Magazine article Russian Life

The Yeltsin Legacy

Magazine article Russian Life

The Yeltsin Legacy

Article excerpt

Two days before Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, a retired captain in the Russian navy, Alexander Nikitin, was acquitted of espionage in a St. Petersburg courtroom and released from custody. Nikitin's alleged crime was passing information about Russian nuclear submarines to a Norwegian environmental group. The judge ruled that the suit had been brought under an ex post facto law in "direct violation of the constitution."

As far as anyone, including Nikitin's lawyers, can gather, this is the first time in Russian history that the secret police--the FSB, successor to the KGB--has been forced to release a person it had accused of treason. Indeed the mere fact that the trial was open to the public is a miracle. A five-minute sentencing before a troika of KGB officers and a bullet in the back of the head in the basement of the Lubyanka prison, or a slow death by starvation in a faraway labor camp would have been Nikitin's fate under the Soviet regime. This time, the FSB released a statement acknowledging that the ruling had been "reached on the basis of the law."

Astonishing as it is, the Nikitin case is not an exception but part of a trend. In 1998, over 100,000 lawsuits were brought by ordinary citizens against government officials for illegal administrative actions, and in 80 percent of them, the courts ruled for the plaintiffs. Since the constitution requires that all capital cases be heard by juries, and only a few Russian provinces have begun to experiment with jury trials, capital punishment has been, in effect, abolished in Russia--a country that, along with the United States, China, and South Africa, led the world in executions just a few years back. The courts also have been throwing out--by the dozen--the Army's cases against "deserters," on the ground that the Army has violated their constitutional right to alternative service. And the courts have dismissed numerous suits against foreign religious "sects" brought by local authorities under the restrictive and xenophobic Law on Religious Freedom passed by the Duma over Yeltsin's veto in 1997.

Peter Solomon of the University of Toronto traces these developments to the 1992 Law on the Status of Judges, which established life terms for judges and made the self-governing Congress of Judges the sole arbiter of judicial behavior, banning interference by state authorities. He calls the law "revolutionary."

Russia's legal revolution, virtually unnoticed in the West, is just one manifestation of the tectonic shift that took place during the eight years of the Yeltsin presidency. Boris Yeltsin shaped, inspired, led, and sustained atleast three revolutions at once: a political revolution, which established some key principles and institutions of democracy (freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of political opposition, free legislative and parliamentary elections, and the separation of powers); an economic revolution, which introduced private property and a market economy; and an anti-imperial revolution, which, for the first time in history, separated the state of Russia from its empire.

All great revolutions, in the end, fall short of their initial supporters' hopes and take decades, sometimes centuries, to reach maturity. But perhaps no other great revolution has ever dismantled so crushing a legacy from the ancien regime with so little violence and ushered in a freedom so complete. The weight of the Soviet legacy, along with Yeltsin's own obvious blunders and the efforts of a well-organized and determined opposition free to work its will, account for the tortuousness of Russia's transition out of communism.

But to say that a revolution has failed to live up to its original promise is not to say that no revolution has taken place. The traditional ills of the Russian state--militarism, brutality, corruption, xenophobia, authoritarianism--have not been extinguished in Yeltsin's eight years, but the barriers erected against their recurrence are stronger now than at any time in Russian history. …

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