Democracy for today's Russia may seem like a distant dream. The autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin has been in charge of the country since the end of 1999. His Kremlin controls the courts, a commanding swath of the pivotal oil-and-gas sector of the economy, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the principal organs of the news media, including national television. While protests against Putin's rule have attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly in Moscow, Team Putin is starting to crack down on key opposition leaders, such as the recent arrest, on possibly trumped-up charges of embezzlement, of the charismatic blogger-activist Aleksei Navalny. The regime, in short, appears to hold all the cards.
But for author and veteran Russia analyst Leon Aron, a longer and deeper view of the situation suggests reason for hope. Aron's new book, Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991, offers a fascinating tour of the core ideas behind the policy of glasnost or "openness" initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the doomed Soviet Union. By revisiting the writings of Russian journalists, historians, political and literary figures, and others of that era, Aron demonstrates that glasnost represented above all a ruthless determination to expose and obliterate the lies that defined and corrupted life in the Soviet Union. Glasnost was a truth-telling exercise about Stalin, about the gulag, about the Soviet regime's brutal mistreatment of its own soldiers in the Second World War, and much else that was rotten besides -- and the Russian public, so long starved for truth, feasted on the magazines and newspapers dispensing such irresistible fare.
In Aron's interpretation, based on these documents, the Soviet Union collapsed not because of its decrepit economy or a failed war in Afghanistan or nationalist unrest on its periphery, but because of a revolution of ideas inspired by democratic principles and sentiments. "We have something that is irreversible," Aron quotes a political leader of glasnost, Alexander Yakovlev, as saying in 1990. "Irreversible is the deliverance from the myths, stereotypes, self-deception, and self-satisfaction, which have poisoned our brains and our feelings for decades."
Aron accepts the Russian revolution of 1987-1991 as "irreversible" -- which is the basis of his belief that not even the Putin "restoration," as he calls it, represents a fatal blow to democracy. For Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, Russia's prospect is a matter of personal as well as analytic interest. He was born in Moscow in 1954 into a family of Jewish doctors. He emigrated to the United States in 1978, part of a wave of Russian Jews permitted by Brezhnev's Kremlin to leave the U.S.S.R., in part due to political pressure from Washington activists. "I was a Jackson-Vanik baby," he recalled at the outset of an interview in which he talked about the themes of the book as well as his debatable assessment of Russia's chances for democracy.
Foreign Policy: You take great pains in your book to describe what happened in Russia from 1987-1991 as a revolution. Why the insistence on this term?
Leon Aron: Because that's undeniable. After these four years, Russia had a different economic system, a different political system, and a different state. That's enough for a revolution.
FP: Was it a democratic revolution?
LA: Let me put it this way, it was not a democratic revolution, it was a democratizing revolution.
FP: What's the difference?
LA: It's only a matter of degree and finality. A democratic revolution is one that establishes a functioning democracy. And a democratizing revolution is the beginning of the establishment of a democracy.
The revolution empowered a hugely more extended segment of the population. The institutions were there -- the parliament, elections, a free press -- but the soul of civil society was still pretty much under permafrost, and as a result it was very easy to subvert those institutions, which is precisely what happened.