Why we have to use the language of corruption when we talk about politics in Russia
David E. Hoffman is a great journalist, and we're indebted to him for a lot of fine reporting over the years. But I couldn't help feeling, as I read his piece on Russia in the 1990s, that he was writing about a different country from the one that I experienced at the time, as a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek ("How'd We Do Covering the Revolution?" July/August 2011). I couldn't quite figure out what bothered me at first. Then I did a search for some key words and phrases. "Organized crime" and "mafia" do not occur. (There is one passing mention of "gangland-style murder," but it's almost an afterthought.) The word "corruption" appears only once -- as something that the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of all people, was trying to expose. "Salary arrears" does not crop up at all. Boris Berezovsky, the ruthless tycoon who used his control of the most widely watched state TV channel to shill for Boris Yeltsin's reelection in 1996, doesn't figure either. There's only one mention of "Chechen," and that's in connection with the rise of Vladimir Putin.
The Russia I experienced in the 1990s was not facing a clear choice between discredited communism and Western-style democracy -- a binary opposition that nonetheless informed much American news reporting at the time. It was a country emerging from totalitarianism into a period of messy experimentation that could potentially lead to many different outcomes. Hoffman refers to his own optimism about the "fascinating, wobbly, yet striving character of Russia's young democracy" in connection with the 1995 parliamentary election. Yes, Russia was having an election, and that was quite a momentous thing, given its tragic past. Yet he is describing a moment that followed the Yeltsin government's armed suppression of an earlier parliament in 1993, the chaotic invasion of Chechnya in 1994, and a mafia war on the streets of Moscow that same year that ended with the car-bomb assassination of a gang chief not far from the prime minister's house. I guess "wobbly" is one word for it.
In the late 1980s, when Russians were trying to shake off the weight of 70 years of Communist Party rule, it was hard not to cheer for anything that helped them do that. So perhaps there was some excuse for those reporters who couldn't help rooting for the side that seemed to represent greater openness. By the early 1990s, though, the picture had already become far cloudier. I actually have little doubt that most Russians aspired to real democracy and a proper market economy -- meaning not just periodic elections and price liberalization but the authentic rule of law, secure property rights, and an environment that truly rewarded private initiative and political competition. What they actually ended up with was a fairly small part of that menu. If you were a worker in a privatized factory that kept you waiting months for your wages while your mobbed-up bosses publicly exulted in their new wealth (sometimes with the explicit approval of elected local "democrats"), you could hardly be blamed for thinking that something was amiss. There was a story like this on every street corner.
I suspect that we would have done a better job had we paid less attention to the drama of elections and more to the challenges of governance -- a good takeaway, perhaps, for reporters now covering the next phase of the Arab Spring. Corruption and crime fouled the innards of the new Russian regime almost from the moment of its birth, yet these subjects were often treated by Westerners as regrettable marginalia rather than as the fundamental and systemic issues that they really were.
"Why was it so easy for Putin to stymie democracy?" Hoffman wonders. I think this is a rhetorical question. The answer was certainly quite clear to the Russians themselves.
Washington Chief Editor
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
David E. Hoffman replies:
I fully share Christian Caryl's dismay at the failure to build a rule-of-law state in the 1990s and noted in my piece, "Russian capitalism was born into a vacuum without effective laws and a state that could not enforce those that were on the books." While I did not mention the oligarch Boris Berezovsky in this essay, readers who are interested in more about him might want to look for the updated edition of my book, The Oligarchs, out in September.