Something is stirring in Russia, but it is hard to divine quite what it is. After a week spent travelling, mostly in the north-west of the country, in the company of Western Russia-watchers and Russian intellectuals, politicians and journalists - this year's Valdai group meeting that culminated in the annual question-and-answer session with Vladimir Putin - I found Russia caught between its past and its future, still uncertain which way to go. There is scant hint of destructive social tension; the special troops routinely mobilised to counter banned demonstrations seem out of all proportion to the threat to law and order from those claiming the right to free assembly. The buzzword is "modernisation", which was launched into the post-Soviet lexicon a year ago by Putin's successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev. Since then, Russians everywhere on the political spectrum have tied themselves in knots trying to define it. Among intellectuals, there is widespread disappointment.
Not all of that seems justified. In the material sense, Russia has undergone an extraordinary burst of modernisation in the past 20, but especially 10 years, and - despite the backwash from the West's economic crisis - it continues apace. It is not only in Moscow and St Petersburg that new housing, new office blocks and new commercial centres have sprung up, for better - and, from the environmental perspective, also for worse. Most Russians are living better today than they ever have. But modernisation, especially for Russia's disenchanted intellectuals and growing professional class, is not just, or mainly, about material living standards.
One senior official put it like this: "It's not just about modernising the economy, it's about modernising all aspects of life, including politics." He went on: "Russia's problem is that the whole population thinks 'I can observe the law in my own way'. Modernisation means that we have to stop doing that; stop all the exceptions, and behave like Germany or France, where they have mature political and judicial systems."
That gap with, say, France or Germany, troubles many Russians, who see little sign that their political leaders see the need, or have the will, to tackle it. At the weekend, though, Medvedev addressed an international gathering which he hopes to make into Russia's answer to the Davos World Economic Forum. He was speaking in the go-ahead northern city of Yaroslavl; his subject was democracy, and even the harshest critics of Russia's credentials in this regard might have pricked up their ears at what he said and the unusually modest tone in which he said it.
Here is a flavour: "I don't just believe in democracy as a form of government, I don't just believe in democracy as a form of political system, I believe that democracy in practice can free millions of people in our country, and billions around the world, from subjugation and poverty." Of Russia, he said: "I know the shortcomings of our system better, perhaps, than anyone ... But I categorically disagree with those who say that there is no democracy in Russia; that authoritarian traditions still rule. That is not so ... Yes, it's young, immature, imperfect, inexperienced, but it's still democracy. We are at the very beginning of the journey. In that sense, we still have work to do. But we are free."
He then set out several requirements for making Russia more democratic - including better courts and prisons - and concluded that for Russia to be truly democratic, its citizens had to be convinced that they lived in a democracy. "After all, however we define democracy, however much we talk about having democracy, it's up to each individual to judge individually whether Russia is democratic or not." There may indeed be a long way still to go. Since Medvedev became president two years ago, however, Russia has suffered two major shocks which may turn out to have been transformative, in the way the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the Armenian earthquake accelerated change in the Soviet Union.
The first, only a couple of months after Medvedev was sworn in, was the Georgia war in August 2008. The common view is that Russia won. "Winning", however, brought home to the Kremlin some uncomfortable truths. Russia had no friends worth speaking of around the world. Its image as a bully, nostalgic for empire, was only reinforced, and its military capability was exposed as outdated and chaotic.
One consequence has been a wholesale re-think of foreign and defence policy - assisted by President Obama's move to "press the re-set button" with Russia. Moscow has started to show a friendlier face to the world. Its officials talk about cooperation and team work; the term "soft power" has entered Russia's diplomatic vocabulary. Speaking, at our meeting in Sochi, about the Georgia conflict, Putin eschewed the sneering and scolding he habitually uses and suggested that the breakaway enclaves and Georgia would have to reach their own settlement (ie without Russia) and accepted that Georgia was the "dominant power" in the area.
Russia is looking for a new start, not just with the US, but with the EU and - as a leaked Foreign Ministry paper earlier this year indicated - orientating its policy more decisively towards the West. Invitations to wartime allies to take part in this year's Red Square parade for Victory Day were another sign, as was Russia's unexpectedly helpful and humane response to the plane crash that killed Poland's President near Katyn.
The forest fires that swept central and southern Russia this summer were the second deep shock to the country's psyche. They showed how emergency equipment and training had been neglected since Soviet days; Russians could see how poorly their own national effort stacked up, compared with high-tech contributions from Canada, Korea, France and others. The fires thus provided easy propaganda, arguing for the urgency of "modernisation".
But they triggered something else as well: a surge of popular activism, mostly at local level, with people forming volunteer groups to fight fires, collecting contributions for the victims and generally filling some of the vacuum where government might, or should, have been. Nor is this the only example this summer of grassroots activism. A growing "green" movement successfully lobbied against part of the route agreed for the new, and much-needed, Moscow-St Petersburg motorway. A section was supposed to run through the Khimki forest; that is now to be reviewed, after Medvedev sided with the protesters.
Also flourishing, at local level, are individual and collective efforts to fill in some of the "blank spots" in recent Russian history. Putin was widely criticised for leaving a formal acknowledgement of Stalin's purge victims until the very last months of his presidency. Nor has Medvedev rushed to offer the state apology for which many families had hoped. But the internet has facilitated an upsurge in the sort of painstaking chronicling started by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to find out exactly what happened, to whom, where and when.
Anatoly Razumov is an unassuming historian and archivist at the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, who spends most of his waking hours gathering and collating information about purge victims. He travels around Russia's north-west, soliciting information from local people about burial sites, exhuming remains, notifying relatives and shining a light on the some of the blackest pages of Russia's history. His work is part state-funded, part funded by the charitable bequest from Solzhenitsyn.
Much has been written about a revival in adulation of Stalin in today's Russia. That Stalin featured in new history textbooks, and not entirely negatively, also came in for Western criticism. But those same critics often neglected the fact that Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is also now required reading in all Russian schools, and the many voluntary and charitable efforts to commemorate the purge victims. One Moscow newspaper invites people to write in with details of lost relatives, searches the records on their behalf, then prints the names, the date when the person was arrested or disappeared, and the number of the official file, if they trace it, so relatives and friends can find the truth.
Razumov also hints at the difficulty of taking Stalin down from his pedestal in many Russian minds. After he has given a presentation, he says, someone will invariably come up to him and ask: "Do you think that, just maybe, Stalin didn't know?" A Russian politician, who began her career during Gorbachev's perestroika, tells how a constituent lamented the death of Yeltsin as a "real Russian leader - a father of the nation ... like Stalin". To any foreigner such parallels seem distasteful, even absurd. But this is the Stalin many older Russians hold in awe, not the megalomaniac behind the purges.
Russia today finds itself in uneasy transit from the last Soviet generation, via Presidents Putin and Medvedev, to a new one, and the conflicts thrown up are, to many, unsettling. Alas, the dark art of Kremlinology did not die with the USSR. Its arcane techniques merely passed from Western journalists and political scientists to their Russian counterparts.
Russian media reports of the forest fires were accompanied by public opinion surveys showing how Putin or Medvedev or both of them were losing ground in the eyes of Russian voters - or not, as the case might be. Putin's well-publicised macho exploits this summer - whale-hunting and a Siberian road trip in the latest model of Lada (which, incidentally, boosted shares in Lada's parent company, AvtoVAZ) - were greeted as signs that he was preparing to stand for President in 2012.
The same gloss was put on an interview in which he suggested that he and Medvedev would get together and decide beforehand who would stand (shades of the Blair-Brown "Granita" pact). In our question-and-answer session last week, Putin said there would be no decision on 2012 until much closer to the time - a temporising answer that contrasted with his adamant denials before the 2008 election that he would not seek to change the constitution in order to serve a third consecutive term. Many assume Putin can hardly wait for 2012.
The view was also widespread that Medvedev's star was fading. His decision not to meet our Valdai group this year seemed to some to bear that out. Others saw it as a sign that his relations with Putin were frosty and he wanted to strike out on his own - even though Putin spoke warmly of him and his performance as President.
With hindsight, the real explanation for the non-meeting with the President may be that Medvedev did not want anything to overshadow his speech on democracy. Nor does that speech hint that he has the slightest intention of retreating from the political front line. What it does underline, again, is the generation gap between Putin, born in 1952, and Medvedev, born in 1965. Thirteen years is quite a bit short of the 20 years conventionally considered a generation. But those particular years mark the difference between Communist Party conformity and Gorbachev's perestroika; between fear and burgeoning freedom.
Putin's priority, and he made this clear again at our meeting, is not to unbalance the ship of state; to do nothing - whether in the economy, in politics, or in any other domain, that might upset the current hard-won stability. He saw, in the run-up to the 2008 election, how the rumour mill fixed on Sergei Ivanov, then first deputy prime minister, to succeed him and how key staff started to shift to Ivanov's team, with the result that his own authority as President threatened to drain away. There followed a government reshuffle, in which Ivanov was the loser, and Medvedev was later named the "Putin party" candidate for President.
Putin's whole life experience, which he shares with very many Russians, predisposes him to avoid shocks of any kind; he has lived through enough of them for real. "We do not need upward or downward leaps, leaps to the left or to the right - we made enough of a leap 20 years ago," he told us. Medvedev, a child of perestroika, glasnost and the rock revolution, has a different outlook. I would suggest that Putin appreciates this in his friend, and may accept that he may not himself see the promised land.
Russia today is at a tipping point. Almost half the population now has no experience or memory of anything before perestroika. If there are not more Medvedevs in the country now than Putins, there soon will be, not least because the population has begun to grow again. And the demographic tipping point applies across the board: politically, economically, psychologically.
The professors in our Valdai group stressed their students were "completely different people" from those they used to teach. One said he had spent a lecture explaining the Soviet procedures for applying to study abroad. Far from sympathising, his students simply did not believe him, and then asked why he had tolerated such restrictions. Not in 2012, perhaps, but before too long, it is this generation, weaned on modernisation and a school syllabus that includes Stalin and Solzhenitsyn, that will bring Russia fully into the 21st century.
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