THE GREAT YELTSIN THEORY
Making the Case for a Russia Transformed
Feb 10, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 21 • By DAVID AIKMAN
For scores of Russia specialists and international-relations experts on campuses across the United States, the collapse of communism was not entirely a cause for celebration. The need to understand Soviet behavior, and the Russian character, had created thousands of professorships from San Diego to Maine. And as long as the Soviet Union was in place, there were innumerable occasions for innumerable grants to peer into the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The result was about four decades of Kremlinology that all too often treated Russians as a scarcely human species, an offshoot of homo sapiens distorted by the gene of totalitarianism. Whenever the Soviet Union was relatively stable -- from, say, 1968 to 1985 -- Kremlinology was sometimes useful for determining who exactly was up and who was down in the party hierarchy, and which particular policies were in or out of favor. But Kremlinology proved itself utterly inadequate at grasping major cultural or sociological changes that changed the political nature of Russia far more than purges at the top.
Despite that failure, the Kremlinologists are still with us, and their thinking continues to dominate American writing about post-Communist Russia. If you read academic journals and the mainstream reporting that is affected by them, you might get the idea that nothing has really changed in Russia. Oh, the Soviet Union is gone and the gulag is no more. But isn't their nationalism still a bit mystical, and don't they all really long for the good old days of guaranteed jobs, triumphs in space, and great ballet at the Bolshoi?
No, they don't. It is the primary contention of Dmitry Mikheyev's brilliantly argued and at times dazzlingly insightful Russia Transformed that Russia and Russians really have changed character. Russians may not yet be Rotarians or Shriners, but they have unequivocally decided that political democracy is infinitely preferable to authoritarianism, that the free market is a better system for creating and distributing wealth than state socialism, and that integrating the Russian national culture into the global culture is a wiser course than Slavophilic isolation.
Russia's ideological transformation was three decades in the making, beginning in 1956 with the Khrushchevite thaw and culminating in 1986 with the emergence of glasnost. The theoretical underpinnings of totalitarianism were washed away by the tide of heterodox ideas penetrating the country through radio, samizdat, and tourism. And those heterodox ideas have been absorbed not just by intellectuals but by most Russians.
Political change followed swiftly when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a small but ultimately decisive smidgen of electoral freedom leading up to the vote for the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989. That dollop of democracy became the decisive ingredient in Boris Yeltsin's emergence as a major democratic leader and Russia's declaration of sovereignty within the Soviet Union in 1990.
Economic change came about in 1992, when price controls were relaxed on 90 percent of Russian consumer prices and privatization of the entire state economy was set in motion. Despite Russia's shaky economic foundation, Mikheyev argues, the country is now a net exporter of grain, its food supply is better than ever, and economic life for the average Russian is better than at any time in Russian history. "In 1996," Mikheyev writes, "Russia is an urbanized, industrialized, relatively homogeneous . . . secular, presidential republic, run by a technocratic elite, with private ownership and the free market, a free press and parliamentarism."
The principal explanation for this achievement, Mikheyev argues, is that at every pivotal moment, Boris Yeltsin stood in the forefront, unequivocally representing the emerging new culture rather than the old world of the nomenklatura. In the past ten years, Yeltsin has played a central (or the central) role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the growth of Russian democracy, and the end of the Soviet empire. Mikheyev suggests Yeltsin will be the only leading figure of the anti-Communist revolution in Europe whom history will judge "both a hero and a great man."