Looking at the Arab Spring through 20 years of post-Soviet history.
When Hosni Mubarak was wheeled in to his courtroom cage the other day, gasping out his not-guilty plea from his sickbed-behind-bars as his son tried to shield him from the cameras, Egypt seemed to have produced the ultimate photo-op of revolutionary upheaval: the pharaoh brought low before the people’s tribunal. But I couldn’t help thinking about an unlikely character: Russia’s strongman leader Vladimir Putin. While the Middle East struggled to absorb the meaning of how quickly its mighty had fallen, Putin was busy contemplating a return to the Russian presidency, posing with scantily clad girls and trashing the United States for "living like a parasite off the global economy." If it seemed like a line out a Soviet script, well, it was.
Where revolutions start is not always where they end up.
Twenty years ago this month, the Soviet Union was experiencing the 1991 equivalent of the Arab spring, all youth and democracy and optimism about a future free from central planning and the dead hand of the security-obsessed authoritarian state. And yet for more than half the time since the hardline coup of Aug. 19, 1991, spelled the effective end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been ruled by Putin, the former KGB colonel who famously called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."
The remark is well worth remembering today, against the backdrop not only of a new era of revolutionary tumult in the Middle East but also in the context of a post-revolutionary Russia that has retained an outsized geopolitical importance in a world where its vast energy resources, strategic location, nuclear missiles and U.N. Security Council veto are too important to ignore. This Russia may matter, but it is a nation whose course is still very much adrift a full two decades after the Soviet collapse Putin so lamented. Across the broad swath of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. NGO Freedom House finds not a single country outside the European Union members in the Baltics that ranks anything better than "partially free" today. Elections are a sham, economies are either almost entirely resource-dependent, as in oil-rich Russia or natural-gas-blessed Azerbaijan, or disastrous basket cases like turmoil-plagued Ukraine or isolated Uzbekistan. And the revolution that got them there?
Not only unpopular, but deeply misunderstood. In the West, we have tended to view the breakup of the Soviet Union as a blow for freedom and democracy which, while followed by the regrettable excesses of the Boris Yeltsin era of free-for-all governance and gangster capitalism, will over time result in a better, more open society. That is not at all how Russians, even those most supportive of the revolution, view it.
Gennady Burbulis was one of those supporters. A top aide to Yeltsin at the time of the coup, Burbulis was a philosopher-turned-democratic reformer; he believed in a different course for Russia. And yet consider his acerbic account in a special issue of Foreign Policy, the magazine I edit, devoted to the Soviet collapse two decades later: "The coup" of August 1991, he wrote, "was the political Chernobyl of the Soviet totalitarian empire. Like the meltdown of a faulty nuclear reactor, the failed putsch blew the country apart, scattering the radioactive remnants of the Soviet system throughout the country…. It spoiled the promise of a democratic Russia before it had even begun."
Meanwhile, we should all be pondering the question of why the Russian revolution exploded when it did-a mystery still decades later, just as enigmatic as the present day debate over why a self-immolating Tunisian fruit-seller or some protesting students in Tahrir Square triggered a revolution when so many other indignities over decades of corruptive, repressive rule did not. In the case of Russia, as Leon Aron, a Soviet émigré and biographer of Boris Yeltsin wrote in the special edition of Foreign Policy, "everything you think you know about the collapse of the Soviet Union is wrong": it was not Reaganite saber-rattling or oil prices crashing or crushing military expenditures from the losing Soviet war in Afghanistan that did in the communist regime. Yes, those problems – and many more – plagued the Soviet Union in its later days, but then again, as the scholar Peter Rutland memorably put it, "Chronic ailments, after all, are not necessarily fatal." Instead, Aron argues, it was a radical break in consciousness, "an intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride" that "within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991."
Still, what makes this so relevant to today is what happened next. As Aron perceptively notes, such a tide "may be enough to bring down the ancien regime, but not to overcome in one fell swoop, a deep-seated authoritarian national political culture. The roots of the democratic institutions spawned by morally charged revolutions may prove too shallow to sustain a functioning democracy in a society with precious little tradition of grassroots self-organization and self-rule." Which is why Putinism has proved so attractive — when the former spy came to power a decade into the revolution, he pledged to make Russia a great power again. Attention activists of the Arab Spring: Hauling the old dictator into court is a lot easier than avoiding creating the conditions for a new strongman to emerge.
And so we have in Egypt today not only Mubarak hauled into court, but a wary standoff between the student activists who brought the revolution to Tahrir and the military generals who were the bulwark both of Mubarak’s regime and of the current government, with a devastated economy, massive joblessness, rising sectarian tensions, and huge uncertainty about both whether genuinely free and fair elections can take place in the country – and if they do, whether the results will do much to improve the conditions that triggered the revolution in the first place.
And in Russia, two decades later? Talking with Aron the other day, he made a most un-Russian argument: optimism. Think of the French revolution of 1789, he said. It took Napoleon’s wars, the terror, the restoration, and several generations of street battles before the French returned to the original democratic ideals of the revolution in 1848. "It took France 50 years," he told me. "And Russia is only twenty years in."