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  • What Went Wrong in Russia?The Haunting Presence of Marxism-Leninism
  • Martin Malia (bio)

After less than a decade, post-Soviet Russia finds itself in a crisis many would consider as grave as the one that destroyed Communism. The country’s only post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, largely incapacitated since his reelection in 1996, is clearly at the end of his active reign, and the government’s functioning is already hostage to the struggle to succeed him. Nonpayment of taxes and of wages has long been chronic. And now the country has, in effect, defaulted on its debt. Credit has dried up, the banking system has collapsed, and the ruble is again headed toward uncontrolled inflation. Most serious of all, the population feels that the “liberal experiment” of the Yeltsin years has ended in failure, that the sacrifices it imposed were in vain, and that the principal result of “reform” was to turn the country over to thieves, cynics, criminals, and mafiosi. Foreign observers and governments increasingly subscribe to a similarly negative view of Russia’s once hailed “transition to the market and to democracy.”

How can this strange and troubling outcome be explained? When the liberal experiment began, no one, either in Russia or in the West, anticipated anything quite like such an impasse, including those most pessimistic about, or even hostile to, its policies. So no one is now confidently proposing solutions to such a perplexing and intractable dilemma. The IMF is dispensing no more funds to Moscow, and the Clinton administration has fallen silent about the Kremlin reformers it [End Page 41] once praised. At best, we now hear only expressions of disappointment; more often, we are regaled with recriminations about who was responsible for the disaster; increasingly, we are fed prophecies of still worse to come, from “Weimar Russia” to national disintegration. The dominant note, however, is one of bewilderment: How can it be that, after the clear bankruptcy of Soviet Communism, liberal policies that historically have brought prosperity and democracy elsewhere should have produced such paltry, even negative, results in Russia?

“Optimists” and “Pessimists”

The debate about Russia under Communism was always a passionate affair. It seems that Russia after Communism can kindle comparable emotions, as the articles by Michael McFaul and by Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski attest. Respectively, they offer updated versions of what for the past decade have been called the “optimistic” and the “pessimistic” assessments of postcommunist Russia.

McFaul is obliged by harsh reality to be distinctly less sanguine than in his earlier assessments. Nonetheless, he successfully defends three important points. First, at the start of the liberal experiment there indeed existed a genuine committment to market democracy on the part both of Yeltsin himself and his “young reformers”—as anyone who was in Moscow at the brief, hopeful moment of the exit from Communism can attest. This point bears emphasis, since the subsequent mistakes, compromises, backtracking, and peculation of the “party of power” have obscured it to the point where Russia’s experiment with democracy is now routinely dismissed as a cynical cover for self-advancement. McFaul’s second point is to explain the reformers’ mixed record by emphasizing that from the outset, unlike in Eastern Europe, in Russia there was no consensus among elites about the need for either the market or democracy. Instead, until 1993 the country experienced a quasi-civil war over these two issues; even after that date, the underlying division remained. Nevertheless, and this is McFaul’s third point, stalemate has produced tolerably democratic rules for the succession struggle, since all factions “now realize that the costs of overturning Russia’s current imperfect democracy through nondemocratic means would be much greater than the costs of participating in an imperfect democracy.” To this must be added that freedom of speech and association are now so genuinely appreciated by the population that any future government would be hard put to rescind them. No doubt, this is hardly a stunning balance sheet for almost a decade’s effort, but neither is it the total failure that the pessimists proclaim.

The pessimists have, for some time, been in the majority.1 Reddaway and Glinski, however, give an extreme, prosecutorial...

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