A glorious revolution swept through Russia 20 years ago. Glorious, because it was almost completely nonviolent and because no one who was there will ever forget the sense of solidarity, camaraderie and even affection people felt for one another — and for the new Russia they so fervently anticipated. Revolution, because beyond the hundreds of thousands gathered in Moscow and on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, rallies against the hard-line putsch and for Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev took place in every major city. The revolution ushered in a new political system, changed the country’s economic foundation and created a new state: post-imperial Russia.
Where did it all go? What happened to the noble fervor, the moral clarity, the thirst for truth, the heroism? To begin, no sizable chunk of any country’s population can forever sustain the white heat of revolutionary upsurge. People leave squares and go home; they have jobs to do and families to support. What happens next depends on myriad contingencies, but two factors matter most: the luck of leadership and the national political tradition.
Given the human material left behind by 70 years of a poisoning and mauling regime, Russia was very lucky to have Yeltsin. But, a flawed giant, he was not nearly enough to overcome the centuries of autocratic dominance at the top, subservience and irresponsibility below, corruption, cynicism, and atomization wrought by totalitarian communism. The democratic institutions were erected on a moral and social permafrost, barely warmed by the four years of glasnost. Like Baba Yaga’s hut, this edifice rested on thin legs, barely a few inches into the ground, vulnerable to sabotage or outright extirpation. Since then, national political traditions have been largely responsible for the deterioration or outright subversion of the “color” revolutions in post-Soviet Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan — and they are likely to be a formidable obstacle to fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring.
This would not be the first time civil society has lagged behind revolutionary political change. Almost 40 years passed between the beheading of Britain’s Charles I and the original Glorious Revolution, which ushered in a monarchy limited by a powerful parliament. It took the French almost half a century to get from the First to the short-lived Second Republic (with the Terror, dictatorship and Empire in between), and then 18 more years to arrive at republican governance in 1870.
So don’t mourn the 1991 revolution yet. Especially because below the carapace of the Putin Restoration, Russians quietly but with unyielding determination are forging a modern civil society, loosening the post-communist permafrost, making it capable of sustaining a democracy. Millions volunteer to help their fellow citizens and tens of thousands contribute to charities (increasingly online). Perhaps most promisingly, thousands choose to be proactive. They defend a lake from poisoning by industrial waste, protect a forest from depredation or historic buildings from demolition. They help strangers fend off corporate raiders, or rapacious and incompetent functionaries, or greedy traffic police. They want crooks punished and courts to be fair. In the process, in the sea of cynicism, mistrust, thievery and ineptitude, they forge islands, perhaps soon archipelagos, of trust, competence, self-reliance, self-governance, self-respect and responsibility for, eventually, one’s country.
As I learned traveling from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad in July to interview leaders and activists of half a dozen social movements, they are creating more than social and political networks. They are infusing the country with a vital social sensibility, which was in such short supply in 1991. In a break with the national tradition, they view the state with neither awe nor fear. Their attitude toward the government is not that of a sullen lackey toward his master — simultaneously despising but lusting after his station. They are calm, pragmatic, yet morally uncompromising. They see society as equal to the state. They may even support the regime when it does something useful but are frank in their criticism and fearless in public protests when they see it damaging the country’s interests.
Most of all, they believe that if a major sustainable social good is to emerge in Russia, it will come not by fiat from above but “from below” — through remaking themselves and their fellow Russians into a society willing and able to control the executive.
After half a decade of immersion in the glasnost era for a book, I found it fascinating that these young men and women, most of whom were in their early teens in the late 1980s, and some barely born, intuitively speak the language of glasnost and have embarked on the same great moral and intellectual quest: Who are we and what do we want for our country? How do we live more morally and honorably — as individuals and as a people? What is the proper relationship between man and state? How do we ensure that we are governed honestly and that our government listens to us?
Like those who poured into the streets 20 years ago, the men and women I met are driven by the moral imperative of dignity in liberty and citizenship. Don’t be surprised when they turn out on Russia’s Tahrir Squares to resume the nonviolent remaking of Russia, begun 20 years ago.
And turn out they will. In the long run, they are existentially, morally incompatible with “sovereign democracy,” “power vertical” — or whatever other euphemism du jour is invented in the Kremlin to obscure the authoritarian essence of Putinism.
The Revolution of 1991 is dead? Long live the Revolution!
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.