There is no
doubt that future generations will be able to arrive at a more
balanced evaluation of the cataclysms that rocked Russia at the turn
of the twenty-first century. Historical distance will allow future
analysts to assess the Yeltsin era more objectively and
dispassionately. However, it is clear even now that the price
Russian society paid for the post-Communist modernization and the
second transition within one century to a cardinally new system of
life was very high.
There are examples of reforms in other countries
when a cautious and well thought out approach allowed governments to
reduce substantially the burdens of radical reforms. Somehow Russia
has never been able to emulate foreign examples of successful
evolutionary transitions. The Russian tradition has never
known such precedents. In Russian history transitional periods have
invariably been accompanied by the immense suffering of its citizens
and have always been very protracted and painful.
In this sense,
the transitional era opened by Gorbachevís perestroika and
continued by Yeltsinís liberal reforms conforms fully to the Russian
tradition. Neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin was able to achieve his
objectives. The result of both reform efforts was a society in a
state of acute economic and political crisis.
Russian tradition has also taught its people how to survive in times
of great uncertainty and upheavals. Many Western commentators were
puzzled: all formal economic indicators throughout the 1990s clearly
showed that the Russian economy was in a deep hole. Plants did not
produce output, wages were not paid, the productivity rate fell, and
almost all effective institutions of social protection practically
collapsed due to underfunding. Yet all these negative processes did
not seem to have the impact one would expect on the populationís
average life expectancy dropped, peopleís food rations declined, and
everyday problems multiplied. But there were no signs of starvation.
Life continued as normal, with teachers teaching, doctors treating
patients, army officers giving orders, and police officers
controlling street traffic. The social and economic survival of its
population against all odds appears to be the central paradox of
Russiaís contemporary history.