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  • Politics After CommunismWeimar Russia?
  • Galina Starovoitova (bio)

Russia is more than a thousand years old, but today it is also a newly independent state. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, we in Russia have been trying to implement simultaneously three peaceful transitions from a command to a market economy; from Leninism to the institutions of democracy; and from imperial power to membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

During the abortive coup of August 1991, the Russian people fought for the values of democracy, as unarmed men and women faced down tanks in front of the "White House" of our Russian parliament. Since then, Russia has opted for Western-style democracy, with its stress on individual liberty, political pluralism, separation of powers, an independent press, and safeguards for human rights. In the April 1993 referendum the Russian people once again demonstrated their commitment to democracy and a market economy. Despite all the difficulties of the initial period of shock therapy, they gave a clear vote of confidence to President Boris Yeltsin and the continuation of his economic reforms.

Yet in seeking to follow the Western political and economic model, Russia must overcome some especially difficult challenges. First, of course, there are the lingering effects of more than 70 years of totalitarianism (not 40 as in Eastern Europe): as a result of these years, persistent patterns of totalitarian thinking have been deeply impressed upon the minds of three generations of Russians. But Russia must also confront both the legacy of its former imperial role within the Soviet [End Page 106] empire and the great ethnic and cultural diversity that exists within the borders of today's Russian Federation.

The Soviet empire bad some peculiarities that distinguished it from its Western counterparts. First of all, the colonies of this empire were situated not overseas but in neighboring territories, which resulted in a great intermingling of ethnic groups. A second peculiarity is that the metropole had a lower standard of living than some of its colonies.

The breakdown of the Soviet Union has left 25 million Russians living outside Russia. Unfortunately, in some of the new states, they are oppressed; in all of them, they are in the unaccustomed position of being an ethnic minority, having previously lived as representatives of the dominant nation in the empire. This has spawned much uneasiness among them, and our Russian nationalists have made attempts to play this card as part of their political game. They wield an idea well-known from German history—that of the great people which is tragically divided. This poses a great test for our newborn democracy in Russia.

Soon after the failed coup of August 1991, Russia voluntarily recognized the independence of the other former Soviet republics, and refused the role of a "big brother." Yet our neighbors still remain very suspicious about the intentions of the Russian state. Unfortunately, those who harbor suspicions have some reasons for doing so.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's disintegration, there is concern about whether it will be possible to preserve the wholeness and integrity of Russia itself. Russia is one of two states in the world whose territory spans Europe and Asia (Turkey is the other). Though scattered over the vast expanse that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific, the Russian people are culturally oriented toward Europe and the West. It must be kept in mind, however, that there are 126 different peoples living within the borders of the Russian Federation—almost as many as there were in the old Soviet Union. A number of these peoples—for example the Tatars, the Bashkirs, the peoples of the Northern Caucasus, the Kalniks, the Bour'yats, the Tuvans—have traditionally professed Islam or Buddhism, and are oriented toward the great cultures of Asia.

The integrity of any state rests upon two critical pillars: the economic interdependence among its regions and the existence of a common spiritual, cultural, or ideological bond. In today's Russia, both of these pillars are considerably weakened. The absence of efficient domestic transport and communications, along with high freight prices, pushes the outlying regions to seek economic contacts abroad rather than with remote parts of Russia...


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