The Rosett Report

The Long Rough Awakening of Russia

Twenty years ago this Christmas day, Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech announcing “I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” And with that, the totalitarian and murderous construct of the USSR, already uncoupled earlier that month by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, was no more.

These were monumental events. Yet so tumultuous is the world right now that the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse is figuring as little more than a footnote in the news. In Russia itself, the events of the hour are the protests against the reign of Vladimir Putin, with tens of thousands of people bravely demonstrating in the freezing streets, alleging foul play in the recent parliamentary elections and, as the AFP reports, carrying banners with slogans such as “We woke up and this is only the beginning.”

If so, it has been a long beginning. Twenty years have passed since Russia officially embarked on its awakening. An entire new generation has come of age, and the years since Christmas of 1991 have been filled with trouble, disappointments, crude grabs for Russia’s colossal natural resources, the fading of freedoms once promised, and the rise of a new autocracy. There would be room for a more joyous celebration of the Soviet collapse, were there less call to deplore a great deal of what has followed.

But I would not give up on Russia, or at least on the Russians.

An anecdote: In 1993, I arrived in Russia to work as a foreign correspondent at the Wall Street Journal‘s Moscow bureau. It was a queasy time, fascinating but difficult. No one knew quite what the rules were anymore. Nothing worked the way one wanted it to. As one source explained it to me, no one even knew anymore whom to bribe.

There came a cold, gray miserable evening in the early autumn of 1993, during the standoff between Yeltsin and the Soviet-installed old parliament, when I was alone in the bureau — and the power went out. Yet another bout of news was breaking about the endless tussles in the Kremlin, and I had just a few hours to find out whatever I could, and file a story to the foreign desk in New York. The office was freezing, and without electricity the TASS machine had gone dead, the satellite phone was on the fritz, and the lights were out. I managed to place some phone calls, using the erratic Russian phone lines. Then, in my frustration, I made a call to the U.S., to seek some wisdom from an old family friend, economist Douglass North — who later that year received the Nobel Prize for his work on the interactions of economic and institutional change.

To my astonishment, the call went through. I reached Douglass North, and gave him a rundown on what I was witnessing in Russia. Then I asked him how long it would take before Russia might become a normal, free and, democratic society — in which both the utilities and the political institutions really worked. I was hoping against hope for an answer with a time horizon within the decade or so.

North replied: “Oh, about 50 years.”

He went on to explain that when a society has been through something as monumentally destructive as decades of Soviet rule, it can take generations to turn around the implicit rules, and create truly functional democratic institutions. I asked if there were any chance it might go faster. He said that even with luck and wisdom, it would take at least another generation coming of age.

Here we are, a generation later. The trajectory does not look good. How rough it might yet become is a big and terrible question, and the folly of expecting any simple “reset” in Russian state policy — whether foreign or domestic — should be brutally clear. But something other than Putinism is simmering in Russia. If, in this long and turbulent story, it comes to something good, that awakening began with the end of the USSR. For that, among so many other reasons, we can honor this day.

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