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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The System Is the Same




Members of an investigative panel decry the ability of go-between "businessmen" to funnel off a stunning percentage of the nation's industrial output for private sale. They complain that such people deliver truckloads of caviar, champagne and other scarce luxury items to local political leaders, allowing bureaucrats to live far above their official salaries. In return, these "traders" are given protection. "Occasionally, a state prosecutor will file a case," they cavil, "but it always will, unaccountably, lie for month after month untouched."


And the subject of such conversations? Potential Duma candidate Boris Berezovsky, accused of channeling more than half a billion dollars from companies like LogoVAZ and Aeroflot through a complicated system of overseas holding companies overseas? Or Sibneft head Roman Abramovich, charged with diverting a large shipment of diesel oil to Lithuania in a 1993 case that has lain unprocessed for the last six years? Actually, the above tales come from a high-level Communist Party Control Commission, discussing problems in Soviet state practices in 1934, just before the greatest purges of the Stalin era.


Frank discussion of government corruption during the early 1930s provides an illuminating comparison to Russia's situation today. Whether during an era of mass arrests and executions or of fast cars and foreign travel, the exploits of the country's power elite have a troubling consistency. Labels have changed, as have profit-making possibilities, but the political system remains much the same.


There was supposed to have been a break in 1991 following the dramatic standoff around the Russian White House, an event that attracted grassroots support in a manner reminiscent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall two years earlier, or the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, where crowds faced down tanks in Wenceslas Square.


The powerful imagery and a heady world-political moment created the impression that an era had ended. It obscured, for a time, the fact that the Communist Party in Russia was never really defeated. It was never opposed in any kind of widespread, organized way. True, most Russians did not endorse the economics of the Brezhnev era, but they also did not openly fight the status quo. Rather, they learned to maneuver "between the lines" of the established system, creating a society in which tacit consent and constant circumvention existed hand-in-hand. Dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Lev Kopelev or Alexander Solzhenitsyn never received the same level of mass support as did their counterparts in other countries ? Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, who succeeded in rallying citizens around the promise of clear-cut change.


Boris Yeltsin tried to claim this rebel role for himself in the late 1980s. Yet he remained a consummate insider, manipulating a renegade posse. His power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev was less about ideology than about territory ? namely, over which entity, Russia or the Soviet Union, would dominate the post-perestroika years. In June 1990, Yeltsin walked out of the 28th Party Congress as television cameras rolled. But his decision to quit the Communist Party came only after his election to the Russian presidency. It was a consequence of his growing power, not a cause.


What does this odd evolution mean? First, that the Soviet Union's transition to democracy was, in a certain sense, too easy. The major reforms of this century ? denazification after WWII, the ending of apartheid, the collapse of the Iron Curtain ? all involved painful re-assessments of the past, rejuggling administrative personnel, and, often, retraining civil servants, particularly in the educational and judicial sectors. In Russia, most members of the nomenklatura either remained in office, or were able to take advantage of those who did to control resources, peddle influence and pull strings. The deception, secrecy, patronage and self-protection that emerged in response to the Stain era's unrealistic production quotas and organized scapegoating are the same practices so decried today, whether in the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers audit of the Central Bank, or in the Swiss-led investigation into alleged Kremlin money laundering.


It is ironic, of course, to complain that too few cadres were purged after 1991. To those familiar with the horrors of the 1930s, 1950s and later, this lack of rolling heads would seem like a good thing. But perhaps a sign of Russia's true break with the Soviet era will be when the country finds a way to hold people accountable without unleashing terror.


Finally, the West must realize that the Russian state's continuity in both personnel and practice has led to stagnation in political dialogue and policy-making. Former Communists control offices and resources, while current Communists comprise the leading opposition group ? a convenient situation in which each side of the looking glass draws strength from the other. Cold War-era fear of a Red resurgence encourages Western countries (and various monied interest groups) to throw resources at the former, in order to defeat the latter. As a result, the Communist opposition has functioned as a type of insurance policy for the Yeltsin regime, protecting it ? as the putative lesser of two evils ? from overly scathing criticism, overly zealous corruption inquiries and an overly unsettling fiscal overhaul.


European and American governments need to accept the risk of unscripted political change in Russia. Rather than backing those candidates that pay lip service to pro-Western policies, they need to insist on transparency and legality, irrespective of political label.


Cynthia Hooper, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, is in Moscow on an International Research and Exchange Fellowship. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.