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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A State of Contradiction

Four years after the August revolution that brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, Russia is approaching parliamentary -- and, soon afterward, presidential -- elections at a time when exhaustion, cynicism and impoverishment seem to be competing with a growing civil society, political stabilization and prosperity. Indeed, the picture is so contradictory that informed prediction is next to impossible.

Cynicism toward anything having to do with government runs so deep that even a reasonable precaution like checkpoints and roadblocks to guard against terrorist attacks after the bloody hostage-taking in Budyonnovsk, was greeted with suspicion. Some commentators suggested that the real reason paratroopers were deployed was to intimidate parliament as it contemplated sacking the current government and impeaching President Boris Yeltsin.

Perhaps even more remarkable for a city anticipating a terrorist attack -- and with many of its young still pinned down in Chechnya -- was that a majority of Muscovites considered the actions of the terrorists who had seized the town of Budyonnovsk "understandable," according to an informal poll conducted by a popular radio station. Referring to the poll results, Emil Pain, one of Yeltsin's more liberal and farsighted advisers on problems of ethnicity and nationalism, exclaimed: "Just imagine such a response from the Israeli public in the wake of a terrorist attack in some settlement!"

In Pain's opinion, Russians still do not perceive themselves as a unified national community and feel distant and alienated from their state. As a result, for many, the war in the Caucasus was, if not exactly unjust, then unjustified. Russia's largely independent media made it easier for Muscovites to identify with the suffering of the Chechens than with the reason the government invaded. Those who see in Russian society a trend toward a more aggressive nationalism will do well to examine these public attitudes toward the war in Chechnya.

An overabundance of conspiracy theories points to another contradiction: Such theories impute to the government a far higher degree of intelligence than warranted by its performance. Take the attempt by federal law enforcement to prosecute the producers of the political satire "Kukly" on NTV for portraying Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as itinerant beggars. Even some sober minds believed this action was calculated not to intimidate NTV but to arouse public sympathy for the liberal media. A far more likely scenario is that the prosecutor -- in the words of the now popular aphorism attributed to Chernomyrdin -- "wished to do a better job but ended up with the same old junk."

The political culture of Russia, along with the economic calculus, does not encourage politicians or government officials to submit their resignations when their policies fail or become unpopular. So it was an unusual day, indeed -- and a happy one for those who would like Russian politics to be more Western -- when two of the three "power ministers" were allowed to quit in the wake of the Budyonnovsk events.

But that attitude changed to chagrin as soon as Yeltsin appointed the loyal commander of the Government Security Service as head of the Foreign Counterintelligence Service. Yeltsin may simply be consolidating his power. Yet, by appointing a man so clearly unqualified to run such a complex agency, the Russian president may have only weakened himself.

Still, nowhere do the contradictions of pre-election Russia manifest themselves more than in the country's system -- or better, pile -- of tax laws. For a company or individual to operate strictly by the book would mean surrendering virtually all profits and going out of business. Add to the tax situation the proliferation of organized crime and corrupt officials who collect their own "taxes" -- and the climate for business would seem lethal.

Yet, one need not be an economics expert to see that Moscow is a real boom town. With only 40 percent of individual income derived from salaries -- 15 percent less than a year ago -- it appears that small businesses are proliferating at unprecedented rates. Conclusion: Tax evasion is universal.

"The people are honest; it's the tax laws that are crooked," said Alexander Yakovlev, a veteran of perestroika and still an influential force in politics. "I once asked Chernomyrdin," Yakovlev said, "when I receive a speaking fee abroad, why should I pay more than 80 percent in taxes to the state? The state did not buy me a ticket. It did not pay me a salary to write my lectures and books."

Chernomyrdin was incredulous, Yakovlev reported. At that point, the First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets walked into the room. "Is it true what Alexander Yakovlevich has been telling me?" asked Chernomyrdin. Soskovets, according to Yakovlev, blushed and answered in the affirmative. "Chernomyrdin and his party cannot go into the elections with these crazy tax laws -- they will change," predicted Yakovlev.

Debates about taxation, parliamentary elections, the give-and-take between the government and the press, a skeptical public, uncensored education, opportunity and a thriving business culture are the achievements the people who made the revolution four years ago hoped to see only in the distant future. Crime, deteriorating social services, deep poverty, government corruption, the fragility of the new democratic institutions and the ease with which the state resorts to force are on the other side of the scale. The elections in December will show which weighs heavier.

Gregory Freidin, chairman of the Slavic department at Stanford University, is co-author of "Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August 1991 Coup." He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.