by Jo Freeman
Russia's Revolution: Essays, 1989-2006
by Leon Aron
Published by the American Enterprise Institute
©2007, 374 pages
Russia's Revolution is a collection of essays written over 28 years which provide contemporaneous (at that time) commentary on Russia's efforts to shed its Communist past and join the capitalist and democratic Western mainstream.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington DC, which published this volume. Aron came to the US as a refugee 30 years ago when he was 24 and has made his career as a commentator on Soviet and Russian affairs. Although he is now an American citizen, his heart is still in Russia, or at least with the Russian people, whom he views as long-suffering and deserving of a better future than their past.
No fan of the Soviet Union, he does put that regime's rule into the context of four centuries of Russian "patrimonialism" in which political authority meant control of the economy and ownership of property. Nonetheless, "Soviet totalitarianism created the most venal Russia that ever existed." One in which "thievery and bribery were universal."
This left a barren field for the seeds of democracy and capitalism because "the Communist regime delivered to its successor not citizens but wards of the state" who complied with the laws only when forced to do so.
After the 1991 revolution, Russia became what he calls a "poor democracy," one of many in the post- Cold War era. They have the basic attributes of democratic government — elections, enough political liberty to criticize the government and organize an opposition, and newspapers free of government censorship. But they also have deficits in their civic culture and low per capita GDPs.
In poor democracies the separation of political and economic power is vestigial and experience at self rule is embryonic. These plus poverty foster a culture of corruption. Aron acknowledges that corruption is not absent in the West, or from Western history, but observes that it is not embedded in governmental institutions as it is in the poor democracies.
Aron admires Yeltsin, whom he portrayed as a true revolutionary in his 2000 biography (Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life) but not Putin, whom he sees as the restorer of the authoritarian state. In a 1999 chapter he writes that "Yeltsin's is the most open and liberal regime in the country's history," whose policies "are beneficial for the United States and its allies."
One of Yeltsin's quasi successes was changing the very nature of the criminal justice system, from "all-powerful prosecutors, timid and
demoralized judges, decrepit courts, no trial by jury, and a conviction rate of over 99 percent" to one in which Russians sued the government and sometimes won, and in which "a Russian environmentalist [was] acquitted of charges of espionage brought ... by the heir to the KGB" — an historical first.
From the "creative chaos of the revolution" also emerged a middle class, though the lack of good economic and survey data make it hard to identify. It has grown in fits and starts, as the country met various economic crises. Within this group "income and prestige... were redistributed away from professionals serving the state to those needed by individuals and private business." Consequently "the younger one is in Russia today (2000), the more educated and the closer to a large metropolis, the better one lives."
Like most poor democracies and all post-revolutionary governments, Russia has had trouble collecting taxes. Much income is "off the books" and hidden. A long delayed shift in the economy from manufacturing to services facilitated keeping wealth "under the radar." It was encouraged by the fact that full payment of all taxes would exceed the income of most businesses.
Although quite critical of how the newly born market economy is "linked to the state by myriad crooked ‘deals'," Aron also believes that the "YUKOS affair" — in which the CEO of Russian's largest private oil company was arrested, tried and convicted and the company dismantled — is a "scapegoat for the misdeeds of the 1990s." Despite its troubling origins, YUKOS was the "first Russian megafirm to switch to international accounting standards" and "the most transparent of Russia's largest industrial corporations." Aron argues that CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was punished by the regime for daring to challenge Putin in the political arena.
He concludes by describing the many ways in which Putin is recentralizing the government: choosing the 89 regional governors himself and then having them choose the members of the upper chamber of the parliament, changing direct election of the Duma (lower chamber) by the voters to a strict party list system and curbing judicial independence.
Yet, despite these concerns Aron remains hopeful that "the vertical of power" that Putin espouses will not prevail. While he thinks that things may get worse before they get better, in the end he says that "having defended their right to be treated as free and thinking people, the Russians never surrendered it to a new tyranny" and never will.