Russia Under Putin: Echoes of the Soviet Era

The second report in a five-part series.

The streets of downtown Moscow are full of new stores and choked with luxury cars.

The streets of downtown Moscow are full of new stores and choked with luxury cars. Russia's oil boom has fueled a huge consumer boom. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company i i

Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, stands in the defendant's box in a courtroom in Moscow, May 30, 2005. He was sentenced to eight years in prison; many believe he was punished for posing a political threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company

Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, stands in the defendant's box in a courtroom in Moscow, May 30, 2005. He was sentenced to eight years in prison; many believe he was punished for posing a political threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images
Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal opposition party Yabloko

Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, holds a portrait of slain journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin during a rally in Moscow to commemorate the more than 200 journalists killed in Russia over the past 15 years, Dec. 17, 2006. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, downtown Moscow increasingly looks like many other world capitals.

The high price of oil, Russia's main export, is fueling a huge consumer boom, and Russians are flocking to shopping malls as fast as developers can build them. Upscale shops sell the latest designer clothes and high-priced electronics — and host throngs of happy shoppers.

All that seems light-years away from Russia's drab Soviet past. Then, people flashing credit cards in Moscow would have stood in line for hours to buy staples such as milk and sugar in grocery shops that stank, and whose shelves were empty.

Now, Russians have become voracious consumers of foreign-made products, and they are free to travel abroad and read what they want.

But some say that Moscow's slick new appearance masks a grim reality, and that Russian politics under President Vladimir Putin have come to resemble those of the old Soviet Union.

The Rise of 'Putinism'

In the 1990s, Boris Nemtsov was an icon of democratic reform, a crusading minister anointed by former President Boris Yeltsin to be his political heir. Now, Nemtsov looks at the Kremlin from the outside, through the windows of his modern businessman's office.

Nemtsov says Russia's economic boom has given President Vladimir Putin the cash he needs to stamp his authority on the country.

"We have $100 billion in the stabilization fund, $300 billion in the central bank, and one great person in the Kremlin who decides how to distribute this unlimited amount of money among people," Nemtsov says. "Do you think such... a system needs democracy? No."

Nemtsov calls it "Putinism." He says the president has earned huge popularity by raising wages and appealing to many Russians' desire for a strong and stable leadership.

"[Putin] is like millions of Russians who have nostalgia for the crazy and bankrupt and corrupted Soviet Union, and who don't like freedom and democracy and don't understand the meaning of it," Nemtsov says.

The president has abolished the election of regional governors. Parliament is now dominated by a pro-Putin majority that speeds through Kremlin-issued legislation, often too quickly for deputies even to read new bills.

Russia 'Losing the Battle for Democracy'

Independent legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov is one of the few opposition figures still trying to work within the system.

Ryzhkov compares the Russian parliament to the toothless Soviet legislature under former leader Leonid Brezhnev, and says the country is "losing the battle for democracy."

"We've been unable to increase press freedom, register opposition parties or have free elections," says Ryzhkov, who has introduced legislation to fight corruption, only to have it languish in parliament.

Now there's talk of canceling local elections, scheduled for later in March. Candidates already are being struck off ballots for what they say are technicalities.

Among those targeted are members of the liberal Yabloko Party. But leader Grigory Yavlinsky says unlike the complete domination of everyday life by the Soviet Union's totalitarian leadership, the Kremlin's authoritarian occupants today simply don't care what most of the population is doing.

"You can criticize, you can write essays, you can write books," he says. "But only if you don't cross the line."

Yavlinsky says that line is getting in the way of the economic and political control exercised by the Kremlin's competing political clans.

"The day when you start to create problems in terms of power or financial flows, everything can happen to you, no exceptions. You're simply outside the law," he says.

Freedoms in Personal Sphere a Facade for Kremlin Control

The Kremlin is re-establishing control over the oil industry and other key economic sectors. In 2003, the authorities arrested Yukos oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man, for what many believe to have been his political threat to Putin. The government stuck Yukos with a large back-tax bill, then sold off its main assets in a shady closed auction to a state-controlled company. The government has also taken control of foreign energy projects in Russia.

Leading human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov says Putin is creating a political system that is less like the Soviet Union's than the 20th century's other form of dictatorship.

"The control Putin is building over the country's corporate sector resembles the kind of fascism instituted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini or Spain's Francisco Franco," Ponomaryov says.

Legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov agrees Russia today is not the Soviet Union, under which Party officials decided even such matters as whether to allow husbands and wives to divorce.

"The state no longer interferes in private life," Ryzhkov says. "You can be gay or lesbian, do what you want in the privacy of your home. You can listen to any music, read any book and travel to any country. Outside politics, Russia is an open country."

But Ponomaryov, the human rights activist, says freedoms such as uncensored access to the Internet are only part of a facade of democracy.

"Internet use is simply too small to affect the public's consciousness," Ponomaryov says. "It's the television channels that program how the population thinks, and they're once again under state control."

As a result, many Russians have stopped watching national television, which now churns out Kremlin propaganda. Vitaly Korotich is former editor of Ogonyok, or Little Flame, magazine, which helped revolutionize Russian journalism in the 1980s by printing articles about the grim realities of everyday existence under communism.

Korotich says many Russians now have become disillusioned by the complexities of life in a free society.

"People are tired," he says. "They simply want cheap food and a quiet life. And if I announce today that we have to choose between free press and free sausages, of course they'll choose free sausages."

For the Kremlin's critics, Russia's new national anthem symbolizes the country's schizophrenic state of affairs. The words may be new, they say, but when Putin changed the anthem in 2001, he brought back the same Soviet melody first commissioned by Joseph Stalin.

Profiles: Spotlight on Russian Opposition Leaders

Read profiles of the politicians and human rights activists behind the opposition voices heard in the Resurgence of Russia series.

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