Evaluating Russia’s Transformation

One of the most insightful analyses of Russia’s post-Communist transition that I have read appeared in the November 2002 issue of Commentary. The essay was entitled “Russia’s Revolution,” and it was written by Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. I thought his opening paragraph was very perceptive:

Post-Communist Russia’s ten-year old experiment in democracy, civil and political liberty, and a free market is not unlike the movement of a long, disorderly caravan on a vast and swampy plain – stopping, stumbling, occasionally all but drowning in muck, yet stubbornly creaking forward. Following closely behind is a crowd of journalists and experts. Their heads are hung. They look neither backward to measure the road already traveled, nor to the sides to compare the caravan’s progress with that of neighboring nomads, nor yet forward to where the road might lead. Instead, their eyes seem to be fixed forever on the dirt covering the wheels, the ruts in the road, and the swamp creatures feasting on the piles of refuse in the wagon’s wake.

I share Aron’s perspective on this subject and am troubled by those who so easily lose patience with the progress that Russia is making in its transition out of seventy years of Communism. As Aron noted, post-Soviet Russia is a product of seven decades and four generations of a system in which mass murder, fear, and lies were routine. Overcoming this legacy is a monumental challenge. While there is much to criticize in Russia’s rebuilding process, Aron’s summary is correct: “. . . never in the four-and-a-half centuries of the modern Russian state has Russia been freer, or more open to the outside, or less militaristic and less threatening to its neighbors and to the world than in the past decade.”

Russia’s Demilitarization

The first component of Russia’s revolutionary change is demilitarization; Aron points out that the extent of this demilitarization process may well be unprecedented in the annals of nations not defeated on the battlefield and occupied by the victors. The following statistic highlights this remarkable process: the share of Russia’s GDP devoted to defense has gone down from at least 30 percent to less than 5 percent; Russia is now spending more on education than on defense; the nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union has been reduced from 10,000 deployable warheads to 6,000 and is on the way down to 2,000 or fewer; and the four-million-strong militia of Soviet days has been halved to 1.7 million and will be reduced further.

In a remarkable change often forgotten by outside observers, Russian leaders have given up their previous messianic foreign policy and have voluntarily abandoned their Central Europe empire – in addition, they have released fourteen republics from the former Soviet Union to become independent states. Russia, in fact, has voluntarily returned to its 17th century borders.

Russia’s Privatization

The second component in Russia’s transformation is the wholesale transfer of national wealth from state ownership to private hands. More than 900,000 private businesses have been organized in the last decade, and the estimated percent of GDP produced in the private sector has grown from 5 percent in 1991 to 70 percent today. President Putin was criticized by many for his statement that he wanted to see Russia achieve the standard of living of Portugal, but this statement illustrates the significant change that has occurred in Russia. For once, the Russians have a leader who tells the people the truth about their condition and makes the improvement of that condition the goal of his government, as Aron noted.

For most Russians, the benefits of privatization have been very apparent – fresh and delicious foods are available almost everywhere. Last year, for the first time since the early 1960s, Russia not only managed to feed its people and livestock without the benefit of imports, but exported over 5 million tons of grain. The lives of Russian women, in particular, have changed beyond recognition. They own 40 percent of the private companies in Russia and have access to fashions, diets, physical fitness, recreation, and career opportunities that are astonishing when compared to ten years ago. In addition, a middle class is emerging in Russia and, for the first time, according to Aron, “the well-being of the individual, not the glory and might of the state, are Russia’s declared goals.”

Russia’s “De-Bolshevization”

Aron labels the final component in Russia’s rebuilding process “de-Bolshevization.” By this, Aron means the unparalleled shift in political mentality, a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratization. The constitution of 1993 has proven to be a resilient framework, and while all of the enumerated liberties listed in the constitution are fully realized, they are evolving and becoming more habitual.

The Russian legal system is in the process of being overhauled and, for the first time in Russian history, a citizen can now sue the government! The constitutional court has also emerged as a key force in the transformation process and a new criminal code was recently approved.

Aron’s Summary

Based on my twelve years of experience in Russia, I think Aron’s conclusion is correct: “What has been occurring in Russia constitutes, most obviously, a dramatic break with Soviet totalitarianism in all its disguises. But it also constitutes a no less dramatic break with the centuries-old political culture of Russia itself.” While there will be set-backs and discouragements for those who want to see a “New Russia” – a Russia where normalcy is evident on a daily basis – there is plenty of reason to be hopeful.