THE LINE DIVIDING MEMORY FROM HISTORY is a thin one. The latter hinges on reportage, reconstruction, and, inevitably, speculation; the former is personal, immediate and in some cases dramatic. It is twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but my memories of it are sharp. Waking up in Moscow to the news of the August 1991 military coup against the reforming Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev; driving down Gorky Street as columns of tanks descended on the Kremlin, sent by the disgruntled hardline communists who claimed to have seized power; talking to the tank crews and hearing from nervous conscripts that they had live ammunition in their weapons and were prepared to use it. For three anxious days the fate of Europe and the world was fought over on the streets of Moscow.
After nearly a decade of reporting from the Soviet Union, I had known for some time that Gorbachev’s perestroika was in trouble. His liberalizing reforms hadn’t delivered the goods, either politically or in the nation’s food stores. Earlier in the year Kremlin hardliners had surreptitiously fomented unrest in the Baltic republics; now they were going for broke.
Their template for seizing power seemed to be the October 1964 ousting of the reformist Nikita Khrushchev by the Brezhnev clique. Both then and in 1991, the coup plotters had made their move while the leader was absent from Moscow. Both had secured, or attempted to secure, the backing of the power ministries — army, interior, security services — knowing they would be decisive in the event of a struggle. And both had grabbed the levers of centralized power. The Soviet Communist Party’s so-called democratic centralism, its web of administrative domination radiating from the Kremlin, ensured that commands from the top resulted in obedience on the ground. But there were differences between 1964 and 1991 that would emerge as the coup progressed.
When I spoke to Muscovites on the streets, I found some who agreed with the coup leaders, attracted by their promises to revive the economy, end the shortages, and re-establish the USSR as a superpower. But there was defiance, too, with civilians haranguing the troops or standing in the way of the tanks.
I watched as a detachment of armored vehicles encircled the Russian Parliament building, belching acrid smoke, churning up the blacktop of the Moskva River embankment. I saw Muscovites shot and crushed to death by armored personnel carriers. And I witnessed the crucial moment of political theatre when Boris Yeltsin clambered onto the back of a tank to urge the Russian people to unite against the coup.
The big change since 1964 was that the Russian people were no longer resigned to the ineluctability of a political process played out by shadowy cliques in the Kremlin. Khrushchev’s reforms were carried out within the rules of the system, so the system, with absolute power concentrated in the hands of the Party’s ruling elite, could oust him. But Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ and informational openness had encouraged the people to have a say in politics, and now they were determined to make their voices heard.
Glasnost’ was what allowed Boris Yeltsin’s Russian Parliament to become the Alamo of democracy. It was the reason that thousands of men and women risked their lives to defend it. I watched them form a human shield around the building and waited with them for the attack to come. The hardliners baulked at massacring civilians under the eyes of the world’s media. They ordered the tanks back to barracks; the coup collapsed and its leaders were arrested. Instead of restoring communist power, they had destroyed it. The Party was outlawed and in December 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. Yeltsin, left the undisputed ruler of an independent Russia, announced he would introduce Western-style freedoms, political pluralism and civil rights.
I was convinced — and said in my reports at the time — that autocracy was dead in Russia, that centuries of repression would be thrown off and replaced with liberty and democracy. But I was wrong. For the next decade, Russia tried to turn itself into a Western style market democracy but slid instead into runaway inflation, ethnic violence, and chaos. The following years, from 2000 onwards, have seen that process largely reversed. The country is stable and relatively prosperous now, but democracy and freedom once again take second place to the demands of the state.
I should probably have known better. In the grip of Moscow’s euphoria, I’d forgotten the lesson of history, that in Russia, attempts at reform are followed by a return to autocracy — unchecked power concentrated in the hands of a single unaccountable authority. It had happened so often in the past that it was improbable things would be different this time. The leaders of Europe and America were wrong, too. They sent clever economists from Harvard to oversee Russia’s transition to the market, rejoiced at the defeat of communism, and assumed the problem was solved. From now on, they declared, Russia would be like us. George Bush Sr.’s 1991 Christmas address had all the breathless elation of a baseball coach whose team has won the World Series:
Merry Christmas to all Americans across our great country! During these last few months, we have witnessed the historic transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its peoples. For over forty years, the United States has led the West in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. This struggle shaped the lives of all Americans. But the confrontation is now over! This is a victory for democracy and freedom! It is a victory for the moral force of our values! Every American can take pride in this victory!
The message was clear: the United States had wiped out autocracy in Russia, “American values” had triumphed and Moscow would henceforth adopt them, too. A blinkered confidence that its leaders could simply be instructed in the art of becoming good capitalists would be a hallmark of how the West would treat Russia for the next ten years. But those who regard Russia as a European nation “like us” miss the point. Russia has always looked both ways: to the democratic, law governed traditions of the West, but at the same time — and with more of this DNA in her makeup — to the Asiatic forms of governance she imbibed in her early years. The Mongol occupation of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries cemented a collectivist model of a strong, centralized state with a corresponding discount on individual liberties. The eagerness with which Russians have embraced strong rulers has deep roots in those distant times.
Instead of today’s renascent authoritarianism, could Russia have become a Western market democracy like ours? As early as 862 A.D., the tribes who inhabited the lands we know as Russia were calling for the strong hand of dictatorship. “There was no law among them,” the ancient Chronicles tell us, “and tribe rose against tribe… So they went to the Vikings who were known as the Rus, and said unto them, ‘Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come and rule over us.’ So Prince Rurik of Rus came to impose order, and from him the Russian land received its name…” Subsequent rulers utilized the same argument. Russia is so big and disorderly, proclaimed Tsars Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, that only the fist of centralized autocracy can hold it together. The Communist regime did the same in the twentieth century and so — more cautiously — did Vladimir Putin in the twenty-first.
There were times when the Russian people rose up against dictatorship. The revolts of Stenka Razin in the seventeenth century and Yemilian Pugachev in the eighteenth shook Tsarism but were crushed. When reforming Tsars offered the prospect of change it failed to take root. Alexander II freed the serfs and was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb. In February 1917, the “bourgeois” revolution overthrew the monarchy, ushered in civil freedoms, and proclaimed nationwide elections to a democratic parliament. But democracy was crushed again when the October Revolution threw up a new dictatorship — that of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Russia’s default position of governance is one of strong, centralized authority that brooks little opposition at home as it flexes its muscles abroad, and the period after 1991 was one of those historical exceptions that have periodically proved the rule. President Yeltsin introduced a U.S.-backed program of democratization and liberal economic shock therapy. But when price controls were lifted, inflation hit four hundred percent. People’s savings were wiped out and idealism evaporated as the oligarchs grabbed the country’s wealth. Corruption and violence flourished; wages went unpaid, and homelessness and poverty grew to unprecedented levels.
So when Vladimir Putin finally undid the reforms of the 1990s, Russians applauded. They wanted order and didn’t mind if Putin suspended civil rights to provide it. Few demanded a return to the Yeltsin era; Russia’s liberal opposition lost its way and autocracy returned.
It is tempting, of course, to ask if things could be different in the future. For one thing, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s “power vertical” is not absolute. There is at least a semblance of elections and the state no longer stifles the economy. Russians have satellite television and the Internet; they travel relatively freely abroad. So the advantages of democracy and free markets can no longer be hidden. Perhaps the globalization of information and the integration of the world’s economies could be the factors that bind Russia into the political and cultural values of the West?
The signs are not promising. Economic failure in the years since 2008 has become a driver of discontent, but while some see the popular demonstrations following last December’s rigged parliamentary elections as a Russian version of the Arab Spring, Putin’s reassertion of autocracy after 2000 was carried out with the approval of the people, not imposed on them. While the rest of Eastern Europe moved towards liberal market democracy, Russia has remained firmly wedded to centralized statist rule.
For nearly a millennium, Russia was an expanding empire ruled first by autocratic monarchs, then by an autocratic party. Its size and power were a challenge and a warning to its neighbors. Its rulers demanded, and received, obedience from its people who, in turn, took solace from the vastness of their land and the richness of their culture. When the empire collapsed, Russia was left shrunken and broken, its leaders exposed as weak men unable to understand, let alone dominate events.
The popular revolution of 1991 did not lead to liberty. Latter-day economic boyars stole the country’s riches and used them to prop up a buffoon president. It was a new Time of Troubles, ended by a small but terrifying man. The Kremlin under Putin was as powerful, as distant and as corrupt as it had been under the Romanovs; and, knowing no other form of rule, Russians in the first decade of the twenty-first century have bowed to its command. George Bush’s suggestion that Russia will now be “like us” seemed misguided at the time, and seems so today.