Comrade Putin's New Russia

Eighteen-year-old Andrei Korshunov doesn't remember much about the Soviet Union. But from what his parents tell him, it sounds pretty swell: there was no crime, there was little inflation and everyone had a job. Its cities were orderly and clean, nothing like chaotic St. Petersburg, where Korshunov came of age in the 1990s--Russia's "criminal capital," famous for gangland shootings, prostitution and drugs.

Nostalgic for a period he never knew, Korshunov recently took a tiny step back in time. Last October, St. Petersburg revived a Soviet-era institution called the druzhina--civilian patrols that help the police by maintaining order and reporting other citizens' suspicious behavior. A few weeks ago Korshunov signed up. Now, decked out in a green vest and a red armband, he's earning about $20 a month while he gets his university education and does his part to make Russia wholesome again. "In the old days, [the druzhina] were workers," says one of his friends, 19-year-old Aleksandr Dorokhov. "But now they want to attract students... to make us feel like we're doing something meaningful."

In an age of want and disillusionment, Russians seem to be searching for meaning--and they're rushing back to the past to find it. Weary of the economic hardships of the last 10 years, frustrated by the rise in violent crime and corruption, embarrassed by the fall from superpower greatness, Russians are salvaging from the detritus of empire relics most observers believed had vanished with the Berlin wall. From attitudes to institutions, Russia is witnessing an extraordinary revival of things Soviet. And the man of the moment, President Vladimir Putin, is ably leading them. "People are tired of laxity," said Putin shortly after being named acting president last year.

His idea of reform is not to return to communism, a governing idea that remains dead and buried. Instead, Putin has gradually and artfully worked to bring back elements of the old regime that can give most Russians the promise of what they yearn for: a strong motherland able once more to stand its ground in a hostile world. It's the old Soviet system without the bite of Leninist ideology and the cold war--a kind of Soviet Lite for the 21st century. Its hallmarks are a politics organized tightly around the president, his powerful Kremlin administration, his custom-tailored Unity Party--and a new elite drawn largely from the old KGB and the military. And it encourages a foreign policy bent on countering American hegemony and reasserting Russia's great-power status.

Putin's supporters say he's simply answering a popular longing: the vast majority of Russians miss the U.S.S.R. and express enduring respect for leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and V. I. Lenin. (In one recent poll, 79 percent of those surveyed said they regretted the collapse of the U.S.S.R.; only 15 percent didn't.) But Putin's critics charge that something far more sinister is at hand: the gradual demolition of democracy. Says Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, "Putin is creating a bureaucratic police state."

No one is suggesting that the gulag and Gosplan (the central planning apparatus) are making a comeback. A global economy, wider access to information and the freedom to travel have all left their mark on Russia. Three million Russians use the Internet. In 2000, 8 million Russians traveled abroad, compared with 5.5 million in 1999. Even Russia's ailing economy has benefited from globalization: exports in 2000 topped $102 billion, compared with $54 billion in 1993. "Most of the country has changed dramatically," argues Andrei Kortunov, a Moscow political analyst.

That has not stopped Putin from consolidating enormous personal power. Recently the Unity Party, Putin's docile political organization, announced it was merging with three other parties, including its erstwhile rival, the Fatherland Party of Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeni Primakov. The result, say analysts, will be a hypertrophied "party of power" that will give Putin virtually undisputed control over the lower house of Parliament. (He gutted the power of the upper house last year.) Critics say the move amounts to the creation of a "new Politburo."

The merger coincides with Putin's declared intent to limit the number of political parties in Russia to a manageable few--and independent-minded journalists to even fewer. A Kremlin-allied company recently pushed through the hostile take-over of NTV, the country's last in-dependent nationwide broadcaster. And when journalists who resigned over the takeover sought refuge at another TV station owned by NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky, they found their new employer under immediate assault by tax authorities.

What's particularly striking about Russia's authoritarian trend is how much it feels like a trip down memory lane to anyone who lived through Soviet times--in all ways. TV journalist Aleksandr Gurnov even recently revived the Soviet-era show "International Panorama" on the state-owned channel where he works. Other throwbacks are involuntarily comical--like the emergence of a Putin cult. In the village of Izborsk in northern Russia, locals are offering a guided "Putin tour" of a local outdoor museum the president visited earlier this year. (Highlights include the wishing tree where he stopped and the stand where he purchased a pickle.) A hill Putin skied last winter has been renamed in his honor. And Putin enthusiasts around the country have penned songs and poems glorifying his mighty deeds. One ditty written by a university student and titled "Our President" goes:

With the refrain:

Nowhere is today's personality cult more visible than in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg. In the 1980s St. Petersburg was on the vanguard of perestroika and liberalism. Nowadays it's the bastion of Putinmania. A St. Petersburg sculptor has been preparing to cast the president's head in bronze. And a local company recently made headlines by churning out thousands of official Putin photos; they were unable to satisfy the overwhelming demand.

If Viktor Yurakov has anything to do with it, this is only the beginning. As the self- described "ideology chief" of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Unity Party, Yurakov has been orchestrating a campaign to win the hearts and minds of fellow Russians to Putin's cause. Decrying the "death of healthy patriotism" after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Yurakov says, "Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin destroyed everything. We were a great power... We need a strong leader the people can believe in--and the people believe in Putin."

Indeed. Putin's approval ratings hover around 70 percent. Yurakov is doing everything he can to keep them there--including resuscitating Soviet-era pride and paternalism. His party has organized subbotniki (a Soviet term for unpaid cleanup crews) and patriotic exhibits of Russian history. It has donated Russian flags to orphanages. It's planning to adorn entryways and public-transport vehicles with satirical posters chiding people to be clean and well behaved. (One scolds a pig in human clothing who is urinating in an elevator.) And in his most controversial effort to date, last fall Yurakov published 10,000 copies of a pamphlet for St. Petersburg elementary-school children that included an exemplary biography of Putin recalling the old "Uncle Volodya" kids' books about Lenin. Little Vladimir, as the pamphlet explains, "wasn't afraid of anyone and never tricked anyone. His teacher in school knew that he was very capable." And never is the party forgotten. "We tell [children] the tasks of the party, where it's going, what it wants to do."

Yurakov's zeal has been ridiculed by more sophisticated Russians, and even Putin has felt compelled to ask his St. Petersburg supporters to temper their adulation. But the president has played no small role in Russia's back-to-the-future movement. During his term as head of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, he gave his blessing to the rehabilitation of things Soviet. He adorned the FSB headquarters, the notorious Lubyanka, with a plaque praising Yuri Andropov, the only KGB leader ever to rise to the top leadership post, as an "outstanding Soviet figure." "If our new boss had parted with the spirit of the [Soviet] days," argues human-rights campaigner Sergei Kovalyov of Putin, "he wouldn't have unveiled a plaque to Andropov, and he wouldn't have drunk a toast on Stalin's birthday."

That may be the crucial difference between Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. has been a part of Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet empire. But Yeltsin, while sometimes tolerating it, generally tried to hold it in check--by replacing Soviet-era symbols and holidays with new Russian equivalents and by giving critics of totalitarianism plenty of room to air their views. Putin has pursued a dramatically different course. Last year he revived the Soviet-era national anthem, and now he's proposing restoring compulsory military training for high-school students--as part of a larger campaign for the "patriotic-military education" of Russian youth.

Therein lies the darker face of Soviet Lite. Critics fear that today's adoration and rhetoric are leading to the reincarnation of other Soviet specters, like militarization, repression and show trials. In 1999 Putin declared that ecological activists in Russia were actually serving as fronts for "foreign intelligence organizations." Since then new spy cases have been cropping up virtually every day. When an American was arrested on drug-related charges in the southern city of Voronezh earlier this year, officials were quick to allege that he had studied at a U.S. "intelligence school." Recently, an FSB spokesman accused a leading member of the Chechen separatist movement ofbeing a "CIA agent." On a less publiclevel, the Russian government has lately returned to the Soviet practice of declaring foreign critics of government policy "persona non grata." Recent targets include a German TV producer, a Czech opponent of the Chechen war and members of a British anti-land-mine organization.

Human-rights watchers and academics are witnessing what they say is a trend of fabricated espionage cases designed to discourage contacts with foreigners--especially if the topic of conversation is nuclear or green. Igor Sutyagin, a 36-year-old arms-control researcher at Moscow's prestigious U.S.A.-Canada Institute, was accused of spying for the United States and arrested in October 1999 by the FSB. His trial is closed to the public, and his lawyer says he is presently in solitary confinement, isolated because of the supposed "top secret" nature of his case. But Sergei Rogov, director of the think tank, says the charges are politically motivated. "There have always been people who thought our institute is too pro-American, and the Sutyagin case is being used to show that our institute has political views detrimental to Russians."

And Anatoly Babkin, a Moscow professor accused of selling state secrets about Russia's high-speed underwater Shkval torpedo to American Edmund Pope (the first American in 40 years to be convicted of espionage in Russia), was pardoned by Putin on health grounds last December, but only after what was widely viewed as a show trial biased in favor of the prosecution. "If in Stalin's time you had mock trials for doctors, now it's the scientists' turn," says Andrei Andrusenko, a legal adviser to Babkin. The Russians have also expelled four American diplomats in retaliation for the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats that followed the exposure of FBI mole Robert Hanssen. The Kremlin has threatened to expel even more as part of an "adequate" response.

Russian actions abroad are provoking a similarly alarming sense of deja vu. No longer apologizing for the past, Putin, unlike Yeltsin, has embraced the leaders of Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. Meanwhile, he's been wooing Europeans and the Chinese--whose experiment with economic liberalization and political control he admires--by playing to fears about American missile defense and a "unipolar world." Closer to home, he's made a distinct departure from the Yeltsin policy of letting former republics take as much energy from Russia as they want, usually without paying for it. He's threatened to turn off the gas in Georgia and has vowed to build a pipeline sidestepping deadbeat Ukraine--markedly lessening those countries' willingness to defy Moscow.

In Central Asia, Putin has homed in on disappointment over the American failure to create new routes to get Caspian oil to international markets, opening a competing Russian pipeline to the Russian port of Novorossisk. Generally, the rising threat of Islamist insurgency in the wobbly republics has made Central Asian leaders look increasingly to Moscow. And for Putin's foreign policy, it's all to the good. "Back in Soviet times," he has said, "we scared the rest of the world so much that it resulted in the formation of huge military-political blocs. Was that of any use to us? Certainly not... We should get rid of imperial ambitions, on the one hand. On the other, we have to understand precisely and clearly where our national interests lie."

For Putin, they lie in increasing Russia's influence over its former republics. Almost all of them--save the Baltic states--have gone through even greater economic upheaval over the last 10 years than Russia, and many are starting to have second thoughts about life on their own. The tiny republic of Moldova, once a hotbed of ethnic nationalism, recently elected a neocommunist government that is promising to consider the issue of reunification with Russia (sidebar). Another republic, Belarus, already joined a loose union with Moscow in 1996.

All this raises the larger question: how far do Putin and his men intend to ride the wave of nostalgia for the Soviet past? Putinism's crucial missing ingredient seems to be a coherent ideology. Marxism--and Leninism, Stalinism and communism after it--provided an all-encompassing world view through which to organize and understand everything: from history to economics to familial relations. The purpose of the strong state was to enforce that ideology in all spheres, until it had so brainwashed the population that the state could "wither away."

Putin's opponents can take heart in the fact that Soviet Lite stops far short. Despite Putin's attacks on independent media, no one is advocating censuring history books or "degenerative" art in today's Russia. Yuli Rybakov, a liberal deputy in Parliament, concedes that the Soviet mind-set is staging a serious comeback. After all, he points out, 10 years of democracy can hardly be expected to overcome 70 years of Bolshevism and centuries of tsarist autocracy: "The totalitarian mind-set is still an organic part of public consciousness." On the other hand, he says, his recent visit to the "socialist paradise" of Cuba also offered some perspective. "It gave me the shivers. It made me realize what foreigners must have felt in the old days when they came to the U.S.S.R. Despite everything, we still live in a free country compared to Cuba." He pauses. "For the time being, at least."