard to know, in hindsight, what great leaps forward might have been made if the termites had had unimpeded access to their leaders’ ears much earlier. That would have assumed a society far more open than the Soviet Union in the time of Leonid Brezhnev or Konstantin Chernenko. Nevertheless, without the termites—and their leader Gorbachev—the Berlin Wall would not have fallen, nor would the Soviet empire have shattered as it did. But the gradual changes to the economic and social structure that Gorbachev dreamed of gained a momentum that he could not control.

The back story has as much to do with the bitter enmity between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and their years-long games of political chicken, as it does with differences over the pace of reform. Given the chance, each heaped humiliation on the other, and was paid back in kind. But Yeltsin’s iconic image atop a tank, defending Russia from resurgent communist coup leaders who held Gorbachev prisoner in his Yalta dacha, eventually won the day, and Gorbachev’s gradualism was swept into the dustbin of history.

To some extent Spencer blames the barking dogs for deserting Gorbachev and opting for an illusory revolution over evolution. What at first appeared a new regime of “power to the people” devolved into Yeltsin’s “wild East,” which threw open the Soviet store to eager kleptocrats and the mayhem of today.

Gorbachev, so revered in the West, was despised by many Russians for the crash of the economy that came even before the Soviet superpower sank. With miners’ strikes rippling across the empire, store shelves bare, the price of oil plummeting and a new treaty loosening the bonds of the USSR, many saw their homeland smouldering, and Gorbachev—their “czar”—merely fiddling. But his defeat was also the doing of the West, which held back on desperately needed loans because Gorbachev refused to embrace a western plan for the fast-track radical reform known as “shock therapy.”

Both Gorbachev’s western political admirers, and those who might have rallied support for him inside Russia turned their backs. Spencer watched with apprehension as the termites, too, scuttled away, drawn by Yeltsin’s populist appeal. Some later regretted it.

Crippled by the communist coup and conquered by Yeltsin, Gorbachev left the stage—but not before he had laid the groundwork of a democratic system: holding the first free legislative elections, shrinking the power of the communist party in a new constitution, allowing civil society organizations to form, embracing the rule of law and adopting the Helsinki Final Act as a framework for human rights—not to mention agreeing to an unprecedented partnership with the United States to downsize their nuclear arsenals.

Given time and support, would Gorbachev’s methodical approach to reform have produced a Russia that would now be among the social democracies of Europe? It is a tantalizing question that will never be resolved. And it also depends on the huge imponderable of a far different role for Yeltsin.

But the tornado of plunder that began with Yeltsin’s term in power has done long-term damage, as Spencer wryly notes. The fledgling protest movement that rose up after the December 2011 parliamentary election has a very different challenge from the one that faced the termites and barking dogs of the Cold War, who were hungering after western-style democracy.

The excesses of President George W. Bush—some carried over by the Obama administration—have discredited American democracy, and made it easier for Putin’s fantasy of a diabolical, Washington-led, new Cold War against Moscow to gain traction in the already-suspicious Russian mind. A resurgence of nationalism has fuelled anger, and protest leaders are wary of identification with western organizations that might support them.

In recent years, too, the brutal inequalities of the West have made a mockery of the Soviet dissidents’ vision of a shining city on the hill, not to mention an American oligarchy to put Russia’s in the shade: 425 American billionaires versus Russia’s mere 96, according to Forbes Magazine.

Change from within is more difficult, too, in the New Russia, where personal gain has replaced ideology. Those who own the house have little incentive to gnaw at its foundations. Potential termites in Putin’s regime have been quickly swept aside, and few, if any, are left to work within the system. Meanwhile the barking dogs join the throngs on the streets, unsure of where the protest movement is heading.

The most genuine hope would be a bottom-up transition to democracy—with broad support from the multitude of apathetic “sheep” who look for change from the top. (They are Spencer’s third zoological category and have a lesser role in her book.) But she points out that countries that go through popular transition have the best chance of succeeding as democracies.

Here, though, Russia’s historic tug-of-war between chaos and the “order” of authoritarian leadership comes into play. The cheering, euphoric crowds that turned out on the streets two decades ago when Lenin’s statue came crashing down saw the bitter consequences of economic and social disarray. With relief, they handed power to a new strongman and beat a hasty retreat.

Now, weeks after an election that gives Putin another six years, potentially twelve, in power, there is hope for recapturing some of the spirit of 1991. Not the limitless hope of a new bright future, but the determination of those who have crossed over, and found the place darker than they had imagined. As flickers of light appear on the horizon, will the sheep wake up—and learn to bark?

Written before the protests began, when the status quo appeared unchallenged, Spencer’s book inevitably ends on a down note. But her chronicle of the spirit and ingenuity of Russians and their ability to overcome the most unbreachable barriers is anything but discouraging. I look forward to the next chapter.