How'd We Do Covering the Revolution? Looking Back with a Generous Dose of Humility

By Hoffman, David E. | Foreign Policy, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

How'd We Do Covering the Revolution? Looking Back with a Generous Dose of Humility


Hoffman, David E., Foreign Policy


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YEVGENY BUSHMIN SEEMED TO embody all the promise of Russian democracy on a cold December day in 1995 as he campaigned for reelection to the lower house of parliament. When we met, Bushmin was 37 years old, had made it as a young businessman in the last years of the Soviet Union, had become the first chairman of the fledgling stock exchange in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, and now in a suit, black cloth coat, white scarf, and fur hat, was seeking a second term from District 122.

He had a reformist record in the Duma, but could see the tide was running the other way. In Nizhny, called Gorky in Soviet times and best known as the internal exile of Nobel-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov, the huge military-industrial complex stood idle, the workers uncertain about their future. People were hurting so badly the word "democracy" itself had come to be associated with hardship.

At 9:15 a.m., we arrived at the gate of a sprawling defense factory, which once made laser equipment but was now quiet and empty. This was only Russia's second post-Soviet parliamentary election, and the workers we met were sour. "I'm not allergic to democracy," Bushmin told them. "The only advice I have is let's give it a different name and keep doing it."

And indeed, a day spent watching Bushmin field complaints from angry, sullen voters left me still optimistic that despite the hardships, democracy might take root in Russia after seven decades of Soviet rule. I wrote in the Washington Post at the time that Bushmin's race highlighted the "fascinating, wobbly, yet striving character of Russia's young democracy."

A decade and a half later, however, Russian democracy is flat on its back. When parliamentary elections are held this December, there will be no individual districts like the one where Bushmin campaigned. They were abolished in favor of a party-list system that effectively makes it impossible for independents to win. Governors, once elected, are for all practical purposes now appointed by the Kremlin. While in 1995 there was a vibrant if uneven free press in Russia, today the main broadcast channels--through which 90 percent of people get their news--are all firmly under the Kremlin's thumb. Over the last decade, Vladimir Putin, as president and then prime minister, has established a monopoly on politics and the policy it drives.

It was not the outcome I expected while covering Russia's transition as the Post bureau chief in the 1990s. Russia zigzagged from oligarchic capitalism to crony capitalism, and in politics from proto-democracy to soft authoritarianism. All of us who witnessed the events of those years--journalists, scholars, government officials, businessmen, and others--ought to ask ourselves: Why did Russia turn out this way? What did we get right, and what did we get wrong?

For the most part, Russia had to choose its own direction, and the West's ability to change that path was always somewhat limited. No amount of aid, loans, or well-intentioned advice was going to endow Russia with a broad consensus about its identity, direction, or place in the world, all of which are still in play. But to the extent that outsiders could help, did the West try too hard to remake Russia in its own image? Were the basic choices--democracy and free markets--somehow wrong or alien for Russia? Were there alternative paths? These questions have reverberated for years.

The answers could be important for a new generation of democracy activists, particularly those in the Arab world. The protesters who gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in early 2011 will undoubtedly be facing many of the same frustrations that unfolded in Russia 20 years earlier. There are lessons to be taken from the collapse of Soviet communism. History may not repeat itself, but it can certainly be reusable. It should be examined with a generous dose of humility.

BACK IN THE 1980s, a lone economist, Vitaly Naishul, had dared speculate on the future after Soviet shortages and central planning. …

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