Bullish on the Bear

It’s hard to find people who are optimistic about the future of Russian democracy. Leon Aron explains why he’s one of them.


Democracy for today’s Russia may seem like a distant dream. The autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin has been in charge of the country since the end of 1999. His Kremlin controls the courts, a commanding swath of the pivotal oil-and-gas sector of the economy, and — perhaps most importantly — the principal organs of the news media, including national television. While protests against Putin’s rule have attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly in Moscow, Team Putin is starting to crack down on key opposition leaders, such as the recent arrest, on possibly trumped-up charges of embezzlement, of the charismatic blogger-activist Aleksei Navalny. The regime, in short, appears to hold all the cards.

But for author and veteran Russia analyst Leon Aron, a longer and deeper view of the situation suggests reason for hope. Aron’s new book,  Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991, offers a fascinating tour of the core ideas behind the policy of glasnost or "openness" initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the doomed Soviet Union. By revisiting the writings of Russian journalists, historians, political and literary figures, and others of that era, Aron demonstrates that glasnost represented above all a ruthless determination to expose and obliterate the lies that defined and corrupted life in the Soviet Union. Glasnost was a truth-telling exercise about Stalin, about the gulag, about the Soviet regime’s brutal mistreatment of its own soldiers in the Second World War, and much else that was rotten besides — and the Russian public, so long starved for truth, feasted on the magazines and newspapers dispensing such irresistible fare.

In Aron’s interpretation, based on these documents, the Soviet Union collapsed not because of its decrepit economy or a failed war in Afghanistan or nationalist unrest on its periphery, but because of a revolution of ideas inspired by democratic principles and sentiments. "We have something that is irreversible," Aron quotes a political leader of glasnost, Alexander Yakovlev, as saying in 1990. "Irreversible is the deliverance from the myths, stereotypes, self-deception, and self-satisfaction, which have poisoned our brains and our feelings for decades."

Aron accepts the Russian revolution of 1987-1991 as "irreversible" — which is the basis of his belief that not even the Putin "restoration," as he calls it, represents a fatal blow to democracy. For Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, Russia’s prospect is a matter of personal as well as analytic interest. He was born in Moscow in 1954 into a family of Jewish doctors. He emigrated to the United States in 1978, part of a wave of Russian Jews permitted by Brezhnev’s Kremlin to leave the U.S.S.R., in part due to political pressure from Washington activists. "I was a Jackson-Vanik baby," he recalled at the outset of an interview in which he talked about the themes of the book as well as his debatable assessment of Russia’s chances for democracy.

Foreign Policy: You take great pains in your book to describe what happened in Russia from 1987-1991 as a revolution. Why the insistence on this term?

Leon Aron: Because that’s undeniable. After these four years, Russia had a different economic system, a different political system, and a different state. That’s enough for a revolution.

FP: Was it a democratic revolution?

LA: Let me put it this way, it was not a democratic revolution, it was a democratizing revolution.

FP: What’s the difference?

LA: It’s only a matter of degree and finality. A democratic revolution is one that establishes a functioning democracy. And a democratizing revolution is the beginning of the establishment of a democracy.

The revolution empowered a hugely more extended segment of the population. The institutions were there — the parliament, elections, a free press — but the soul of civil society was still pretty much under permafrost, and as a result it was very easy to subvert those institutions, which is precisely what happened.

FP: We’ll get to what you call the Putin restoration. First, it is striking that Mikhail Gorbachev, whom you depict in your book as the heroic driving force of the 1989-1991 revolution, remains a very controversial figure in Russia. Many Russians, especially among the older generations, disdain Gorbachev.

LA: I think that’s the nature of these types of great revolutions. They are huge ruptures, they are painful. The older generations find themselves without a language and without an ability to function. They find themselves as in a different country.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the argument of the Grand Inquisitor is that people don’t really like liberators. That’s too much work. You could show a string of liberators in history who did not garner much gratitude in their lifetimes.

FP: As for the Putin restoration — you are careful to say in the book’s Epilogue that it is not, in your mind, a mortal blow to the democratizing trend established by the revolution of 1981-91.

LA: It is a reversal of that trend, but it is not an extinction of that trend. Every single great revolution, with the exception of the American, which was different, is followed by what is known as a restoration. Louis XV1 was beheaded in 1793 — the more or less stable French democratic republic was established in 1870. So these great revolutions go through all kinds of permutations and reversals — but they are never completely denied, and I think that’s the case for Russia.

This marvelous image of de Tocqueville — that rivers go underground and then reemerge — I think that’s exactly what happened. [In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of rivers that reemerge "in new surroundings."]

FP: But some close watchers of Russia, such as the author and journalist Masha Gessen, who recently wrote a harsh book on Putin, The Man Without a Face, argue that he has returned Russia to the U.S.S.R.

LA: Russia has political parties. Russia has opposition leaders. Russia has opposition media. Now, it’s marginalized, it’s harassed, but we don’t have the equivalent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, we do not have borders behind the Iron Curtain, and most importantly, we do not have an economy controlled by the state.

There are some basic liberties established in that revolution that neither Putin nor anybody else will be able to take away, short of a Pol Pot regime, which is hard to contemplate in Russia. Personal liberties — you do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, you can paint whatever you want. Freedom to travel abroad, freedom to work abroad.

OK, the opposition is not allowed to get on national television, which is the key to Putin’s power. But they are on the Internet. They exist, they walk the streets, and people are allowed to get together and demonstrate.

FP: It also can be argued that these "rivers" that formed in the 1987-1991 period were not all so pure. In particular, there was a Russian nationalistic, chauvinistic attack on the Soviet system, built on nostalgia for Old, Tsarist Russia — which was quite apart from the democratic thrust that you focus on in the book.

LA: That’s a fair critique, but you can’t cover everything. And my idea was to cover what was most radical about the Russian revolution, ideologically and morally. I invite others to complete the picture.

FP: But nowadays, it’s still not clear how democratic the Putin opposition is. Aleksei Navalny in the past has participated in "Russia for the Russians" marches, a slogan that seems by definition to exclude non-ethnic Russians from full rights in today’s Russian Federation.

LA: What Navalny has said is that we should have a Russian nation-state as opposed to the Soviet empire that we used to be. How sincere that is, that’s a separate issue. To my mind, there has been a little bit of exaggeration in the West: Nationalism, Russian nationalism, we are scared of it. I am not sure that we have a Black Hundreds leader in Navalny. [The Black Hundreds were extremist nationalistic groups, some anti-Semitic, active in Russia in the early 20th century.]

What’s amazing to me, and gratifying, is the moral sensibility of these new protestors. In this movement, sometimes literally, we see the slogans and the motivations and the demands of the period I describe in the book.

I’m sure the [Putin] regime is scared by this movement — which I think is a civil-rights movement of the middle class. It is very threatening, because it is a moral movement. You cannot bribe them, you cannot corrupt them.

FP: Your optimism about democratic prospects for Russia also is based on what you see happening on the ground in places outside of Moscow.

LA: Last July, in 2011, I spent three and a half weeks in Russia. Nine time zones, 4,700 miles, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, conducting interviews with the leaders of six grassroots movements. Totally an eye opener for me. One of the respondents said: "With the authorities, we have a pragmatic relationship. When they’re right, we support them, when they’re wrong, we tell them they’re wrong. When we need to criticize them or need to oppose them, we do." This is a complete break from the national tradition in which you applaud the state or you hate the state. This is all to create a new citizen. This is all to create islands and then maybe archipelagos.

FP: Is it starting to feel to you like an overwhelming tide, this civil-society movement?

LA: There is a consensus that in 2014, 2015, Russia will have to go through a huge belt tightening. Too many promises for the state to spend too much, the pension fund is almost broke, the education and health systems are in shambles. So much is stolen, so much is misspent. That creates an opening for what can be called the perfect storm. There is very little moral allegiance to the system. There was a genuine allegiance to the Soviet system. Putin created a very prosperous regime, a very prosperous Russia, but also a completely cynical Russia. It’s a double-edged sword.

FP: Do you see a threat to him serving out his current six-year term as president, which began this past May?

LA: Absolutely. He’s actually serving a twelve year term — two six year terms. I cannot see how he can serve out twelve years, I am not sure he’ll be able to serve out even the first six year term. He’s riding a tiger.

FP: And yet a post-Putin era, if it comes to that, could still mean a Putin-like system, made of up security-services types, just as the post-Mubarak era in Egypt still is a system very much dependent on the Army as a pillar of support.

LA: Another [Putin-like] hand could be practiced on society. But I think the society would be much more robust, much better self-organized, and much more distrustful of elites.

FP: A core theme of your book is the essential role that memory can and must play in the establishment of a democratic society. But in contrast to post-Soviet Russia, Germany, for example, has been merciless about revisiting the demons of the past. Apart from the period you describe in your book, this doesn’t seem to be happening in Russia. Make explicit this connection between memory and the potential for democracy.

LA: Germany didn’t really start this until Willy Brandt in the 1970s. That’s thirty years after the fall of Nazism. The de-Stalinization leitmotif is very prominent in this movement [of today’s anti-Putin opposition]. I think that one way or another, at some point, they will come to share the kind of understanding that the troubadours of glasnost expressed twenty some years ago. Without national expiation, without national atonement for the crimes of Stalinism, Russia will never be whole. Its soul will never heal. It will always be tempted by this kind of ill-defined nostalgia for greatness based on dictatorship and authoritarianism because the real costs of that project have never been exposed. Unless it is taught in schools from the first to the tenth grades, it will not become part of national consciousness.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola