Denis Sinyakov/ReutersRussian dolls for sale in Moscow

There is wide agreement, at least outside Russia, that the promise of democratic reform for that long-suffering country, raised by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, got derailed somewhere along the line. But there is wide disagreement about when this mishap occurred, and about who, if anyone, was responsible. Most common is the belief that Gorbachev faltered and that Boris Yeltsin won power in 1991 as the champion of true democratization, only to see his democratic efforts undone by Vladimir Putin after he assumed the Russian presidency in 2000. This is the interpretation ably argued by Timothy Colton, director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies (formerly the Russian Research Center), in his new biography of Yeltsin. Colton has been working for years on his exhaustive life of Yeltsin, marshaling every available source as well as innumerable interviews that he conducted in Russia with every significant political player, including Yeltsin himself. The resulting volume is authoritative, readable and intriguing, though not beyond argument.

Colton’s presentation nevertheless leaves unanswered several puzzling questions: why did Yeltsin select a man like Putin as his successor, and how was Putin able to dismantle Yeltsin’s putative democracy? One answer is that the high-water mark of democratization had already been reached under Gorbachev and that Russia’s prospects for democracy were reversed under Yeltsin as he and his entourage strove to consolidate their power. In this light, the choice of Putin was a natural one, and the new president merely followed the course set during the tumultuous years of his predecessor. This view is vigorously advocated by Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in her new book Russia–Lost in Transition, and it’s the view I find most persuasive. Under Gorbachev, Russia had an opportunity to take the social-democratic path of Western Europe; today, it is neither “social” nor “democratic.”

When Gorbachev won the Politburo’s designation as general secretary in 1985, he thought he could sweep away the evils of Stalinism by rekindling the original spirit of the Russian Revolution–the October Revolution, that is, the radical phase of the revolution, with its “socialist choice” to end domination by the landlords and capitalists and defend the welfare of the people. Starting with perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency), Gorbachev ended up eradicating not only Stalinist tyranny and bureaucracy but also the Leninist party dictatorship and Marxist ideology ushered in by that same October Revolution. Unfortunately, his democratizing reforms unleashed the centrifugal force of nationalism within the Soviet–that is, Russian–empire as well as the bottled-up greed of the officials, who used perestroika to convert the state enterprises they controlled into private property. Enter here the hardline plotters of August 1991, who put Gorbachev under house arrest in the hope of saving the union of Soviet republics. That was when Yeltsin, by this time president of the largest constituent part of the USSR, the Russian Federation, stood on a tank in Moscow in front of his headquarters in the White House–seat of the Russian Parliament, the Supreme Soviet of the republic–to shout defiance of the coup, thereby assuring its collapse.

Maybe Gorbachev’s reform project was doomed from the outset, given the economic difficulties and ethnic-minority grievances in the Soviet Union that he inherited. Maybe, as so many people have argued in hindsight, the Communist system could not be reformed and could only be demolished by revolution. Not surprisingly, this is the opinion of Yeltsin’s chief demolition expert, Yegor Gaidar, in Collapse of an Empire. When Gorbachev defanged the Communist Party bureaucracy and abolished central planning, he liquidated the machinery that had driven the Soviet economy without putting anything in its place. Russian economists who had been imbibing Western theory in their spare time wanted to install a free-market system, though neither they nor their Western mentors kept in mind that modern market institutions had developed over many generations. Among the utopians pushing shock therapy, Gaidar stood out: he was a clever young Communist Party intellectual and economics writer for Pravda who converted from orthodox Marxism to orthodox Milton Friedmanism, hitched his fortunes to Yeltsin and found himself acting prime minister of Russia upon Yeltsin’s liquidation of the Union (while Yeltsin kept for himself the nominal titles of prime minister and president). Gaidar argues in Collapse of an Empire that the USSR suffered the same ethnic fissures as the old Russian empire and that those cracks deepened as economic troubles worsened. The dissolution of the Union was inevitable; the only question was whether it would be Yeltsin’s way or “the Yugoslav tragedy.”

We all know that Yeltsin’s way won out. This was an epochal triumph for democracy in Russia, Colton contends, despite Yeltsin’s quirks of personality. Acting on “intuition, not a panoramic master plan,” in the months leading up to the 1991 crisis, “Yeltsin made fateful decisions that put his society on a much more promising road than it had been on since 1917.” Colton’s Yeltsin is charismatic and willful and not above bending the law when it suits his purposes. He thrives on action and intrigue; he is mercurial but depressive, even suicidal at times, after victories as well as setbacks. Curiously, he felt compelled to publicize these mood swings in his memoirs, whether in his own words or in those of his ghost writer, Valentin Yumashev. And after he resigned he acknowledged that alcoholism had marred his presidency.

Colton’s portrait of Yeltsin is supported by the exiled political dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who after first seeing Yeltsin on TV found him to be a “typical Bolshevik, a Bolshevik straight out of central casting. Stubborn, overbearing, self-assured, honest, irresistible, a human engine without brakes.” The first President Bush, Colton writes, thought Yeltsin “a wild man.” It was not out of character for him to gamble on his political future as he did with the April 1993 referendum, which, though it was only a nonbinding vote to approve his economic policies, he exploited to crush his parliamentary opponents. When in the fall of 1993 the opposition defied his unconstitutional dissolution of the Russian Supreme Soviet, he ordered tanks to shell the White House–the same building he had defended two years earlier. Gorbachev pales in comparison. He was too moderate as a leader: he was not a real “Bolshevik.”

Yeltsin was initially uncomfortable with the idea of dissolving the Soviet Union, thinking he might prefer to head it, although he didn’t like the implication that he would merely be taking Gorbachev’s place. Faced with declarations of independence by a series of Soviet republics culminating with Ukraine (the biggest republic apart from the Russian Federation), Yeltsin changed his mind, apparently on the advice of his entourage. When Stanislav Shushkevich, the leader of Belarus, invited Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk to meet in his forest preserve for a little “hunting,” the Belovezhsk Declaration was born–a “coup d’état,” according to Shevtsova, that put an end to the Soviet Union and with it Gorbachev’s presidency.

Building on her analysis in Yeltsin’s Russia: Myths and Reality (1999) and Putin’s Russia (2005), Shevtsova argues that in the post-Communist era, Russia has turned away from democratic reform and moved relentlessly back toward its old authoritarian and centralist traditions. Gorbachev, though well intentioned, was not strong enough to overcome the dead weight of Russia’s authoritarian past. Yeltsin, like Putin, was most interested in his own power, and by his peremptory actions abetted the nation’s backsliding into authoritarianism. Putin merely pushed the devolution to its logical conclusion of “electoral monarchy” and “bureaucratic capitalism.”

Yeltsin, I would say, was a man animated more by personal rancor than by any coherent ideology. He was happy to exploit the fires of nationalism and greed to destroy Gorbachev, and with him Russia’s nascent social-democratic experiment. He was addicted to insulting people and bossing them around (a habit naturally cultivated in his early career in the Communist Party apparatus). And he was jealous of any popular subordinate, a weakness that prompted the abrupt dismissal of Yevgeny Primakov, a wily, seasoned ex-spy and arguably the best of Yeltsin’s five prime ministers. Primakov’s departure in the spring of 1999 opened the way for the unassuming Putin later. That was typical: Yeltsin used and discarded subordinates without a second thought. Meanwhile, old Soviet officials gladly supported him while they grabbed public assets–anything from retail shops to the oil industry–and transformed themselves into capitalists while inflation was decimating the incomes and savings of ordinary people.

Yeltsin was probably jealous of Gorbachev from the moment he arrived in Moscow in 1985 to become the city’s party boss. The vindictive alcoholic with a penchant for humiliating his subordinates in the name of reform quickly got in trouble with party conservatives. Colton is the rare observer to spot the exact origin of Yeltsin’s implacable vendetta against Gorbachev. It was in June 1987, when the unease of party-liners in the Politburo prompted Gorbachev to pass over Yeltsin for the promotion to full member of the Politburo, a position traditionally bestowed on the Moscow party secretary. The break became irreparable in the fall of that year, when Gorbachev publicly denounced Yeltsin and demoted him to be a mere deputy minister (in his old specialty of construction).

At this point Yeltsin declared for the democratic reform movement, but as it turned out he did so only because he found it a convenient platform for fighting Gorbachev. Once in power he had no reservations about putting down the coequal legislative branch of government or waging war against the obstreperous Chechen nationalists in the mountains of the Caucasus. He broke the Soviet Union apart in December 1991 to nullify Gorbachev’s presidency. As Russian president, Yeltsin pushed through the worst kind of capitalistic shock therapy to repudiate whatever he thought Gorbachev and the Communist Party had stood for. To this end, with the free-marketeer Gaidar as his acting prime minister, he abruptly decontrolled prices, currency exchange and imports of foreign-made consumer goods and food products; but like his predecessor he failed to replace the old protections for Russian workers. The result was the worst peacetime economic depression any country has suffered in modern history and the fatal rift between Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament in 1993. By the time of Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in 1996, he had foisted on the country a constitution similar to the czarist setup of 1905-17, with imperial powers for the president and even the old name Duma for the new, toothless Parliament. However, these moves met with little resistance; by this time, most Russians were yearning for the sort of stability that they eventually gained under Putin.

About Yeltsin’s progressive mental and physical deterioration Colton has little to say. The severity of Yeltsin’s incapacitation was noted in an incident (not mentioned by Colton) at the nadir of the country’s financial meltdown, in August 1998, when the president was visiting an electronics factory in Novgorod. Wrote journalist Andrei Riskin, “Reporters…got the impression that he didn’t understand what kind of crisis the country was in.” Said another, Yelena Dikun, “Observing him in person was thoroughly unnerving…. First he was sluggish and distracted, then he would start excitedly gesticulating, making expressive faces and getting angry for no apparent reason, and after that he’d retreat back into his shell.”

Colton regards Yeltsin’s selection of Putin to be his successor as the biggest puzzle of his career, undoing much of what he presumably stood for: “Yeltsin’s vaunted intuition let him down.” Yet this is not such a puzzle if one puts aside assumptions about Yeltsin’s embrace of democratic principles and examines the Putin appointment in the context of Russia’s political journey through the 1990s and Yeltsin’s precarious mental state at the decade’s end. Putin was just one in the parade of prime ministers passing through the revolving door of Yeltsin’s government in 1998-99 as the ailing but rancorous president fired one after another. The cycle happened to stop with Putin because, as Shevtsova believes, the “Family” (Yeltsin’s strong-minded daughter Tatiana Dyachenko and her cronies, including her new husband-to-be, Yumashev, and the media tycoon Boris Berezovsky), seeing that the end was nigh, settled on him as their protector against possible prosecution for corruption.

Shevtsova has no trouble characterizing the Yeltsin-Putin handoff: it was just a move from a clumsy authoritarianism to a sharper one. Putin’s accession, she writes, meant “the end of Russia’s hope for democracy.” But she adds, in a bit of hyperbole, “The first and possibly fatal blow to these hopes was dealt…ot as many suppose by ex-KGB Lieutenant Colonel Putin. They were destroyed by Yeltsin and his entourage when they abolished free elections.” Under both leaders the “political class” has been more interested in protecting its power than in advancing democracy. Prosperity based on the export of oil and gas, Shevtsova warns, is transitory, while the freedom achieved under Gorbachev has become more and more illusory. Every step the post-Soviet leadership has taken toward political and economic reform has been undone by that same leadership.

Given the nature of Yeltsin’s personality and the circumstances of his departure from office, it is easy to see why the transition to Putin was neither an abrupt change of course nor a carefully orchestrated coronation. Yeltsin’s impulses steered him onto the road back to authoritarian capitalism instead of ahead to social democracy. Putin just happened to be of a mind to pursue that direction more effectively. As Shevtsova explains, Putin’s difference from Yeltsin appealed to most Russians: Putin was consistent, stern, steady, a leader who brought “certainty” to a country constantly thrown off balance by Yeltsin’s erratic behavior. Paradoxically, the popular Putin is a distinctly un-Russian type. Contrasting as it does with the quintessential Russianness of Yeltsin’s passion and impulsiveness, Putin’s abstemious self-discipline actually reminds me of an earlier powerful Vladimir. Like Lenin, Putin had a vision, in his case to restore the imperial greatness of Russia. Whatever the merits and faults of his leadership, in his eight years as president Putin provided Russia with more stability than the country had enjoyed ever since Leonid Brezhnev, maybe even since the tough-fisted reign of Czar Alexander III in the 1880s and ’90s. The recent election of Dmitri Medvedev as president, with Putin as his prime minister, shows little sign so far of rocking the ship of state.

Is Putin’s Russia a threat to the West in general or to US interests in particular? Certainly it’s less of a menace than it was in the form of the Soviet Union, with its inner band of Soviet republics and outer band of satellite governments. Having lost its empire and with its conventional military, until its recent foray into Georgia, thought to be a shambles, Russia has seemed to possess only two real elements of power, its nuclear weapons and its energy exports, and only the latter is a usable instrument of policy.

Marshall Goldman, a retired professor of economics at Wellesley College and former associate director of Harvard’s Davis Center, has tracked the Russian economic system’s transformations since Stalin’s time. In Petrostate, he treats petroleum as the key to Russian power, devoting the first half of his brief and very readable book to a fast-paced history of oil in Russia’s economic growth from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Goldman’s approach to Putin is summed up in a chapter title: “Putin Takes Over: The Return of the Czar.” Putin’s overriding goal–conveniently aided by the surge in world oil and gas prices–was to restore the economic power of the state that Gorbachev had shaken and Yeltsin had torn apart. Big firms in the energy and mineral sectors that Yeltsin had privatized became “national champions” to be renationalized by majority stock ownership or, when necessary, by pure intimidation, as when Putin imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the CEO of the oil giant Yukos, in 2003 and seized his company. Such intervention put the energy sector, and above all the 51 percent state-owned natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, at the disposal of the state as a source of bountiful revenue and an instrument of foreign policy. Thanks to these maneuvers, writes Goldman, “Russia is in a stronger position relative to Western Europe than it has ever been in its history.” No deterrent offsets the West’s dependence on Russian gas supplies. Already, some European countries appear reluctant to buck Russia on such issues as Moscow’s opposition to the extension of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia.

A more alarmist picture of Russia’s strength comes from Edward Lucas, long-time Eastern Europe and Moscow correspondent for The Economist. Lucas is no admirer of the Yeltsin epoch in Russia, and he is starkly realistic about Russia’s continuing trend under Putin toward a “new tsarism.” He dismisses more nuanced views as “the West’s unwillingness to admit what is happening,” blaming this on the influence of the oligarchy, a “powerful fifth column of a kind unseen during the last Cold War.”

Putin’s accession to power, according to Lucas’s The New Cold War, was a “cynical putsch” by the Family and the secret police. He accepts the theory that the deadly terrorist apartment bombings in Moscow in August and September 1999, blamed on Chechen separatists, were actually arranged by Russian authorities to scare the public into rallying behind the new prime minister and future president. Putin’s role model, in the Lucas version, was the disciplinarian KGB chief and Brezhnev successor Yuri Andropov. But Lucas is disturbed above all by Russia’s newly assertive international role: “Repression at home is matched by aggression abroad” (as Georgia has just learned, even if its military actions in South Ossetia may have been provocative).

Not that the new cold war is anything like the original one: Russia is finished as a military power. Perhaps a premature judgment–but to his point: “Instead of menacing the other side with high explosives, hardened steel, and enriched uranium,” Lucas observes, “the New Cold War is fought with cash, natural resources, diplomacy, and propaganda.” One would think this a welcome leap toward normal relations among states. But no. There are “battle lines” drawn as Russia attempts to regain influence by new means in its old sphere and even threatens to dominate Western Europe. Putin has figured out how to exploit the West’s ultimate vulnerability: its greed. “Money remains the West’s greatest weakness,” Lucas laments.

Is Lucas, then, an unbridled alarmist? Are the rest of us fooling ourselves, either with the illusion that Russia has changed its ways forever or with the assumption that it is too weak to do anybody any harm? In either case, says Lucas, “complacency is much more comfortable than vigilance.” Russia’s incursion into Georgia has abruptly energized his case.

Given Russia’s discouraging return to the worst of its prerevolutionary past, both domestically and internationally, how might the West react? The books before us do not offer much guidance, except when Goldman and Lucas plead that the West must somehow shake its dependence on Russian energy supplies. Actually, in the 1990s the West had two contradictory strategies toward Russia: integration and isolation. It has talked a good game about integrating Russia into the democratic world, but in practice it has been moving to isolate it ever since 1990, when East Germany, finally freed from Communist rule, was not only incorporated into the Federal Republic but also into the military compass of NATO. So much for American assurances to Gorbachev that no such advantage would be taken of a Soviet pullback. Since then, the successive waves of NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere and then into actual Soviet territory, widely hailed as the end of the East-West division of Europe, have only sharpened the dividing line while pushing it eastward. All the while, Westerners charge “aggression” when the Russians try to hang on to any sort of influence in their old realm.

All this has played into the hands of Russian xenophobes, bolstering their conviction that the outside world aims to encircle Russia and strangle it to death. No one should be surprised that the reflex of nationalistic authoritarianism among politicians and the people has become correspondingly stronger. There is a disturbing parallel here with pre-Hitler Germany, another case of a defeated nation licking its wounds and feeling sorry for itself.

Shevtsova is alone among the writers under review in facing up to the responsibility of the West in this dangerous situation. She laments the West’s failure to appreciate the potential of democratic reform under Gorbachev and chastises it for overlooking Yeltsin’s betrayal of democracy so long as he appeared to be dismantling Communism and opening Russia to the world economy. Sadly, I would add, in the chorus of Western kudos for Yeltsin-style reform, the social-democratic parties in Europe and liberal elements in the United States (this magazine notably excepted) failed to sound much of a contrary voice, perhaps because they were still shellshocked at home by Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Lucas faults the West in a different way, for failing to recognize Russia’s reversion to type and, in the pursuit of economic bounty, letting the country recover its old power on the new basis of money instead of arms. Goldman quietly concurs with Lucas: thanks to its appetite for gas and oil, the West has accorded Russia “unchecked powers and influence that in a real sense exceed the military power and influence it had in the Cold War.” Gaidar is less alarmist: at worst, Russia suffers from “soft authoritarianism,” while its reliance on its energy bonanza means weakness, not strength. Goldman concurs in that judgment regarding the long term, when the country’s energy reserves will be depleted.

Though Putin has now moved from the presidency to the prime minister’s chair, times have not really changed. Russia is still driven more by great-power nostalgia and a longing for internal stability than by any attraction to Western-style reform. It dreams of imperial revival, not global cooperation. So there is little reason to expect great improvement in relations between Russia and the West in the foreseeable future.