Russia Under Putin: Echoes of the Soviet Era Russia is undergoing an economic boom, and its citizens are free to travel and read what they want. But some observers say that Russian politics under President Vladimir Putin have come to resemble those of the old Soviet Union.

Russia Under Putin: Echoes of the Soviet Era

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

All this week in this part of the program we're focusing on Russia and its resurgence under President Vladimir Putin. Critics say that under Putin, Russia has turned backwards, back toward the old Soviet political system. Other analysts say the reality is far more complex. After all, Russians are free to travel abroad, read what they want, and they've become voracious consumers of foreign-made products.

Today in our second report, NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer examines Russia's new hard-line culture.

GREGORY FEIFER: It's been 15 years since the end of communism, and downtown Moscow increasingly looks like many other world capitals.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: The high price of oil, Russia's main export, is fueling a huge consumer boom, and Russians are flocking to shopping malls, like this upscale one near Red Square, as fast as developers can build them. From where I'm standing I can see shops selling designer clothes and high-priced electronics, and throngs of happy shoppers.

(Soundbite of cash register)

FEIFER: All this seems light-years away from Russia's drab Soviet past. Fifteen years ago, the people flashing credit cards here would have been standing in line for hours to buy staples like milk and sugar in grocery shops that stank and whose shelves were empty.

But some say that Moscow's slick new appearance masks a grim reality. 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. He says Russia's economic boom has given President Vladimir Putin the cash he needs to stamp his authority on the country.

Mr. BORIS NEMTSOV (Former Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): You know, we have $100 billion in the stabilized 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. Do you think such a kind of system needs democracy? No.

FEIFER: 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.

Mr. NEMTSOV: He's like millions of Russians who have nostalgia about crazy and corrupted and bankrupt Soviet Union, and who don't like freedom and democracy and don't understand the meaning of that.

FEIFER: 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.

Independent legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov is one of the few opposition figures still trying to work within the system, although he prefers to meet visitors outside his parliament office in the relative freedom of one of Moscow's many Western-style coffee shops.

(Soundbite of cappuccino machine)

FEIFER: Ryzhkov compares the Russian parliament to the toothless Soviet legislature under former leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Russian Parliamentarian): (Through translator) We're losing the battle for democracy. We've been unable to increase press freedom, register opposition parties or have free elections.

FEIFER: Ryzhkov has introduced legislation to fight corruption, but it's languished in parliament. Now there's even talk of canceling local elections. Political candidates are already being struck off ballots in upcoming elections this month 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.

Mr. GRIGORY YAVLINSKY (Yabloko Party, Russia): You can criticize, you can write essays, you can write books, but only if you are not crossing the line.

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

Mr. YAVLINSKY: The day when you are starting to create kind of a problem in terms of power or financial flows, everything can happen to you, no exceptions. You're simply out the law.

FEIFER: 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 threats to Putin. The government stuck Yukos with a major 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's less like the Soviet Union's than the 20th century's other form of dictatorship.

Mr. LEV PONOMARYOV (Human Rights Activist): (Through translator) The control Putin is putting over the country's corporate sector resembles the kind of fascism instituted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini or Spain's Francisco Franco.

FEIFER: 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.

Mr. RYZHKOV: (Through translator) The state no longer interferes in private life. 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.

FEIFER: But Ponomaryov says freedoms such as uncensored access to the Internet are only part of a facade of democracy.

Mr. PONOMARYOV: (Through translator) Internet use is simply too small to affect the public's consciousness. It's the television channels that program how the population thinks, and they're once again under state control.

FEIFER: As a result, many Russians have stopped watching national television, which once again churns out Kremlin propaganda. Vitaly Korotich is former editor of Ogonyok 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.

Mr. VITALY KOROTICH (Former Editor, Ogonyok Magazine): Now people are tired. People simply want to have cheap food, 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.

(Soundbite of Russian national anthem)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

FEIFER: 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 old Soviet melody first commissioned by Joseph Stalin.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

(Soundbite of Russian national anthem)

Unidentified Group: (Singing): (Speaking foreign language).

BLOCK: Tomorrow, Gregory speaks to some of Russia's leading human rights activists and asks if they've assumed the role of Soviet-era dissidents. There is a timeline charting key events in Russia's resurgence and more information about our series at npr.org.

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