Ron Rosenbaum has written his reflections on the mixed legacy of Boris Yeltsin, who died last Monday.
Rosenbaum focuses on the hope those times represented, when the once-mighty Soviet Union withered away and died and was replaced by a fledgling democracy. But of course—as even most neocons know, although we are not commonly seen as understanding this fact—democracy is no panacea (see this for some of my thoughts on the subject).
No panacea indeed; but still, on the whole, an improvement over what went before. Rosenbaum indicates that, when the Soviet bloc fell and Yeltsin came to power, the promise of liberty was “thrilling and beautiful…and yet…unsustainable.” Russia became chaotic during the 90s under Yeltsin. He was succeeded by Putin, who has reined in that chaos at the expense of freedom.
But not totally. The Russia of today is a far freer and more democratic place than the old USSR, and its people have at least some of the benefits of a more robust economy. I disagree with Rosenbaum’s contention that this represents the death of hope; perhaps just the death of naive hope. As Yeltsin himself said:
I want to ask [the people of Russia's] forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those who believed that . . . in one go . . . we would be able to jump from a gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed in this myself. It didn’t happen in one jump.
No, it didn’t. And what’s more, it never has and probably never can.
That brings us—of course—to that other formerly stagnating totalitarian state: Iraq. Anyone who believed that Iraq could go easily, “in one jump…into a bright, rich, civilized future” (and that includes any neocons who actually thought so, as opposed to the ones who are misrepresented as having thought so) was sadly mistaken and profoundly naive.
From the outset of the Iraq war I expected the task to be fraught with difficulties, and fully expected it to take at least a decade (if not more) of careful occupation. When the looting began at the beginning of the postwar period it troubled me greatly, because it seemed that we weren’t doing what was needed to get the inevitable chaos under some sort of control.
Previously, the crime-ridden and nearly-disintegrating Russia of the 90s had made me wonder something similar—whether there was anything more that the US and Europe could do to prevent its slide. We were not in charge of Russia, of course, but its potential instability would affect us, and the world. And with our present occupation of Iraq we have an even greater responsibility to see that the chaos there comes under control.
Although it’s a child’s nursery rhyme, the parable of Humpty Dumpty expresses a profound truth, which is this: it is exceedingly difficult to put together that which is broken. By the time Yeltsin came to power Russia was a broken nation and, without the strong and harsh cement that tyranny provided, its fragmentary nature became more and more apparent. In fact, Soviet unity had been illusory, and almost immediately many of the satellite nations seceded from the USSR and became autonomous once more. Russia itself, which had been a nation for centuries prior to the Communist takeover, was in deep disarray, and Putin’s harsher hand has brought it a measure of stability at no small cost.
This ebb and flow between chaos and tyranny is the legacy of every state trying to repair itself from a broken and violent past—and that includes Iraq, one of the most broken and violent of all. The United States, on the other hand, has had the luxury of not having been broken at its outset—it was, rather assembled from various parts that came together with a common vision, although not without some disagreement. The fragmentation that might have occurred following our own Civil War was averted and the damage slowly repaired. And, despite the cries of those who shout “tyranny” and think our civil liberties deeply threatened, we have always—throughout our long history—been among the freest nations in the world in terms of the individual. That remains the case today.
Russia’s post-Communist path has been so difficult that there are many citizens who believe life was better under the Soviets despite the suffering of those times—although they tend to be the older people. Dictatorships, after all, have their pluses—”Hitler built the autobahn,” “Mussolini made the trains run on time“—and generations who were brought up under their firm control may have difficulty with the crime and chaos, as well as the social inequality and “unfairness,” that goes with the beginnings of a free market democracy (Dickens had a bit to say about the suffering inherent under those conditions, as well).
It may be human nature to believe that, once a tyrant’s yoke is loosened, paradise will magically ensue. If so, it’s a dangerous belief. But even though the road is hard, that doesn’t mean a tyrannical regime should stay in power. It just means that extraordinary patience is needed in the attempt to put Humpty back together again afterwards. The task requires—if not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men—then a great many of them, and a great deal of time as well.
As I’ve said, I don’t think I was as naive as those who thought rebuilding Iraq would be easy. But I do admit to having been naive in a different way, and that is that I expected the majority of people in this country to understand what would be involved and to be willing to stick it out much longer than seems to be the case at the moment. That particular naivete of mine is now officially dead.