Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Russia’s Revolution: Essays, 1989–2006

Russia is a fascinating country.  I am not sure when I really started to think that.  It was probably when I was very, very young.  I remember getting glimpses of the winter Olympics in 1988 (I admit that my memory is fuzzy on this one, and it might’ve actually been 1984) on an old black and white TV perched precariously on a bookshelf in the family living room and wondering why the Russians wore hockey jerseys that had “CCCP” emblazoned across the front.  What could that possibly mean?  I mean, everyone knew how you spelled Russia.  Even the abbreviation of the unweildy official name of the country — USSR — didn’t match up with CCCP.  Only later did it process in my head that they spoke Russian in Russia and it wasn’t until even later that I learned they used the Cyrillic alphabet.  Early Olympic viewing was mixed with coming to understand that in Soviet Russia, one didn’t get to choose one’s profession (this was, of course, an oversimplification, but sometimes such statements still do an adequate job of explaining things).  My young mind imagined a country full of people assigned to do household chore-style jobs (those were really the only jobs I was familiar with) from the time they graduated from high school until the end of their lives.  I felt especially bad for the guy stuck with emptying the garbage cans day in and day out.

Book cover.Leon Aron, author of Russia’s Revolution: Essays, 1989–2006 (ISBN: 978-0-8447-4242-7), was always interested in Russia because he was born in the USSR.  Although he emigrated and came to America after the Soviets started letting Jews leave, he remained interested in his homeland and became a respected commentator and scholar on the land of Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, and now Vladimir Putin.  Aron has written extensively on all things Russia, and in this book, he compiled essays that take the reader through life in Russia from the early days of Boris Yeltsin through the middle years of Putin’s first term in office as Russia’s president.  Aron describes Yeltsin and his democratization efforts.  He is quite a fan of Yeltsin, praising his statesmanship and ability to hold together a country that had partially fallen apart and threated to completely implode on a daily basis.  Aron touches on every aspect of Russia reborn, including food, oil, politics, oligarchs, literature, the military, and international relations.  All of these vastly different aspects of life in the post-Soviet Russia give an idea of what was happening in the country at the time the essay was written.  Aron finishes up his compilation with discussions of Putin, a — to put it mildly — controversial figure and one of Russia’s largest struggles during the 1990s, Chechnya.  Aron’s point, even with the various negatives that Putin and Chechnya seemed to usher in, was that much good has happened since the Soviet Union fell apart in Russia and even though there have been and continue to be bumps in the road (and they’re often big bumps), things are probably going in the right direction, but the only way to tell is to wait and see.  The West didn’t get to its heights in 20 years, and Russia won’t either.

I wasn’t quite sure how relevant a book of essays about some stuff that took place over twenty years ago would be.  As I read through the first half to two-thirds of the book I was even a little put off because the author came across as so excited about the prospects of Russia’s future.  Even during Yeltsin’s presidency, I wasn’t overly impressed with the direction Russia was going.  The discussions of food and literature were interesting and showed Aron’s skill in writing about a wide variety of subjects, but I found the discussions of the oligarchs, Putin’s so-called reforms, and the failings of Russia’s military to be the most relevant to today’s situation.  I thought the writing was very solid, but I liked the overarching point of the work, too.  I have always been a proponent of the idea of giving democracy and capitalism in the ex-Soviet space a lot of time before they take hold, let alone blossom.  Aron takes that long-term view, too.  The only depressing thing about the view is that Aron directs his commentary to the West in a hope to convince both everyman and policymakers that the typical view of a Russia ready to implode and bring the world down with it isn’t quite true, but it’s not really Americans or western Europeans that need to adopt this long-term view.  Regular, everyday Russians need to be more patient than they probably are.  (Not just Russians, but most people in the post-Communist world.)  There are going to be problems as Russia tries to emerge from its past, but it’s going to take a lot of time and multiple generations before things are at the same level as the West (and to be honest, the West is digressing, but that’s a story for a different day).  Average Russians need to be patient and keep working to make things change before they decide that the new order of things is a failure and that the old methods of authoritarianism, top-down control of the economy, and a lack of many basic freedoms were better for whatever reason.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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