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Russias past is no sign of its future - FT.

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8/28/11 2:53 PM

August 25, 2011 7:32 pm

Russias past is no sign of its future


By John Thornhill

Russians sometimes say it is impossible to predict anything in their country even the past.
The heroes of one era are airbrushed from the next. The brave advances of one leader are
denounced by his successors as hare-brained schemes. It is often difficult, as Boris Pasternak
once wrote, to distinguish victories from defeats.
This constantly shifting historical kaleidoscope applies to the failed hardline Communist
party putsch of August 1991 that rapidly led to the unravelling of the Soviet Union a few
months later. Over the past 20 years, those shattering events which led to the
disintegration of an empire, an economy, an ideology and a political regime have caused
ceaseless controversy. They have been variously interpreted, and endlessly reinterpreted,
within Russia as a cause for celebration, despair, anger, disillusion or shame.
To some Russians, most notably Boris Yeltsin, Russias first post-communist leader, the
implosion of the Soviet Union was a liberation, for the peoples of Russia as much as for those
of the other 14 countries to emerge from the rubble of the Soviet empire. The collapse of 74
years of Communist party rule cleared the way for a freer society, economy and political
system to emerge as well as entrench Yeltsin in power.
But his successor, Vladimir Putin, more moulded by a KGB view of the world, drew a
different conclusion from those events and the chaos that ensued. According to him, the
implosion of Soviet power was the greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the 20th century
leaving Russia as the humiliated and impoverished rump of a superpower that had once
stared eyeball to eyeball with the US. No wonder his presidency was so concerned with reestablishing the Kremlins power and reasserting Russias sphere of influence abroad.
Russias current president, the 45-year-old Dmitry Medvedev, appears to have a more
nuanced evaluation of 1991. In an interview with the Financial Times in June, he rejected Mr
Putins assessment, saying the post-revolutionary civil war of 1917-23 and the second world
war, which between them killed tens of millions of people, had been far worse disasters for
Russia.
Mr Medvedev went on to describe his generation as the happiest in the nation because it
had experienced the shortages of the Soviet times yet had been young enough to benefit from
the opportunities of the post-communist era. I am very glad that I have lived in these two
epochs, he said. I believe that everything that has taken place is indisputable progress for
the country and the people.

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Russias past is no sign of its future - FT.com

8/28/11 2:53 PM

A far simpler narrative developed in the west about the Soviet collapse. For most, the
disappearance of the evil empire was an unqualified blessing, reducing the dangers of the
world ending in a nuclear conflagration and offering the lure of a peace dividend.
Yet the collapse of the USs main ideological rival created aftershocks. It encouraged the end
of history triumphalism that argued that free markets and liberal democracy were the
endpoints of mans political and economic evolution. Such ideological hubris contributed to
the market fundamentalism that led to financial nemesis in 2008.
Western historians have also begun to reinterpret 1991. One of the most interesting has been
Stephen Kotkin, who argued in Armageddon Averted that the Soviet collapse did not end in
1991 but continued throughout the decade, disrupting and discrediting reform.
Some of the institutions of the dead Soviet state carried on twitching for years, frustrating
Yeltsins fitful attempts to create anything approximating a free market economy or a
democracy. The vast Soviet military industrial complex, built with a perverse disregard for
any kind of industrial logic, also proved a massive burden on the economy.
Given this scale of political, economic and social dislocation, Prof Kotkin argues, it is
staggering that the mayhem of 1990s Russia tumultuous as it seemed at the time was
not infinitely worse. Armageddon truly was averted. Yet it is not only the consequences of
1991 that have provoked controversy; its causes remain much debated too. One puzzling
aspect of the Soviet collapse was why it was not more widely predicted before the event,
given that it seemed so inevitable with hindsight.
As a postgraduate student of Soviet politics, I remember attending a conference in London in
1986 that included many leading Kremlinologists. One participant asked whether the Soviet
Union would collapse in our lifetimes. I still recall the guffaws of incredulity: the Communist
party was too cohesive; the KGBs grip was too strong; the Soviet peoples were too passive.
As George Kennan, the veteran US diplomat, wrote in 1995: I find it hard to think of any
event more strange and startling, and at first glance more inexplicable, than the sudden and
total disintegration and disappearance from the international scene of the great power
known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
Our consistent failure to predict events in Russia should teach us more humility when it
comes to imagining the countrys future. It is wildly dangerous to assume that Russias future
will simply be an extrapolation of its present.
In the early 1990s it was common to hear Russians lament that their country would need 40
years in the wilderness before it shed its Soviet slave mentality. We are only half way
through that journey. Who knows how the country will evolve?
Not only the past is unpredictable.
The author is a former FT Moscow bureau chief

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