Books: Death of a milk-cow

REBIRTH OF A NATION: An Anatomy of Russia by John Lloyd, Michael Joseph pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
SEVERAL years ago, Yevgeny Kiselyev, Russia's glossiest and most prestigious TV anchorman, departed from his ponderous style and managed to muster a sharp question. He was interviewing the foreign minister of the day, Andrei Kozyrev, not long before the latter was fired amid an undercurrent of disillusionment with pro-western liberalism. Was it not the case, he inquired, that the rest of the world thinks Russia is "a decrepit nuisance?"

It was a startling question, and not merely because to vocalise such a sentiment on the airwaves would have meant incarceration (or worse) only a decade earlier. He had articulated a view that had hardened steadily in the years since the crumbling of the Soviet Union among those watching from outside: who needs Russia?

Who needs a country, packed with nuclear weapons, which has the basic apparatus of a democracy (constitution, parliament, regional and local councils), but which is, in reality, governed by a ruling elite whose decisions are made either arbitrarily, or in accordance with the opaque and corrupt rules of self-interest, clan, or outright criminality?

Who needs a nation headed by an ill and elderly political cross-dresser who started out in the eye-pleasing weeds of democracy but has also donned the darker hues of an autocrat, a man who has been as capable of favouring reactionary lickspittle courtiers as he is liberals, and who - to his eternal shame - proved this by sending tens of thousands of his countrymen to their deaths in Chechnya?

Who, for that matter, needs a country whose outdated industries are ignorant of the concept of responsibility to shareholders or customers, and are manned by workers who are incapable of comprehending that the Soviet milk cow is dead, and cling to their free flats, health care, social services, and holidays?

Huge swathes of the country's businesses are, of course, privatised, thanks to Boris Yeltsin and his reformer advisers, notably Anatoly Chubais. But too many are owned by dodgy banks and finance houses which are looking for a quick buck and have no interest in investing in the necessary radical restructuring. Such issues are fundamental to the state that Russia now finds itself in as it struggles to redefine its sense of identity now its enthusiasm for the west - and vice versa - has faded markedly since the days of perestroika . They lie at the heart of the mission undertaken by John Lloyd in his outstanding examination of the first years of reform in Russia.

Most journalists who stumble across the same strange territory usually emerge with only a fistful or two of lunar dust from which they struggle to squeeze a grain of sense. But Lloyd, these days as much scholar as scribe, has pursued and achieved far deeper and wider goals, traversing a vast landscape in search of the symptoms - legal, cultural, political, economic - of the beginnings of a "normal" society.

As Russia shrank from super-power to regional power, so too did much of the global interest in the detail of its difficult evolution. Unlike many, Lloyd has stuck with the plot, painstakingly piecing together the mosaic and, in doing so, establishing himself as a leading international commentator on the former Soviet Union. It is, he concludes, possible that Russia's new entrepreneurial class will be the salvation of this massive and troubled land, but this should not be assumed to be inevitable.

It is to Lloyd's credit that, despite the scale of his endeavour, he never loses control of his material. The price is that we lose something of the vitality of the place in favour of overview. Lloyd deliberately avoids folding into the mix anything more than sporadic glimpses of his personal experiences during four years as the head of the Financial Times' bureau in Moscow.

But the resulting clarity, and the energy and elegance of his prose, combine to create a book that is both extremely readable and authoritative , despite the bewildering world in which it was incubated. This is a work which will be liberally (and, no doubt, unapologetically) plundered by his fellow journalists, academics, and diplomats for some years to come.

I have one or two petty grumbles. It is a shame that the rigour within the book itself did not extend to the proof-reading of the acknowledgements, which are dotted with misspelt names. By ill luck, he also closes the book not with a cannonade of wisdom, but by firing a dud. In 1996, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, decreed that an enormous statue of Peter the Great (pictured above) should be built on an island in the Moscow River, within eyeshot of the Kremlin. It was testimony to Russia's attempts to plug itself into past glories, pumping a sense of national pride into the ideological space left by the collapse of Communism. And it was also a monument to the megalomaniac impulses of the mayor himself, who is hungrily eyeing Mr Yeltsin's job.

When John Lloyd penned the last words of his book, the remnants of Moscow's liberal intelligentsia seemed to have persuaded the mayor to change his mind. The leading opponent cited this as evidence of a new generation interested less in money and more in creating a civil society in Russia. "It gave hope," concludes Lloyd, "that the early efforts to graft a fake future onto a crumbling past could not succeed, that the present had to be constructed out of a new experience and that traditions had to be absorbed over decades before they could be understood, and superseded."

Not so, alas. Built without public consultation or consent, the statue is still there and so it will remain. It is a hideous blot on the landscape and a measure of the ease with which the bullying elite can still trample, Soviet-style, over the emerging buds of hope and decency in Russia. Civil society is still a long way off.

Rebirth of a Nation; An Anatomy of

Russia; Published by Michael Joseph;

20 pounds,

erely becausacked