Last Sunday's crucial referendum, though, established the political maturity of the Russian people, and we need to ask whether Western leaders can still subscribe to the assumption, so often expressed by cynics, experts and realists alike, that it will take generations for Russia not just to overcome its imperial legacy and cope with its vast geography, but also to cast off its totalitarian mould and rid itself of homo Sovieticus and all his reflexes.
Russia's difficulties are unusually severe. One glance at the country's time zones, at Moscow's urban decay, at its neglected and primitive countryside seems only to confirm the validity of these sombre predictions. Yet, in spite of the immense tasks ahead, there is good reason to believe - and not just because of the referendum - that a new Russia may emerge far more rapidly than most people expected.
The fact is that homo post-Sovieticus already exists. I have met him in the context of a new Moscow School for Political Studies which brought together, in an informal 'young leaders' seminar', elected officials from all levels of Russian political life and representatives of the new generation of bankers and entrepreneurs.
This school, conceived in one of the dissident 'kitchens' of the Eighties and founded by Lena Nemirovskaya, an energetic, charismatic but quite ordinary private citizen, is now funded by the Council of Europe, with additional contributions from Britain and France.
The Russian 'students' selected for the first seminar came from all over the country: from Siberia and the Urals, from St Petersburg and Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg), as well as from Moscow and its environs. They were truly representative, therefore, of the new elites that emerged from a combination of perestroika, glasnost and Boris Yeltsin's stand in the August 1991 coup. The one characteristic they had in common was their incredibly young age, which confirmed that Russia was indeed traversing a revolutionary epoch.
Like the generals of the French Revolution, these new Russians in positions of great responsibility are in their mid- to late twenties and early thirties. The 70 years and more of Soviet rule seem to have left no trace on their fresh and dynamic outlook. They are too young even to have participated in the Afghan war; they bear none of the stodgy, bureaucratic characteristics of the Soviet past, and are amazingly devoid of ideological constraints and passiveness.
They go about their respective 'businesses' - whether privatisation, banking, converting industry from defence to civilian production, political representation or municipal administration - with the singlemindedness and workaholic attitude generally associated with Western 'yuppies'. More important, perhaps, they discuss Russia's titanic problems among themselves in a spirit of openness, compromise and tolerance of dissenting opinions, which is quite unexpected.
Real democracy may not yet exist in Russia, but democratic dialogue is alive and well among these new elites, who will still be in their fifties even in 2020. After the straitjacket of Soviet 'democratic centralism', where the whole power structure was rigidly hierarchical, compartmentalised along vertical lines, it was reassuring to watch how these young men and women eagerly seek new horizontal links, in the political affairs of the state as well as among Russia's increasingly decentralised regions.
For them, the power struggle between Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament is simply one sign of the far wider issue of legality versus legitimacy, an issue they must confront every day in their professional lives as they try to dismantle the heavy-handed bureaucracy of the old state and build a new political order and an economic system that works.
While many persist in supporting Mr Yeltsin, despite a growing disenchantment with the man and his often incoherent policies, they feel strongly that, whatever its present leanings and leadership, the Russian parliament's strength must be preserved as a vital component of a balanced political system.
They stand for Montesquieu's principles without ever having read him, and are puzzled by the West's Manichean pro-Yeltsin approach to the current power struggles.
At the seminar, from breakfast to midnight, they engaged in constant dialogue with the foreign as well as Russian experts who had come to present Western political and economic models. And, in a notable departure from the past, they drank tea and apple juice and not a single drop of vodka, as if 'Eternal Russia's' flaws could be overcome by sheer strength of will.
At a time when Russia has gone from the extreme of too much oppressive state power to too little state legitimacy, when many Russians choose to pursue their individual interests with little civic sense or idea of the collective good - they often feel optimistic about their personal future, but pessimistic or indifferent to their country's needs - it is more than comforting to realise that 'out there' there are concerned and responsible new elites. They have already emerged, and one of their primary aims is to think of the common good. .
It is essential that the West recognises and nurtures these new elites, scattered though they are through Russia's vast country, for they are Russia's best hope - and our best long-term
investment. A world away from the spectacular and costly projects the West periodically prepares for Russia, which only reinforce a sense of national humiliation because they so rarely attain their objectives, 'Aunt Lena's kitchen school' of democracy, as it is lovingly called by its Western supporters, is a model of idealistic efficiency.
It is an abundance of such specific and well- targeted initiatives that Russia needs today, and tomorrow. The country needs a multitude of such concrete and well-targeted initiatives, of solidarity networks through which Western specialists can share their political, economic and technical experiences at the grass-roots, whether in the Atlay mountains Novosibirsk or Ekaterinnburg, with those who are already building the country's future. Paradoxically, in such an immense continent the watchwords are 'small is beautiful'.
The author is deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations and editor-in-chief of 'Politique Etrangere'. This article was written jointly with Diana Pinto, former editor-in-chief of the pan-European review, 'Belvedere'.Reuse content