What Happened to Russian Democracy?
When then-President Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in 1991, waving a fist in defiance of communist hard-liners, he heralded a new dawn for Russia.
The Soviet Union collapsed months later, promising to usher in a new era of Western-style democracy. But at the end of Yeltsin's rule, eight years later, democracy had become a dirty word for most Russians.
President Vladimir Putin often is praised for bringing an end to what some see as a reign of lawlessness and corruption under Yeltsin, his predecessor. But not everyone agrees. Some officials who ran the government under Yeltsin say Putin has put an end to a period of positive change.
Russians: Better Off Now?
At the teeming Yaroslavsky railway station in central Moscow, suburban trains deliver a steady flow of passengers to the bustling capital. These aren't the wealthy Muscovites who have profited from Russia's oil-fueled economic boom. But when asked about the 1990s, many of those riding the trains say life is better now than it was back then.
Bank teller Alla Lavrova says she sees the Yeltsin era as a period of government collapse. Many negative things, such as organized crime and killings, came with "freedom," she says. "The authorities weren't able to deal with any of it."
More than that, many believe a handful of Kremlin-connected insiders stole the state's most valuable assets. While those fat cats were getting rich, skyrocketing inflation was wiping out most ordinary Russians' savings.
Fears of Instability Led to Rise of Authoritarian Putin
Former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was one of the Yeltsin era's "young reformers." He says that negative view of the 1990s is pervasive, and it has fed a desire to return to strong, stable leadership, creating huge popular support for the authoritarian Putin.
Most Russians equate democracy with what happened in the '90s: rising poverty, homelessness and unemployment. "People connect economic problems and freedom," Nemtsov says.
But he says it is wrong to think of the Yeltsin years as a period of chaos, since most Russians don't realize what a mess the country was in when communism finally collapsed.
Yevgeny Yasin, economy minister at the time, says food supplies were in danger of running out.
"It was a question of survival, and we didn't have the luxury of time," he says. "We had to take radical measures as quickly as possible to avert hunger and save the country."
The government freed prices from state control and privatized tens of thousands of state enterprises. The first to be sold at auction, in 1992, was the Bolshevik Biscuit Factory. French Danone bought the firm soon after it was privatized, and it is now one of the most successful cookie brands in Russia.
Democratic Strides in Yeltsin Era Undermined by Missteps
But economic transformation was only part of the government's reform effort. Former parliamentarian Lev Ponomaryov helped found the country's first democratic political movement. He says the 1990s were a period of dynamic progress.
"We laid the legislative foundation for a democratic government," Ponomaryov says. "It was a huge development that will be positively evaluated in history books. That's unquestionable."
But some say the 1990s reforms were mishandled. Liberal Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, a former presidential candidate, criticizes Yeltsin for manipulating national television during his re-election campaign in 1996.
Yavlinsky says he has "no doubts" that Yeltsin's actions set a precedent for Putin's subsequent crackdown against the free press and other authoritarian measures.
Economic crisis in 1998 derailed the plan to create a middle class that would support continued Westernization. The mishandled privatization of the country's oil assets gave fantastic wealth to a handful of Kremlin insiders, but also gave privatization a bad name.
Fear, Prosperity Support Political Culture
Yeltsin was sick and unpopular by then, and most Russians believe he picked Putin to succeed him because he believed the former KGB officer would save him from possible arrest — as political retribution — if the opposition came to power after he stepped down.
Some say Yeltsin undermined his entire reform effort by saving his own skin. But ex-reformer Nemtsov says Yeltsin believed Putin would continue his policies.
"Yeltsin forgot that KGB guys have special knowledge about how to be loyal players on their bosses' team," he says. "But what's happening in their souls, nobody knows, including themselves."
Nemtsov says once in power, Putin was able to capitalize on most Russians' belief that democracy means chaos, which enabled political clans in the Kremlin to retake control of the economy. Opposition leader Yavlinsky says the new system reminds him of the Soviet state-planning agency, Gosplan.
Once again, what goes on behind the Kremlin's crenellated brick walls is a mystery to everyone outside them. Some believe that is part of a traditional political culture in Russia, which is highly effective at creating just enough fear — and distributing just enough prosperity — to keep itself in place. Most believe as long as high energy prices continue sustaining that system, things won't change any time soon.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.