20 years under Putin: a timeline

While the advantages of the Western path of development over the Eastern one are evident, for many centuries Russia has been unable to make a definitive choice. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the Western model is the only way for the country to avoid ruin and degradation.



"Whatever you do, make westing, make westing!"1 So, according to a Jack London short story, read the sailing directions for Cape Horn. The wind of change, however, has always been pushing Russia eastward, just like with that unfortunate schooner. Many centuries of Russian history have been marked by the struggle of choosing between the West and the East. First the Mongols, having passed Moscow and Kiev, reached Krakow and Zagreb; then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended its borders as far as today's Mozhaisk district in the Moscow region. Russia has always been in the middle, sometimes looking in one direction, and sometimes in another.  Some Czars, such as Ivan the Terrible, conquered in the East; others, like Peter the Great, turned to the West. This persistent duality and historical uncertainty have remained until now.

When the times are cruel and repressive in Russia, the country starts gravitating toward the East. When the wind of freedom begins to blow, Russia turns to the West. Unfortunately, the periods of repression and lawlessness in Russia last far longer than periods of relative freedom.  The Eastern trend of the country's policy is consequently far more stable than the Western one.

Society also follows the historical pattern. Intellectuals—that tiny part of society, which is concerned, at least a little, about Russia's future—are traditionally divided into Pochvenniki2 and Westernizers. This division remained even in those sad Soviet times, when both the former and the latter were sent to prisons and labor camps for expressing their views. Their debates went on even there.

Nowadays, while the Eastern trend is getting stronger, expressing one's Westernizer sympathies is, if not risky, then at least unpopular. The government’s anti-Western propaganda is a factor that politicians who seek approval cannot ignore. They express their support for the values of Western democracy and liberalism shyly and cautiously. In government circles, talking about this is considered improper; within the opposition, it is considered awkward. The liberal opposition is—by its own choice—being propped up by two anti-Western forces, nationalists and leftists. Both of these groups consider the West an abode of evil that is the source of all the world's, and, therefore, Russia’s troubles.

Nowadays, while the Eastern trend is getting stronger, expressing one's Westernizer sympathies is, if not risky, then at least unpopular.

An open orientation toward the West is espoused only by marginal politicians in a marginal sphere—that is, by those who have a hard time finding their rightful place even within the non-systemic opposition.3 This does not mean that the West is damned in Russia once and for all. Quite the opposite: for all the rhetoric and propaganda, everyone understands that, after all, it is still better to keep money, own property, receive medical treatment and educate one's children in the West. Ardent patriots and flag-waving nationalists, grey-haired statists and young Putinists, staunch anti-Americanists and Eastern-oriented politicians, all secretly settle their affairs in the West—without feeling embarrassed by simultaneously accusing it of being rotten. If for Russia, the West is a symbol of what not to be, it is not so for them. For them, it is all right; they will be able to resist its temptations!

Secrets do not come to light as often as we would like, but once in a while we learn the truth: one politician owns an apartment in Miami; another, a small house in Nice; yet another, a business in Germany; and yet another has Israeli citizenship. When this happens, important officials and smart lawmakers have to justify themselves and sometimes even leave the comfort zones that were dearly paid for. At the same time, their guilt consists only in the fact that they have been cursing the West while enjoying its advantages.

In a sense, things are easier for the opposition. It does not hold power, and, consequently, not much is required of it.  It is no surprise, then, that a direct call to turn to the West came from the opposition. The recently founded Western Choice party proclaims the ideals of freedom, private property, the rule of law, humanism, free will, equality, self-government and free expression as its most important values. However, attractive principles are part of many parties' programs, but this does not necessarily mean that they reflect their everyday political position. When it comes to the real choice, their adherence to declared principles very often vanishes into thin air. According to experienced political players, what is good for programs cannot always be used in real life.

Maybe the real Western choice, if it were ever made by anyone, would consist in exactly that:  in responsibility, concern about one's reputation, and commitment to one's obligations. This is what makes Russian politics so different from Western politics, even though, in this respect, the West itself is far from being ideal. But it would take us decades and decades, if not centuries, to reach Western standards.


For all their differences, Russia's leading liberal parties of the late 1990s–early 2000s, the Union of Rightist Forces (URF) and Yabloko, were both dedicated to the country's European choice (on the left is URF leader Boris Nemtsov; on the right is Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky).


The understanding that there is a mental gap between us and the West generates Utopian ideas: either a concept of Russia's special historical path or some plan of ideological convergence. These ideas remind one of an attempt to deceive both the conductor and the passengers by riding a tram without paying. To reach one’s destination, one has to honestly pay for the ticket, no matter the cost. Otherwise, once again, nothing will come of it; one will be asked to get out of the tram.

The Western type of social structure is not an ideal one, but it has one valuable quality, which is why it is so optimal today—unlike others, it provides the possibility of change without social upheavals and bloodshed. Critics of the West solemnly point out the errors of Western politics and the imperfection of the Western system. While many of these accusations are groundless, there is truth in some of them. The Western choice, however, does not imply blindly copying the Western political system (especially considering that it varies from one country to another), but in adopting and transferring to Russia the best values of Western democracy and its principal instruments for solving social problems.

The Western choice would consign to political oblivion those intellectually deficient, greedy and aggressive politicians who can only survive in an authoritarian system.

Among these instruments are: a Parliament that is able to legislate in the interests of the citizens who had elected it; a court system that is independent of the executive and capable of resolving conflicts on the basis of the law; a press that is free from government dictate and able to provide good-quality news and analysis; and fair and transparent elections that give power to those who are in fact elected by the people. The toolbox of democracy is diverse, and is not limited to the foregoing. Apart from Parliament, courts, the press, and fair elections, there are numerous other mechanisms that guarantee the preservation of civil liberties and human rights. All of these mechanisms constitute a Western choice that would consign to political oblivion those intellectually deficient, obsequious, greedy and aggressive politicians who can only survive in an authoritarian system. A good illustration of such people is the current composition of the State Duma. One sensible look at Russia's history of the past twenty years is enough to realize that the Western choice is the only possible way to save Russia from ruin, disintegration, and degradation.

Sometimes, however, one feels an urge to call on the West itself to follow the Western choice. In recent years, especially in Europe, one sees a socialist trend and the strengthening of the government’s role in all spheres of public life.  At times, there is legislation that encroaches on free speech, and on occasion, the European Union's bureaucratic practices remind one of the Soviet Union's bureaucratic system at its worst. It is no coincidence that some Eurosceptics joke that it takes only one step to go from the Soviet Union to the European Union.  However, all the drawbacks of Western democracy pale in comparison to its Eastern alternative—despotic regimes with an authoritarian government.

Unfortunately, Russia cannot, at the moment, decide on turning either to the West or to the East.   The right to choose was taken away from society. A small group of political scoundrels, who usurped power in the country, now decide Russia's path on behalf of society, and their choice is evident. It is possible that opposition efforts will succeed, and the right to choose will be restored to Russia’s citizens. At that moment, it will be very important not to make a wrong choice.


1 In the Jack London story, this was an instruction to sail towards the West even in the face of strong Easterly winds.

2 The word “Pochvenniki” was derived from the Russian word "pochva," meaning "soil." Pochvenniki were 19th century thinkers, who believed that Russia needed to follow its own path, rather than adopting Western models of life.

3 In Russia, opposition parties in Parliament that are effectively controlled by the Kremlin are referred to as the “systemic” opposition, meaning that they are, in fact, a part of the ruling system.  Genuine opposition groups are referred to as the “non-systemic” opposition.