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Contents | May 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"Where Europe Vanishes" (November 2000)
The story of the Republic of Georgia illustrates that the peoples of the Caucasus may prove as incapable of self-rule as they were resistant to rule by outsiders. By Robert D. Kaplan

"The Future Did Not Work" (March 2000)
"The fall of the Soviet Union has stimulated an abundance of postmortems on communism and its place in the twentieth century." By J. Arch Getty

"Dead Souls" (January 1999)
A prominent demographer warns that the spread of tuberculosis and AIDS in Russia will soon make Western hand-wringing over the pace of Russian "economic reform" seem quaint. By Murray Feshbach

"Was Democracy Just a Moment?" (December 1997)
The global triumph of democracy was to be the glorious climax of the American Century. But democracy may not be the system that will best serve the world—or even the one that will prevail in places that now consider themselves bastions of freedom. By Robert D. Kaplan

"Thin Walls, Bad Neighbors" (November 1997)
In the new Russia making yourself at home is still no easy task. By Jeffrey Tayler

From Atlantic Unbound:

Executive Decision: "Is It Time to Confront Russia?" (January 26, 2000)
"Now is the time for you to decide what our policy on Chechnya and the new Russian government should be." An interactive poll. By Jack Beatty

Atlantic Abroad: "The Moscow Rave" (December 24, 1997)
Bars, parties, and prostitution—a look at the nightlife in contemporary Moscow. By Jeffrey Tayler

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Background Notes: Russia (May 2000)
The U.S. State Department's profile of Russia: an overview of Russia's history, geography, demographics, government, and relations with the United States.

Russian History
A comprehensive index of links to timelines, archives, discussion groups, and profiles of historical figures. Posted by the Russian Studies Program at Bucknell University.

The Atlantic Monthly | May 2001
Russia Is Finished

The unstoppable descent of a once great power into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance
by Jeffrey Tayler
D uring the Cold War years I perceived Russia through a Cold War prism—as a land of vast, frozen twilight realms of steppe and forest where a drama was being acted out that involved players of satanic evil or saintly good and doctrines that promised either mankind's salvation or its ruin. I developed a passion for the country, a passion that derived in part from a weighty postulate: that what happened there concerned not only Russians but the rest of the world. In its Soviet incarnation Russia had nuclear weapons and a powerful military, a threatening and subversive ideology, a tendency to invade its neighbors or meddle in their affairs, and the might to wreak havoc on other continents. Russians I came to know spoke of the future of their country as if it would be the fate of humanity, and I agreed with them.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Russia's Other World" (March 10, 1999)
Jeffrey Tayler talks about his new book, Siberian Dawn, which tells the story of his 8,000-mile odyssey through lands rarely visited.
Intrigued by this drama, I set out in 1993, after the Cold War had ended, to cross Russia, journeying more than 8,000 miles from Magadan, a former gulag settlement on the Sea of Okhotsk, to Europe. I wrote a book about the trip. I made Moscow my home. I married a Russian. My life—as much as it can be, given that I carry an American passport—is Russian. But having devoted half my life to this country, and having lived through most of its "transition," I have arrived at a conclusion at odds with what I thought before: Internal contradictions in Russia's thousand-year history have destined it to shrink demographically, weaken economically, and, possibly, disintegrate territorially. The drama is coming to a close, and within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished.

Why this should be so will become apparent during a look back at the past decade and how its events stemmed from Russia's Eastern Orthodox civilization and a decimating, isolating, long-ago invasion whose consequences determine the relation between citizen and state to this day.

October, 1993

D espite the grave images the media show us, the full extent of Russia's weakness is not apparent to most visitors at first. Trains run on time. Stores open on schedule. The obvious poverty of shantytowns and slums is rare. Though rising sharply, street crime is still less common than in major cities of the West. At times gruff in public, Russians privately maintain a superb civility and dignity, and their oriental tradition of hospitality toward strangers puts Westerners to shame. Customs now regarded as quaint (or sexist) in the West—such as a man's opening doors for a woman and paying for his date's meals—are the rule, and only the indigent dress shabbily. Standards of education, especially in math and science, exceed those of all but a few Western countries; the average Russian high schooler may have a grasp of U.S. or European history that would humiliate an American college student. The remnants of the Soviet welfare state ensure that few starve; the apartments the Soviet government gave to its citizens make Russia a country of homeowners to a great extent. During the spring and summer months Russians take to the streets to enjoy the clement weather; in the endless, magenta-hued dusks of May and June the well-lit central avenues of Moscow and St. Petersburg resemble fashion runways, with poised, long-legged beauties strolling arm in arm with their dates. On street corners, or in pedestrian underpasses during the winter months, buskers play the balalaika, sing "Kalinka," and chant Eastern Orthodox hymns. In sum, few visitors find cause for despair, and Armageddon appears well at bay. Reform and prosperity, it would seem, are a hair's breadth away, and those who would deny this are shortsighted pessimists.

I, too, thought this way when I arrived in Moscow. In 1993 I was an optimist. How could one not be, after six years of perestroika, the defeat of the Communist coup-plotters in 1991, and the innumerable positive assessments by prominent Westerners, from Presidents to journalists to economists and investors? The image of Boris Yeltsin mounting a tank in front of the Supreme Soviet during the attempted coup and announcing, in his kingly baritone, that Russia would remain free of tyranny retained perfect clarity in my mind's eye. Moreover, in 1993 Yeltsin had just prevailed in a national referendum that granted him a mandate to continue his free-market and democratization reforms. History in Russia was beginning anew. What needed to be changed would be changed; problems that needed solving were going to be solved.

One warm afternoon in early October of 1993 I was strolling through the Kitai-Gorod neighborhood of central Moscow with a young woman by the name of Lena. An accountant, Lena had cropped flaxen hair and hazel eyes that radiated purpose; she was well spoken and curious. We talked about Pushkin's poetry, about the Michael Jackson concert that had just taken place in Moscow, about which designers were chic in the West, about how she liked to spend her days off at her parents' dacha. But when our conversation turned to Russia, a hardness invaded her eyes. I took the position that Yeltsin would keep the country on the reformist path; she countered with declarations that "nothing good will ever come of Russia," that the truth about what was going on here would never be known, that one who thought otherwise was naive, and that Russians were, above all, an unpredictable people, given to wild swings and dangerous extremes, lacking the patience and adherence to principle that democracy demanded. She scoffed at forecasts of prosperity and laughed at Westerners, with their belief in progress, the rule of law, and the goodness of men. I answered that this would all change, and we argued. But it was a beautiful day, the poplars stood red and gold in the fresh autumn air, and we soon dropped the subject. Suddenly we realized that we were almost alone on the streets, although it was a weekend afternoon. Only the distant sound of sirens broke the silence.

That evening I arrived home and turned on the television to scenes of mayhem and carnage in central Moscow. A couple of weeks earlier Yeltsin had ordered the Supreme Soviet, which opposed him, to disband. The deputies had refused; they had proclaimed a new government and appointed their own President. They had locked themselves inside the Soviet; soldiers and demonstrators had surrounded it; and a standoff had ensued. While Lena and I were out strolling, some of the demonstrators had broken through the line of soldiers and set off on a rampage through town, shooting their way to the main television station, which they attempted without success to take by force. The next morning Yeltsin ordered tanks into the streets, and I watched from the bank of the Moscow River as they blasted the white-marble citadel of the Supreme Soviet into a flaming, blackened shell, as snipers fired on passersby from rooftops, as crowds ran screaming along the embankment.

The deputies surrendered that evening, but for the next two weeks the Kremlin imposed a curfew. From the moment the nightly curfew began, cries to halt, bursts of gunfire, and screams would echo outside my apartment and last until dawn. My neighbors and I assumed that the shooting and screaming had something to do with Ministry of Internal Affairs troops apprehending curfew violators or hunting down the Chechen guerrillas whom, it was said, the Chechen speaker of the Supreme Soviet had installed in Moscow, but we never learned exactly what was going on. There were rumors and more rumors; the media were biased in Yeltsin's favor and could not be fully trusted. During the day troops rounded up Chechen and Azerbaijani street traders, often beating them, seizing their goods and money, and bulldozing their kiosks before expelling them from Moscow. This they did with the approval of the mobs that gathered to watch: many saw the dark-skinned Caucasians as outsiders who stirred up trouble, or as mafiozy.

Reformer or no, Yeltsin had the guns, and he used them. As under the czars and Stalin, so under Yeltsin—might would prevail in Russia, dialogue would be drowned out in the rattle of gunfire and blasts of artillery, violence would be used by the state against those who opposed reforms that were at least ostensibly for the good of the country. But there was something new this time: the violence received accolades from Western politicians whom most Russians had until then viewed as honorable and above the tumult of Russian politics. Because the West supported the bombardment and sided so openly with Yeltsin afterward, many saw the West as colluding with Yeltsin to weaken Russia. From then on Russians began deriding Yeltsin as the stavlennik ("protégé") or marionetka ("puppet") of the West. Russians' view of their country, as Lena had expressed it to me, was imbued with pessimism (which turned out to be justified), fatalism, and an awareness of irreconcilable traits and historical contradictions. If reform depended on democracy, and democracy required dialogue and trust, what did it mean that when faced with one of his first major crises, Yeltsin started shooting at his adversaries? In short, what had really changed?

The Rule of Lawlessness

T he leaders of the October, 1993, uprising were charged with inciting mass disorder, imprisoned, given amnesty in early 1994, and released, sufficiently chastised that most have not since participated in national politics. With his survival at stake, Yeltsin proposed a constitution that would grant him czarlike powers. A referendum was held, and the constitution passed into law. Liberal Russians (and I) viewed the constitution with some alarm. Did Russia really need a new czar? Wasn't an overly powerful executive branch of government what had always plagued Russia? But then, Yeltsin had staked his career on defeating the Communists, who appeared to pose the greatest threat to reform, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

In 1994, in order to stay in Moscow, I took a job as the co-manager of a Russian-American company that provided physical-protection services to Western businesses opening up in Russia. (My partner was Russian, a former deputy chief of the Moscow militia.) If in politics some sort of order had been restored, in other areas of national life, specifically business and the economy, a war was being waged—a war that, more than the uprising of 1993, would poison Russia and pervert its course, and of which I would acquire personal, nerve-shattering knowledge.

One September evening in 1994 I was driving home from work across central Moscow. The sky was a soup of gray drizzle and black cloud. Traffic was light; cars drifted past me or I passed them in a swooshing slush of rain and flying mud. I turned off the Garden Ring Road onto Vtoraya Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street and pulled up to a traffic light. It was red. I waited.

About halfway up the next block a man entered a Mercedes parked at the curb. A few seconds later an explosion tore the car apart and blew out the windows in the surrounding buildings, and the shock wave hurled pedestrians to the ground. A column of flame erupted from the vehicle; glass and scraps of metal tinkled and clanked as they fell to the ground. I jumped out of my car to look, and then a second, lesser explosion—the Mercedes's gas tank—scattered shreds of metal within a twenty-yard radius.

A couple of minutes later a militia car arrived, but the officers did little more than gawk at the burning vehicle. By the time a fire engine had pulled up, black smoke overhung the street, and the flames shooting from the wreckage reached into the branches of a tree above. The firemen brought out a hose and managed to extinguish the blaze with a torrent of white foam, which spread over the street like dirty snow. Steam resembling winter fog arose from the burnt car. The blaze out, the firemen threw aside their hose and pried open the door with a crowbar. The inside of the vehicle was a skeleton of charred, twisted metal. A few chunks of singed flesh were all that remained of the man inside.

The radio first reported this as the murder of a prominent actor; then reports said a banker. It turned out to be the contract killing of a mafiya boss whose alias was Sylvester.

From the archives:

"Hoods Against Democrats" (December 1998)
In Bulgaria the distinction between the state and organized crime is clear—for now. By Robert D. Kaplan

"The Wild East" (June 1994)
Organized crime has Russia even more firmly in its grip than has been reported. By Seymour M. Hersh
A great gangland war was on in Russia, and I again heard gunfire in the night around my apartment. Bankers, businessmen, and innocent bystanders were being murdered in shootouts, contract hits, and car and apartment bombings—sometimes at the rate of several a day in Moscow alone. Competing territorial criminal gangs, many of which operate under the protection of police and state officials, were establishing their turf, taking over businesses across Russia, eliminating those who resisted. Government security services, so powerful under the Soviets, now found themselves outgunned; they were also vulnerable to corruption, because most officers and soldiers earned less than $150 a month.

There was nothing subtle, hidden, or surreptitious about the mafiya. Mafiozy often drove armored Mercedes and BMWs equipped with sirens and flashing lights and used them to force other cars to the side of the road; to avoid traffic jams they turned onto the sidewalk, honked, and shot ahead, sending pedestrians diving out of the way. They gathered at nightclubs where the cover charges alone could exceed $400; they ordered cognac at $200 a shot and hookers at $1,000 a session; they dressed in Versace and Hugo Boss suits; they maintained diamond-clad concubines of mesmerizing, icy beauty. Outside Moscow they built grand dachas for themselves, their wives, and their mistresses; they vacationed on the Riviera and in the Swiss Alps. In a land where honesty was a fault and the good were always the losers, always the poor, mafiozy became role models for many of the young, who in at least one survey named "contract killer" and "hard-currency prostitute" as the professions to which they most aspired. Money (and guns) made kings—understandably, in view of both Russia's poverty and the revulsion the young felt for the Soviet dogma of self-abnegation for the sake of a bright future, which never came. A free and fair market was an abstract concept; driving a $200,000 armored Mercedes 600 that could survive a bomb explosion under its chassis was fun.

The mafiozy were richer, cleverer, more lavish, and more aggressive than the expatriate businessmen arriving in Moscow, lured by Western journalists' portrayal of Russia as the "Wild East"—a tantalizing but deceptive catchphrase that implied frontierlike opportunity for all in a munificent wilderness. When the expatriates discovered that the odds had been stacked against them, they came to our security firm for protection; they were frightened, insomniac, at times trembling, and always stunned. Where was the reforming Russia that would let them get rich while preaching the gospel of the free market to reverent native subordinates?

The Byzantine nature of Russia's legal environment provides organized crime with an entrée into businesses by making violations of the law—matters for blackmail—inevitable, and by leaving entrepreneurs at the mercy of corrupt bureaucrats and state agencies. It is impossible to operate a business successfully in Russia and also observe all the laws, because there are too many contradictory laws. The approximately twenty different levies on the books would tax a company as much as 105 percent if they were paid; businesses must evade taxes to at least some extent or go bankrupt. Most enterprises maintain a secret chornaya kassa (a "black accounting book" that accurately shows profits and losses) but submit to auditors from the Tax Inspectorate the belaya bukhgalteriya ("white accounts"—false records of low profits and high expenses). The auditors themselves are barely getting by: they work for a commission (a percentage of the taxes they collect), and may be receptive to bribes, gifts, rented women, and so on.

State agencies other than the Tax Inspectorate suffocate businesses and add to the mess. Registration, re-registration, and certification with municipal departments cost enterprises hundreds of employee hours. Bureaucrats may expedite paperwork for bribes. Unbribed, they may "forget" or "misplace" one's papers, deny requests, delay decisions, fail to show up for meetings, or send one back to a lower-level bureaucrat for this or that document or stamp or signature. Fire, sanitary, and labor inspectors make frequent and unexpected calls on businesses. If something is not in order, or the inspectors are not adequately bribed or fêted, they may order the company closed, seize assets, or arrange for arrests. Legal redress most often fails: the government rarely loses in court against the accused, and judges are known to be on the take.

Enter the mafiya. It has been estimated that 80 percent of Russian businesses pay dan' ("tribute,"or protection money) to a krysha ("roof," or racket), but the real number is probably higher; one may assume that any business operating openly has a krysha. (Entrepreneurs providing clandestine services are less likely to run into trouble.) Mafiozy approach businesses directly, visiting in groups of three or four; one of them speaks in a friendly manner, warning directors that they must pay dan'—15 to 20 percent of their company's gross earnings—or suffer violence at the hands of unnamed gangs. If the mafiozy operate under the guise of a security agency, they may insist that the director sign a contract—a ruse that has deceived some businesses into relinquishing control of their bank accounts. Once a business has acquired a krysha, it must resist the advances of rival gangs or risk falling prey to razborki—a settling of scores over territory. If businesses refuse to pay, which is rare now, the thugs mount an escalating campaign of pressure, starting with verbal threats, moving on to beating and kidnapping, and ending with well-placed bullets or the torture of loved ones or a bomb placed by the door of the businessman's apartment.

If businessmen attempt to conceal revenues from the krysha victimizing them, they may be exposed by moles the mafiya has placed within their companies. Often, in return for payment, accountants or secretaries provide the mob with information about their employers' violations of tax laws. In any case, a businessman may simply be unable to cope with the mobsters' demands, which can increase at any time: in addition to regular dan', thugs may demand "gifts" in the form of SUVs, rented women, or bags of cash. However, the mafiya can play a useful role in business development: if competitors with lower prices or better goods appear on the scene, fires, theft, murder, and other bedlam can be arranged.

In most countries organized crime affects principally illegal trade (narcotics, prostitution, gambling), but in Russia the mob can take over any business—not only because most businesses have to break the law to stay afloat, and thus leave themselves vulnerable to extortion, but also because so much economic activity takes place in untraceable cash. Although Russian law requires that a business open a bank account, Russian banks are notoriously unreliable—failing frequently, closing unexpectedly, disappearing with their depositors' money, or charging high fees for irregular services. A business may thus be forced to conduct most of its transactions in cash. Other Russian financial institutions have proved no more reliable: investment houses have turned out to be pyramid schemes, and millions of private investors have lost their life savings when the schemes collapsed.

A country with a $340 billion economy and no reliable banking system or financial sector makes a poor investment, to say the least, and capital flight has become a necessity for many businesses. It is estimated that for most of the nine years since the fall of the Soviet Union some $2 billion a month has fled the country for banks in the Caribbean, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Aid from international lending agencies totaled $66 billion through 1998; in the mid-1990s roughly $10 billion a year in aid poured into Russia while at least double that flowed out.

Faced with such danger, disarray, corruption, and deceit (most of which is well publicized by the Russian media: news shows frequently amount to chronicles of bribery, death, and dismemberment), Russians have stopped feeling outrage and have resigned themselves. The murder of an entrepreneur "as a result of his business activity" (to quote a phrase beloved by militia press centers) arouses no surprise, only a shrug. The excesses of mobsters on a Moscow street provoke no indignation, only envy. It is accepted that the chaos and contradictory laws benefit those in power—that the state has abandoned its people to the thugs because it is in league with them. In any case, those in power, be they mafiozy or the government, have the guns; thoughts of overt resistance are rare.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2001; Russia Is Finished - 01.05; Volume 287, No. 5; page 35-52.

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