Why you should care

As Russia moves into a new era, it’s time to decipher the mystery inside the enigma.

Understanding Russia has always been challenging, which is why the modern era’s most famous statesman, Winston Churchill, grumbled that the country was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” But this is a moment that compels us to think about this ancient land, especially in light of its recent engagement with the United States on Syria.

To comprehend today’s Russia, it is important to understand what this complex, multiethnic country spanning 11 time zones has been through in recent years. Looking at its post-czarist history, it’s possible to sketch out five eras tracing its metamorphosis into the Russia we currently face.

The first four are easy to name; the shape of the final one – the current one – is up for grabs.

Communist Soviet Union

First, of course, is the communist era from 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Little need be said about this period, familiar to us as the period of alliance with Russia in WWII and the Cold War that followed.

Mikhail Gorbachev, deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet, waves to the crowd while visiting with Wojciech Jaruzelski (R), president of the Polish Council of State, during a state visit to Warsaw. July 1988

Mikhail Gorbachev

Source © Bisson-Orban/Corbis

The first four Russian eras are easy to name; the shape of the final one – the current one – is up for grabs.

Two quotes tell a lot about how Russians regard their Soviet past. While in St. Petersburg, I visited the ship Aurora, from which a shot was fired in 1917, signaling the start of the Russian revolution. An officer of the ship asked if I knew why that was the most powerful shot in the history of mankind. When I said no, he jokingly explained: “One shot, 70 straight years of destruction!”

The second quote comes from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who once said: “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” This captures perfectly the mixture of rejection and nostalgia with which many Russians view this period.

Gorbachev’s Soviet Union

Layered on this is a second era, embedded in the latter days of the Soviet period – the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader whose attempt to reform the Soviet Union ended up destroying it. Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” – greater openness with the public about the workings of government – was accompanied by unprecedented media freedom.

Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.

 

— Vladimir Putin

This combination had unintended consequences, bringing to light much of what was wrong in the system and leading to pressure for independence among the country’s constituent republics. The result was the union’s shattering into 15 newly independent countries and the lowering of the Soviet flag over the Kremlin on Christmas 1991.

Dismantling the Soviet “Command Economy”

This ushered in the third era, that of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, in office from 1991 to 1999. While Gorbachev’s reforms had destroyed the Soviet Union, it remained for Yeltsin to finish off its communist economic system, which Gorbachev had tried to save.

Under Yeltsin, the Soviet “command economy” – essentially, state ownership of the means of production – was mostly dismantled and moved rapidly into private hands. But this “shock therapy” was done so quickly that it caused great chaos for the average Russian and allowed a small number of the country’s elite to grab much of the country’s wealth. Yeltsin’s time was marked by great corruption and the country’s financial collapse in 1998 – circumstances that led Yeltsin to ask the country’s “forgiveness” in his resignation speech a year later.

Amsterdam, Netherlands. 8th April 2013 -- Minister president of The Netherlands Mark Rutte receives Russian president Vladimir Putin in Amsterdam.

Source Corbis

Putin’s Russia

Emerging from this disarray is the fourth era, the 1999-2012 rule of Vladimir Putin as president for the first eight years and his pairing as prime minister with President Dmitri Medvedev from 2008-2012. Putin was in the driver’s seat throughout this period, during which he restored order and pushed economic policies that raised incomes and growth, while curtailing the freewheeling political and media freedoms of Russia’s early independence.

Many Russians came to view Putin as a kind of “savior,” especially in the early part of his rule, with popularity ratings often hovering around 70-80 percent.

The Rising Russia

And so we arrive at the current and fifth era, the reelection of Putin for a third term in 2012 – an era whose character and direction are still uncharted. In trying to understand and project, we must still struggle with the riddles, mysteries and enigmas that bedeviled Churchill.

On the one hand, much of the gloss is gone from Putin’s rule, with inflation and unemployment now rising, growth slowing, an economy too dependent on energy exports and protests becoming common – largely by a middle class Putin helped create. On the other hand, Putin’s approval ratings, around 60 percent, are still higher than most Western leaders’.

On the one hand, much of the gloss is gone from Putin’s rule… On the other hand, Putin’s approval ratings, around 60 percent, are still higher than most Western leaders’.

Signs of discontent are episodic but real. Thousands protested an allegedly rigged 2011 win by Putin’s party in the parliamentary elections. Russians waved “We Have Brains” posters ridiculing Putin’s 2011 announcement that he and Medvedev would simply switch presidential and prime ministerial chairs. A Putin critic had a strong showing in last month’s Moscow mayoral race. There are citizens groups that deplore the privileges of the elite and wealthy.

Are these signs of imminent societal upheaval? Probably not. But we might be witnessing the early signs of what could be called “real politics” – that is, a rising sense in at least part of the populace thinks that Russia needs more political pluralism and genuine political competition.

Russia experts will almost always differ on what all of this means, but here are three things to think about. First, Putin’s Syria move guarantees we will be dealing with a more assertive and confident Russia on the world stage, partly because he genuinely wants to restore Russian influence and partly because he wants to distract from intractable domestic problems.

Second, stoking nationalism will be a key part of his approach. There will be added pressure on states once part of the Soviet Union to choose closer links to Russia over the Western ties that most ardently desire.

And finally, within Russia it will be no great surprise if we see discontent slowly rising from a population that is increasingly aware of declining economic opportunity, the wide gap between the elite and everyone else, and the disparity between the representative nature of Russian democracy and that practiced elsewhere.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director and acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who retired in 2004. During his 30-year career, he served as deputy director for intelligence and founded the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. He is now a senior fellow and distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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