Russia’s Lost Time

In Russia, where religious holidays have not supplanted secular ones, New Year’s Eve is much more important than Christmas. The fact that the country’s biggest holiday marks the turn of the calendar illustrates the special relationship Russians — and particularly their rulers — have with time.

Historically, many Russian leaders have fallen into two broad categories: those who tried to freeze time (Czar Nicholas I and Leonid Brezhnev, for example), and those who wanted to speed it up (Peter the Great, Alexander II, Nikita Khrushchev). The former group worshiped tradition, the latter emphasized change. In any case, attempts to turn back the clock have always alternated with outbursts of frenetic activity.

“The choice is either death or catching up with and overtaking the advanced capitalist countries,” Lenin warned his cohorts. And Stalin, in defending his forced industrialization program, declared: “We are 50 or a 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must run that same distance in 10 years. Either we do it or they crush us.”

Vladimir V. Putin defies both these categories, yet when it comes to keeping power, his sense of timing is masterful. Take the case of the popular opposition figure Aleksei A. Navalny, who was scheduled to be sentenced on politically motivated embezzlement charges on Jan. 15. Suddenly, as the threat of protests loomed, the government rescheduled the sentencing to this past Tuesday. And instead of the 10-year prison term prosecutors had requested, Navalny received a suspended sentence. But his brother and co-defendant, Oleg, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail, a ruling that many saw as a way to punish Alexei obliquely.

There was nothing really unusual about this. Many Russian rulers have aspired to be masters of time — including the time they spend at the seat of power. No Russian reign has ever had predefined limits. Most pre-revolutionary rulers died on the throne, or were overthrown and murdered. As hereditary monarchs, the czars’ days in power were limited only by accident, disease or their relatives’ eagerness to take their place. Nicholas II abdicated in 1917 but was later shot by the Bolshevik political police.

Soviet leaders, except for Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, also held their posts for life. Khrushchev, overthrown by the party leadership in 1964, was the first to live to write his memoirs and die of natural causes. Gorbachev not so much vacated the seat of power as saw it slip from under him as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, resigned at the end of 1999, thus becoming the first Russian leader to relinquish the post voluntarily.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the current prime minister, served one full presidential term between 2008 and 2012. Though there was a chance, however slim, for him to seek a second term, cynics (or, if you prefer, realists) knew that he was merely a placeholder for Mr. Putin. In a perfectly timed switch, the two men traded places in 2012.

Unfortunately for their countrymen, the move will keep Russia behind the times and out of step with its immediate neighbors. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Normal Countries: The East 25 Years After Communism,” the social scientists Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman divide post-Soviet bloc nations into “radical,” “gradual” and “slow” reformers. They find that the faster and more thorough the reforms, the less economic pain. “The gradual reformers eventually caught up to the radical reformers,” they write, “but not before suffering many years of costly underperformance.”

Another interesting finding is that post-Communist nations, while trying to catch up with the West, tend to emulate their neighbors. The Baltic states have learned from Finland; those of Central Europe from Austria and Germany; the countries of the Caucasus from Iran and Turkey. The economies of those countries once out of step with one other are now synchronizing.

One reason Moscow seems out of sync with most of its neighbors is that Russia could never expect to become a part of the European Union, a prospect that provided a powerful incentive for change in nations like the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland. These countries were escaping Russia and joining Europe. Russia could not escape itself.

But there is an even more important difference, something the Romanian-born philosopher Emil Cioran called Russia’s “historical belatedness.” For decades Russia could sustain long periods of inaction on pressing issues, mostly out of fear. The czars postponed the abolition of serfdom for decades because they feared that the move would upset the delicate status quo between nobility and peasantry. Reform, when it finally came, was executed gradually and didn’t succeed in producing enough independent and economically stable property owners who would be immune to revolutionary calls for land redistribution. Czarist attempts to maintain the status quo led to the country’s explosion.

A similarly pressing issue today is reform of the Russian judicial and law-enforcement systems — something the Kremlin has indefinitely postponed. A dependent judiciary and police force inherited from the Soviets and never meant to protect civil and property rights is a reliable tool to keep political control. But the absence of a rule-based environment has prevented Russia from developing enough independent and economically viable property owners with a stake in maintaining the status quo. In an isolated, economically reeling nation, people who don’t have a stake in the system will turn against it. Once again, attempts to maintain the status quo may lead to an explosion.

Political time in Russia seems to drag on for ages. Our New Year celebrations will not be a mark of coming change. They will simply remind us of the reality that Russia is, once more, dangerously behind the times. As with many previous regimes, our current leaders have died a moral death long before their days in power end. When they leave, the next generation of Russian leaders will once again have to play catch-up.

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.

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