The Chaos Myth

Leon Aron has an interesting article out this month making a compelling argument about the perception of “chaos” in Russia’s restructuring of the economy. A second article is promised for later this summer. Below is a short excerpt:

It is very much in the Russian and, even more so, Soviet political tradition for rulers to deprecate their predecessors. As they climb up the power ladder, the would-be Kremlin occupants must profess complete loyalty to the current leader in order to succeed. Once in power, the country’s new masters bolster their authority by dissociating themselves from previous leaders. Along with the weakness of the country’s political institutions, which undermines the legitimacy of the transitions, such repudiations almost inevitably result in the personalization of power, as the new occupants mold the political, social, and economic systems to their liking. Hence, Russian and–again and especially–Soviet history have often looked like a succession of very distinct personal political regimes–indeed, sometimes different states under the same name. Thus, at first blush, there is nothing unusual in this Kremlin’s castigation of the 1992-99 period, which is portrayed as an unmitigated disaster. It is described as a time of gratuitously and maliciously inflicted humiliation, of “a failed state,” and, most of all, of “chaos.”[2] Advanced relentlessly, this line of argument has been largely adopted not just by many Russian commentators (who quickly recovered their Soviet skill of line-toeing), but also by some leading Western media, editorialists, and pundits.[3] The latter are apparently untroubled by the fact that a booming economy has sprung from the alleged calamities of the preceding years, like Athena who appeared fully armed from Zeus’s head.[4] For all its conformity to national tradition, the “chaos” propaganda campaign has several features that do not fit the usual pattern. First, President Vladimir Putin was–and continues to be–very popular, and is in no need of gaining additional legitimacy at the expense of his predecessor. In the 1990s, moreover, the breadth and intensity of public criticism of the government (in newspapers, on television, and in the parliament) were unprecedented in Russian, let alone Soviet, history. All the many warts and boils, real and imagined, of the Boris Yeltsin regime were exposed and lanced at the time. Indeed, many Russian pollsters believe that much of Putin’s popularity is due simply to his not being the late Yeltsin: very sick, often inebriated, and increasingly unsteady and erratic in public. Thus, harping on the very real failures and hardships of the Yeltsin years can hardly be expected to bring the public’s opinion of them any lower than it already is. A plausible explanation is that the aim of the “chaos” mantra is much higher. As often happens in Russia, the past is invoked to shape the present and the future. In this case, the denunciations of the 1990s may, the Kremlin hopes, help manage the tense transition ahead (or the risks of Putin’s decision to rewrite the constitution and run again) and, more importantly, establish the direction that Russia should take in the long run. No one disputes that in the 1990s, Russia was the freest it had ever been, save for the nine months between February and November 1917. Just as undeniable is the ideology of the first post-communist regime. As a leading Russian political analyst put it, it was based on two “simple ideas”: that “personal liberty is the foundation of progress of a modern state” and that “Russia has no other way but to follow the Western model of development.”[5] It is this ideology and this model that the current regime seems to be determined to stamp with the “chaos” cliché. If the freest Russia in history produced nothing but misery and disorder, then liberty is, in principle, bad for her. Ergo, Putin’s proto-authoritarian “sovereign democracy” and the “vertical of power,” in which the executive controls (or owns outright) other branches of government and key sectors of industry. Such fateful implications make the veracity of the “chaos” claim worth exploring. Specifically, one needs to ascertain, first, whether economic liberalization and democratization bear the primary responsibility for the “chaos,” and, second, whether there was anything but chaos in the 1990s.