In August 1991, an attempt by communist hardliners to stage a military coup in Moscow led to a democratic revolution which triggered the collapse of the Soviet system. The putschists blockaded the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at his Crimean residence and moved tanks into Moscow. But thousands of Muscovites, rallied by Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Soviet republic (then part of the USSR) came to the defence of the Russian parliament. Elite troops refused to storm the building and eventually the military turned to Yeltsin’s side.
Thirty years later, Russia finds itself at the end of a historical cycle which began when its people rose up against a morally and economically bankrupt regime.
These two Russias, the one from 1991 and the one we are observing today, feel many aeons away from each other in terms of politics, economic realities or social dynamics. Led by Yeltsin, 1991 Russia was immensely enthusiastic about embracing democracy and the West. Public protests against communist rule attracted hundreds of thousands and the size of these crowds remains unmatched by recent opposition-organised rallies.
The largest of those giant demonstrations (and arguably the largest in Russian history) was held in January 1991. It was a protest against an attempt by the Soviet authorities to clamp down on the Lithuanian independence movement. A week earlier, Yeltsin had travelled to Tallinn and signed a treaty with the three Baltic countries, recognising their sovereignty on behalf of the Russian Soviet republic. He made this move in defiance of Soviet leader Gorbachev who was still trying to keep the USSR intact.
Back then, Yeltsin’s Russia was one of the key driving forces which precipitated Soviet collapse. It was one of the first Soviet republics to declare its sovereignty and the supremacy of its law over Soviet legislation in its territory. At the end of 1991, Yeltsin, together with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Fourteen years later his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, would declare the Soviet collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”.
In 1991, the country was, from the Western perspective, an ideal Russia. It was freer than ever, but that was a desperado kind of freedom. It was a basket case with a poverty-stricken population, decrepit infrastructure and a very real risk of famine. Worse than that, looming on the horizon was a civil war, akin to the one unravelling in Yugoslavia, but with nuclear weapons available to the potential warring sides.
In the following 30 years, Russia’s nascent democracy slowly degraded. It first morphed into a hybrid semi-autocracy, of the kind that we can see in Hungary today, and then sank into the swamp of full-blown authoritarianism. But in parallel with these unfortunate developments, its economy grew fast during the first decade of Putin’s rule and the process of rapid modernisation started, particularly of urban environments and transport, which continues today. The 2021 Russia is an infinitely safer, more comfortable, well-off and modern place to live than it was in 1991.
The prevailing doom and gloom analysis of Russia tends to ignore the enormous progress the country and society have made in the past 30 years. The greatest paradox of Putin’s regime lies in the fact that despite deteriorating politics, the cultural and social tectonics went in the opposite direction from the political regime.
Simply put, Russia has never in the last 100 years been as westernised and modernised as it is now. It is true that without rampant corruption and with more prudent handling of oil and gas revenues, Russians could live infinitely better than they are living now. But the standard of living is comparable to that in poorer European Union countries and is still the best in the lived experience of Russians of all ages.
As great political thinkers, like Francis Fukuyama, stress, political development is never linear or straightforward. While clamping down on the opposition and independent media, Putin’s authoritarianism also created a safer space for millions of people to improve their private lives and pursue happiness. As banal as it sounds, money gives freedom, so many Russian people have felt freer in terms of lifestyle choices, careers and travels than they did during the politically free, but volatile 1990s.
Better life has resulted in a more mature public discourse. Post-traumatic psychosis, which was the singularly most striking feature of the Russian society in the 1990s, gave way to a more reflective attitude to life and more skilful interpersonal communication. Infuriating sternness, outbursts of unwarranted fury and bandit behaviour – those trademark features of the 1990s’ post-Soviet society, reflected in films and music of that time – have faded away.
A fledgling charity and volunteer sector, followed by the rise of protest activity during the winter of 2011-12, has helped to overcome the extreme atomisation which dogged post-totalitarian society. As evidenced by the rise of Alexey Navalny’s movement, the Russian society continued to mature in the following years, while the regime began entering its senile stage, reminiscent of the Soviet gerontocracy of the 1980s.
This anniversary of Russia’s democratic revolution comes at the backdrop of an unprecedented wave of repression, unleashed by the Kremlin in the run-up to the parliamentary election, due in September. Almost no day comes without news reports about political activists and independent journalists being arrested, sentenced, proclaimed “foreign agent” or forced into exile. By resorting to terror against its opponents, Putin’s government betrays its fear of a maturing society that is increasingly hostile to the Kremlin.
All of that goes to show that Russia is quite the opposite of a hopeless case. It has entered a volatile period because society has outgrown the regime, which used to be an organic one, and now wants change.
Putin’s last resort is stepping up a confrontation with the West, which provides him with what political scientists call adversarial legitimisation. He is banking on the West making a grave mistake in its relentless and often ill-thought expansion into the ex-Soviet space – a mistake that would rally Russians around him the way Soviet people rallied around Joseph Stalin, justifiably hated by many, in the face of an existential threat during World War II.
But Putin has not succeeded in that so far, even as he has tried to make confrontation over Ukraine a theme in this election campaign. In fact, Russians are back in their Western-friendly mode from the 1990s. A recent poll shows that 63 percent of them expressing a positive attitude to Western countries and only 24 percent are thinking of the West negatively.
Putin may also hope that the West would resort to containing and isolating Russia – a policy that proved capable of prolonging the life of the most antiquated regimes, like North Korea’s and Cuba’s. When life is hard, people have fewer resources to oppose a regime, whose leaders can still afford the same luxurious lifestyles as before.
But setting aside fears of the West mishandling this crisis, the doom and gloom seem misplaced. In 1991, there was a fair amount of it, too. But then came the August revolution which many still regard as a miracle. Indeed, one should not underestimate the ability of the Russian people to surprise themselves and the regimes that oppress them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.