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.