end, the sclerotic Soviet economy wasn't able to satisfy citizens'
demands. Mikhail Gorbachev had hoped to transform the Soviet Union into a
modern socialist state "with a human face." Instead, he hastened its
collapse, in large part by violating the post-war social contract amidst
the chaos of glasnost and perestroika.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia's
first democratically elected post-Soviet leader, further eroded the
underpinnings of the social contract tied to Soviet nationalism.
Primarily concerned with his own quest to assert control, he swung
wildly between pro-democracy demagoguery and authoritarian belligerence.
His victory over parliament in 1993 established a presidency of
far-reaching power but little popular support. Yeltsin tried to
capitalize on the development of a new Russian imperialism, but the
first disastrous war in Chechnya and humiliating peace treaty of 1996
showed it wouldn't work.
The corrupt and hastily executed
privatization of Soviet infrastructure that Yeltsin oversaw ironically
provided the state with one way to rebuild. Crony capitalism created a
new class of billionaire "oligarchs" and young "new Russians," all
deeply indebted to the Russian state. But on the other side of the
economic and cultural gap, the older generation limped on, humiliated
and impoverished. As the country experienced its freest years in history
-- varying political opinions became as easy to find as cheap imported
goods, pornography and booze -- many Russians were horrified by the
sense of chaos, moral decline, and international humiliation. That
horror paved the way for authoritarianism to return.
Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Much is made of the
fact that he was a KGB officer, but he absorbed far more Soviet
nationalism than communism. "I was a pure and utterly successful product
of Soviet patriotic education," he told an interviewer in early 2000.
Putin's nationalism is not the cartoonish chauvinism of European or
Russian nativists; it is Soviet at heart, focused on the state's role as
the main vehicle of modernism and guarantor of stability.
his brief stint as prime minister in the fall of 1999, Putin renewed
the war in Chechnya, calling it necessary to preserve Russia's
sovereignty and protect its citizens against terrorists. After he became
president less than a year later, his statist nationalism and emphasis
on law and order undermined the legitimacy of those anyone who spoke out
against his increasingly authoritarian practices, especially
journalists and democracy activists.
Putin found the way to a
new social contract in the country's oil fields, which helped satisfy
rising global energy demand. On the one hand, the country's oligarchs
were put on notice: they could play ball with the new boss and continue
to reap extraordinary profits, or they would be destroyed. Not
surprisingly, the energy sector has produced the clearest winners and
losers in Russia's pay-to-play business world. Sibneft owner and Putin
pal Roman Abramovich has thrived, while Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky
-- once the richest Russian -- was singled out over tax evasion
charges. Energy revenue has also allowed Putin to revive some
Soviet-style paternalism by encouraging greater domestic production of
consumer goods and providing larger subsidies for those Russians left
behind by the boom.