The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a time of momentous social and political change, including in Russia, but Russia’s development followed a different path than that of many Eastern European countries. The specific nature of Russia’s transformation is the subject of a new book, 20 Years Without the Berlin Wall: A Breakthrough to Freedom, published recently by the Carnegie Moscow Center and ROSSPEN.

The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, Alexei Arbatov, Sam Greene, Maria Lipman, Nikolay Petrov, Alexey Malashenko, Andrei Ryabov, and Dmitri Trenin—all of whom contributed to the book—discussed its findings at an event moderated by Carnegie’s Natalia Bubnova. The presentation was the first in a series commemorating the  twentieth anniversary of the events of 1991 that ended the communist period in Russia.

Why Russia Took a Different Path Than Europe

After the Berlin Wall came down, countries in Eastern Europe—and some of the former Soviet republics, which quickly adopted Europe’s civilization and many of its laws—integrated into a common space based on the principles of the rule of law and political pluralism. Russia, meanwhile, remained on the other side of what had now become a new, invisible wall. Shevtsova attributed this divide to the lack of a national consensus in Russia on the new rules of the game whether Russia should follow its old ways or try to adopt a European-style government model. Today, the preconditions for building the needed agreement between those that criticize the system from within its ranks and the opposition groups outside the system are absent. The possibility of transformation is further complicated by the demoralization of Russia’s political elite, and the imitation of liberal-democratic processes and institutions—instead of their real incarnations—taking place within the hybrid regime that has emerged, Shevtsova said. 

Russia’s Foreign Policy

  • Post-Imperial Russia: As Trenin sees it, after the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet system collapsed, Russia became a “post-imperial” country: a former empire, but not yet a fully formed nation-state. Trenin said that Russia today needs foreign policy for two purposes only: guaranteeing security within reasonable limits, and obtaining resources to modernize and transform the country. At the same time, according to Trenin, “pragmatic policy” has become depreciated. For a policy to win respect and be effective, it must take into account classic values (such as life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness), as well as the values enshrined in the Russian constitution, and guarantee opportunities for increasing the public good.
  • Russia and the United States: Unlike most of its neighbors, Russia’s approach to foreign policy is not simply about its relations with other countries, but reflects the country’s political and economic path forward, said Arbatov. This is clear in the example of Russian-U.S. relations, which remain as much a priority for Russia now as during the Cold War. (The United States, on the other hand, no longer views relations with Russia as of great importance since the Berlin Wall fell.) According to Arbatov, advocates of genuine modernization—including democratization—support Russia’s cooperation with the United States and other Western countries, while those who favor façade modernization and the raw-materials, export-based economic model, and authoritarian political system are wary of such cooperation.  

Russian Society

  • History and current attitudes: Lipman spoke about the opportunities that emerged after the Berlin Wall came down to fill in historical gaps. Information about events—such as the execution of Polish officers and civilians in Katyń, the hideous activities of the Soviet KGB General Pavel Sudoplatov, the war in Afghanistan, the shooting of protesting workers in Novocherkassk in 1962, the radiation leak at the Mayak nuclear waste storage facility in 1957, and the downing of the South Korean passenger plane in 1983—has been declassified. But Lipman emphasized that knowledge does not always shape consciousness, and the publication of facts regarding these and other events did not lead to any real change in public attitudes in Russia. As a result, there is no demand for political freedom in today’s Russia, she noted, although there is a market for ideas that can be used for self-expression and raising public awareness. 
  • Turning away from politics: Although the Russian people obtained freedom from the Soviet system, totalitarianism, censorship, and the “iron curtain” twenty years ago, in today’s globalizing world, this kind of “freedom from” can easily become freedom from one’s fellow citizens, and from political participation and choice, Greene said. But in turning away from politics, most people are also turning away from their own society and from the democratic future that the Berlin Wall’s fall seemed to promise, he added. Russians now need to move back in the other direction, from a focus on the individual to the general, Greene said, noting that this applies not only to Russia, but to East European countries as well.

The Federal Authorities and the Regional Elites

Petrov described the current state of Russia’s elites as a “neonomenklatura” system without the repressive component. After the Soviet empire fell, he said, Russia’s regions were run by charismatic individuals—but now authorities in Moscow, when appointing regional officials, place greater emphasis on loyalty than on strong personality and effectiveness. Relations between the regional elites and the federal center over the last twenty years have swung like a pendulum. Power first shifted from the center to the regions, ushering in a process of decentralization and fragmentation, during which the regional elites grew stronger. During the last decade, however, centralization has been more common, he said.

However, the optimal level of centralization has been surpassed, as manifested by such trends as:

  • the alienation of regional governors and their teams from the main bulk of the regional political elites;
  • a splintering within the vertical power structure;
  • a reduction in the role of regional governors and an increase in the role of federal security and law enforcement services in the regions; and
  • the transformation of a clear and rigid management pyramid into a nebulous structure based on various networks and corporate groups.

Petrov also noted that potential agents of modernization, including regional political elites, continue to leave the country. This is a particularly significant problem in the North Caucasus, he added.

Religion in Russia Today

Malashenko observed that religion has returned to politics over the last decades—not only in Russia, but throughout the world. In his view, the active role that the Russian Orthodox Church is taking in politics and culture in a multi-faith Russia is a worrying trend. Meanwhile, the dialogue between Orthodox and Islam occurs only at formal levels. The overemphasis on religion and the various calls to turn to religion are one reason for the absence of a national consensus in Russia, Malashenko noted. Policy makers therefore need to emphasize the importance of secular development, especially in the North Caucasus republics, he said.  

A Look at the Post-Soviet Space

Ryabov looked at the transformation problems encountered throughout the post-Soviet territory. He noted that after the Berlin Wall fell, the countries of Eastern Europe established stable and effective political institutions, whereas practically all of the post-Soviet countries faced the problem of weak institutions (a “soup-like” institutional environment). The post-Soviet societies are oriented toward maintaining the status quo, and even the successful establishment of democratic institutions in some of the post-Soviet countries over the last decade has produced neither stable and lasting institutions, nor brought about modernization—with Georgia being the notable exception. Ryabov believes that the main question is whether the post-Soviet societies are capable of achieving effective transformation without outside assistance.