To the Editor:
In “What Does Putin Want” [December 2006], Leon Aron once again proves himself one of our most cogent observers of Russia. He was right about positive trends there in the 1990’s, and he is right today about the ham-fisted statism that threatens to turn 21st-century Russia into an inefficient authoritarian state where the rich and poor (but mostly the poor) all know the neo-Brezhnevite deal they must accept in order to get by: do what you like, as long as you do not annoy the authorities.
However, while I agree with Mr. Aron’s analysis of Vladimir Putin’s role in taking Russia backward, it is important as well to recall the role of Russia’s “liberals” in helping to create—if inadvertently—an environment conducive to Putin’s machinations. Despite their good intentions, their political activity over the years has been utterly feckless, marked too often by ego-driven squabbling and terribly miscalculated campaign strategies. (David Remnick put it perfectly when he wrote that reformer Egor Gaidar ran for office as if he were running to become head of the math department.) The result at the polls during the 1990’s was electoral fratricide, with the liberal parties running as much against each other as against the various anti-reform elements. Russians, never comfortable with parties or parliaments, saw only disorganization and feuding among liberals in the Duma, and concluded that it was not an institution worth supporting.
The subsequent expansion of executive power, which began under Yeltsin and which I thought at the time was a positive development, was a natural response to this disorder, but the Russian liberals never made a convincing case for the eventual return of some of that power to the Duma or other political institutions. Putin can be blamed for many things (and should be), but the incompetence of Russia’s would-be democratic leaders is not one of them.
Nevertheless, I cannot help thinking that there is some cause for optimism about Russia in the twin influences of globalization and technology. Perhaps I am too hopeful, but I still believe there is only so far that any Russian leader can go in attempting to reverse course from the liberalization of the 1990’s. First, hackneyed an observation though it may be, effective participation in the global economy necessarily limits the amount of mischief a government can do, as the Chinese have figured out.
More crucially, it will be almost impossible to restore the walls that once existed between Russia and the world. Putin can shut down television stations—which in any case were not so much “independent” as they were “anti-government”—but he cannot turn off millions of cell phones, computers, and satellite dishes. Nor can he stop Russians from boarding planes and trains to Europe and other destinations. The explosion of freedom after 1990 means that anyone trying to reimpose authoritarian order on the Russian Federation is facing a task (to use an old Russian expression) akin to turning fish soup back into an aquarium.
The technological reality is important. Despite the darker conspiratorial theories of Soviet nostalgists like Stephen Cohen, the Soviet Union was brought down, to a large extent, by a massive case of cognitive dissonance on the part of its own citizens, who could not reconcile their miserable lives with what they knew from their televisions, their radios, and (sometimes) their own eyes.
If the gray grip of Russia’s statists bogs the country down in the sludge of corruption, repression, and economic stagnation, it is possible that Russians, once again, will realize that the tradeoff between security and freedom is not as good a deal as it might have looked. That seems to be Leon Aron’s hope for the country. It is mine as well, and I think there is still reason to trust that it will happen.
Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island
Leon Aron writes:
I am grateful to Tom Nichols for his kind view of my work.
That Russian liberals (read: “intelligentsia”) have been politically inept and sectarian is one of the constant tragedies of Russian history. Within this sad tradition, however, the post-Soviet liberals have not fared badly at all. Unlike the Mensheviks, the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s) of 1917-18, they did not give way to a dictatorship in the wake of a democratic revolution, and for ten years they kept Russia the freest it has ever been.
Indeed, to add another item to Mr. Nichols’s reasons for optimism, it was during the 1990’s that Russia came closest to political stalemate, which has often been noted as a necessary condition for a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. There was a complex, multilevel, and almost evenly matched contest between a leftist, nationalist plurality in the parliament and a liberal, internationalist executive; between Moscow and the provinces; between the state and the “oligarchs”; and among the oligarchs themselves. Such a balance of powers encourages the pursuit of consensus by way of democratic politics.
The essence of the Putin restoration has been the erosion of these opposing forces, with victories of the executive over the parliament; the seat of power over the regions; and the state over private wealth. But as opinion polls in Russia indicate again and again, these victories are neither complete nor (by many measures) irreversible. In short, democracy in Russia has a future because it has had a past—a short and highly imperfect past, but a real one.