Dreaming of a Democratic Russia: memories of a year in Moscow promoting a post-Soviet political process, an undertaking that now seems futile.

Author:Mendelson, Sarah E.

Short story


It's election season in Russia again. At least in theory. In reality, political competition has been replaced by the personage of Vladimir Putin. Russian politics appears more neo-Soviet with each passing day--as minions applaud the advancement of a mystery candidate to replace Putin as president in the election on March 2, 2008, or as an ordinary weaver offered Putin's name to head a "party list" for the parliamentary elections on December 2, 2007. This development will likely lead to Putin becoming a strange combination of the CEO of Russia, Inc., and general secretary, except of course, he will be called prime minister. Russia's only political parties today are those that the state either created or tolerates. Any candidate who appears on television has been approved and is carefully managed by the authorities. The Kremlin follows rules that only it understands, making the late-Soviet period seem utterly transparent in comparison. If only the country's leaders would step out on the Kremlin balcony, while a military parade passes by, then the world could once again know who's up and who's down.

What a difference a decade makes. When I worked in Moscow in 1994 and 1995 for the National Democratic Institute, an American nongovernmental organization, I could not have imagined the present situation. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union would be considered the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," as Putin claims, would have occurred to only a few hard-core, extremist (loony) Communist Party members. Suddenly, this view is not only mainstream but is shared by the youngest generation of Russians--even as they drink Starbucks coffee while surfing the Internet. Alongside Big Macs and iPods, a cottage industry of Soviet nostalgia has sprung up, complete with T-shirts, books, movies, bars, and restaurants. Stores even sell postcards of Stalin.

If Russians feel nostalgia for Soviet days, the run-up to the December elections stirred my own memories of a year of living not at all dangerously in what we thought of then as the new Russia. My thoughts, and those of so many others, go back to the era not only in Russia but also in the United States--the 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The United States's efforts to promote democracy abroad had not yet become singed by the war in Iraq, and the democratic balance in its three branches of government seemed reasonably stable.

Back then, I was part of a cottage industry too: the democracy-promotion business. The National Democratic Institute has, since the early 1980s, promoted the development of political parties and elections around the world. It is not alone in this work. NDI, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party, has a Republican equivalent, the International Republican Institute. The British and Germans have similar organizations. NDI can take partial credit for some stunning overseas victories--getting Augusto Pinochet out of office in Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos out in the Philippines--but, as it turned out, achieving democracy in Russia was not to be among them.

I landed at Sheremetyevo Airport in September 1994 and joined an office of about 13 other young Americans and at least a dozen young Russians. I had walked into a world of optimism--earnest, naive, sometimes brave, and sometimes embarrassed. We all believed that democracy had a chance to take root in the new Russia.

Our office was a five-room former communal apartment on the third floor of a rundown building in central Moscow. We later moved across town to a similar arrangement. From both places, we scrambled about the city, with our imperfect Russian, talking to those in seemingly reform-minded political parties about the fundamentals of Western-style campaigns and elections: how to develop the main message of a campaign and repeat it to voters; how to use research effectively; how to find the party's constituency; how to understand the opposing parties and their constituencies; how to organize a campaign team; and how to put political advertisements together. In other words, Political Campaigning 101.

We thought we were on the frontier of a democratic revolution. We weren't. We were witnessing a market revolution. Just four years into the new Russia, material changes were far ahead of political ones. We Americans living and working in Moscow had the social accoutrements we expected at home: cable TV, rock-'n'-roll radio stations, restaurants, bars, and health clubs. We could drink Coronas, dance the night away to the latest Euro--techno or trance--go home and watch MTV, or drop by an all--night diner. Sure, the air was polluted, the telephone lines undependable, and the potholes as big as cars. But if you were young and American (or rich and Russian), you could swaddle yourself in all the West had to offer.

Tex-Mex, for example, had hit Moscow in a big way. One...

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