News / Europe

Russia Seeks Democracy After Soviet Collapse

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In the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has made enormous economic progress. Incomes have increased 10 times.  But bookending these changes are demonstrations - in 1991 against communism, and today to revive Russia's deferred dream of democracy.

20 years after fall of communism, Russians are demonstrating again
This time not for capitalist revolution, but for democratic reform.

Masha Lipman, who marched in the 1991 protests, is now an analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center;

"It's very symbolic that we are having this public activism on the rise exactly 20 years after the collapse of the USSR," noted Lipman.

In 1991, the first priority was economic.  Vladimir Ryzhkov, at the time, was trying to run a provincial city.

"The economy was destroyed," recalled Ryzhkov.  "Nothing worked. I remember we had meetings every day to discuss very simple questions: Where could we get coal? Where could we get kerosene? We even had a meeting to figure out how to assure the supply of bread and milk for the city."

In the 20 years since the Soviet collapse, Russians' real incomes have jumped.  But democratic institutions have not kept pace.

Lilia Shibanova, runs an election observer group called Golos.

"As for the democratic reforms themselves, they ended very quickly," said Shibanova.  "It was too short a time that they tried in this country to have them. I mean, real representative government, real elections, real, open debates. These were all shut down very quickly."

Pollster Lev Gudkov says basic institutions did not evolve alongside Russia's new consumerism.

"Government is still vertical, it is not controlled by the society and in essence, despite all the changes, is built the same way it was built in the Soviet Union. And its base is mainly political police, criminal police, there is no independent court, prosecution and system of education," Gudkov said.

Now, a decade of stability and an explosion in internet connectivity widen the gulf between Russians and their authoritarian government.

Igor Yurgens runs a think tank here.  He says 90 percent of Moscow's adults are now online, while government bureaucrats remain "feudal."


"I am hearing retired people, not very well dressed, who are on the internet saying to each other that 'I found a new hearing device,'  It is a change of existential order," Yurgens said.  "Feudalism versus modernization all in one basket which is not healthy which will find its resolution. Either evolutionary, for which I have a lot hope, or revolutionary, which I hope we avoid we have had our share."

A big test may be the turnout for a big democracy rally planned for Saturday - ironically, almost 20 years to the day since Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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