The broken promises of Russia’s second revolution

By Susan Glasser
August 8, 2011

By Susan B. Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.

When Hosni Mubarak was wheeled in to his courtroom cage last week, 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.”

PHOTO: Participants pass a poster of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his visit to the summer camp of the pro-Kremlin youth group “Nashi” at lake Seliger, some 400km (248miles) north of Moscow, August 1, 2011. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/Pool

14 comments

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“And Russia is only twenty years in.”
You are forgetting that there were TWO revolutions in Russia last century (February of 1917 and October of 1917). So take France’s 1789 and add not 20 but 90 years and than compare the two counties…
Also please keep in mind that Czarist Russia had a multiparty parliament (Duma) even before the two Revolution, so looking objectively at the country it’s even wost off than it was in 1917.
In 50 years Russia will be a Muslim state and Siberia and Far east will be controlled by China. History has no pity.

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive

Perhaps it is a function of living without freedom for so long…the public psyche is geared towards supporting authoritarian rule, not self determination.

Add the gangster-robber barron style corruption that highjacks or snuffs out free market competitors, and where is there room to hope for the generation that has been raised in psuedo democracy these 20 years?

And in this despair it is little wonder a nationalistic strongman would emerge on a populist wave…selling a vision much like the Nazi view of Germany in the 30′s…evoking Russians as a dominant nation and race…(ready to raise another curtain?)

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

If we lived long enough to remember and not just look at history books we had two revolutions one with England bloody, and the second with ourselves and that was the bloody beyound compare.

I also agree that it just takes time but one thing for certain they tried capitalism run amoke and it did not work it lead to so much corruption that most of the Russian people suffered worst then they though.

Posted by theant | Report as abusive

The selection of keywords is totally wrong:

must be Putin, Russia not, then US and Britain.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

It was Pope John Paul II the Great who successfully destroyed communism and gave hope to the people who are ever seeking, as the author grossly understates, “an intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride.” Far more than mere self-respect and pride, they continue to seek something far more profound, literally a better meaning to life than that offered by an authoritarian, atheistic ruling class. To love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength is the meaning of life, and it took our Catholic Pope to bring down the power of God to shake communism to its very roots.

“ow many divisions does the Pope have?” queried Stalin. Now he knows, in Hell.

Posted by hazel123 | Report as abusive

Interesting article, yet I am bothered by the quick reliance on Freedom House facts to support claims of scarce freedom within former Soviet bloc states. There have been a number of published reports documenting the faulty logic and apparent lack of in-depth research done by Freedom House, regarding how to properly judge the concept of ‘free’ and which countries have more or less of it.

I read and own your book Kremlin Rising and thought it was excellent. I am optimistic towards Russia’s future; The upcoming presidential election will tell the rest of the world a lot about how and in what direction we should perceive Russia to be moving politically and economically.

I really think you are far off the mark 74LS08 with your comment, ” In 50 years Russia will be a Muslim state and Siberia will be controlled by China.” I think your prediction is based off of little real evidence.

Posted by SamRB | Report as abusive

Meh…the present status benefits Russians and Russian businesses. They are not stupid at all to allow outsiders to control their natural resources, regardless the endless pro-democratic articles written against Putin. You guys should live and work there, before you talk non-sense. Yes, it is impossible to do business as an American in Russia, but that doesn’t mean locals aren’t doing well.

Posted by Ananke | Report as abusive

So its the army in Egypt which holds power, and we await the appearance of the new US-financed dictator. Meanwhile we are told Stalin (or perhaps merely Khrushchev) has been reincarnated in Putin?
Our brilliant Washington policy hacks like Ms Glasser have been so often right in their assessments that we must give to them automatic deference.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

didn’t expect such a superficial column from Reuters. Onesided, close-minded. “a mystery still decades later” – really? google Brezhnev and Gorbachev, you’ll see the mystery cracking in front of you.

“a radical break in consciousness”?? how can anyone write something like this without thumbing through Vekhi or Berdyayev at least or anyone from the philosophers boat.

And yes, you are forgetting there were THREE revolutions in Russia last century (1905, two in 1917).

Posted by knavehearts | Report as abusive

Russia is no less undemocratic than the United States, but the US has a bigger media to loudly insist the two parties are looking out for the little guy. The media also insists that all the other countries need to “open up” to American financial dominance, which is the very definition of freedom. When a Wall Street fat cat croons about freedom everyone should watch out.

Posted by Rfairb | Report as abusive

Here’s my assessment of Russia today – They’re not attacking anyone. Their people are happy. They’re not in debt to the world. They have plenty of food, water, and natural resources, including energy, to last them for at least the next 100 years. Their military prevents outsiders from looting those resources. They have the freedom to leave.

So why is anyone criticizing them about anything? If their system is imbalanced in any way, they will collapse on their own, like ours is right now.

Posted by bao | Report as abusive

According to the heart-bleeding author, Russia must step forward and rape herself, in front of the public.

I wonder why they do not do that….Probably their whole history is a history of bloody revolts and sacrafice to save the rest of the world.

Sorry guys, this week it’s your turn, with your wallets.

Export of democarcy is a sweet business, but there are no takers.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

To quote Michael Hudson, economist:

It may be time to look once again at what Larry Summers and his “Rubinomics gang did in Russia in the mid-1990s and to Third World countries during his tenure as World Bank economist to see what kind of future is being planned for the U.S. economy over the next few years.

“Throughout the Soviet Union the neoliberal model established “equilibrium” in a way that involved demographic collapse: shortening life spans, lower birth rates, alcoholism and drug abuse, psychological depression, suicides, bad health, unemployment and homelessness for the elderly (the neoliberal mode of Social Security reform).”

Following on with this: The Harvard gang of economists, in their misguided believe in capitalism, or simply to promote their own set of oligarchs, rushed Russia to privatize its national treasure of oil, gas, timber, minerals, and its manufacturing and banking into the hands of a few gangsters. Even Khodorkovsky virtues are supported by the New York Times these days, despite the thuggish ways he attained his billions.

In my view, Putin took back Russia for the Russians. We could use somebody to take back American for Americans. (Not suggesting Putin though. We have a different background.)
America has pretty clearly been usurped by the richies, who can’t even bring themselves to pay their fair share of taxes, while the average American if falling into debt peonage.

The Harvard gang was again up front in America’s economic demise.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

as with so many other lazy journalists, you’ve quoted Putin out of context. there was a considerable proviso before he said what he said – and you ignored it to suit yourself.

Posted by ICIC | Report as abusive