In August 1991 reporter David Remnick stood in the crowd outside the Russian parliament when Boris Yeltsin mounted a tank to denounce an attempted coup that would have brought back communism. On that day, Remnick writes in Lenin’s Tomb, “Muscovites were prepared to die for democratic principles.”
Twenty-seven years later democratic principles are in short supply. Russians vote for president on March 18th in an election that is neither free nor fair. The incumbent president controls the media and the judiciary and Putin’s main rival Alexei Navalny has been kept off the ballot.
Despite flaws there is an element of democracy in the election. Voters have choices as seven candidates are challenging Putin. They range from a millionaire communist to a former television personality. The election is a barometer of voter sentiment and Putin’s popularity. Will he get his desired 70% majority and 70% turnout?
During his 18 years in power the 65-year-old Putin has reshaped Russian politics. He is corrupt and dictatorial but no longer a communist. Asked last October his opinion of the approaching 100th anniversary of the communist revolution, Putin through a spokesman caustically replied, “what is there to celebrate?” During communist times you could go to jail for such a remark. The anniversary of the great October revolution was for decades the biggest holiday in Russia. Yeltsin broadened the observance to the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. Putin cancelled it altogether in 2004.
American journalist Jack Reed was an eye witness to the revolution and wrote the classic account of it. Sympathetic to the Bolsheviks vision of a classless society, Reed called the Russian revolution “one of the great events of human history.” Lincoln Steffens was equally enthusiastic, returning from Russia in 1919 saying, “I have seen the future and it works.”
Of course, it didn’t work and idealism turned to catastrophe when Stalin succeeded Lenin in 1924. At least seven million died in famines linked to the collectivization of agriculture.
The dream of building socialism in an egalitarian society was exposed as a fraud.
Remnick calls Soviet communism “one of the cruelest regimes in human history,” a system built on fear and lies in which millions perished.
Among the most egregious lies was Stalin’s claim during world war two that the Germans murdered 8,000 captured Polish officers at Katyn Forest. When Mikhail Gorbachev, seeking to reform the USSR, opened the secret government archives, Remnick was among the researchers. In Lenin’s Tomb he recounts the ghastly tale of how 250 Polish prisoners at Katyn were shot every night for 30 consecutive days, their bodies thrown into mass graves. He writes, “once the regime showed itself for what it was, it was doomed.”
The system was too rotten for Gorbachev to save and in December 1991 he like the USSR itself was finished.
In the critical first decade of post-communism hopes were high that democracy and the rule of law would take hold. Alas, it was not to be. Russia’s empire in Eastern Europe gone and its global influence diminished, the long suffering Russian people now endured a disastrous inflation that wiped out their meagre savings. Then there was a criminalized privatization of state assets that Yeltsin was too weak to control. Western assistance in building democracy and a market economy failed.
When former KGB agent Putin succeeded Yeltsin at the dawn of the millennium Russians craved the stability the new strong man willingly provided.
Nearly 20 years ago Vladimir Putin expressed the hope that with steady economic growth Russian living standards might match those of Portugal within 15 years. It was extraordinary that super power Russia would compare itself to Western Europe’s poorest country. But it was also a bold confession of how low Russian living standards actually were.
Putin’s goal was not achieved. According to World Bank figures at the end of 2017 Russia’s per capita incomes were $6,500 compared to $21,000 in Portugal. Prosperity in Russia did rise during the oil boom from 2004 to 2008 but fell back in subsequent years when the oil price weakened. Russia’s economy is dependent on oil, gas and other commodities. Its economic growth has been further hampered by the sanctions imposed in 2014 following Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Overall Russia has made only halting advances in the nearly three decades since communism ended. But Vladimir Putin is a popular leader. His approval rating soared after the annexation of Crimea, which most Russians regard as part of Russia. When Europe and America imposed sanctions, a burst of patriotism prompted further support for Putin. He is admired by the Russian people, credited with being a strong leader who has stood up for his country and restored its battered pride.
Putin rules like a Czar, deeply conservative, fearful of unrest, placing stability above all else. Wanting Russia to be taken seriously and be a major player on the global stage, Putin ignores the communist past. “Russia,” he says, “did not begin either in 1917 or in 1991. We have a single, uninterrupted history spanning over a thousand years.” It is a message that resonates well across Russia. #