In 'Aunt Lena's School'

Ambitious aid packages notwithstanding, Western elites always knew deep inside that Russia's future ultimately rested on the Russians themselves and on their willingness to truly embark on democratic and market-economy reforms. In the aftermath of a crucial referendum that confirmed the political maturity of the Russian people, can Western leaders still subscribe to the assumption so often expressed by cynics, experts and realists alike that it will take generations for Russia to emerge from its totalitarian mold, to rid itself of "homo sovieticus" and his reflexes, not to mention surmounting its imperial legacy or even coping with its immense geography?

Russia's difficulties are more than real. One glance at Russia's time zones, and even the most cursory view of Moscow's urban decay or of its dilapidated and primitive countryside, seem to confirm the validity of these somber predictions. Yet despite the immensity of the tasks ahead, there is reason to believe beyond the referendum itself that a new Russia may emerge far more rapidly than generally expected.

For "homo post-sovieticus" already exists. We have met him in the context of a new Moscow School for Political Studies that brought together in an informal "young leaders seminar" elected officials from all levels of Russian political life, from provincial municipalities to the parliamentarians of the Supreme Soviet, as well as a new generation of Russian bankers and entrepreneurs. Conceived in one of the dissident "kitchens" of the 1980s, this School, founded by an energetic and charismatic private citizen, Lena Nemirovskaya, is now funded by the Council of Europe, with additional contributions from Britain and France.

The Russian "students" chosen for the first seminar came from all parts of Russia, from Siberia and the Urals, from St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad as well as from Moscow and its environs, and were therefore truly representative of the new elites that emerged from a combination of perestroika, glasnost and Yeltsin's post-putsch stand of August 1991. Their essential common characteristic: youth, which confirmed that Russia was indeed traversing a revolutionary epoch. Like the generals of the French Revolution, these new Russians in positions of great responsibility were in their mid- to late 20s and early 30s. More than 70 years of Soviet rule seemed to have left no trace on their fresh and dynamic outlook.

Too young to have even participated in the Afghan War, they bore none of the Soviet stodgy and bureaucratic characteristics, and were amazingly bereft of any ideological constraints or passivity. They went about their respective "businesses" (whether privatization, banking, industrial reconversion, political representation, or municipal organization) with the single-mindedness and workaholic attitude one generally associates with Western "yuppies". Perhaps more important, they discussed among themselves Russia's titanic problems with a spirit of openess, compromise and tolerance for dissenting opinions which was quite unexpected. Democracy may not yet exist in Russia, but democratic dialogue is certainly a living practice among these new elites who will be in their fifties only in 2020.

After the straitjacket of Soviet "democratic centralism", where all power relations were rigorously compartmentalized along vertical lines, it was comforting to witness that these young men and women eagerly sought new horizontal links both in the political life of the state as well as among Russia's increasingly decentralized regions. For them, the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament was simply one sign of the far wider issue of legality versus legitimacy. It is an issue they had to confront every day in their professional lives as they tried to dismantle the bureaucracy of the old state while building a new political order and economic system. While many still supported Yeltsin, they also felt very strongly that the Russian parliament's strength had to be preserved as a vital piece of a balanced political system.

At a time when Russia has gone from the extreme of too much of an oppressive state to too little of a legitimate state, at a time when many Russians choose to pursue their individualistic interest with very little civic sense or idea of the collective good, often optimistic about their future but indifferent to their country's needs, it is more than comforting to realize that there are concerned and responsible new elites "out there" that have already emerged and whose primary purpose is to think of the commonweal.

It is essential that the West recognize and nurture these new elites scattered throughout the vast continent, for they are Russia's best hope and our best long-term investment.

Far from the spectacular and costly projects the West prepares for Russia, and which often never reach their intended destination, while reinforcing instead a sense of national humiliation, "Aunt Lena's kitchen school" of democracy, as it is lovingly referred to by its Western supporters, is a model of idealistic efficiency.

What Russia needs today and tomorrow is a multitude of such concrete and well-targeted initiatives, of solidarity networks through which Western specialists can share their political, economic and technical experiences at the grassroots level - whether in Altai, Novosibirsk or Yekaterinburg - with those who are already building Russia's future. For, paradoxically, in such an immense continent only "small is beautiful".

Dominique Moisi is deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations and editor in chief of Politique Etrangere. Diana Pinto, historian and writer, is a former editor in chief of the pan-European review Belvedere.