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Even Vladimir Putin Cannot Kill the Russian Revolution
Twenty-five years after the great revolution that toppled the Soviet regime, the spirit of dignity and freedom still burns.
The 25th anniversary of the August 1991 revolution is not likely to be met with widespread joy and pride, let alone cymbals. For one, wasn’t it more of a revanchist coup attempt than a democratic “revolution”? Didn’t the Soviet Union sort of just collapse on its own four months later? And what does it matter, anyway, in Vladimir Putin’s 16th year in power?
Wrong, wrong, and … we’ll get to the last bit later.
By any measure, the August 1991 revolt was a classic, great revolution — consider its results, impact on Russia’s future, and, most of all, objectives. Its core aims were moral. Like the American Revolution, the French, and even the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the overthrow of the Soviet system was about human dignity. Those who began the liberalization that ignited the revolution (Mikhail Gorbachev and his top aide, Alexander Yakovlev, the “Godfather of Glasnost”), as well as those who took it over, propelled by the upswell and radicalization from below (Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar), sought to end the complete subjugation of society to the state and the daily insults of shortages, fear, repression, lies, lawlessness, and moral degradation that resulted from this subjugation.
“In 70 years … a system was built that is organically indifferent to the real, existing man, hostile to him,” Yakovlev wrote. “And not only in the mass repressions, the victims of which were millions, but in daily life, where a person means nothing, has nothing, and cannot obtain even basic things without humiliation.” To Gorbachev, the essence of perestroika, or restructuring, was the “struggle for the dignity of man, his elevation and his honor,” according to a seminal 1987 essay by Mikhail Antonov in Oktyabr magazine. Yakovlev defined perestroika as the people’s right to act as independent and rational human beings and responsible citizens — no longer powerless subjects of a totalitarian state.
The socialist totalitarian state, which was doomed to perennial shortages in one of the most resource-rich countries in the world and which owned justice and the courts (as it owned everything else, including the livelihoods of every one of its 287 million citizens), was the culprit. Hence the aim of the revolution was to erect three tall hedges against the recurrence of such a state: private property, a free market economy, and popular sovereignty over the executive.
In pursuit of these goals, the August 1991 revolution launched one of the most impressive economic and political modernizations in modern history. Those three rainy days in Moscow would usher in a new economic organization, a new political system, and create 15 new, independent states.
In the largest privatization on record — wrenching, dislocating, and costing millions of Russians their jobs — the country sloughed off thousands of hopelessly obsolete subsidized enterprises that had wasted billions of rubles in raw materials and man-hours on things that nobody needed. Marred as it was by favoritism, manipulation, and outright fraud, privatization served as the foundation of the spectacular economic takeoff that began in 1999.
Never before have as many Russians had access to as much quality food or as many goods and services as they do now. A 25-year-old today has never seen a food ration coupon. She doesn’t know what it’s like to line up for hours for milk, eggs, or pantyhose — or have meat only on major holidays. She cannot imagine a world without tampons and toilet paper or picture nuclear physicists and surgeons being sent to the countryside to dig up potatoes on collective farms. Once gray, dingy, and hungry, the downtowns of most Russian cities are indistinguishable today from their European counterparts.
Along the way, revolutionary Russia underwent a self-administered demilitarization, unprecedented for a major power undefeated in war. Following an 80 percent cut in defense expenditures in January 1992, the defense sector’s share of Russian GDP fell from at least one-fifth to 2 percent in 1999. The empire that the military guarded was dismantled as well. Between 1992 and 1995, Russia withdrew 800,000 troops from the former Warsaw Pact countries and roughly 40,000 troops from Estonia, shuttering all its military bases there. In December 1991, Moscow recognized Ukraine’s independence and later signed a “Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership” with Kiev.
It is nonsense to suggest that post-Soviet Russia cut defense because it had no money. What nation spends on its army solely by what’s in the till and not by fear, pride, hatred, or aspiration? North Korea still manages to find the money for missiles. Cuba, which rations food, found the pesos to send 24,000 men to fight in Angola and still maintains the strongest armed force in Central America. And, of course, even with half the country’s schools lacking central heat, running water, or indoor toilets, the Soviet Union had more soldiers than the United States, China, and the Federal Republic of Germany combined and twice as many tanks as NATO.
But with the average price of oil at around $18 a barrel, post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s steadily increased health care expenditures; by 1999, it spent more than twice as much (7.3 percent) on health care as did the Soviet Union in 1990-1991 (2.9 percent), by share of GDP — and more than Putin’s Russia does today (6.5 percent).
Just as spectacular was the attempt at regaining dignity by liberty, the separation of powers, and the limitation of state power by law. Freedom of speech, the press, and of demonstration — never before seen in Russia save between February and November 1917 — flourished. Three parliamentary ballots (in 1993, 1995, and 1999) and a presidential election (1996) were the freest in Russian history, except for the November 1917 election to the Constituent Assembly. Just as unprecedented was an independent and opposition-dominated parliament, which in 1999 came within a handful of votes of impeaching the president.
Exercising its constitutional right to grant amnesty, Russia’s lower house, the State Duma, ordered the release of the leaders of the October 1993 rebellion, in which black-shirted bands of leftist, anti-Semitic thugs shot at passersby from the top of the parliament building and lobbed grenades into the Ostankino television station. President Yeltsin’s compliance with the amnesty law was another revolutionary miracle. It is impossible to find another instance in Russia’s blood-stained history (or, for that matter, in almost any country) of unrepentant leaders of an armed uprising — who would have certainly executed Yeltsin had they succeeded — being freed by the victors with not one precondition. Since their release from detention, none has been persecuted or harassed in any way; none has been barred from politics; and several were later elected regional governors and Duma deputies.
In another historical first for Russia, the First Chechen War (1994-1996) was ended not by defeat on the battlefield, but by free media and democratically exerted pressure on the executive. Yeltsin promised to end the conflict if re-elected in 1996 — and he did, withdrawing all Russian troops by early 1997.
Meanwhile, the courts, formerly pitiful appendages of state-owned “socialist justice,” were hugely empowered. For the first time in the country’s history, citizens sued authorities at every level, including the president — with courts ruling for the plaintiffs in more than three in four cases. The courts banned the hated propiska, or residency permit, which allowed local authorities to determine (or deny) where people could live; threw out bans on “foreign” religious denominations (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals among them); and limited the military draft by affirming the right to alternate service. A St. Petersburg court also acquitted naval officer Alexander Nikitin, charged with espionage by the KGB successor, the FSB — the first not-guilty verdict in a treason case brought by security services since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
So where did these stunning accomplishments end up? Consumed without a trace by the Putin restoration — utterly cynical, preening, rapacious, belligerent, and corrupt on a scale that makes the “accursed 1990s” (as the Putin propaganda machine has dubbed the revolutionary decade) look like child’s play?
Looking back at the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of “the events, mistakes, misjudgments which led … Frenchmen to abandon their original ideal and, turning their backs on freedom, to acquiesce in an equality of servitude under the master of all Europe.” Putin is not Napoleon (although he undoubtedly would love to be), but in claiming to defend the motherland from alleged NATO aggression, to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine from the “fascist junta” in Kiev, and to “stabilize the legitimate government” of Syria while “leading the world struggle against international terrorism,” he has recovered for his compatriots the lost pride in being a counterweight — moral, as well as military — to the United States.
Again, as in the Soviet days, millions of Russians see their country as a bulwark against evil and a guarantor of world peace. Obscured by the swelling of national pride are the indignities they suffer at the hands of the authorities, whom people consistently describe to pollsters as incompetent, corrupt, and callous. As the great Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov wrote, “Ya rab, no rab tsarya vsellenoy!” (I am a slave, but I am a slave of the Master of the Universe!)
True, reactionary restorations that follow great revolutions may last for decades. But no restoration has ever managed to extirpate completely the revolution it followed — and not one has proved permanent.
The August revolution of 1991, too, lives on. Its slogans were on the placards of the tens of thousands of demonstrators in more than 100 Russian cities and towns who protested a rigged election and Putin’s rule in the winter of 2011-2012. It shines through the honesty and integrity of many of my Russian colleagues, scholars, and experts who refuse to be bought or intimidated by the Kremlin. Its spirit animates civil rights activists from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad: courageous men and women who mobilize their fellow citizens to protect the Khimki Forest and Lake Baikal; to fight graft, corruption, electoral fraud, and oppose the destruction of parks, kindergartens, and hospitals to make room for grotesque shopping malls.
Although most of these activists are too young to remember the heady days of 1991, in their quest for democratic citizenship their goals are indistinguishable from those of the August revolutionaries. The revolution lives also in the women and men who refuse to surrender their Russia to the “thieves and swindlers,” as the anti-corruption and pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny called members of Putin’s ruling party. And so they continue to come out to the streets, despite being met by truncheon-wielding anti-riot police. Navalny, meanwhile, continues his struggle with the Damocles’s sword of a “suspended” prison sentence hanging over his head; his brother, however, has effectively been taken hostage by the regime — sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail.
August 1991 also inspired the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the first democratically elected governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region and, later, the first deputy prime minister in the Yeltsin government. When he was assassinated in February 2015 — just 600 feet from the Kremlin Wall — an estimated 70,000 people came to his funeral. And the revolution continues to live in the work of Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nemtsov’s close friend and younger associate. After a sudden and near-total organ failure in Moscow in May of last year, most likely due to poisoning, he is back in Russia organizing the pro-democracy opposition movement.
Their quest for a democratic Russia may seem quixotic today, but the arc of modern Russian history bends closer to the Navalnys, Nemtsovs, and Kara-Murzas than to the regime trying to suppress them. Given a choice between freely competing parties and candidates, at every critical historical juncture, the majority of Russian voters have opted for democracy, modernization, and reform — not authoritarian reactionaries on the left or right: as in the votes for the 1906 Duma, the 1918 Constituent Assembly, and in the 1993 referendum and 1993 Duma.
Tocqueville compared enduring national institutions to rivers that “after going underground re-emerge at another point, in new surroundings.” Driven deep into the ground today by the weight of repression, monopolistic propaganda, and war-mongering paranoia, the great August revolution, too, will re-emerge.
Photo credit: MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV/AFP/Getty Images