20 years under Putin: a timeline

On the 20th anniversary of the August Coup in the USSR, Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, talked with Caterina Innocente about his vision of the political prospects for modern Russia.



Caterina Innocente: In one of your recent articles about Russia and those Russians who “just can’t live like this any longer,” you concluded with these words: “Revolutions have started with less.” Do you really think that a revolution in Russia can be expected anytime soon?

Leon Aron: Predicting revolutions is a difficult and thankless task. After all, a revolution is by definition an unexpected phenomenon. That is why the October Revolution was not a genuine revolution — it was planned, and its chiefs, Lenin and Trotsky, would always say that it was a coup. Genuine revolutions happen spontaneously. So it would be more appropriate to speak of greater or lesser probabilities. And no one knows what form it might take.

This past July I traveled throughout the Russian regions, interviewing and speaking with activists from six Russian NGOs. These were environmental-advocacy groups, including Khimki Forest and Baikal Ecological Wave, as well as more typical sociopolitical organizations. And do you know what struck me the most? A new generation has come of age that can, it seems to me, raise Russia's civil society to another, higher level of development. Great revolutions don’t happen overnight. Society seems to be catching up with policy, reluctantly following the political rupture, looking back, and waiting for new political institutions to settle in, so to speak.

Remember that in England almost 40 years passed between the execution of Charles I and the creation of a constitutional monarchy with a strong parliament. In France it took even longer — almost a half-century separates the First and Second Republics, the latter lasting only four years. So it took almost 90 years from the beginning of the republican revolution until the establishment of strong democratic rule. Great revolutions evolve in cycles, over several phases.

C.I.: Are we now at the beginning of a second stage of Russian revolution?

L.A.: Some of the preconditions are there, without a doubt. For example, I have already mentioned the coming of age of a new generation of activists. They see the salvation of Russia not in some heroic acts from above; they are not waiting for a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin; but are simply doing their quiet, thorough, everyday work, trying to make the state abide by its own laws, fighting corruption, insisting on fairness in the courts, and so on. In the absence of some sort of deep and rapid reforms, this active, "advanced," as they say, segment of Russian civil society is becoming more and more incompatible, in a moral and even in an existential sense, with the vertical of power and with sovereign democracy. And you know, you can’t even be sure whether it’s accurate to call this new generation of activists democrats! They’re just trying to do their work. But their efforts are being hindered by the regime as it is currenty constituted.

I think that the upcoming presidential elections will be an important event. Look at the Color Revolutions, look at the Arab spring. It was right after presidential elections that these mass protests of the second stage took place, because the elections appeared unfair to the majority. If something similar happens, say, during the Duma elections, one might be able to say that a certain tension has been created. I don’t know whether it will lead to a revolution. But as I have already mentioned, this new generation of activists, this new social Russia, growing from the bottom, is incompatible with the current political regime in the long-run (or maybe even in the medium-term) perspective. The elections could be the very spark that lights the fire. And there's plenty of very dry firewood scattered around. Everyone is talking about it — the structural changes, the corruption that many wrote about, including Igor Yurgens. In his recent interview with Dmitry Bykov, he said that people were more scared of the police than of the gangsters. "This is the beginning of the end," he added. Plus, it seems to me that oil prices can’t be kept at the same astronomical level that would allow this "social peace" to be sustained through increasing pensions, thus feeding a whole social stratum without increasing taxes and cutting the government’s social obligations. All this might come to a very serious crisis.

C.I.: Today everyone in Russia is talking about whether Putin is going to run for a new term. Everyone has their own take on it. What's yours?

L.A.: I think Putin is going to be the next president. There are many preconditions for this. Among them is the fact that the elites are starting to leave Medvedev and turn to Putin. There are enough examples of that kind.

C.I.: Can you give me one, to illustrate?

L.A.: Sure. Yuri Solomonov, Russian chief designer of strategic missiles, gave an interview to Kommersant newspaper. I found this interview very interesting; I even posted about it in my blog, which I rarely do — blogs distract from more interesting things. The interview was supposed to be about the budget, defense and missiles, but it turned out that Solomonov … how to put it more delicately … paints a picture of an incompetent president. The fact that a person of Solomonov’s rank, with his knowledge of the Kremlin’s under-the-carpet fights, gives a full-page interview to a newspaper of Kommersant’s level proves, along with other portents, the process by which the elite are turning away from Medvedev and swinging to Putin. Apparently, they all expect him to make a comeback.

C.I.: Then comes the next question about the consequences. How do you see Russia’s future in this scenario? With Putin as the president?

L.A.: I think it’s a very alarming scenario. If one adds up the eight years that Putin has already served and the four years when he was regent with Medvedev as his dauphin, and if one assumes that he will serve twelve more years, then it’s clear that he surpasses Brezhnev in the duration of his rule. In the twenty-first century, even in Russia, with its undoubted czarist traditions and history of long-term rule, it’s very, very hard to be in power that long. And I think that it will seem insane to the new generation of Russians that I mentioned earlier, who are now 25 to 30 to 35 years old.

C.I.: In my opinion it already does. The very prospect of such a turn seems insane, doesn’t it?

L.A.: Yes. But you know, now it’s obvious mostly to the activists, the bloggers, the intelligentsia. I’m talking about the mass population that is not interested in politics at the moment.

C.I.: You are famous for paying much attention to Russian intellectual elites in your writings: you draw parallels between the intelligentsia of the 1970s and the early 1990s and analyze the potential of today’s intellectual elites to change the political climate of the country. Last summer you published an article on the prospects of the Skolkovo innovation center. A year later, has anything changed?

L.A.: I’d like to specify right away that I’m not a specialist in the high-tech field that is to be developed by Skolkovo scientists. I look at Skolkovo from a socialogical point of view. I drew a parallel, that you’ve mentioned, with the German Quarter (Nemetskaya sloboda) in the era of Peter the Great, when they would invite skilled tradesmen from abroad, put up a fence, post guards with halberds, to drive away the unwanted Russian guests. It seems to me that from the start a serious mistake was made in the Skolkovo project, if we look at it from the point of view of contemporary sociology. The difference here is that in the science of the nineteenth, or even the twentieth century, when Beria would gather the scientists, when someone stole a design here, a formula there, you know, Claus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs…

C.I.: I see. Every little bit adds up…

L.A.: Exactly. And we would make superhuman efforts to work miracles under the leadership of a generous government. Now my impression is that technological breakthrough happens under completely different conditions in the modern world. It was not the way Microsoft was born, or Google, Twitter and Skype that we are chatting on now. I think that the desire to create Skolkovo is a somewhat nostalgic attempt, an evident anachronism. Even an atavism! Well, there might be some Soviet social genes at play: Now, comrades, let us organize, let us pull together… But today a scientist prefers to work from home. Or from his garage. Or sit on the beach with a laptop. It’s very hard to bring together the stars of economics and science, even if you offer them the best conditions, even in this paradise in the suburbs of Moscow. It’s not a technical problem, it’s a problem of the sociology of contemporary science. And it looks like this time they didn’t consult the sociologists.

C.I.: Last year you ended your article on Skolkovo with a quite unexpected but pretty logical recommendation to President Medvedev. You said: “The road to a Russian Silicon Valley starts not in California, Mr. President. It begins with unlocking the door to Mikhail Khodorkovsky's jail cell.” Do you think there’s a chance that Putin will release Khodorkovsky on his own initiative, or do you think this release is possible only if Putin is no longer the number one person in the vertical of power?

L.A.: The regime turned Khodorkovsky into the modern equivalent of Andrei Sakharov. I say this only from the perspective of political technologies, I won’t go into the details of the huge differences between the two personalities, their life experience, goals, and so on. By turning Khodorkovsky into a kind of modern Sakharov, the current regime cornered itself. If you remember this, one of the first but very, very efficient and effective measures that Gorbachev undertook in December 1986 was the release of Andrei Sakharov.

C.I.: I remember, of course.

L.A.: It was then that the elite and later millions started to believe that Gorbachev was different. It’s impossible to alter the current situation just as easily: from the perspective of political technologies, it’s impossible for Putin to be in power and for Khodorkovsky to be free simultaneously. These are mutually exclusive things. But if Medvedev or somebody else becomes a fully legitimate leader, as Gorbachev did by the end of 1986 when, as he wrote in his memoir, he “mastered this infernal machine,” then Khodorkovsky’s release might become a symbolic gesture of comparable impact.

C.I.: Since you’ve mentioned "Medvedev or somebody else," I can’t help remembering Mikhail Prokhorov, who has recently entered the political arena. How would you characterize him as a politician? No doubt you are trying to watch him closely, aren’t you? To get an idea of who he is.

L.A.: I will have to disappoint you, Caterina. I’m not trying to watch him closely. Even though I’ve read almost everything that was splashed all over the media after he inherited Right Cause. I’ll explain why. Today Prokhorov is the Kremlin’s project. When the United Russia party weakened — since, to be honest, nobody gives a damn about it anymore  — the regime started to look for support. Surkov created this symmetrical scheme: the People’s Front on the left wing and Right Cause with Prokhorov as its head on the right. This is an attempt to grow feathers on both wings: if we don’t soar, then at least perhaps we can glide for a while.

C.I.: It’s clear now why Prokhorov is so persistent in avoiding the term "opposition."

L.A.: Yes. In general, I don’t watch Prokhorov simply because I see no sense in taking a close look at another Kremlin project. It’s impossible to find something new. But sometimes such projects can get out of control...

C.I.: But it’s probably too early to talk about that yet? About getting out of control?

L.A.: It is too early to talk about it, indeed. But if it seems that Prokhorov begins to get out of control, as it were, then we should watch him closely. No doubt he was promised 10 percent of the vote. Well, maybe 15 percent. And he’ll get that. But I’d like to draw your attention to the following interesting shift that happened in recent days. Konstantin Doroshok, whom I met a month ago and with whom I had a long conversation, joined Right Cause and became its regional representative in Kaliningrad. This is very interesting. Why? Because it might potentially lead Right Cause to become more independent. At least on a regional level. The thing is that I know Doroshok well. He is nobody’s man and he won’t dance to anyone's tune. If you remember, it was Doroshok who organized a huge mass protest in Kaliningrad in winter 2010. He actually became a real popular leader. If those sorts of things start to happen, that is, when the real leaders of public opinion start to insist on their independence in return for lending their authority and legitimacy to Right Cause, then it will become really interesting. But I think that at that point, the Kremlin will step on the break.

C.I.: Since you are Boris Yeltsin’s biographer, I’d like to ask you, what did you respect and value in him most of all? In Yeltsin as a politician and in Yeltsin as a person.

L.A.: I could spend a long time answering that question. But to be brief, I’d single out the one most important thing: his poryadochnost. There’s no English equivalent for this word. I could say decency, but in Russia poryadochnost is a much broader term. It means that you don’t kick your enemy when he falls, and that you are not vengeful.

C.I.: Was Yeltsin decent both as a person and a politician?

L.A.: Absolutely, yes.

C.I.: If you were to draw a parallel between Yeltsin and Putin, again in both ways — in personal life and in governing style — how would you compare them?

L.A.: It’s hard to compare Yeltsin and Putin in their personal lives because we know nothing about Putin’s human qualities. Such a great job was done in concealing or distorting the information that it’s very difficult to recognize what’s real. It was disguised very thoroughly. And yet some details can be spotted. For example, his love of luxury. Maybe it means nothing, or maybe it does. Yet, his love of luxury is quite obvious — you can tell it by his palace in Gelendzhik. There are photos — it’s a magnificent palace. This is something that Boris Yeltsin didn’t have. I can’t help returning to the category of decency. Look at his attitude toward his enemies. In Russian history no one has ever acted like Yeltsin did toward the 1993 coup organizers. In the Russian White House they seriously discussed how and when to execute Yeltsin — to hang him right away on Red Square or to drive him in a cage across Russia, like Stenka Razin or Yemelka Pugachev. And Yeltsin knew it all, of course, but he clenched his teeth and decided not to cross the law after the Duma pardoned the coup plotters. Later they even ran for public offices and became deputies and governors, and the head plotter, Ruslan Khasbulatov, went on living in Brezhnev’s apartment on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, to which he was able to return without any trouble. In Yeltsin’s amazing lack of vengefulness toward his enemies I see the major difference between these two people and politicians.

C.I.: Do you remember your personal feelings in August 1991 when you were watching all these events, when you learned about the collapse of the Soviet Union?

L.A.: Of course. These feelings were shared by millions of people living in Russia or watching these events from abroad. I and my colleagues in the U.S. were in the same semi-euphoric mood, much like those who gathered during those days on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg or in front of the White House in Moscow. We thought that this was the beginning of a new Russia, that it would be a normal democratic, prosperous, free country where human rights would be respected and where the government would protect private property. I have just published an article on the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR for Washington Post. One of the points I make there is that many key ideals and goals of the August revolution, mutatis mutandis, still endure in the rhetoric and the objectives of the new generation of activists that we have already talked so much about.

C.I.: And when today you say "we," who do you mean by that? Do you still feel that you are Russian? Or a longtime American? Or both?

L.A.: That’s quite a question! The most accurate answer is that I am a sympathizing American in love with Pushkin, Brodsky, Mandelshtam, Bulgakov, Nabokov, Grossman, Tsvetayeva … .

C.I.: The last question is about the Russian-American relationship. And to be more specific, about the controversial “reset” policy. Do you consider this style of policy to be sensible in relation to Russia? Today, many, especially the Republicans, say that the “reset” has failed in practice. What kind of policy, what style, would you choose to build U.S.-Russia relations?

L.A.: As for the “reset,” I must disagree with a number of my colleagues and friends, as I think that the “reset” is quite adequate from the U.S. point of view, if you take a closer look. And the current administration takes credit for it. Mostly, Michael McFaul. He never promised more than he has delivered. The relationship with Russia was being built on the basis of very pragmatic American interests that have very concrete goals: to get Russia’s vote on the U.S. side in the UN Security Council on Iran, to ensure the transfer of ammunition and non-lethal equipment, and NATO troops to Afghanistan, and to raise cooperation on arms control to a new level. Michael never promised a land flowing with milk and honey. These quite-limited goals have been accomplished. It’s interesting that many people in Russia didn’t understand that. Not the prominent analysts who have a sober view of the situation, but a large number of the political elite who, for some reason, decided that we would not only cooperate on arms control, but that we would become friends. At least for some brief period, right? In reality, the U.S. view of Russia is far from sentimental. And I think it doesn’t depend on the Administration — when Republicans come to power, they will act the same way. They view Russia as a petro-state, with all the charms of this category of regimes — frozen, stuck between the present and the Soviet past. When basic values are different, there can be no friendship.

C.I.: Do you think that in fulfilling their goal of human-rights protection, the U.S. pressures the Kremlin enough? Many people understand that Russian activists need international assistance.

L.A.: Yes, here we get back to the difference between something that one wants and something that is possible. I am personally acquainted with Michael McFaul, and I believe him when he says that in private conversations with Kremlin officials he can talk about everything, sometimes even in a harsh tone. Michael is honest, a man of principle, who has, as we say here, integrity. This question is eternal: how to balance our geopolitical interests (Iran, Afghanistan, and so on) with the defense of human rights. In my opinion, the U.S. Administration is being far from indifferent. I receive and read all its protest notes addressed to the Kremlin — those that were issued after the Khodorkovsky trial and other incidents. From the Administration’s point of view, much is being done. On the other hand, from Russian activists’ point of view, it’s insufficient. And in their way, they are right, too. You see, when we (the U.S.) withdraw from Afghanistan and when Iran’s problem is resolved, the Administration’s criticism of the Kremlin may become sharper.

C.I.: Isn’t integrity the same as the decency that you’ve mentioned, remembering Yeltsin?

L.A.: No doubt, this is its component. In relation to politics, integrity is when power is being used to achieve some kind of goals, and not just for its own sake.