[First published in the December 2006 issue of commentarymagazine.com, reprinted with permission].
Is Russia Going Backward? That was the question posed by the title of an article that I completed in late August 2004 and published in the October 2004 COMMENTARY. My qualified answer was no. Having supported Russia’s democratic, free-market revolution at every critical juncture during more than a decade of upheaval—from the election of Boris Yeltsin as president of what was still Soviet Russia in June 1991 and the rejection of the hard-line coup two months later, to the referendum in March 1993, Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and the toppling of the Communist-led plurality in the Duma in 1999—the Russian people, I argued, were not turning their backs on the reforms they had stoically sustained. They were simply ready at last for the new Russian state to be strong enough to help them.
The answer to their wishes was Vladimir Putin (as well as skyrocketing oil revenues). Putin, who became President of Russia in 2000, seemed to embody the hope of combining liberty and order, democracy and prosperity. Young, athletic, hard-working, intelligent, reportedly a teetotaler, he was the opposite in many respects of the by-then exhausted, very sick, and sometimes embarrassingly incoherent Yeltsin. With an astute politician’s sense for his country’s mood, Putin appeared to grasp the duality of its mandate to him. While deploring the things that most Russians detested about the 1990’s—the vulgarity and corruption of the newly enriched “oligarchs,” the arbitrariness of provincial governors, the erosion of law and order, and the delays in the payment of salaries and pensions to millions of current and retired state employees—he also recognized the achievements of the post-Soviet era. In his annual “state-of-Russia” addresses to the Duma and the nation, he extolled the virtues of democracy, the free market, and private initiative.
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