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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy's Heartbreak

Lenin once wrote a work entitled "Will the Bolsheviks Hold on to Power?" which seems to have some bearing today.


I studied the work like all students in the Soviet period, especially those in the humanities, although naturally I don't remember what it was about. But his question remains on my mind, as it has stayed on the minds of millions of my compatriots who were also subjected to endless citations of various leaders -- above all, Lenin.


The question today, however, is no longer about a "locomotive" that is rolling either backward to the commune or advancing to an alluring distant stage of universal prosperity. Nor is it a choice between the old and the new -- of democracy, such as it is, and the dangers that lie in its path. Among the most pressing questions today is the nature of power, the way it is attained and the methods of keeping it.


For some time now, the very word "democracy" has provoked in me exactly the same feeling of heartburn that "socialism" once did. And this is not because it is on the lips of everyone who has ever learned to pronounce the word -- from ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky to Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, from the Black Shirts of Pamyat to the racketeers of the Solntsevo gang. And not because many public officials today pronounce the word "democracy" with the same pious sigh that they once reserved for the phrase "inevitable socialism."


And, of course, not because I have personally lost faith in what I have dreamed of and hoped for: that we would have a choice some day of more than one political party, that we would write without fear of the censor's scissors, that we would be able to cross the borders of our own homeland without having to debase ourselves by passing through innumerable regional Communist Party commissions, and so on and so forth.


I won't enumerate everything that has come about in the new existing conditions, without which, it seems, life today could hardly be called life, nor will I forget that just yesterday such realities could only be dreamed of.


But why is it that adding the word "democrat" to President Boris Yeltsin is like ascribing the word "communist" to Zyuganov? Why must I defend, even to my closest friends, my support of the Yabloko bloc, which does not tie the development of democracy to any one person? Why must I rush headlong toward a single personality with the eternal cry of "Long Live -- !" Why do I still have the nagging feeling that we were presented with practically no choice in the elections?


And yet I was moved by a sense of obligation to go to the polls, not in support of Yeltsin -- and even less so of Zyuganov -- but for the sake of elections themselves, that democratic institution in the absence of which one could no longer even hint at democracy.


I remember how during the dawn of perestroika every step in the direction of a normal life brought about hope. We could now read what we wished. And say whatever we pleased. We could go to demonstrations -- and not only during May and November holidays. We could go to the American Embassy and visit friends abroad. Finally, we could do what we wanted and receive as much as we were capable of receiving, without fear that society would fall back into a state of equality of poverty.


How happy were those days and months and how quickly they ended.


And today, the decades-long dream of millions of people that their votes would count for something and that they would not be mere cards in a political poker game has been shattered.


Just as you have begun to get accustomed to a normal and colorful life, you are drawn back into one with two shades of gray. You have been tormented your entire life by the teachings of various leaders and their infallible judgments, and now you find that you are called on to personify democracy in a single candidate, the way socialism and communism were personified. Now that you have begun to feel that your words and deeds could contribute to the creation of a democracy, you discover that you are used like a pawn in the fight against communists by people who value only power.


They value not the power of the law or the constitution but the power of one person or group of people over others.


I have not seen any sign in the country of what is most essential to the development of democracy -- that those in authority are also subject to the law.


Again, as under Brezhnev, newspaper editors are printing complaints from people who have been unable to obtain justice from the law and are counting on the papers' influence with the authorities to help solve their problems. Again, the courts are making decisions not according to their consciences but to calls from higher authorities.


Perhaps the most essential difference between what we dreamed of and what we have achieved is the following: Instead of moving toward a system in which elected leaders serve the people, we have a leadership that is chosen to serve itself.


I remember another telling incident during the perestroika period. I brought a rather well-known Italian journalist to visit a Moscow school. For the schoolchildren this was all quite new -- a living, Western journalist appeared before the class for questions and answers. Among the most pointed questions from the students was: "Have you already built democracy in Italy?" My Italian friend answered, "Democracy is something that we build every day."


I hope very much that this "every day" will still continue in Russia.





Yury Shchekochikhin is head of the investigations department at Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.