All the President's Mien | The Nation


All the President's Mien

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A brief digression: Economic blight is ubiquitous in Russia--though not, to be sure, in Moscow, leading many Western visitors to assume, after noting the number of furs and Mercedes on the streets, that conditions in other parts of the country replicate those in Moscow. Wrong. To be sure, the city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has done an impressive job. More apartments have gone up in Moscow than in any other city, restaurants and night spots proliferate, the stores are full and the prostitutes more expensive than anywhere else. But in addition to the fact that Russia's small number of nouveaux riches--whose income, according to the deputy mayor in charge of social affairs, is 61 percent higher than the income of the poorest inhabitants--all congregate in Moscow, the truth is that other regions have been forced to pay for the capital's expansion. (The deputy mayor also reported, on February 28, that 52 percent of all Muscovites live below the poverty level--this in the showcase of Russia's new capitalism!)

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Abraham Brumberg
Abraham Brumberg has written extensively on Russian and Eastern European developments.

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Furthermore, the city gets a large subsidy from the central government, and 80 percent of the banking capital is concentrated there, as are all the major oil and gas companies, which pay regional taxes on corporate profits in Moscow, while regional subdivisions of those same companies cannot afford to pay profit taxes in their home regions. Also, half of all foreign direct investment has gone to Moscow (see "After Yeltsin Comes...Yeltsin," by Daniel Treisman, Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000). I can report from my own travels there and to other Russian cities last summer that the capital is hardly a model for the rest of the country.

It should be clear from all this that the evidence does not bear out Aron's roseate view of a country being "changed fundamentally for the better." But the fuller truth is even grimmer. The criminalization of Russia has reached, according to an eminent sociologist, Nikita Pokrovsky, "the reverse of public and personal morality in which criminal deviations are not only permissible but 'normal'" (think, in addition to the pervasive corruption, of the assassinations of competing mafiosi, bankers and journalists, none of which have been solved). Has Aron, I wonder, seen the 1999 report Confessions at Any Cost: Police Torture in Russia, published in 1999 by Human Rights Watch, about the brutal extortion of confessions from prisoners, which "the courts commonly accept...at face value" and use "as a basis for convictions"?

The condition of public health in Russia has never--repeat, never--been so grave as it is now. The enormously higher rate of deaths over births, of infants born with serious health problems, the rapidly growing incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, of alcoholism and tobacco consumption, pulmonary and coronary illnesses, and of hard drug use is mind-boggling. All this, along with the shocking rise in suicides, one of the highest incidences in the world (a few weeks ago in Moscow alone ten suicides were recorded, all by people hurling themselves from the roofs of their apartment buildings), has led the eminent American demographer Murray Feshbach, based on figures provided by one of Russia's most eminent epidemiologists, to predict a marked decrease of the population, possibly to as low as 80 million (!) by the year 2050 (from a base of 148 million in 1990).

Yeltsin, of course, cannot be held responsible for these developments, whose roots go back to conditions existing in czarist Russia and more so to the horrors caused by a succession of Communist regimes virtually bent on destroying civil institutions, sowing cynicism, the cult of selfishness, hypocrisy and tolerance of brutality, all of which, despite the progress that has taken place over the past two decades, have remained deeply rooted in Russian society.

But at no time in history is the path to the future predetermined, and in all circumstances alternatives are available. This was certainly true in the mid-eighties, when the country could easily have gone on vegetating, with the bulk of the population assured of its daily bread and sausages and the nomenklatura of its corrupting privileges, but instead produced a leader, Gorbachev, who craved change no less than many ordinary citizens. Yeltsin, too--in 1991, when he had reached the pinnacle of popularity, and two years later, when he reached the pinnacle of power--had alternatives, such as opting for a gradual tempo of economic reform combined with a strengthening of legal institutions (as was urged by the head of the Yabloko political party, Grigory Yavlinsky) that would have provided guarantees for economic and political progress. Instead of pouring billions of rubles into genocidal ends, he could have used some of the available funds to improve the sagging healthcare system, avert the further deterioration of the environment or halt the monstrous spread of criminality, to mention but a few of the monumental ills that afflict Russia today. Instead, he succumbed to ambition and greed, surrounded himself with unscrupulous supporters (soon to become known as "The Family") and kept changing his prime ministers, all the while engaging in bouts of drinking that sapped his mental and physical powers and helped rob him of much of the popularity he had once enjoyed. He was fortunate in finding in Putin a successor who fully agreed with his policy in Chechnya, absolved him of all wrongdoing (which had come to threaten Yeltsin with criminal investigation) and began where his predecessor had left off.

All this was food for a clearheaded, dispassionate and indeed fascinating and thoughtful biography. Instead, we have some valuable pages with a heavy admixture of Panglossian cant. What a pity.

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