In Search of Russia


In 1909, the Russian prime minister Pëtr Stolypin told a foreign journalist: “Give the State twenty years of internal and external peace and you will not recognize Russia.” At that time there were real hopes in Russia’s huge potential. With its natural wealth and vigorous new industries, Russia promised to become the dominant economic power on the European continent. Western capital was heavily invested in Russian industries. The creative forces of a burgeoning democracy were breaking free from the old authoritarian social order, giving life to an exciting new society. But twenty years of peace were a lot to ask. Two years later, in 1911, Stolypin was assassinated—and with him went the chances of political reform before the catastrophe of 1917.

The new capitalist Russia that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union in 1991 found itself in a similar position to the capitalist Russia of 1909. In natural resources, Russia is the richest country in the world, with one third of its natural gas, one fifth of its precious metals, and perhaps a quarter of its oil. Given twenty years, it could become a dominant economic power in Eurasia, provided its enormous wealth is not squandered or, worse, plundered by a small handful of businessmen and their partners in the West. Once again, foreign investments are pouring in. Capitalism is transforming major cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, which today are bright, exciting places barely recognizable from Soviet days. But whether it improves the lives of ordinary Russians will depend on the consolidation of a democratic nation-state.

According to Robert Service, professor of Russian history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, such consolidation was the grand project of 1991. In his scholarly and well-informed survey of the first post-Soviet decade, Russia: Experiment with a People, Service maintains that Boris Yeltsin came to power with a “national” program of reform, which

encompassed not only liberal democracy and the market economy but also ideological pluralism, local self-government, a legal order, ethnic tolerance, individual freedom and civic nationhood. The rulers in the Kremlin… sought out support in various organisations and social groups and organised propaganda for the project. They contrived a set of state symbols to break with the communist past. This substantial enterprise was tantamount to a project of nation-building even though the rulers did not refer to it as such.

Service explains how this visionary project came to be abandoned during the Yeltsin years, between 1991 and 1999. New elites emerged from the old Communist nomenklatura and the mafia-ridden world of post-Soviet capitalism and seized possession of precious national assets, including the country’s gas and oil, as well as its banks, press, radio, and television, and even threatened the primacy of the state itself. Service has no illusions about the benevolent hand of capitalism. “Democratisation and marketisation have spectacularly failed the Russians,” he concludes.

Andrew Meier, a Moscow correspondent for Time between 1996 and 2001, is similarly pessimistic in his lively and perceptive Black Earth: A Journey…

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