After Fitful Start, Revolution Finally Underway in Russia

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Looking back over the 10 years since the demise of the Soviet Union, many Russians are apt to say it was a disappointing decade--their hopes for democracy were dashed by criminals and gangsters, and hopes for prosperity ended in lawlessness, poverty and despair.

But that would not be the view of Alexander Maryagin, a walking symbol of how this land has changed.

On Dec. 31, 1991, the day the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics faded into history, Maryagin was a 21-year-old, wandering the grim streets of Moscow, a place of empty store shelves and long vodka lines. Back then, he would sometimes hawk calculators on the freezing pavement outside a railway station.

"At that time, I couldn't even imagine that I would ever own a car, let alone drive it myself," Maryagin said recently, seated in a chic cafe as though he owned the place. (He does, in fact, own part of it.) "It was like thinking about flying to the moon."

Maryagin did not have success handed to him. Instead, he lived the American dream--in Russia.

He started with nothing, toiled 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He made countless shopping trips to Turkey to buy cheap goods to sell in Russian markets. He paid bribes when he had to. He plowed his earnings back into his business and seldom had time to look at his calendar or his watch.

Today he owns shares of two cafes and a shopping center and is looking into acquiring cinemas. He has an apartment and a 4-acre estate, and when he wants to drive someplace, he can choose from his Dodge Durango, his Jeep Grand Cherokee or his Lincoln Town Car.

"And I created all this from scratch with my own hands in my own city in my own country," the 31-year-old says in a voice that expresses more marvel than boast.

"It seems to me that Moscow today is entering a stage which can be described as la dolce vita compared to the gray and cold Soviet times, which seem like hundreds of years ago."

The revolution that has taken place in Russia, the largest and most populous part of the former Soviet Union, has been chaotic, drawn out and marked by false starts and retreats. Even today, few could argue that it is finished.

But on the whole, most analysts and observers believe that Russia is well on its way to becoming what many Russians and almost everyone in the West would have wished for: a country of free markets, democratically elected government and private property operating under the rule of law.

President Vladimir V. Putin heralded that assessment Monday night in his annual New Year's address to the nation.

"The year 2001 differed significantly from those that preceded it," Putin said. "We managed not only to maintain the growth in our economy, but also to improve people's lives, at least to a small degree."

Of course, each item on Russia's list of achievements can be debated: How free are the markets when bureaucrats and gangsters can demand bribes and protection money? How democratic are the elections when small parties have been limited and local governors use "administrative means" to shape voting results? Is private property really private when there is scant respect for ownership by courts beholden to those in power?

Yet there is a sense that these phenomena are on the decline and that the country is slowly becoming more orderly. Surveys indicate that the 10th anniversary of the end of the U.S.S.R. finds the Russian people more optimistic than they have ever been in the post-Soviet era.

"Today a majority of people are inclined to believe that the worst times are already over," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, a Moscow think tank. "People are looking to the future with a greater optimism, though they regard the last decade as an epoch of huge failures."

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who started the reforms in the 1980s and sealed the end of the union with his resignation Dec. 25, 1991, said the process of building Russia is ongoing.

"But it is already a serious, accomplished fact," Gorbachev said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. "People who have tasted independence and freedom will never part with it. And thank God for that!"

Such an optimistic, albeit cautious, outlook might come as a surprise to Western pundits who sometimes used to argue over "Who lost Russia?"

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, it had become a truism on the talk show circuit that the United States had made big mistakes in its policy toward Russia: It was said to have been inattentive, or too wanton with aid, or else had an overly personalized attachment to ex-President Boris N. Yeltsin.

As Yeltsin's health and grip on power waned, the Russian currency collapsed and a generation of kleptocrats and robber barons fought in the courts and the streets over national assets. Vast, nuclear-armed Russia was widely thought to be in danger of disintegrating into anarchy or giving rise to a new authoritarian dictatorship.

Common Wisdom Was Frequently Wrong

"Never have so many people been so wrong about such an important issue in U.S. foreign policy," wrote Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In his recent book, "Russia's Unfinished Revolution, Political Change From Gorbachev to Putin," McFaul describes Russia as being on a positive trajectory toward democracy and free markets. In earlier writings, he dismissed the notion that Russia could be lost by the West, assessing U.S. influence on Russia's internal politics as at best marginal.

"At the end of the day, when we can finally make the determination if Russia has been won or lost, it will be Russians who should be blamed or praised, not Americans," McFaul said.

Nikonov, of the Politika Foundation, agreed: "I always believed that a couple of our own idiots can do more harm inside the country than any Western aid or advice."

But he and other Russians believe that some of the Western economic advice their country received just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union only worsened the country's plight.

"They came in here with recipes [that] in principle can be implemented only in countries with a developed market economy," Nikonov said. "They suggested Russia live by the laws of a normal market system when even the legal basis for a free market was not yet constructed, and when no one in the country had a clue what a market was all about."

Anders Aslund, another Carnegie Endowment associate who has studied Russia's transformation, rejects arguments that the West harmed Russia by pushing it to reform too quickly. He also labels as mythology the official statistics indicating that Russian economic output plunged 44% between 1989 and 1998.

Aslund, whose book "Building Capitalism: The Transformation of the Former Soviet Bloc" came out last year, says Soviet economic statistics were padded to make the economy look far better than it actually was. And much post-Soviet economic activity has been off the books to avoid taxes--making output look worse than it actually is. The result, as he sees it, is a wash.

"Thus, the Russian economy hasn't collapsed. Rather, it is more accurate to say that, until 1998, the economy stagnated because of sluggish and incomplete reforms. Russia's level of economic development remains where it was during the Soviet era, roughly on par with Brazil," Aslund wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last summer.

In the last three years, the Russian economy has begun to grow dramatically, which analysts say is a result of higher oil prices, less dependence on foreign-made goods and a firmer commitment to reforms by the central government. In 2001, Putin pushed through legislation that finally permitted private ownership of land, and a simple flat tax of 13% on personal income, which has led to higher tax collections.

All along, Aslund said, the problem was not that Russia's reforms were too radical, but rather that they were too weak.

There was "too little shock and too much corrupt state therapy in the form of subsidies to the country's elite," Aslund said.

Nevertheless, for every winner like Maryagin, there are many who feel worse off. There are millions of people struggling to survive on a rudimentary wage or pension, eating state-subsidized dairy products and bread and the occasional home-grown vegetable.

They are unable to travel or buy new clothes, and they lack the means to cope with sudden emergencies without borrowing from family or neighbors, says Yelena Bashkirova, who tracks living trends as director general of the Russian Public Opinion and Market Research Service.

The entire Soviet-era society was relatively poor, with few differences in income, she says. Today, she estimates, about 10% of Russians could be called rich, 30% make up a newly emerging middle class, and 60% are poor, based on their consumption habits.

Despite the large number of poor, she pointed out that only about one-quarter to one-third of the public is dissatisfied enough to support the Communist Party. Two-thirds or more supports Putin.

Bashkirova sees public opinion moving in the direction of democracy.

"We can feel a tendency already, though probably a small one. . . . Because this is now our life. Because no one can believe now, can't even think, that we would not have free elections. . . . This is very important."

Paying a Price for Democratic Society

What has changed in the last 10 years, Bashkirova said, is a falling away of illusions that the transition would be easy.

Russians "now understand that they should pay the price for being a democratic society, that they should now rely more on themselves rather than on the state."

Nikonov pointed out the contradiction that still persists in the minds of many Russians.

"When you poll people with a question whether they regard the breakup of the Soviet Union as a tragedy or a mistake, naturally a majority will say yes. If you ask people whether they consider the reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin as wrong, a majority will say yes," he said. "But if you ask people whether they want to go back, a majority will say no!"

Maryagin reckons that more than 30 families now earn middle-class incomes of at least $500 a month as a result of the business he started. He is proud of what Russians have achieved.

He once considered emigrating, but is glad he did not. "My country is where I live now. And I hope my partners and I have somehow contributed to changing it for the better," he said.

"I like what is happening now," he said. "I like it that laws are beginning to be obeyed. Life is becoming predictable, normal and comfortable--for the first time in many, many years."

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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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