Freedom and anarchy: Russia stumbles toward the twenty-first century

By Anatol Lieven


Every Russian with a sense of history ought to go down on his or her knees every morning and thank his or her God for the existence of nuclear weapons. They might also - however hard this might be for them - offer up a subsidiary prayer of thanks that they live during a period of an unusually stable and peaceful international order under the generally beneficent quasi-hegemony of the United States.

They should give thanks because, in previous and more warlike eras, when conventional armies were the final arbiters of international decision, the Russia of today would have been in the gravest danger. Inspired by the Chechen war and its evidence of unprecedented Russian military decline, several other powers would already have sent their forces into the former Soviet Union to take bites out of the enormous, decaying Russian whale, to recover former territory, and to expand their spheres of influence. China would likely have been among those powers to invade, as Russia is rapidly falling further and further behind its biggest neighbor - at present economically, but in future without doubt militarily as well - and without any real prospect of closing the gap. As for the United States, the idea that Russia might be a serious direct threat to vital U.S. interests over the next 10 to 15 years is quite simply ludicrous - whatever some Russians themselves might wish. Indirectly, of course, the very weakness of the Russian state poses many threats, above all in the area of crime and smuggling.

When assessing the future of Russia in the light of President Boris Yeltsin's latest political victory and simultaneous physical collapse, it is necessary always to keep in mind the underlying weakness of the Russian state and economy. It is true that many of the Russian central government's immediate difficulties and divisions derive from the particular problems of Yeltsin's presidency: his heart disease, alcohol habit, desire to evade responsibility for potentially unpopular decisions, and chronic tendency to govern by playing one subordinate against another rather than by taking the lead himself.

Over the past two years, this has frequently led to a virtual paralysis of major decision-making and the suspension of all serious reforms. For the near future, the new ascendancy of Anatolii Chubais as Yeltsin's chief of staff gives some hope of a renewal of the reform process, but this may well be hindered or brought to nothing by the increasing struggle over the succession within the regime itself; Chubais's apparent attempts in August and September 1996 to sabotage General Aleksandr Lebed's peace process in Chechnya give little reason to hope that, in their battles with each other, most members of the Yeltsin administration will be constrained by considerations of national or public interest, let alone morality.

In any case, the weaknesses of the contemporary Russian state, society, and economy go much deeper than the problems of Yeltsin's government; they are structural and systemic. Some may sort themselves out over time, but it seems most unlikely that the Yeltsin administration will be able to do much about them. For that matter, Russia's problems may be so deep-rooted by now as to be beyond the cure of any government.

The phrase so incessantly repeated by Western advisers, journalists, and governments - a "transition from totalitarianism to democracy and the free-market" - is profoundly misleading and betrays Western arrogance and ideological blindness. For, after all, most of the world lives neither under totalitarianism nor under a prosperous, Western-style, capitalist democracy. Most people live under systems more akin to the anarchic quasi-feudalism incisively described by Vladimir Shlapentokh in this journal.(1) Rather than use as a model medieval feudalism - which was at its height a formal, recognized system enshrined in law, religion, and culture - a closer historical analogy might be the cacique (chieftain) system prevalent in liberal Spain a century ago, when Spain's mildly authoritarian, incompetent, corrupt, self-serving, and often brutal governments never ceased to trumpet their allegiance to constitutionalism, law, and enlightened progress. Another key difference between the two traditions, very applicable to Russia today, was incisively remarked on by Gerald Brenan, the classic historian of pre-Civil War Spain:

The defects of the Spanish upper classes are sometimes put down to their having a feudal mentality. I do not think this word has been well chosen: Feudalism implies a sense of mutual obligations that has long been entirely lacking in Spain . . .(2)

Weak quasi-liberal states like those of Spain in the past and Russia and much of Latin America today can prove remarkably stable and long-lasting and can even generate considerable economic growth as well as real, though limited, elements of a "civil society." To their better-off inhabitants, and to those with some form of "protection," they offer major personal freedoms and opportunities. They also, however, tend to be characterized by unstable elite politics, extreme levels of organized crime, personal insecurity, poor public health, bad public education, rampant bureaucracy, corruption, and vicious exploitation of the poor and the environment. Such states are generally far too weak and corrupt to enforce the law, raise taxes efficiently and fairly, and protect the weaker sections of society. In extreme cases, like Columbia and to an increasing extent Mexico, the state itself may be largely taken over by criminal forces.(3) Such states are also of course highly incompetent in projecting power and influence beyond their borders.

By contrast, in the days of apparent Soviet greatness, Western political scientists often used the Soviet Union as the very paradigm of a "strong state," dominating all aspects of internal political, social, and economic life; capable of uniting and mobilizing its resources; and projecting its power successfully beyond its borders. They contrasted this with "weak states" like India and Brazil, where the state's ability to influence social and economic developments, or to mobilize national resources, was extremely limited.

Of course, this was becoming an increasingly false picture of the Soviet Union long before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.(4) Nonetheless, this picture had the appearance of reality, sufficient to intimidate the Soviet Union's vassals and command the wary respect of its rivals. Today, by contrast, the Russian Federation is quite evidently a weak state incapable of mobilizing resources, raising adequate revenues, stimulating economic development, curbing organized crime, or even maintaining its territorial integrity in the face of a determined secessionist movement.

The West has not fully recognized this fact in part because most of Russia's immediate former-Soviet neighbors are even weaker and suffer from the same problems but in an exaggerated form. Some of these countries - notably the conservative secular dictatorships of Central Asia - have their own good reasons for maintaining close ties with Moscow; others remain linked to Russia by history and ethnicity. These factors have allowed Russia to go on exerting a regional influence considerably greater than its real strength. But, as the defeat in Chechnya shows, this influence is largely hollow; if Russian pressure ever has to be backed up by serious military force, it is liable to collapse.

The Russian establishment's awareness of this is reflected in a recent draft document prepared by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy under Sergei Karaganov, entitled "Will the Union Revive by 2005?" In many ways this is an over-optimistic document from a Russian point of view, particularly in its vague hopes for drawing Ukraine into a new union. On one point, however, it is clear: "The contemporary situation practically excludes the use of coercive methods of the restoration of a union."(5)

Failing military coercion or the threat of it, however, neither this document nor any other I have read has suggested what the Russian state would be able to do to counter determined opposition, such as could be expected from Ukraine. The case of the Balts is instructive in this regard. Faced with these tiny but strong, cohesive, and determined states - which are supported by the West - the Russians have been forced to back off; all their blustering and bullying against the Balts over the past few years has brought them exactly nothing.

Another reason for the lack of Western recognition that Russia is now a classic weak state is that it would mean admitting that Russia has lost its position of central importance both on the world stage and for Western interests; such recognition does not come easily to Western experts on Russia. (This recognition doesn't come easily to me either - after all, I have devoted a large chunk of my life to studying Russia, and my present livelihood depends on Americans' continuing interest in the place.) For this reason, few Western experts will admit fully to Russia's collapsed role, and of course neither will the Russians.

In the United States, the Russophobes - and anyone with a domestic political or economic interest in Russophobia - are still trying to terrify U.S. taxpayers with tattered Halloween masks portraying a monstrous Russian threat to its neighbors and the world. But many Russian sympathizers also pursue a version of this, only they project it into the future, warning of all the terribly horrible and dangerous things that will happen if we Westerners do not pay to defend the virtue of "Russian democracy" against her would-be violators - when in fact the poor creature has not just been living in a brothel for years; she was actually born there.

Both groups conduct their respective public dances against a political background overwhelmingly focused on the shortest-term considerations of U.S. electoral politics, and against a rigid and simplistic ideological background that employs brightly colored poster concepts: brave, benign, Western-style "democrats" and "reformists" versus wicked "Communists," "nationalists," and "authoritarians." This frankly childish frame of analysis seems to be believed implicitly by most senior members of President Bill Clinton's foreign policy establishment, and it guides their policies toward Russia and the Yeltsin administration.

Often underlying this analysis is the naive belief that true Russian democrats must always and of their very nature be defenders of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national interests. This last belief, however, is actually a force for international understanding - as one point at least on which U.S. conservatives and Russian Communists can both agree.

This also leads to the incessant repetition of a black-and-white and completely mistaken set of alternatives for Russia's future: either the development of a pro-Western, free-market democracy, or reversion to "dictatorship and aggressive external policies." In fact, both a Russian "democracy" and a "dictatorship" would desire to restore Russian hegemony over the other states of the former Soviet Union. However, both would also be headed by pragmatists; this is clear from the present line-up of potential future leaders - General Lebed, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov may be personally disagreeable, but they are all in their different ways rational and sensible men and certainly not fanatics. Moreover, these pragmatists will realize that they have to operate under the most severe economic, military, social, and international constraints on Russia's behavior.(6)

A Longing for Order, Peace, Stability

The lesson of the Russian presidential elections, in my view, is that, although Russia is unlikely to develop into a successful democracy and economy, it is also unlikely to develop in ways that will directly threaten really important Western interests. Indirectly, of course, there will be threats - from organized crime and above all from the horrible prospect of nuclear smuggling - but such threats will be symptomatic of Russian state weakness rather than of a determined anti-Western strategy. This is not because many in Russia would hesitate to adopt such a strategy, but because they simply do not have the means. Deliberate challenges to the U.S.-dominated international order are therefore likely to be limited and containable, akin to, though worse than, examples of French international behavior over the past generation or so - arms sales to rogue regimes and so on. The Russian election results showed that, although most Russians are pretty unhappy with many of the developments of the past few years, a majority have no desire whatsoever for political upheavals and the risk of civil strife. The great mass of ordinary Russians has a deep yearning for stability and order, which in one way or another was reflected in the votes for all three leading candidates. As the event showed, this feeling at present outweighs even the desire for social justice, let alone wounded nationalism and hopes for the restoration of the Soviet Union. Russians are a tired, depressed, apathetic, people, not one yearning for great deeds of revolution or conquest. In other words - though this may not last forever - they are a Soviet people, a population that Soviet rule has deprived of most instincts and impulses for spontaneous political or social action from below.

The Communist vote - 40 percent of the total, but overwhelmingly from the older part of the population - certainly reflected nostalgia for the Soviet Union, but it was nostalgia for the peace, order, stability, and above all economic security of Soviet days. These are very understandable sentiments given the way that older people in particular have suffered in recent years, and such sentiments are at heart hardly revolutionary. Western commentators were not wrong to take worried note of Gennadii Zyuganov, Yeltsin's opponent, and his increasing ideological borrowings from nineteenth-century Russian messianic nationalism - but they would be very wrong to think that they were why 65-year-old Maria Ivanovna of Ufa would vote for him. Moreover, Communism in Russia is fading fast - if only because, for biological reasons, its electorate is fading too.(7)

Some of Yeltsin's supporters, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, undoubtedly favored change and economic reform, as reflected in the fact that his voters were on average some 15 years younger than Zyuganov's. The result showed that basic principles of private ownership and free economic activity have now been accepted by most of the population. But, to a great extent, Yeltsin was also elected by Russians who fear disorder, instability, and civil strife. Thanks to the compliance of the Russian media, Yeltsin had been able to convince most Russians of two things: first, that Communist victory would mean a new revolution and massive upheaval; and second, that even if he lost, Yeltsin would not surrender power, which might mean civil war.

As for Lebed, his program was explicitly devoted to calling for peace, order, and a crackdown on organized crime. His campaign - with or without covert help from Yeltsin's team - was a clever one, simultaneously using his image as a tough, patriotic soldier; stressing his opposition to military "adventures" like Chechnya and Tajikistan; and referring to his successful "peacemaking" campaign in Transdniester in 1992: "Others start wars, he ends them," was the slogan. Another was, "Yeltsin: freedom without order. Zyuganov: order without freedom. Lebed: order and freedom."(8)

Now it is quite true, of course, that a Moldovan might have some harsh words to say about Lebed's role in 1992 as commander of the 14th Army, but the point is that in his appeal to the Russian public, he portrayed himself as a tough peacemaker, not an aggressive conqueror. And it must be said that, in his peacemaking role in Chechnya in August 1996, he justified the faith of his electorate - albeit only in the wake of the smashing Chechen victory in August. On expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Lebed has recently taken a studiedly moderate and pragmatic line. He remains a worryingly unpredictable figure, though - as Sergei Markov of the Carnegie Foundation told me, "He could end up anywhere on a spectrum between [Charles] de Gaulle and [Benito] Mussolini; we just don't know."(9) Nonetheless, his role has been a positive one, so far - and it also seems very unlikely that a mass party like the Italian Fascists could be created in contemporary Russian conditions. It could also be said that, by trying to end the war in Chechnya, Lebed has already taken a step toward imitating de Gaulle.

And if Russia is unlikely to explode from determined assaults on its neighbors to the West, it is also unlikely to implode from complete internal collapse, ethnic rebellions, and civil war. Russia is a weak state, not a failed one. For, another lesson of the elections is that, although Russia's chaotic federal system is contributing mightily to the weakness of the central state and the erosion of its revenue base, it has proved very effective in defusing moves for secession by most of Russia's ethnic minorities. The Chechen example of revolt has failed to spread for reasons that stem largely from demography, geography, and economics: In most of Russia's autonomous republics, the titular nationality is actually a minority; many regions remain dependent on financial subsidies from Moscow; and those that are economically strong, like Tatarstan, are surrounded entirely by Russian territory.

The rulers of these republics hail for the most part from the old elite, long accustomed to carrying out an elaborate political dance with the central authorities to extract subsidies and concessions from Moscow, and more than happy that the new weakness of the central state allows them to extract such concessions on a previously undreamed-of scale. The sheer anarchy of the Russian constitutional order and tax code also means that these republics are able to avoid paying many of the taxes they owe to the central state, and Yeltsin's bribes this year as part of his election campaign have strengthened their position still further.

But it is also true, as I have found on visits to Tatarstan and other republics, that the federal system does now give the larger nationalities at least room to develop their national identities and cultures freely. Constraints on this stem from lack of money and the legacy of past russification, not present restrictions by the central Russian state. Another reason for the general lack of radical nationalist movements is that these groups are not exposed to any significant degree of ethnic Russian chauvinism. The exception are the Caucasians, detested by the Russians for their allegedly dominant role in organized crime; but as for the others, one would be hard pressed to get most Russians to utter really harsh words about Tatars or Yakuts, for example. And far from trying to stir up such sentiments, all the main parties in the last two Russian elections (with the partial exception of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's) were assiduously wooing the autonomies for their support. That was true even of a "nationalist" party like Lebed's Congress of Russian Communities.

On the whole, unless they have some particular focus for their dislike - such as beliefs of economic superiority or political unreliability, as with the Jews and Poles in the past and the Chechens today - Russians do not tend to suffer from strong personal ethnic passions; indeed, British officers visiting Russian Central Asia in the later nineteenth century were frequently appalled at the easy intercourse between local Russians and "natives," compared to the rigid racial barriers that operated in British India.

This flexibility derives above all from Russians' historically weak ethnic identity: Throughout history, Russians have mingled with other races along their huge, vague land frontiers, and ethnic loyalty has generally been diffused into other, wider loyalties - to the Orthodox religion, the czar, Communism, the Soviet Union. Of course, all these institutions had a heavily Russian cast, but they were not purely Russian. This weakness of Russian ethnic feeling is of the most critical importance not just for the internal peace of Russia, but also for the stability or even survival of neighboring states with large Russian minorities, most notably Ukraine.

Yet, a more immediate reason exists for the failure of the Russian state or political movements today to try to stimulate ethnic Russian nationalism: Such a move would threaten to destroy any hope of restoring a union of former Soviet states under Russian hegemony. Every serious Russian politician today knows that reunification could not be done by military coercion, or even purely by economic pressure; a large measure of consent, based on Soviet nostalgia widespread throughout the former Union, would be needed. In other words, one cannot have an openly ethnically based Russia and a Russian-dominated union of other states at the same time.

Four Faces of Russian Weakness

What are the chances that a future Russian government will in the short-to-medium term be able to strengthen the Russian state, either in the benign sense of suppressing crime, raising revenue, and carrying out orderly reform, or in the potentially dangerous one of strengthening Russia's capacity for external aggression? Let us briefly examine the different aspects of contemporary Russian weakness.


It makes sense to begin with the military, the historical basis of Russia's strength and the state's power. Unlike the past or present Chinese, British, French, U.S., Japanese, and German empires or spheres of influence, the Russian and Soviet empires were only very rarely in a position to dominate their neighbors through the strength of their industrial and commercial economy and the prestige of their material culture (though they might have developed this ability if the Russian economic development of 1894-1917 had not been interrupted).

Today, however, the Russian army is a wreck, and in the estimate of both Russian experts and Western military attaches based in Moscow, it would take 10 years at least, even in optimal circumstances, to restore it as an effective force capable of fighting a major war. In the meantime, with the help of local allies, it can probably maintain existing positions in Transdniester, Abkhazia, and Tajikistan against weak and divided local states and opposition forces; but the threat of military coercion against Ukraine or Uzbekistan, for example, has vanished - perhaps only temporarily, but perhaps also permanently, given general changes in Russian attitudes and cultural patterns. Russian forces in the Caucasus and the Black Sea are for the first time in more than two centuries clearly inferior to Turkish ones, which terrifies Russian strategists into recurrent fits of alarm.(10)


When making comparisons with the Russian and Soviet empires of the past, it is also worth remembering that although Russia remains the world's largest state in terms of land area, its population is no longer so great by contemporary world standards, and it is dropping as declining birth rates and steeply rising death rates take their toll. This is of critical importance: for four centuries of czarist rule, Russia's demographic growth and surplus population provided much of the engine for imperial expansion; to see the difference today, one has only to visit Kazakhstan, where the Kazakhs, a minority a decade ago, are steadily outnumbering the Russians thanks to their far higher birthrate; or the Far East, where 2.7 million people in the Vladivostok region live next to 74 million people in the two adjacent Chinese provinces. Moreover, the absence of demographic pressure on jobs and services - in other words, the fact that, unlike in most areas of Asia, millions of young people are not coming onto the market each year - is a key reason for Russia's relative political stability today, and for the absense of mass unrest or street protests.

From 150 million at the last Soviet census in 1989, the population of the Russian Federation is only 147.8 million today, continues to drop, and would be even lower were it not for the influx into Russia in recent years of migrants and refugees from other republics. This figure is just over half the population of the United States, less than those of Brazil or Indonesia, and not much bigger than those of Japan or Pakistan. Of course, population size alone does not matter so much in terms of international weight when compared to a powerful economy - but the Russian economy today can hardly be called powerful, except in energy and arms exports.


It is true that official statistics do not fully reflect the true state of the economy or of living standards, which are in reality a good deal higher. Neither Russian business people nor most Russian workers doing three or four part-time jobs declare more than a fraction of their income to the state if they can help it. But this is the whole point; as in India, for example, but to an even greater extent, a very large proportion of economic activity is not being reported - which means that it is not being taxed. And if it is neither being taxed nor being invested in real economic growth, although it is obviously still beneficial to the state in that it helps keep the population happier, it is useless from the point of view both of developing the economic base and of mobilizing national resources for external or internal state tasks.

As is typical of many such countries with a history of state ownership and socialist or communist planning, it appears on the surface that the Russian government still has very great powers over private business, not just because of the role of the tax and regulatory structure in stifling legal entrepreneurship and initiative, but also because so much of Russian business is directly or indirectly dependent on the state. As the leading economist Anders Aslund has written, the contemporary Russian private sector is largely a "rent-seeking" affair, aiming not at competition and the maximization of profits, but at the creation of monopolies with the help of state support, and at the extraction of state favors and subsidies.(11)

Security Forces and Organized Crime

But once again, this is the whole point. These subsidies are not generally being handed out as part of a strategy for national economic development; nor even, most of the time, to buy votes for the government. Rather, the weakness of the state; the corruption or physical intimidation of the bureaucracy, police, and especially tax authorities; and the intimate nomenklatura links with the world of business mean that state coffers are fiddled with holes through which an immense variety of rats travel to and fro. To a very real extent, the state itself has been hollowed out, turned into a vessel to be captured and plundered by the piratical forces of a frequently criminalized Russian private enterprise.

As for the security forces, an amusing anecdote from 1994 illustrates their penetration by the better-paying worlds of private and criminal business: In a deliberate blaze of publicity, the elite Alpha special force was sent to arrest Sergei Mavrodi, the notorious pyramid scheme boss. When the Alpha men knocked on his door, the answer was a string of curses in voices they knew. It turned out that Mavrodi's security was made up of other Alpha men. They work only a three-day week; the rest of the time they earn far more as private security guards. And this, God help us, is Russia's supposedly elite anti-terrorist and anti-mafia force.

The lack of real control over the state services severely limits the central government's ability actually to carry out real economic and legal reforms - instead it merely passes decrees to their effect. The motto of many Russian bureaucrats today is no different from that of their past Spanish counterparts: "I obey, but I do not comply."

In fact, the whole Western image of the Russian "reform process" over the past eight years has been to a great extent a mirage. Of course, changes in state policy and the law were necessary to begin the process of change, but what followed was far less a "reform" than a spontaneous process of transformation from below. One aspect of this has certainly been the liberation of enormous amounts of previously suppressed entrepreneurial energy, as any visit to Russia's main urban centers will make clear; another has been the wholesale seizure of public property by the existing Communist nomenklatura - especially factory managers - and the forces of organized crime. From the point of view of morality or historical justice, the privatization process has therefore been a sick joke; insofar as it has mainly led to the continued control of the old Soviet management structures over Russian industry and agriculture, it has also been of questionable utility in promoting real entrepreneurship and efficiency in these fields. Typically, privatization and reform have been attended not by a reduction of the Russian central bureaucracy, but by its mushroom growth - and six years ago, I would not have believed that the Soviet bureaucracy could have become any more bloated without exploding like a balloon. It seems, however, that there is always room somewhere for another mouthful.(12)

The importance of organized crime is of course regularly touched on in Western analyses. But it is often treated in curious isolation - mentioned, and then promptly dropped, as the commentators return to a discussion of what is needed for "economic reform." The truth is, however, that if organized crime is really as important as most analyses say, then it has reached a stage at which many state policies and economic reforms are simply irrelevant. As in Columbia, Mexico, Pakistan, and elsewhere, the state forces are hopelessly out-spent and out-gunned by the criminals, and in any case are largely controlled by them. There can be no serious talk in these circumstances of a successful state crackdown on organized crime; all one can hope for is that the successful criminals will eventually change of their own accord, recognizing the commercial and personal advantages to themselves of a stable legal order. I would not bet on it, however.

The Failure to Invest and Develop

Crime, together with the anarchy, unpredictability, corruption, and petty tyranny of the Russian tax authorities, is a key reason for Russia's failure to attract the foreign investment it so desperately needs, and to draw back the tens of billions of dollars in Russian capital that has flown abroad. Foreign investment is especially important, as it was for Russia before 1917, not just because Russian capital is in relatively short supply, but because Western investment and Western management are necessary to set a standard both for civilized business behavior and for serious and consistent treatment of private companies by the state.

The present Russian state, however, reflecting the interests of the new Russian dominant classes, remains extremely ambivalent about Western investment. Russian executives and managers see such investment far more as a competitor and a threat to themselves and to their way of doing things than as a potential asset - and in many cases they are entirely correct. For this reason it is not clear that the ascendancy of Anatolii Chubais and the reformists in Yeltsin's administration will have a major effect in stimulating Western investment.

The proposed oil-production sharing agreement with U.S. companies in summer 1996 was an encouraging sign that Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and the energy establishment at least understand the urgent need to renew Russia's production capacity with outside help - but the agreement was voted down by the Duma (parliament) amidst a flurry of nationalist rhetoric about "American economic colonization." Depressingly, a key figure in this refusal, and a bitter opponent of incentives for Western investment, is Lebed's close ally, former trade minister Sergei Glaziyev.

In many ways, a rational economic strategy for Russia might be to return to some form of the policies pursued by both Russia and the United States during earlier periods of capitalist economic growth: selective protectionism to defend fragile domestic production - especially in agriculture and consumer goods - coupled with aggressive encouragement of foreign investment through tax incentives, guarantees of profit repatriation, and renewal of infrastructure.

This would, however, affect the new Russian elites in several ways: They are, as already stated, afraid of Western investment and competition, addicted to imported Western luxuries, and heavily dependent on profitable trade deals involving imports of food and consumer goods and exports of raw materials. They would certainly oppose such policies as would hurt them.

Equally important, once again, is the weakness of the Russian state and its officials. A protectionist policy on food would hardly work because corrupt customs officials would not implement it; they would simply raise the level of the bribes necessary to let the imports through: Witness the farcical "blockade" of Chechnya in autumn 1994.

The nature of the new Russian elite in its purest form was revealed to me during a visit to Vladivostok last winter. Unlike Western Russia, which borders on a flagging Europe, this city lies on the edge of the fastest growing economic region in the world, one with immense amounts of available capital. Yet, I found the interest in foreign investment among the regional governments and elites to be practically zero; this was confirmed by the handful of Western business people in the region. The Russian political elite of Vladivostok is obsessed with only three things: personal political survival; fighting each other over the privatization of Soviet state property; and making personal fortunes through the export of timber, fish, minerals, oil, and tiger skins.

It is a comprador class of the crudest kind and, thanks to the elite, Vladivostok is also a comprador town of the crudest kind. Its streets are full of Japanese cars; its casinos and nightclubs contain ample evidence of the wealth of its new elite. But it is also entirely obvious that not a kopek of this wealth has been invested either in public infrastructure or in new private production; the entire prosperity of the region's elites and their employees is being generated by the export of commodities and is being spent on the import of consumer goods. Meanwhile, transport links, energy supplies, and the education system decay, and local miners and electricity workers have been on a hunger strike because their pay is months in arrears.

If, despite all this, Russia has been able to go on supporting most of its population at an acceptable level and even creating real prosperity for large numbers of them in Moscow, the reason is not mainly "economic reform"; it is above all that Russia remains the largest exporter of oil, natural gas, minerals, and timber in the world, and, as long as stocks last, the profits from this suffice to maintain social and economic stability, to keep the budget deficit under reasonable control, and therefore to rein in inflation. Unless these revenues are reinvested, however, they will do nothing to stimulate economic growth. The West may contrast Ukraine's failure to implement economic reforms with Russia's alleged success and thus explain Ukraine's greater misery; but if Russia, like Ukraine, lacked massive oil and gas reserves and had to pay for their import, would it really be in a better position than Ukraine today?

The Moral Illegitimacy of the New Order

The decay of Yeltsin's presidency and the lack of any agreed successor mean that the next few years will undoubtedly be disturbed ones in Russian politics. In my opinion, however, the apathy of the population and the ability of the state to guarantee certain basic living standards mean that these troubles will not spill over into mass civic violence or new mass revolutionary movements. This is above all true because of the prosperity and contentment of the population of Moscow, which voted overwhelmingly for Boris Yeltsin at the last elections. Violence may occur, but if so it will probably be limited to clashes between various praetorian guards and politicians' immediate followers - much as in October 1993, when a handful of troops loyal to President Yeltsin (or bribed or pressured into helping him) bombarded into submission an even smaller number of armed supporters of the parliamentary opposition. It is quite possible that the result may be the establishment of some more-or-less authoritarian regime in Moscow; but given the genuine federal or even confederal nature of the Russian state today, and the underlying weaknesses I have sketched, it is highly unlikely that such a government would be able to impose effective authoritarian rule across the whole country, let alone mobilize the country to project strong Russian influence in the outside world, or in the last resort to go to war.

Unfortunately, it also seems unlikely that Russia will be able to establish a stable and prosperous democracy, even in the longer term. Public apathy and demoralization, as well as private violence, are so extensive that it will be difficult for a true civil society to emerge. In some areas, after all, a serious threat or even insult to any major local figure is now likely to earn a bullet in the head, no longer from the secret police but from a private gunman.

Contributing to the long-term weakness of the Russian state and democracy is also likely to be a deep underlying popular feeling of their illegitimacy, because of the nature of the changes that have taken place in recent years. This feeling relates to social injustice: the immiseration of pensioners, the most vulnerable part of the population; the increasing destruction of real Soviet achievements, especially in the areas of health and education; the power of organized crime; and above all, the way in which state property, viewed by most Russians as the patrimony of the whole people, was "privatized."(13)

This does not mean that there will be a mass revolt, or even a mass political movement of protest, in anything like the near future. Communism in Russia is dying fast, but there is no new ideology to replace it. Moreover, the mass of the population has accepted the essential elements of the new order - private property, free economic activity, and a political system based ostensibly at least on elections. In the sense of Antonio Gramsci's analysis - or Francis Fukuyama's - liberal capitalist thought has indeed achieved a "hegemony of consciousness" in Russia, one that is likely to persist for decades to come.

It would be hopelessly optimistic and unhistorical, however, to think that this will last for ever. A distant analogy might perhaps be drawn with the situation in Spain and Italy following the liberal seizures of power and subsequent reforms in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever their other justifications, these reforms were a violent affront to the "moral economies" of a large segment of the peasant populations of these countries. Particularly offensive was the privatization and redistribution of ancient communal and church lands, and their purchase not by local peasants, or even the nobility, but by new and alien bourgeois agricultural entrepreneurs from the towns.

Following the suppression of the Carlist and "bandit" revolts, however, these feelings of moral outrage did not generally express themselves in terms of mass movements in support of the old royal, clerical, and peasant order. The peasants were too inarticulate, impoverished, and disorganized for that; the new bourgeois rulers too militarily and intellectually dominant; and the Catholic Church either co-opted or too cautious and conservative to lead a popular revolt. What happened instead was that these feelings of resentment and alienation went underground to surface decades later in a variety of unpredictable forms, often with little apparent relation to the local historical origins of their support: extreme reactionary Catholicism and modern social Catholicism, but also communism, anarchism, and fascism, united only in their common hatred of the liberal bourgeois order. These movements were, moreover, never entirely locally generated - the world was already too interlinked for that. Rather, these societies proved especially receptive to infection by various extreme ideologies that were floating around Europe, which they then developed in local and especially virulent forms.

A new Russian revolutionary ideology, if it appears over the next few decades, is also unlikely to be home-grown. For the past three centuries, all the various "Russian ideas" - from the new imperial thinking of the seventeenth century through Peter the Great's reforms to slavophilism, populism, and communism - have had their intellectual origins outside Russia, although it has often been in Russia that they have taken their most extreme forms.(14)

What new revolutionary ideologies the middle or later twenty-first century has in store for us are - perhaps thankfully - impossible to predict. Venturing into the realms of science fiction, one might speculate about national-socialist reactions against the global economy and migration, or against increasing physical differences between rich and poor produced by medical developments and genetic engineering, along the lines of a quasi-religious or racist revolt to defend the "true image" of humanity.(15)

Two things, however, do seem predictable: first, that if such revolutionary ideologies do emerge, they will as in the past find an especially fertile soil in Russia; and second, that they will not make a serious appearance for many years to come. History has not ended, as Fukuyama suggested, but it does indeed seem to have reached a kind of plateau, doubtless insignificant in terms of the whole span of human history, but reassuring to us, the temporary dwellers on its relatively peaceful and fruitful plains. It may be, therefore, that with all the new Russian order's many problems and weaknesses, it will for a long time be able to stumble on, until we all fall down together.


1. Vladimir Shlapentokh, "Russia as a Medieval State," The Washington Quarterly 19, no. 1 (Winter 1996).

2. Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982; first published, 1943), p. 11.

3. For a recent portrayal of the growing criminalization of Mexico, and the way in which this coexists with genuine progress in some other areas (like freedom of the press), see Alma Guillermoprieto, "Mexico: Murder without Justice," New York Review of Books 43, no. 15, October 3, 1996.

4. For the progressive hollowing out of the Leonid Brezhnev-era Soviet state by nomenklatura-linked organized crime, see Arkady Vaksberg, The Soviet Mafia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).

5. The full text of this report was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), May 23, 1996.

6. Lebed is a pretty crude character, but neither my own nor other correspondents' interviews with him over the past three years have suggested that he is an extreme nationalist.

7. A recent post-election speech by Zyuganov shows that he has now fully recognized that the language of revolution holds no appeal for the Russian electorate. See Marina Shakina, "Communists without Socialism?" RIA Novosti (on-line), August 7, 1996.

8. Taken from personal observations in Russia during the election campaign.

9. Author interview with Sergei Markov, November 1995.

10. For a fuller exposition of my arguments and evidence concerning the decline of the Russian armed forces, see "Russia's Military Nadir," National Interest no. 44 (Summer 1996). For an interesting and convincing analysis of the underlying lack of radicalism and ambition in Russia's external policies, see Stephen Sestanovich, "Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours," National Interest no. 45 (Fall 1996).

11. Anders Aslund, "Reform vs. 'Rent-Seeking' in Russia's Economic Transformation," Transition 2, no. 2 (January 19%).

12. See for example, Allen Lynch, "The Crisis of the Russian State," in International Spectator (Rome) 30, no. 2 (April-June 1995), and Timothy J. Colton, Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 19%).

13. For a masterful description of such feelings and the reasons for them, see David Satter, "The Lawlessness of Russian Reform," in Wall Street Journal, June 4, 1996. A Russian economist, Igor Birman, last year declared, "I am certainly not against wealth, but . . . to provide for the economic independence of citizens, privatisation must:

* minimize the economic role of the state;

* stimulate the producer to work for himself;

* inspire him with competition.

"None of this has been achieved: the economic role of the state remains immense; producers are stimulated more to steal from the state than to produce; monopolies in the sphere of production have not been overcome."

14. Even Slavophil nationalism, in its reaction against the Westernizing legacy of Peter the Great, derived intellectually from German romantic nationalism.

15. Even in the United States, your average Joe Morlock (a la H. G. Wells's The Time Machine) doesn't much like James Eloi III as it is. He'll like him even less when Mr. and Mrs. Eloi are 7 feet tall and living to be 120 as a result of genetic engineering.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., and a former Moscow correspondent for The Times of London.


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