For dignity in democratic citizenship: Russia's unfinished moral revolution and anti-authoritarian movements today

Article Highlights

  • What factors caused the Soviet Union's downfall?

    Tweet This

  • Democratic citizenship is key to a new social order in Russia.

    Tweet This

  • People of Russia must confront their nation's past to find its future.

    Tweet This

Subscribe to AEI's Russia emails.

For dignity in democratic citizenship: Russia's unfinished moral revolution and anti-authoritarian movements today

Download PDF
A close examination of the causes of the Russian Revolution of 1987–91 indicates that it was precipitated not by the traditional structural calamities of economic or financial crises, military defeat, or natural disasters but by a moral and intellectual awakening of the Soviet people. The tug of war between the power of the state and the conscience of the citizen became a source of widening conflict. Moral and intellectual revolution of the late 1980s attempted to recover people’s dignity by constructing democratic citizenship rooted in economic and political liberty and personal responsibility. Russia’s revolution is an example of moral renewal generated from “below” by civil society rather than the state. In Russia today, burgeoning grassroots movements appear to continue what glasnost started by seeking to inculcate and widen modern, enlightened, democratic citizenship.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • No external (“structural,” “material,” or “institutional”) factors—like economic downturns or military defeats—satisfactorily explain the Soviet Union’s downfall; rather, the moral revulsion over the regime’s past and present destroyed the Soviet state’s legitimacy in the eyes of the politically active minority that led the revolution.
  • Confronting the terror and the complicity in it of millions of people is critical to spiritual, civil, and—in the end—political progress not only in Russia, but in other transitional societies such as China. 
  • Constructing a new, equitable, and dignified political and social order is impossible without democratic citizenship; the moral imperative of dignity in political and economic liberty is the engine of anti-authoritarian movements in today’s world, as it was for the glasnost revolution.


Roads to the Temple (Yale University Press, 2012), likely the first account of the 1987–91 revolution in the history-of-ideas mode, started as a means to recover and relive what I remembered as a nearly incredible excitement that the revolution stirred in those of us lucky to be alive and watchful at the time. The rapid succession of events left little time to linger, to savor, and to look deeper. Reviewing the more than 8,000 pages of Russian originals from the period brought me to a place where it seemed possible to take on the questions that had troubled me and many others for the past 20 years: why and how did the Soviet Union collapse so swiftly and largely nonviolently, and why could we not see it coming until almost the last moment?

None of the traditional, so-called “structuralist” or “institutional” approaches to revolutions (all stemming from Karl Marx’s historical materialism) gave a fully satisfactory explanation. There was no sharp economic downturn or financial crisis until the political revolution was well underway by the second half of 1990. There was no famine, epidemic, flood, or earthquake, nor was there a major military defeat or, indeed, a defeat of any kind.

On the contrary, by the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was at the apex of its power, at nuclear parity with the United States, in possession of the largest armed forces in the world, with 5 million men under arms and, following the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981, in seemingly total and unshakable control of its East Central European empire. To be sure, a savage war in Afghanistan was grinding on with no end in sight, but its impact on the economy was negligible and the casualties small by the Soviet Union’s standards forged in World War II. The totalitarian control over information and airtight censorship made the war impervious to domestic and, for the most part, international scrutiny and thus perfectly manageable politically.

Instead—first hinting, then insisting—the material began to persuade me that the Soviet state was undermined not nearly as much by extraneous factors as by something snapping, cracking irreversibly and fatally deep inside the soul of the Soviet state. Its legitimacy was fatally injured. In Citizens, his superb history of the ideas and words that made the French Revolution, Simon Schama wrote: “It does not seem too much to say that it was oratory that created ‘the People,’ not vice versa.”[1] I am persuaded that it is definitely not too much to say that glasnost created the people who turned their backs on the Soviet state.

Asking “Ultimate Questions”

How, then, in less than four years, did that which seemed so powerful and glorious and invincible come to be regarded shameful and pitiful? In trying to find an answer, I found myself writing a story of a great people who woke up one morning, looked in a mirror no longer distorted by censorship and lies, and recoiled in horror. They began to ask the “ultimate questions”: Who are we? Do we live honorably? How should we live? What is virtue and what is evil? How often do we see such an impassioned quest for moral guidance, a kind of secular reformation gripping a great nation?

I write “secular,” but one of the startling things about the glasnost discourse was the seemingly un-self-conscious recovery of religious vocabulary: after the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of priests and believers, after seven decades of murderous state atheism, after almost four generations in whom religious feeling had been burnt out. Suddenly, words we thought Russia had forgotten decades ago were everywhere: pokoyanie (repentance), iskuplenie (redemption), grekh (sin), dobrodetel’ (goodness), voskresenie (resurrection).

Like great revolutions before it, this one engaged and grappled with some fundamental issues of human existence, unresolved and perhaps ultimately unresolvable. In doing so, it has spawned its own future—directing us, instructing, and warning.

State versus Citizen

By far the most portentous of these moral and intellectual quests was an attempt to settle the perennial conflict between the “power of the state and the conscience of the citizen.”[2] What is a proper, dignified relationship between individual and state? This was one of the first questions asked by those whom in the book I call the troubadours of glasnost. They returned to it again and again, for they had seen the master state in all its sinister arrogance and intoxication of unlimited power, confiscating first politics, then economy, and finally morality and taking away what makes us human: free will and moral choice. The glasnost authors found the people to be “separated from their dignity,” as they put it, and every second of this “multifaceted and petty” denigration reinforced the sense of the state’s omnipotence and their powerlessness.[3]

Life’s “defenselessness” against the power of state was endless and enforced by the equally “boundless violence.”[4] Gorbachev’s right-hand man, Alexander Yakovlev, who became known as the “godfather of glasnost” wrote, “In 70 years . . . a system had been built that is organically indifferent to the real, existing man, hostile to him. And not only in the mass repressions, the victims of which are millions, but in daily life, where a person means nothing, has nothing, and cannot obtain even the most basic things without humiliation.”[5] The leaders of glasnost were determined for this never to happen again.

“An individual for the state—or the state for an individual? This is the main question,” wrote two Russian intellectuals in the summer of 1989.[6] In the preamble to a new Soviet constitution, on which he worked until an hour before his death, Andrei Sakharov wrote, “The goal and responsibility of . . . the state is to secure social, economic, and civil rights of the individual.”[7]

But how to create such a state? First, cut off the tentacles of the old one. End the state’s ownership of truth by outlawing censorship and allowing nonstate media. End the state ownership of justice: laws must be “laid down between man and state,” a leading Russian jurist insisted in the fall of 1988, and these laws were to protect individuals from the state, not the other way around, as had been the case until then.[8]

Second, unknown for over half a century, private property was deemed the first and last bulwark against the return to the tyranny of state. Where the “state-bureaucratic apparatus” dominates, democracy is deprived of its economic base, making political liberties “impossible in principle.”[9] “With the abolition of private property, the foundation of individual freedom is destroyed,” wrote one of the most influential of the glasnost essayists, Vasily Selyunin. “Nothing is left to a man but to serve the state on the condition that the state dictates,” he concluded.[10] Speaking to students at Moscow State University in February 1990, Yakovlev declared, “Authoritarianism, totalitarianism, Stalinism became possible in our country because all the sources of individual’s well-being, all the means of his existence were in the hands of state.”[11] Thus, privatization was to be the most urgent political, not economic, task.

Constructing a New Citizen

But the key condition for a new and equitable political, economic, and social order was to be a new citizen. He and she were to take the prostrate, sullen, anemic, anonymous and atomized people and make them into a civil society: vibrant and confident, self-aware and vigilant, willing and able to take on the executive at every level. After four generations in the state employ and total dependence on the state, the people were to be responsible for themselves, their family, their town—and their country.

Yet as they looked around them after decades of terror, lies, and state-owned morality, the authors of glasnost saw in most of their compatriots and themselves slaves or conceited authoritarians (“triumphant boors”) or, most often the case, a mixture of both.[12] This, they concluded, was an utterly unsuitable foundation for national renewal.

One of the most popular quotes of glasnost, almost its mantra, was a famous passage from Anton Chekhov’s letter in which he wrote about “the squeezing of the slave out of one’s soul.” Until this was done, until man’s dignity and mastery over his life was restored, any talk of the guarantees against the relapse of tyranny was senseless, contended a participant in a roundtable at one of the key liberal publications, the weekly magazine Ogonyok, in spring of 1988.[13] “Enough!” exclaimed popular writer Boris Vasiliev in March 1987. “Enough lies, enough servility, enough cowardice! Let’s remember that that we are all citizens, proud citizens of a proud nation!”[14]

How, was this new, “unslaved” citizen to be constructed? By nothing short of remoralizing the nation. In Great Disruptions, his excellent book about moral crises in the history of nations, Frank Fukuyama called this process “renorming.”

This task suited the glasnost authors very well. They were editors and journalists, historians and philosophers, writers and professors, experts and literary critics. But like others who had led great revolutions before them, they were, first and foremost, moralists. That is, they believed passionately in the absolutes of good and evil, in the absolute difference between the two and in their mission to advance the former and eradicate the latter. The great American literary critic and political philosopher Dwight Macdonald wrote that the only serious aspect of politics is its relation to morality. In truly consequential, watershed events—be they crises or revolutions or truly fateful elections—for a brief and brilliant moment, all politics is serious because all of it is about morality. Of all the many and dazzling themes of glasnost, none was more explicit, more urgent, and more passionately articulated than the necessity of virtue, of moral renewal as the central condition of political, social, and economic progress. This overarching moral urgency is the final and weightiest evidence that what happened between 1987 and 1991 was a great revolution indeed.

For the man who started it all, Mikhail Gorbachev, the renewal of society was inseparable from the “struggle for the dignity of man, his elevation, his honor.”[15] “Perestroika is a natural development toward . . . every person’s right to be a conscious creator of one’s own fate . . . toward rationality and responsibility, and toward the moral basis as the center of personal and social life,” Yakovlev said in February 1989.[16] Only a “moral democracy” could secure a progressive Russian state, he told Moscow News a year later.[17] “Our revolution,” a leading jurist, Marat Baglai, wrote in July 1988, would succeed only as a “highly moral process.”[18] (Five thousand miles away and two centuries before, John Adams wrote, “Liberty can no more exist without virtue . . . than body can live and move without a soul.”[19] It is these sorts of echoes that send shivers down your spine—a historian of ideas’ greatest reward.)

This is what they hoped for, these “teachers of truth” (the name I borrowed from another passionate moralist, Samuel Johnson[20]): “Perestroika is creating a new type of social relations,” wrote philosopher Leonid Goldin. “Instead of the government taking care of the welfare of an infinitely submissive people, everyone truly becomes the master of one’s own fate. Instead of equality in poverty and powerlessness, everyone is given a chance to change.”[21] The title of his article was “We must re-learn how to live” (Nado snova nauchit’sya zhit’).

Ways and Means

How, then, should this new citizen be constructed? First, the glasnost authors urged themselves and their compatriots to continue to say and print truth. Truth cleanses, uplifts, ennobles, and frees. Second, find and uphold a usable past. Not everything and everybody in the past was shameful. It is important to recover and celebrate resistance to the indignity of totalitarianism and the state takeover of conscience!

This being Russia, literature was the source of much of this pride. The chapter of my book titled “The Freedom Canon,” records the return, after decades of state-directed oblivion, of the lives and art of the five great Russian writers who epitomized an unbending existential and artistic challenge to the ethical and aesthetic order around them: Yuri Dombrovsk, Vasily Grossman, Osip Mandelstam, Andrei Platonov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Among others whose lives and art were central to the foundation of a new Russia were two heroic women: the great poet Anna Akhmatova, whose poem about her son’s arrest in the “Great Purge” of 1937–39, “Requiem,” was published after half a century in hiding; and Lydia Chukovskaya, whose two novels,[22] like Akhmatova’s poem, recorded, almost in real time, the torment of the mother of an arrested son and a wife of an arrested husband.

Confronting the Totalitarian Past to Secure a Democratic Future

But the most important strategy advocated by the troubadours of glasnost was national repentance and atonement for the complicity in tyranny and mass murder. This national act of acknowledgment and commemoration, they insisted, would have to be more than a tribute to the dead, no matter how noble and urgently needed. Only the perpetual, living, and constantly renewed memory of the mass murder and oppression could in time become a reliable barrier against the “restoration of the criminal regime,”[23] and prevent them from allowing the country to be taken down that road again.[24] Unredeemed, the burden of past national crimes could be too heavy a load for a new Russia to carry. It could break the country’s back, the glasnost authors warned.

The teachers of truth were right yet again: the ability to face a murderous past and atone for it had been shown to be the key to moral—and thus, political and social—progress both inside and outside Russia’s borders. Indeed, this has become one of the most reliable predictors of the success of democracy in virtually all postcommunist nations. It is often not easy in political history to untangle causes and effects, but the “closing” or distortion of the past on one hand and the neo-authoritarian Putin regime on the other clearly are mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing. A Russia in which a high school textbook under President Vladimir Putin’s personal patronage extols Joseph Stalin as a great manager and the creator of the “great” Soviet Union;[25] a Russia whose ministry of foreign affairs stands by the Stalinist canard about the Baltic republics joining the Soviet Union “voluntarily,”[26] offending the memory of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the terror of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following the 1939 Soviet-Nazi Pact; and a Russia in which the allegedly “liberal” President Dmitry Medvedev during his four years in the Kremlin was expected to sign a decree establishing a national museum for the victims of Stalinist terror and never did[27]—such a Russia is not likely to become a liberal democracy any time soon.[28]

Tiny Moldova leapt miles ahead of Russia this past July when its parliament adopted a law “condemning the totalitarian communist regime in the Moldovan SSR, which committed crimes against humanity,” and banning “propaganda of totalitarian ideologies.”[29] It took Serbia 15 years to apologize to Bosnia for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. It has been 72 years since the massacre of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn—and still no unambiguous apology from the Kremlin.

Perhaps nowhere in the post-totalitarian world is confronting the past more germane to progress than in China. Younger generations know literally nothing about the man-made famine, during the Greap Leap Forward campaign in the late 1950s, in which an estimated 40 million starved to death; about the Cultural Revolution, which cost millions more lives; or about the Tiananmen Square massacre. The party enforces a “rigorous amnesia,” writes Liu Xiabo, a leading dissident intellectual and Nobel Prize laureate, who is currently serving an 11-year prison term.[30] This policy, he wrote, had produced generations of people, “whose memories are blank” and is a key, perhaps the key, impediment to a more liberal, more humane order.[31]

This “compulsory amnesia,” Liu continues, has produced a “values vacuum,” which suits those whom he called “today’s dictators” because “it fits the moral rot and political gangsterism that years of hypocrisy have generated, and it diverts the thirst for freedom into a politically innocuous direction.”[32] “Trust witnesses willing to sacrifice their lives,” Blaise Pascal said.[33] Liu is one such witness.

“Chair” and “Electric Chair”: The Putin Restoration

Whatever the strategies of its implementation, it was the idea of national progress as moral renewal generated from inside and from below by civil society, and not imposed from above by the state, that distinguished the glasnost revolution from previous Russian upheavals. It is hard to think of a sharper break with the national political culture, which until then had enshrined state-directed progress, longed for and worshiped the good tsar, the hero, the wise and all-powerful reformer and was in the thrall of revolutions from above (what Stalin called “great ruptures,” or velikie perelomy) as political and social engines of progress.

In addition to the economic dislocation that accompanies every revolution (and oil at $18 per barrel) it was most likely the depth of this departure from the tradition that made the glasnost revolution hard to sustain. After the two instances of decisive participation in choosing the country’s fate—the referendum of 1993 and the presidential election of 1996—civil society seemed to revert to its role of a passive observer. People left the squares.

Of course, Russia’s is far from the first revolution that ended in restoration. The reasons are many and many are specific to a particular revolution’s time and place. Yet one overarching theme is common to almost all of them: the contrast between the speed of political change and the inertia of social and economic institutions. As an attacking army under an overly ambitious command, the political headquarters of a revolution finds itself far ahead of the rest of the troops, losing communication and supply lines and becoming easy to capture. Or, to use the staple of Russian fairly tales, the revolutionary institutions, including the great democratic constitution of 1996, were like the witch Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs: barely a few inches into the soil of civil society, which was only beginning to thaw from 70 years of totalitarian permafrost. It was so easy to topple and replace with Putin’s “managed” democracy or “sovereign” democracy, sustained by suddenly skyrocketing oil prices. As my Russian friends like to point out, “sovereign democracy” is as different from democracy as an electric chair from a chair. Yet for almost a decade, Russia sat on this chair and seemed quite comfortable there.

The “New Protesters” and Grassroots Organizations

The chair started to wobble between December 2009 and March 2010, when rallies, meetings, and picketing shook several dozen Russian cities, culminating in the national Day of Wrath in 48 cities on March 20. Unlike previous protests that were dominated by groups (mostly pensioners) who wanted more from the state, these demonstrators wanted less government intrusion in their lives and businesses. They demanded fewer taxes and tariffs, less corruption, less incompetence, and less police brutality. The glasnost theme of a contest between citizen and state appeared to be reemerging. And although the movement seemed to dissipate by mid-2010, its record seemed intriguing enough to investigate.

In the summer of 2011, research assistant Dan Vajdic and I crossed Russia from east to west, Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, to interview leaders and activists of half a dozen grassroots organizations. It had been only a few weeks since I sent the last page of Roads to the Temple to Yale University Press, and it was truly astonishing to hear many of the words I had cited in the book (and have recounted in this Outlook). These echoes of glasnost were all the more striking since 25 years ago most of the civil society leaders we met on the trip had been children or early teens, while virtually all the activists were even younger or not born yet.

As they emerged from over 40 hours of interviews and over 300 pages of transcripts,[34] these men and women were not awed by the state and neither feared it nor lusted after its power. Instead, they aimed at a dialogue and interaction of equals. One of the leaders, a 27-year-old woman from Vladivostok, encapsulated this attitude: “Sometimes it is partnership, sometimes competition. We do not shy away from criticizing the authorities when they deserve it. I have never been part of any government or pro-government structures and don’t plan to [be]. Our views on many issues and those of the government are quite different.”[35]

This readiness for a dialogue did not presuppose indulgence. “Do you know why people protested against the [construction of the Gazprom skyscraper] tower?” the group’s leader, Natalia Vvedenskaya, asked in our interview.

Most of all, because [the construction] was [a] visualization of violence [vizualizatsiya nasiliya]. We have corruption, of course . . . but it is not always easy to see how people are daily humiliated—and to become outraged. But here, people had something onto which they could concentrate all their hatred [of the system]. And all the more so because [the culprit was] the very same company that is turning the country into a senseless oil-producing appendage [of the world economy]. And this, subconsciously realized, truly was a stronger motivation than the struggle for the purity of the skyline. . . . Because you [the state], without asking our opinion, tell us that your model of life, which you are foisting on the country, is the only correct one—and we are not asking you [the people]![36]

The Goal: New Society of New Citizens

The daily agendas of the organizations and movements whose leaders and activists we interviewed could not have been more diverse. Their advocacy areas ranged from environmental and urban preservation to highway safety to anticorruption, honest elections, and, yes, lower gasoline prices. And yet, in almost identical words, they all insisted that their country’s progress could come only from civil society and not state; that creating such a society was therefore their paramount goal; and that remaking their countrymen into citizens was the key to achieving this objective.[37]

In the words of one organization’s manifesto:

There are no mechanisms for the defense of common people in Russia. . . . We have no civil society that would keep politicians to their promises, that would force businesses to be socially responsible, and that would make government functionaries remember that they are servants of people who pay their salaries. . . . Under these circumstances, a political agenda makes no sense since there are no mechanisms for its realization. To create such a mechanism is precisely what constitutes our agenda. And this mechanism is called “civil society.”[38]

The new civic “mentality” was defined, first and foremost, as self-respect and personal responsibility—“responsibility for what is happening in the country.”[39] If there was a common strategy, it could be summarized as voluntary collective action in pursuit of moral objectives. “Often, there is a situation when people are ‘a little angry,’ and this is enough. It is enough to feel dignity in oneself,” said Vvedenskaya. “If goodness wins, then we have a chance.”[40]

“We are no longer fighting just for the forest,” said the environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova. “Our struggle is a struggle for people’s minds. . . . We are trying to change the most difficult thing of all: people’s mentality. We are making real citizens out of ‘citizens.’ This is more important than any seizure of power, because this is the foundation for serious and long-term changes in the country.”[41]

The December Marchers

Enchanting as it all was, in July 2011 these echoes of the glasnost revolution seemed almost utterly removed from the politics of a Russia that, after a brief flirtation with reforms in the aftermath of the 2008–09 world financial crisis, appeared to be slipping back into the political stupor that high oil prices seem invariably to cause. Then, only four months after our travels, on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow and then throughout Russia, what we saw on banners and posters carried by tens of thousands of protesters seemed to be informed by the same moral sensibility.

A leading Russian political sociologist summarized the protesters’ credo as the rejection of “total corruption, lies and violence” as “incompatible with decent life.”[42] To Lev Gudkov, the president of the nation’s leading independent polling firm, the Levada Center, the “moral character” of the movement was “starkly undeniable” and “remarkable” after years of political apathy: “I have not seen anything like it in the past 20 years!”[43]

As they were on glasnost’s banners, “honor,” “decency,” “dignity,” and “conscience” were (and remain) the staples of the protesters’ vocabulary.[44] One of their leaders, the anticorruption crusader Alexei Navalny, described the protests as being not “so much about ‘politics,’ as it was about “a very simple idea of struggle for one’s rights, for one’s voice, one’s choice.”[45] “We don’t want revolutions,” a prodemocracy opposition activist said in a rally in the Siberian city of Omsk on February 4. “We simply want to be able to live and work honestly but this [system] does not give us such a right.”[46] “I am here because in my country my government ignores my interests and humiliates me,” a middle-aged female demonstrator told a reporter this past February in Novosibirsk.[47] Asked why they turned out to protest Putin’s inauguration on May 6, demonstrators in Moscow cited “self-respect.”[48] “We are learning to be citizens,” one of them added.[49]

The credo of the glasnost revolution also seemed to inform what a Russian commentator described as the protesters’ demand for “the right to choose their own fate and to live in a lawful state.”[50] They wanted equality before the law, now again controlled by the authorities at the national and local levels, and the end of de facto disenfranchisement when their votes did not count if they were cast for the “wrong” party or candidates. Russia’s first civil rights movement appeared to be on the march.

Syria, China, Iran

This past May, AEI hosted a conference on the moral foundation of antiauthoritarianism. One of the panelists was a Syrian prodemocracy activist, Ammar Abdulhammid, who asked whether we knew the very first slogan of the Syrian revolution, when it began in March 2011. He said something very quickly in Arabic and then translated: “Death, but not humiliation.” His fellow panelist was Yang Jianli, who survived solitary confinement and daily beatings in Chinese prisons. He said, “The thirst for freedom is universal. Chinese people want human rights. Nobody wants to be a slave.” And Iranian dissident Akbar Atri told us that he and his comrades in the Green Movement sought to act on what he called “universal civic values.”

Atri’s words reminded me of my book’s earlier brush, if this is the right word, with Iran. At the end of June of last year, Foreign Policy magazine published an essay of mine that drew on the book’s first chapter, in which I lay out the case for the “ideal” (as opposed to the “material”) causes of the Soviet collapse. The piece appeared as a cover story under an unassuming, almost nondescript title: “Everything You Think You Know about the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong.”

Three days later, I received an email from an Iranian journalist by the name of Saman Safarzaee, who inquired if his weekly magazine could reprint the essay along with an interview with the author. Eight fairly long questions were attached to the message. Among them were ones about an “unethical situation in the Soviet Union” as the key cause of the revolution; the reason for the West’s surprise, then and now, about the Arab Spring; and the “lessons” of the latest Russian revolution for Iran and the Middle East.

After I sent in my answers, I received another email from Saman, asking if I would agree with deleting some of my answers, because they “could not be published.” “You know how things are going on over here,” Saman wrote. “I have to tell how ashamed I am of asking you this kind of request.” I learned later that the magazine’s editor, Mohammad Qouchani, had been arrested after the 2009 presidential elections, tortured and released only after he had confessed to all manner of transgressions against the authorities.

In the first week of September 2011, two months after the excerpts and the interview were published, the magazine was closed down by the Media Supervisory Authority. The magazine’s name was Sharvand Emrooz, or “Citizen Today.”

Saman speculated that the publication was shut down because it had crossed the line of the permissible with respect to the Arab Spring and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But if the excerpts from this book had contributed at all to the decision of the Iranian censors, I cannot think of a more gratifying recognition.

Shorter versions of this essay were delivered as a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on September 17, 2012, and as a seminar presentation at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, on November 13, 2012.

Leon Aron ([email protected]) is a resident scholar and the director of Russian Studies at AEI.

1. Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 168.
2. Tracey Lee Simmons, “God’s Law and the Power of the State,” Washington Post, February 5, 2012.
3. Evgeny Starikov, “Marginaly” [The marginal people], Znamya (October 1989): 225; Zh T. Toshchenko, “Zastoy dukha i ego preodolenie” [The stagnation of the spirit and how to overcome it], in M. I. Mlekumian, Drama obnovleniya [The drama of renewal] (Moscow: Progress, 1990), 575.
4. Vladimir Shubkin, “Trudnoe proshchanie” [The difficult farewell], Novy mir (April 1989): 177; Mikhail Kapustin, “Kamo gryadeshi?” [Whither art thou?], Oktyabr’ (August 1987): 155.
5. Alexander Yakovlev, “Ob opastnosti revanshizma,” [On the danger of revanchism], in Alexander Yakovlev, Muki prochteniya bytyiya [The torments of the reading of life] (Moscow: Novosti, 1991).
6. Rayr Simonyan and Anatoly Druzenko, “Kuda my idyom?” [Where are we going?], Ogonyok, no. 37 (1989): 3.
7. Andrei D. Sakharov, “Konstitutsiya Soyuza Sovetskikh Respublik Evropy I Azii” [Constitution of the Union of Soviet Republic of Europe and Asia], in “Konstitutsionnye idei Andreya Sakharova” [Constitutional ideas of Andrei Sakharov], Oktyabr’ (May 1990): 146.
8. Alexander M. Yakovlev, “Otverzhenie i utverzhdenie” [Rejection and affirmation], Ogonyok, no. 43 (1988): 14.
9. Igor Klyamikin, Trudniy spusk s ziyayushchikh vysot [The difficult descent from the yawning heights] (Moscow: Pravda/
Biblioteka Ogon’ka, 1990), 4; Alexander Tsypko, “Khoroshi li nashi printsipy?” [How good are our principles?], Novy mir (April 1990): 174; Sergei Alexeev, “Ploshchad’ pered parlamentom” [The square in front of the parliament], Komsomol’skaya pravda, July 11, 1989, 2.
10. Vasily Selyunin, “Planovaya anarkhiya ili balans interesov?” [Planned anarchy or a balance of interests?], Znamya (November 1989): 212.
11. Alexander Yakovlev, “Socialism: From a Dream to Reality,” speech at the Moscow State University, February 12, 1990, in Yakovlev, Muki prochteniya bytiya, 100.
12. Alexander Vasinsky, “Terpimost’ k inakomysliyu” [The tolerance of dissent], Moskovskie novosti, September 11, 1988, 13.
13. Leonid Gozman, “Bol’she sotsializma!” [More socialism!], roundtable discussion, Ogonyok, no. 14, (1988): 7.
14. Boris Vasiliev, “Prozrenie” [The recovery of sight], Sovetskiy ekran, no. 6 (1987): 5.
15. As quoted in Mikhail Antonov, “Tak chto zhe s nami proiskhodit?” [What is really happening to us?], Oktyabr’ (August 1987): 55.
16. Alexander Yakovlev, “Rabotat’ po sovesti, zhit chestno” [To work conscientiously, to live honestly], Pravda, February 28, 1989, 2.
17. Alexander Yakovlev, “Only Moral Democracy,” Moscow News, January 1, 1990, 6.
18. Marat Baglay, “Moral’ i politika” [Morality and politics], Sovetskaya kul’tura, July 27, 1989, 10.
19. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1967), 135.
20. Samuel Johnson, Resselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 259.
21. Leonid Gol’din, “Nado snova nauchit’sya zhit’” [We must relearn how to live], Sovetskaya kul’tura, August 29, 1989, 3.
22. Sofya Petrovna [The heroine’s name and patronymic] and Spusk pod vodu [Descent underwater].
23. Dmitry Kazutin, “Zhertvoyu pali” [Fallen a victim], Moskovskie novosti, November 27, 1988, 5; and Vitaly Korotich, “Uchimsya nazyvat’ veshchi svoimi imenami” [We are learning to call things by their right names], Moskovskie novosti, July 3, 1988, 15.
24. Alexander Tsypko, “Khoroshi li nashi printsipy?” [How good are our principles?], Novy mir (April 1990): 201.
25. Leon Aron, “The Problematic Pages,” The New Republic (September 24, 2008): 35–41.
26. Vladimir Socor, “Russian MFA Defends Soviet Annexation of Baltic States,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 6, 2011.
27. See, for example, Masha Gessen, “Medvedev’s Time,” International Herald Tribune, November 3, 2011.
28. Those who write editorials for Russia’s leading liberal daily, Vedomosti, may not be old enough to remember much of what happened a quarter century ago, but an article in the paper’s July 10, 2012, issue reads as if they had read and absorbed dozens of essays from Moskovskie novosti, Ogonyok, Literaturnaya Gazeta, or Komsomolskaya Pravda between 1987 and 1991. Titled, very glasnost-like, “Our Past Today” it reads, “Understanding Stalinism is not just ‘literature.’ It is a real, palpable process, which should lead to the impossibility of any limits on human rights in Russia. The state that remained unpunished for the crimes of the XX century will commit crimes in the XXI century until we realize that the tragedies of the past concern not only historians but each of us.” It continues, until “the tragedy of the XX century is comprehended to the end,” the Russian society will not develop “immunity to the disparagement [diminution/belittling] of human rights. The society would not have tolerated or arbitrariness of police or the unfairness of the courts or assault on liberties in general. Yet Russia is destined to wander around in circles because 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union the country still has not “reflected on the legacy of Stalinism and thus have not created institutions that would impede the repetition of the tragedy of our past.” A leader of the “new protesters” movement, writer Boris Akunin (Chkhartishvili), also believed that the “specter of an “effective manager” under whom “the country was a great power” must be buried deeply and run through with a wooden stake.” When he asked the readers of his blog to vote on the issue, over a quarter felt that “Stalinism has not been exposed to the end and that is dangerous.” See Boris Akunin, “Razgovor s politikom” [A conversation with a politician], Part 1, January 3, 2012,
29. Vladmir Socor, “Moldova Condemns Communism at Long Last,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 17, 2012.
30. As quoted in Simon Leys, “He Told the Truth about China’s Tyranny,” New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012. See also Sergey Radchenko, “China’s Lockdown on Truth,” Washington Post, December 31, 2011.
31. Leys, “He Told…”
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Leon Aron, A Quest for Democratic Citizenship: Agendas, Practices, and Ideals of Six Russian Grass-Roots Organizations and Movements, AEI, September 2012,
35. Anastasiya Zagoruyko, written responses to the questionnaire. The Far Eastern (Maritime) coordinator of the Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia, Ms. Zagoruyko could not attend a face-to-face interview and, instead, responded in writing to the questions submitted in advance to all the respondents.
36. Interview with Natalia Vvedenskaya in Aron, A Quest for Democratic Citizenship.
37. Aron, A Quest for Democratic Citizenship.
38. “About TIGR,” Tigr, February 14, 2009, 1 (copy in the author’s possession).
39. Author’s interview with Maxim Vedenev and Evgenia Chirikova. “If people had even a little bit of self-respect, then we would not have the impunity,” said Vedenev.
40. Author’s interview with Natalia Vvedenskaya. The emphasis is added.
41. Author’s interview with Evgenia Chirikova.
42. Will Englund, “Putin Presents Himself as Key to Russia’s Future,” Washington Post, January 17, 2012.
43. Lev Gudkov, “Delegitimation of an Authoritarian Regime: Mass Protests and Controlled Elections” (presentation, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, June 4, 2012).
44. See, for example, Boris Nemtsov, “For Russia—Dignity, Honor and Consciousness Are Not Empty Words,” Livejournal blog, February 5, 2012,
45. “Protestny dekabr 2011: chem eto zakonchitsya?” [The Protest December 2011: How Will This End?], interview with Alexei Navalny by Evgenia Albats, Polny Albats show, Ekho Moskvy, December 26, 2011,
46. Georgy Borodyansky, “Omsk. Glavnymi ‘geroyami’ aksii ‘Za chestnye vybory stali Putin i Polezhaev” [Omsk: Putin and Polezhaev became the main ‘heroes’ of the rally ‘for honest elections’], Novaya Gazeta, February 4, 2012.
47. Ekaterina Kuzmina, “Aktsiya ‘Za chestnye vybory’ v Novosibirske – opros mitinguyushchikh” [A rally ‘for honest elections’ in Novosibirsk: A survey of the participants], February 5, 2012,
48. Will Englund and Kathy Lally, “Fighting Erupts at Moscow Protest,” Washington Post, May 7, 2012.
49. Ibid.
50. Alexei Zubov, “Net povoda dlya ogorcheniy” [No need to be upset], Vedomosti, March 5, 2012.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.