Russia: From Stalin to Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust rating has fallen to its lowest point in 13 years. According to a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, only 33 percent of Russians said they trusted the president. Polls can be unreliable and opinions fickle, but a survey like this in a country like Russia can be an indicator of deep discontent arising from significant social and economic problems.

The Soviet Union After Stalin

Over a quarter of a century ago, the Soviet Union fell because things stopped working. The state was the center of society and managed the economy. After Josef Stalin died, there was a sense of hope in Russian society about the economy – and that hope sustained the government, even when it failed to meet expectations.

But by the 1980s, ordinary Russians’ belief that they could provide for their families and that the gulf between them and the nomenklatura (or bureaucratic elite) would diminish had faded. What changed their minds was not envy or anger – Russians had grown to expect a certain level of inequality – but a lack of hope. They had little and were not going to get more. Worst of all, they lacked hope for their children.

This situation was a result of four factors.

First, the inherent inefficiency of the Soviet apparatus, which could not build a modern economy.

Second, the divergence of available goods, not only to the elite but also to a thriving black market that frequently operated in foreign currencies, which most Russians lacked.

Third, the decline of oil prices, which shattered the state budget.

Fourth, a surge in defense spending, designed to both match U.S. spending and convince Russians that although they might be poor, they still lived in a powerful country. This was not trivial for a nation that had lived through the German invasion.

The Fall of the Soviet Union in 1991

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no revolution. There was simply exhaustion. The elite were exhausted from trying to push the boulder of the Soviet economy and society up a steep hill. And the people were exhausted from standing in lines for hours to buy basic necessities. The general sense of failure was apparent not only in faraway capitals but in Russians’ own lives.

Mikhail Gorbachev

The Politburo selected Mikhail Gorbachev to solve these problems. He promised openness and restructuring. But the openness only revealed the catastrophic condition of the economy, and the restructuring, carried out by those who had created the disaster in the first place, didn’t work. All Gorbachev did was legitimize the fears and fatigue that had festered in the Soviet Union and allow them to eat away at what was left.

Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin replaced him but did nothing to solve the lingering economic problems. The Soviet Union was gone, and many took advantage – from Western financiers, consultants and hustlers, to Russians who figured out, frequently with Western advisers, how to divert and appropriate what little wealth Russia had. Privatization requires some concept of the private. In a country that had lived for generations by the old socialist principle “money is theft,” the oligarchs embraced the concept with a vengeance. Russia’s nomenklatura was just as inefficient as the Soviet Union’s, and, as shown in Kosovo, other nations held it in contempt.

Vladimir Putin

Yeltsin couldn’t last. His replacement was Vladimir Putin, who had roots in the old Soviet Union and in the new Russia. He had been an agent of the KGB, the Soviets’ main security service. (For a country as vast and poorly connected as Russia, a strong central government and secret police have always been key to holding the nation together.)

And through his time as deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, he was enmeshed with the oligarchs who became the holders of Russia’s wealth. Putin came to power because of these connections. After Yeltsin, Russians craved a strong leader, and they drew comfort from the fact that Putin had ties to the KGB. They accepted his links to the oligarchs as simply part of how the world works.