IN MOSCOW yesterday John Major may have reflected ruefully that here, at last, he had found a country and a government whose problems made his own seem mere trifles.
Desperate poverty exists side by side with brash wealth: beggars and Mercedes. Rouble inflation is forecast to nudge 20 per cent a month; local administration is arbitrary and disorganised, central government - powerless. The rivalry between government and parliament that in October exploded briefly into violence remains unresolved, and the new Russian parliament has the added complication of a strong nationalist contingent. Radical reformers have mostly been ousted from government and many of their Western advisers have left, vociferously wringing their hands.
Today, however, Mr Major is to visit the central Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. The choice of Nizhniy is felicitous, for it embodies the distance that Russia has come in a period that is, historically, but the twinkling of an eye.
Less than 10 years ago Nizhniy was still Gorky, named after the Soviet 'socialist realist' writer. It was a colourless city closed to foreigners, which counted the physicist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov among its captives. For the past two years, having restored its old Russian name, it has regenerated its huge pre-revolutionary trade fair and pioneered regional economic reform. Amid the debris of rusting Soviet heavy industry, it has restored its city centre and started to privatise shops and services.
Nizhniy is not all Russia. Nor is it typical, save in two respects: its leaders are thinking regionally and it has had to change, drastically. But it is one face of Russia today, and one that should not be neglected amid the prevailing pessimism about Russia's future.
Memories, whether in Russia or the West, are very short. The freeing of Sakharov from exile was one of the first signs that Gorbachev was serious about human rights and glasnost. Until then Russians had been afraid to talk to foreigners and often afraid to talk to each other openly. Their lives were still largely determined by the Communist Party. They were not free to make careers outside the system. Decent hospital treatment, good medicines, the best schools went to those favoured by the party.
It is only a little more than two years since the Soviet Union was dissolved; less than three since the all-powerful Communist Party was disbanded. These two dominant realities of every Russian's life vanished in the space of four months.
Is it any wonder that Russia today is chaotic? Is it not a greater
wonder that it has, so far, made the transition to becoming a constitutional democracy as peacefully as it has?
The social and political shifts required have been likened to those following defeat in a major war. Russia is being turned - is having to turn itself - upside-down. Its former system is discredited; what was a strictly top-down administration is becoming one that must work, however roughly, from the bottom up. The current trend towards regionalism does not mean that Russia itself will break up, any more than a far-left or far-right local council here signifies imminent secession from Britain. It is a response to 70 years in which Moscow dictated everything.
The criticism is fair that those privileges once accorded to the party elite are now the preserve of those with money - often Western money - but the value to the majority of free speech, free votes, freedom above all to choose, is now so secure as to be taken for granted. Once the KGB lost its power to instil terror it lost the only power it really had.
The need for economic reform, moreover, at whatever pace, is acknowledged by all but a powerless minority of hardline Communists. With or without the well-known radicals Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov, economic reform will proceed. Central control is gone and cannot be restored.
The apparently anarchic state of Russia today arouses strong passions, here as well as there. Western Russia-watchers can be divided into nostalgic Gorbachevites, who argue that reform must be slowed to carry the people along with it, and faintly optimistic Yeltsinites (an ever declining number) who hope against hope that the chaos will resolve itself in amicable acceptance of diversity and an ordered market economy.
Last December's vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists is variously interpreted as a harbinger of worse to come or a mass protest against poverty and loss of empire of no lasting significance. Either way, nothing that the Russian government has done, even since the elections, suggests that it will break its international undertakings to respect existing frontiers and treaties.
In the United States the fading of Moscow's radicals and the rise of primitive nationalism has already prompted the beginnings of a fatalistic discussion. 'Who lost Russia?' its elder statesmen are asking, anticipating that the guilt-laden answer, as Russia descends into civil war or fascism, will be the same as it was in relation to China, North Korea and Vietnam: 'We did.'
Yet 'we' - the US or the West in general - have not 'lost' Russia, nor will we, for the simple reason that it is not ours to lose. Even without the other former Soviet republics, it is still a giant country of more than 150 million people. In global terms its people are well educated, even well off. Their task is nothing less than to lighten the legacy of a system that did all it could to thwart what Gorbachev called the 'human factor'.
Now that Russia has of its own accord voted that irrational system out, the West - with the US in the vanguard - seems to feel a compulsive desire to 'do' something. The last time this instinct surfaced was in the spring of 1991, when a small group of Russian and American economists tried to push Western leaders into approving the so-called 'grand bargain', under which the West would try to buy reform and stability in the then Soviet Union for pounds 20bn.
The notion that the West could buy either reform or stability in Russia, let alone the two together, was as misguided then as it is now. We can do little more than help the small- scale initiatives organised in the regions to which power is devolving and set firm limits to any incipient imperial ambitions that Russia may harbour. The main decisions Russians must take for themselves.
Bryan Appleyard's column will appear tomorrow.
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