For the Western world, 1929 marked the start of the Great Depression. For the Soviet Union, it was a year that Joseph Stalin called the "Great Break" -- the ending of a short spell of semiprivate economic policy and the beginning of the deadly period of forced collectivization and industrialization. Often mistranslated as the "Great Leap Forward," "Great Break" is truer to Stalin's intentions and much more befitting their tragic consequences. The events he set in motion 80 years ago broke millions of lives and changed human values and instincts in Russia. It was, arguably, the most consequential year in Russia's 20th-century history. Now, 80 years later, and for much different reasons, 2009 could shape up to be a year of similarly far-reaching consequences for Russia's 21st century.
Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. But just as historians view 1929 as the end of the revolutionary period of Soviet history, scholars will (and already do) define Putin's rule as a restoration that followed a revolution. Restoration -- of lost geopolitical influence, of Soviet symbols, of fear, of even Stalin's reputation -- has been the main narrative of the past decade. But as history shows, periods of restoration do not restore the old order; they create new threats. This is what Russia is today -- a new, much more nationalistic and aggressive country that bears as much (or as little) resemblance to the Soviet Union as it does to the free and colorful, though poor and chaotic, Russia of the 1990s.
The idea of a resurgent Russia has been at the heart of Putin's social contract, generating alarm abroad but admiration at home. Russians came to see themselves as winning again, first in international song contests and prestigious soccer matches, and then in a war last summer with their tiny Caucasian neighbor, Georgia. That conflict was presented and perceived as a victory against the United States, which has in recent years backed Georgia and supplied it with arms. It was the epitome of Russia's resurgence, its return at last to being a great power that could stand its ground and that was willing and able to confront the West militarily.
Russia's ambitions were backed by rising oil prices and swelling coffers. Money kept flowing in no matter what the Kremlin said or did. Local businesses and international corporations were scared into total obedience. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's protégé and successor as president, even began lecturing the world on how to reorganize the global financial system. He dreamed Russia would become a new financial capital, and the ruble a new reserve currency. At last, Russia was feared by the West, which in Putin's book is equivalent to respect.
The financial crisis that erupted on Wall Street in 2008 initially heightened Russia's sense of resurgence. Putin boasted about the success of the past few years and gloated about U.S. distress in the same hawkish tones that Stalin used in 1929 to tout the transformation of the Soviet Union into an industrial superpower. "We did not have a crisis of liquidity; we did not have a mortgage crisis. We escaped it. Russia is a safe haven," Putin said. Then the economic crisis engulfed Russia, too.
In 1929, the Soviet Union was mostly isolated from the global shocks of the Great Depression. That is not true today. The current economic crisis has hit Russia hard, exposing its institutional weaknesses and the fragility of its success. The drop in the price of oil and the seizing up of capital markets are choking Russia's economy, which has relied on petrodollars and cheap credit. Economies have been hit all over the world, but nowhere, it seems, has the reversal been as dramatic as in Russia.
Confidence in the rule of a wealthy, heavy-handed Russian state has been shaken, and it is now a real possibility that the global economic crisis, as it persists and even intensifies, could cause Putin’s social contract to unravel. What is not clear, however, is what would take its place -- and whether it would be any improvement. The nationalist passions and paranoia that Putin has stirred up have poisoned Russian society in lasting ways. Now, 2009 could be a new "Great Break" for Russia, but the result might just be a country in upheaval -- broken.
Putin's social contract has been based on co-opting Russia's elites, bribing the population, and repressing the disobedient. A mixture of nationalistic rhetoric, rising incomes, and pride in Russia's resurgence won public support. Until now, money has been Putin's most powerful weapon. Rising incomes and a strong ruble (due to high commodity prices) have enabled Russians to enjoy imported food, holidays abroad, and foreign cars and technology. But even if the lives of ordinary people have not improved dramatically (49 percent say they have enough money for basic needs but struggle to buy much else), Russians at least felt that they had stopped sliding backward. Now things are looking bleak again.
The immediate response from Moscow has not been greater humility, but deepened bitterness and aggression. Predictably, Russia blamed the United States for everything, from the economic crisis itself to instigating the recent gas conflict with Ukraine. The anti-American hysteria in Russian state media is deafening. The hubristic tone of Russia's leaders is buoyed in part because the crisis is not yet starkly visible in Moscow. Restaurants may not be full, but they are still busy, and supermarkets are heaving with people.