Sunday, September 16, 2007

Leon Aron on Liberty in Russia

From AEI's Russian Outlook:
Away from the "Chaos" Myth?

After Yeltsin died this past spring, 25,000 people stood for hours in a very long line on a cold April night to pay their last respects to Russia's first freely elected chief executive--until the body was suddenly whisked away by the authorities for a quick burial after fewer than twenty hours of lying in state. Even more remarkable, given the negative opinions of Yeltsin and his era to which the Russian people had become accustomed, was the tone of the obituaries (mostly on the uncensored Internet sites) that strongly challenged the "chaos" stereotype. Instead of a period of senseless destruction and chaos, emerging from the obituaries, appreciations, and comments was a precious and unique moment in Russian history--a hectic time, marred by ignorance and corruption, but, in the main, an earnest trial-and-error search for modern liberal economic and political arrangements best suited to the national conditions.

Putin's former personal economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, captured the tenor of the reevaluation when he wrote that Yeltsin had "pulled the country out of communism, out of empire and out of its past" and "pushed it forward toward civilization, openness and freedom." In another view, the 1990s have shown that the traditional Russian "feudal mentality" and the worst features of Russian political culture, which many consider immutable--disrespect of laws, the delegation of complete power and responsibility to the supreme leader, the "thousand-year-old corruption" and the notion that authorities of all ranks were there to "feed" off whatever they were appointed to supervise, the servility toward those above, and the violence toward those below--could, at least in principle, be changed. It is possible in Russia to "respect liberty," to tackle "laziness," and to treat other people not "as enemies and scoundrels."

In the 1990s a Russia began to be forged that was not an empire or a monarchy, but a "democratic and civilized country, of which others are not afraid," wrote a former Yeltsin aide. "A country that did not harbor treachery or hostility. A country that is liked in the world. A country in which there could be market economy, competition, freedom of speech."

Yeltsin's death seems to have occasioned a broader public reevaluation as well. Compared to 2000, the percentage of those who thought that the Yeltsin era was overall more negative than positive dropped by almost one-third, from 67 percent to 47 percent, while the share of those remembering the 1990s positively increased by two-fifths from 15 percent to 26 percent. ] Attitudes toward Yeltsin have changed even more decisively: the share of those who say they liked him grew by more than half from 2000-07 (9 percent to 19 percent), while the proportion of those disliking him diminished by more than half from 55 percent to 26 percent.

Most likely these numbers testify to the well-known feature of human memory: only distance can provide a proper notion of scale and meaning for events of such magnitude.

Writing about the American republic almost half a century after its birth, Alexis de Tocqueville noted "a mature and thoughtful taste for freedom." ] The first decade of Russian political and economic liberty brought nothing less than a different order of being to Russia, but hardly made the taste for it mature. The development of such a taste, along with a balanced view of the 1990s untinged by the political needs of a ruling regime, may be a project for decades.