There is a widespread view in the West that Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and confrontational policies toward the United States and Europe are an attempt to revitalize aspects of its lost Soviet glory days. But if we look at some of the Kremlin’s domestic policy initiatives, we see a country struggling to become less “Soviet” in its actions and reform its decrepit institutions before it’s too late.
Many of the reforms now underway reflect Moscow’s long-overdue recognition that the Russian state simply cannot afford to maintain costly Soviet-designed structures, such as free higher education for all students or an oversized military based on mass mobilization. Though many of the current changes are forced by dire necessity rather than any grand progressive vision, they are reforms nonetheless. This in itself is a striking development. In general, Russians are ready to tolerate the loss of personal freedom, but they still cherish Soviet social benefits like free health care, and the Kremlin has always been afraid to tamper with them.
But now that President Vladimir Putin’s patriotic propaganda has managed to distract popular attention from dismal political and economic conditions, the reforms, haphazard though they might be, are going forward. The irony is that the leaders who have been trumpeting Soviet grandeur on the world stage are presiding over its retreat at home.
A case in point is health care. Today, a few years into the reforms launched when Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in the spring of 2012, the overall picture remains bleak. Moscow has been giving regional governments incentives to close inefficient, duplicative and deteriorating hospitals and health centers, trim the medical work force and improve efficiency in exchange for more funds for modern equipment, renovation and better pay for health workers.
While many hospitals are being revitalized, the number of closures is too drastic. Rural areas are bearing the brunt of the disruption. More than 17,000 towns and villages once served by small health clinics now have no medical services at all. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of health centers was cut from 8,249 to 2,085, and the number of rural hospitals plunged from 2,631 to 124, according to government reports.
There is no clear indication what the Kremlin is planning. Moscow’s overall policy has never been publicly discussed. “They fear the people won’t understand,” Maria Gaidar, head of the citizens’ rights group Social Demand, told me. “They want to avoid public commotion. It’s all being done at the regional level so that in case things go wrong one can blame the governors, not the Kremlin.”
This is a far cry from Soviet times, when the central government subsidized all medical facilities, schools and other institutions, regardless of the number of patients treated or the number of students taught.
Education reform has also been haphazard. With Russia’s top schools falling in international rankings, reformers have introduced uniform exams (not unlike America’s SATs), aligned the higher education system with that of Europe, and started to build new research institutions while merging regional universities into larger structures. Mr. Putin, in a populist mode when he resumed the presidency three years ago, had promised teachers higher salaries. But now, as Western sanctions and plunging oil revenues sap the national budget, the Kremlin has announced sweeping cuts in funding that will affect tens of thousands of state employees, from teachers to museum guards to theater ushers.
Efforts to revamp the military are arguably the most successful of the government’s reforms. The Kremlin seeks to replace the unwieldy Soviet structure with smaller, more efficient modern armed forces. This “continues to be a work in progress,” Michael Kofman, a scholar at the Kennan Institute, told me. “Russia has made large strides away from where it was and toward its dream of fielding the kind of army the West fields — able to do combined operations; mobile, networked, less conscript-dependent and ready to respond on short notice.”
Military spending has reached levels never achieved throughout the entire post-Soviet period, Mr. Kofman says. Moscow’s latest defense budget totals 3.3 trillion rubles, or 4.2 percent of G.D.P. for 2015, up from 2.6 percent of G.D.P. when Mr. Putin took office (dollar figures are meaningless because exchange rates are so volatile).
“We are looking at the high point for Russia’s armed forces budget and size,” Mr. Kofman said. “Given the current trajectory, it’s unlikely that the armed forces will ever be as well-funded or as populous again.”
Thirty years ago, on April 23, 1985, the newly appointed general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, announced his perestroika policies, aimed to counter the Soviet Union’s deepening decline. Instead, the reforms he instituted helped accelerate its implosion. The people of the other former Soviet republics were quick to leave Russia behind, but Russians could not — and still cannot — quite manage to let go of the old ways of doing things. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were able to reform quickly because they had the clearest sense of direction: toward Europe and the institutions of the West. Kazakhstan took advantage of its rich natural resources to preserve the old power structure while developing its economy. But Russians have been too confused for too long, sheltered in large part by the oil and gas windfalls that allowed Moscow to put off reform.
Yet the Kremlin can’t avoid change altogether. After years of procrastination, Moscow has embarked on a long, arduous journey to an uncertain destination. It may well be that Mr. Putin is motivated by a desire to distract domestic and international audiences from Russia’s internal disorder with outward displays of strength. Only the Kremlin leadership knows the true depth of the gap between Russia’s perceived power and its actual strength.
But now, thanks both to Mr. Putin’s year of hubris and aggression, and to the long post-Soviet years of indecision, Russia’s future has transitioned from the best of possibilities to the worst. With its economy slumping, its elites trapped by Western sanctions, and its opportunities for foreign loans and access to new technology severely restricted, Mr. Putin has to struggle to implement his own brand of perestroika. Had he done this just a few years ago, he would have been universally praised and generously aided. Sadly, it looks as though his efforts are too little, and may well have come too late.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.