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photo of pavel voschanovpavel voschanov

He was Boris Yeltsin's press secretary from 1991-1993 and was a journalist with Komsomolskaya Pravda.
When we met a few months ago, you said that in many ways, Russia has ended up just where it began. Can you describe those ways to me?

After I looked at everything that's taken place between 1985 and the year 2000, I began to realize that Russia had run in a strange, terrifying circle, and now finds itself almost in the same place where it was at the dawn of perestroika. In 1985-87, there was no multi-party system in Russia. . . . We came full circle and now find ourselves in a situation where we do not have a multi-party system. . . . There is only one political party, and that is the party of the bureaucracy. Second, we started the reform with a complete disregard for the rights of citizens and have arrived back at the same situation. A human being, with his concerns and opinions, is of no interest to the political elite. He was of very little interest to politicians back in 1985, just like in 2000.

But what is the most frightening is that, in 1985, we started with a society that was angry and disoriented. We ran this circle and ended up with an angry and politically disoriented society that is ready to accept any political slogans that the elite offers them. The public is ravenous. In 1985, there was no society in our country--what was then the Soviet Union. There was a population; but no society, no public opinion, no public pressure, no public oversight for what the government does. Look at what we have now. Everything is the same. There is a population, but there is no society. That's why there is no public opinion, there is no public oversight, there is no public pressure on the authorities. None of this. And this population is as easily manipulated as it was in 1985.

Only one thing has changed. Now those who were in power in 1985 are flying different colors and are singing different hymns than they did back then--although nothing, in essence, has changed. . . . If you look at the moral core of Russia's politicians, you'll see that we escaped the corruption of the Communist Party only to find an even greater corruption--this time by non-Party members--not within one specific party, but on the level of the state. This corruption is even worse, and hard to fight. So I really think that our country has come full circle. We failed to build democracy in Russia.

What are some of the reasons?

. . . Everything is interconnected. Russia's past was always hard and full of blood. Intellectual and human potential was always wasted throughout the centuries. Russia's entire history is full of bloody crackdowns and tough rulers, whose main target has always been the intellectual elite.

But if you look at the twentieth century, it has been truly tragic. If we start analyzing what has happened in Russia, we'll see that every five to seven years there has been mass repression, and then the loss of the intelligentsia. Emigration followed World War I. There was the 1917 revolution in October, and the resulting emigration after it. Then there were a series of repressions. In the 1920s, there was another wave of emigration. Then World War II, with the enormous losses.

Who has always been poorly prepared for the war? The intelligentsia. It has always been eager to defend the country, but has never been prepared to do this. It did not know how. So who would be the first to get killed during the war? Scholars and writers, artists and journalists, doctors and teachers--the very best and the most talented part of society.

During Stalin's repressions, it was the most educated farmers who were killed, the intellectuals and the highly skilled factory workers. Russia has been losing its intellectual potential. It's like a pasture where luscious green grass used to grow and now the turf was dug up. There was rain and the grass grew back, but not as thick as it was before. And again it was pulled out. It was pulled out a number of times, and each time, it grew back less and less so. In the end, we found ourselves in a dusty yard with so few blades of grass that you can count them.

Russia has deteriorated.  I'm not sure if a Westerner can understand the degradation of a country. When perestroika started, we discovered that the intellectual class was practically first-generation--one without tradition, without roots, without a moral core. They were the ones ready to yield to all the temptations of bureaucracy. What did all of our troubles start with? As soon as intellectuals said the word "market" aloud, bureaucrats sensed right away that the market was a new way to gain property. If you move from one to another, you need to divide property How do you do that? You make sure that you become rich, and your relatives become rich, and those people who are connected with you become rich. So this doctrine of property distribution by the bureaucracy was feudal in nature. . . .

Our reformers like to claim that the entire problem lies in the fact that the Russian people were used to living in a communist society, with its communist slogans and ideals, while they, the reformers, were trying to transform the people into a capitalist society, with its slogans and ideals. Their claim has nothing to do with what actually happened. These reformers were trying to take us back to feudalism, with rich and omnipotent lords and an impoverished and powerless population.

So what we see today in Russia is this very feudalism, a feudalism with some elements of democracy. Every four years, serfs are allowed to elect their leader, to elect in such a way that the results of the elections have already been determined. Everyone knows the outcome. Even the serfs themselves know who will be elected. It'll probably take a long time before democratic ideas will become appealing to Russians. For the time being, democratic ideas have been discredited. . . .

One may charge Yeltsin with many wrongdoings: corruption, economic chaos, a huge bureaucracy. And all of this is true. But Yeltsin's main crime lies in the fact that he has discredited the very idea of a democratic society. This is the biggest loss of the last ten years. It is hardly possible to restore it over the next five or ten years. It'll take a long time. We are doomed to live in a very strange political system for a number of years. We are going to live under a "party-less" authoritarianism, with some elements of democracy.

Can you be more specific? How has Yeltsin--his character--been a factor in the failures during this era?

. . . If one evaluates what has happened in Russia as far as Yeltsin is concerned, one will see that there are two reasons for all our failures. The first is Yeltsin's huge, overblown ego. He was in love with himself. He would see everything through the lens of his ego. Through this lens, he formed his circles. . . . Back in 1985, we were trying to change the situation, where everything in our society was controlled and determined by the "special service," the KGB. We came full circle to the same situation when KGB people determine and control everything in Russian society, control everything that people say and do. What's different is the purpose of this control. If in the past, the goal was to defend the ideology, now the goal is different--to protect private property. But the essence is the same--a total control over society by the KGB.

. . . In the Kremlin, there was one way to get rid of an undesirable person. It worked 100 percent of the time. All one had to do was to say a few times to Yeltsin, "Boris Nikolayovich, you hired so-and-so. You know, everyone says only good things about him, everyone has a high opinion of him. Last time so-and-so traveled around Russia, he was welcomed enthusiastically by people. Many people say, 'What a great successor to Boris Nikolayovich!'" Two or three comments like this were enough for this person to be gone from the Kremlin for good. Many used this method and Yeltsin's weakness--his ego. The last words I heard from Yeltsin were, "Go and do what the Czar ordered." Czar!

. . . When I talk about Yeltsin's high opinion of himself, I want to draw your attention to one thing that has become the cornerstone in Yeltsin's international politics. To achieve his personal standing, he has friendships with the heads of the world's leading countries. He's one of them. He is friend Boris, friend Bill, friend Boris, friend Jacques, friend Boris, friend Tony, and so forth. And Western leaders accepted the rules of the game that he forced on them. Meanwhile, in Russia differences were building up. . . .

. . . For Yeltsin, the most important thing was to become a member of the club, to make sure that the West liked him more than they liked Gorbachev. Yeltsin genuinely thought that after that, all of Russia's problems would be solved. Gold rain would pour down on us, the borders would open and foreign goods would start pouring in and our goods would be exported to the West--all because Yeltsin was on friendly terms with the other leaders, because he had been meeting with them without ties, without tuxedoes, even without shirts. That's Yeltsin's primitive thinking and his primitive perception of the world's complex realities.

Can you recount the story you told me when we met earlier, about Yeltsin on the night during the August, 1991 putsch, when all of the people were on the barricades outside?

The most difficult day was the night of August 20. That night, everyone at the White House expected that the building would be assaulted. There were tanks and troops stationed around the White House. It was a very cold night. There were campfires surrounding us. The people outside were hungry, because it was difficult to get food through the lines of the troops. Whatever food could be taken out of the White House was given to those camping outside--bread and biscuits.

There were lots of people surrounding the White House, and they wouldn't leave, because they thought they were protecting democracy and a democratically elected government and a democratically elected president.

But few knew what was going inside the White House. About eleven o'clock on the night of August 20, we gathered in the president's office. Everyone was bearing arms--handguns, automatic weapons. Yeltsin walked in, sat down, and we talked about different things. Then Korzhakov [Yeltsin's security manager] said, "Well, it's time to go downstairs." I asked him, "Why do we have to go downstairs?" He said, "We need to go to the shelter, because if the assault starts, we need to make sure that the president is not injured." Many assistants chose to stay upstairs, but I was told to go with the president because, they said, "You are a writer, so if something happens, you will be able to chronicle everything as it was." They meant it to be a joke.

The Russian White House was built with the provisions for a nuclear attack, so there are four levels below the basement. So here we are, going downstairs--the elevators weren't working--until we reach the lowest level. I saw huge metal doors that squeaked when they opened. Suddenly we found ourselves in a huge room that was brightly lit. There were no chandeliers there, just ordinary lamps, and yet it was very light, very clean. In the middle of the room, there was a table with lots of food on it: appetizers, brandy, vodka, whiskey, everything.

Three leaders of Russia's democracy seated themselves around the table, one of them being Russia's president Boris Nikolayovich Yeltsin. I have never given the names of the other two. I've been waiting and wondering if they will ever have the guts to talk about that time. The dinner lasted until five in the morning, when it was clear that nothing serious would happen, and that there would be no assault. White House guards had to help them out of the room because they could not walk on their own.

Frankly, this incident showed me that this leadership was sick. . . . hypocritical. I thought this was a betrayal of those people who believed in the idea of democracy, and that such a government in the end would discredit the idea. As a matter of fact, that is what happened. Had the assault started, those people who were outside the White House would have died defending it, because they were there defending democracy, defending a new Russia. But those who were downstairs in the bunker drinking vodka did not bother about the new Russia. They had their own interests to take care of. Their personal interests were meant to bury the new Russia, so it was doomed. Democracy in Russia died in labor, as it was being born.

. . . Once I was reprimanded by Yeltsin for one of my articles. When I started working for him, first as an assistant when he was still chairman of the Supreme Council, then as his press secretary, we agreed that I would continue writing articles for my newspaper. . . . So one of my articles was called, "If democracy doesn't feed people, it is doomed." When they showed Yeltsin this article, he didn't read it. But the title enraged him. What happened in Russia later only proved I was right. When democracy doesn't feed people, when it doesn't give them anything, they turn away from it.

Look at what happened in the parliamentary elections that soon followed. The same very people, who back in 1988-1987 would consistently vote against Communists, started voting for them. So the Communist Party gained strength and became the leading political party in Russia. When we say now that we have the second Russian parliament controlled by Communists, we need to ask ourselves, who is to blame for this? Are Russian citizens genetically predisposed toward communism? Not in the least. It is Yeltsin's political policies, his entire political image that urged the people to vote against him. It was not important who you voted for. What was important was that you voted against Yeltsin.

The democratic movement fell apart. Zhirinovsky is a semi-schizophrenic, semi-soap-opera, Yavlinsky represents a small class of intellectuals. It is not a political party. There was no one to vote for. So immediately there was a rush of voters from the disintegrated democratic movement to Communists. Who is to blame for this? Yeltsin. No one else.

In October, 1991, he made a speech in which he said to the West, essentially, "We want to be like you and we need your help." What was behind that speech? Was he sincere at that point? Did he understand what he was saying, what he was asking for?

I don't want to present Yeltsin as a stupid person, that he didn't understand a thing and did not have any goals. His intuition was telling him that the communist system was outdated, but what to create? . . . I am going to tell you an absurd thing but it's true, although no one is going to believe this. He wanted to have a communist regime in Russia where only one communist would exist--Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. That's what he wanted. He wanted all businesses to belong to those who are close to him. He didn't see beyond that, and he didn't want to. That's why Russian democracy has dwindled itself to something feudal--Yeltsin, his children, his children's friends, the partners of his children's friends, and so on. That's what the Russian government is, and that's what the Russian business circle is like. There is nothing else but this.

. . . Russia has deteriorated. I'm not sure if a Westerner can understand the degradation of a country. It's deteriorated both politically and socially. It's not because, in the past, we boasted some ideals and a spiritual life, and then the country opened and the West, which has no spirituality, pushed its phony values down our throats. That's what our "patriots" love to say. The reason for this degradation is that the leaders were pursuing their own interests instead of educating the people. Everything has been destroyed. The education system, culture, absolutely everything.

. . . If I were to project what kind of country Russia will be for the next ten years, I'd say it would be a pseudo-democratic state; an authoritarian country with a controlled parliament and an intimidated population; a country in which agencies like the KGB will be on the rise; where the military will enjoy an elevated status. It would be a country that will continue to play this game that, on the one hand, we want to be friends with the West, on the other, we are this unique nation, historically unique and different from the West.

Ordinary Westerners will always be confused. Is Russia a friend or is it an enemy? That's what we are going to live through. It's the Versailles syndrome, the same old thing. There is nothing new happening in Russia. Russia is going through what other nations, big and small, have gone through after a time of upheaval. Back then, that was defeat in war, but in Russia it was defeat in domestic politics, which, in Russia's case, was just like a war.

When we talked a few months ago, you told me that there were two trends that would spin out of control. One is the militarization of Russia and the second is that anti-Western, and especially anti-American attitudes are being pushed out of the Kremlin.

They claimed that our poverty is not the result of chaos in the domestic economy, not the bureaucracy that has monopolized the power and entire property of the country. They claim it's the West that has robbed us. The West stole all our resources, our capital. It even robbed us of our intellectual potential. The sentiment that the West had fooled us began to prevail, especially among the poorest people. . . . They lead people to believe that the politicians are against the West, that they are committed to protect Russia from the West and the harm it inflicts on Russia.

There is also another syndrome--the Kosovo syndrome. Many Russians were very sensitive to the developments in Kosovo. The West made a huge strategic mistake. It tried to solve a problem on a small territory, but ignored the problem on a large territory. You can ask anyone today in any part of Russia about what happened in Kosovo, and he will say the same words. "In Kosovo, Russia was humiliated. Russia's interests were ignored. The West tested patterns of international behavior that could be tried in some parts of Russia some time in the future." You'll hear the same words from everyone.

This is very dangerous. That's why our presidential candidates exploit these feelings, and they will not dissipate. They will stay in people's minds. Russian people will live for another five or ten years with these ideas. It will take an enlightened, educated leader to erase these thoughts from people's minds. It will take a leader who can replace the mentality of a defeated and humiliated nation with the mentality of a nation that feels it is a partner among equals, one that doesn't view others as enemies. Today Russia feels it is surrounded by enemies.

You said earlier that Putin was appealing to the worst tendencies in the Russian people. What do you mean by that?

I didn't say that Putin's character appeals to the base feelings. Putin is using them. It's hard to say what Putin is like. It's a situation similar to 1991. Gorbachev drove everyone crazy. Everything in him irritated people--what he said, the way he walked, what he did. His wife got on everyone's nerves. And suddenly people saw an alternative in Yeltsin, who they knew nothing about--what he thought, what principles he had, what team he had, who he was going to rely on, what political direction he was going to pursue--in general, what kind of person was he? Now we have the same situation. But it's Yeltsin who everyone is sick of. People hate everything about him--what he says, the way he walks. Everyone has dreamed of his resignation. People are sick of his family, too. And they see an alternative in Putin, about whom they know nothing. We don't know what he believes, his political views, who is standing behind him, who he is going to rely on, who he will bring into the Kremlin. We know nothing. That's what's similar to 1991.

Why is Putin so appealing to the Russian public? Because he acts and makes statements that reflect the feelings of the people who are weary of reform. It's not because the people are so bad. The nation has lost its political idealism over these years. Hardships have been many, while successes have been so few. . . . If we had had more victories, if people felt that their lives had become better, they would think differently. Their ideas would be different.

Look at how Putin is building his strategy. He is two-faced. On the one hand, he supports reform and innovations. On the other hand, he pleases those who want to see in him something from the past. He shows them something from the old life. He appeals to nostalgia for the past. He is from the KGB, which means he supports a strong state. He is against corruption.

. . .

If you ask someone, "Who are going to vote for?" He'll say, "Putin." "Why?" And you'll hear, "Well, I think that he..." and so on. Exactly those words. "I think that he..." No one knows for sure. But what's going to happen after the election is an entirely different issue.

So once again you are heading down a road, and who knows what's at the end of the road?

A huge country does not know what's going to happen to it tomorrow. I talk with many Russian politicians and I'm often surprised that those both on the left and on the right all have started talking about one thing: strengthening the state. But what does "the strengthening the state" mean? I ask them, "What do you mean? Strengthening the economy? No? Restructuring the Russian Federation? Russia is a huge country, with numerous regions. It is difficult to run such a huge country." They say "No." They say, "There should be order in the country. We are going to restore vertical power." What is "vertical power?" This is total control from top to bottom. We already hear things like, "We don't need to elect governors. We don't need to elect local governments, or even the president." . . . One month before the election, we hear, "The president should serve seven years, not four." Who says these things? People from Putin's circle. Tomorrow they'll start talking about a life-long presidency. . . . Are there countries like this? They'll find an explanation. "Russia is such a unique country. . . . It doesn't need a frequent rotation of its political elite." I don't see a future for democracy in Russia.

And what about things like freedom of the press in particular? In the West, it's said, "Look, Russia has problems, but the people are freer than ever before."

Freedom of speech has two sides, two faces. One side is a right to say, the other side is a right to be heard. If we talk about an ordinary citizen, yes, he now has the right to say. I can stand on the street saying anything I want about Putin, although I am not sure if I will be able to do it tomorrow. If I evaluate the Yeltsin era, one could say anything he wanted about Yeltsin, but nobody was listening. The leaders do not care a bit what you are saying.

. . . And there is another thing. All the Russian press is in the hands of a very few people. The fact that there are only half a dozen of them is not that bad. The problem is that the success, the capital and the businesses of these people, depends on the Kremlin, on the government. That is why we have a dual dependence. On the one hand, reporters in Russia depend on the political and economic interests of the newspaper owner. On the other hand, they depend on the owner's relations with the Kremlin. The Kremlin pressures the owner, and the owner pressures the reporter. I had only three years of complete journalistic freedom, from 1996 to 1998. After that, it went downhill.

You've said that no one knows what's going to happen at this moment in time. . . . What are your fears of what might happen next?

Russia is becoming a strange country. On the one hand, you see a democratic country, where we have a parliamentary system and our deputies have a say. We have an elected president. But all of this is only a symbol of democracy. Society itself is not free. Its spirit is not free. There is no economic freedom. Say I lose my job as a journalist, and I need to find a source of income, to start a business. I don't have such an opportunity. You will either get a visit from a bureaucrat who will take everything away from you, or a visit from the mafia who will take everything away from you. And when you start seeking the truth, no one will take your side. They will either protect the bureaucrat or the mafia. This is Russia's reality. That's what I fear.

I worry about the nostalgia for a "tight fist." We all yearn for an educated dictator. We always start with an educated one, but end with a bloody one. We somehow decided that we will no longer accept dictatorship. Wrong! Only ten years have passed. We still remember how we attended Party meetings, how we voted for what we were told. Didn't we have elections before? We used to have elections during communist times, too.

During the communist era, we used to vote for candidates from the so-called "unbreakable bloc of Communists and non-Party members." Those candidates used to get 99.99 percent of the votes. That's exactly where we are heading now. Where are political parties in Russia? There are no political parties in Russia. Where are political newspapers? There aren't any. Where are television channels that reflect different political views of the Russian population? They don't exist. That's why I find it hard to say what's going to happen.

This is a very sad time now, because we are back to square one. Yet look what hard years we have survived. When I think that we may have to walk the same path again, I feel terrible. And I'm not sure if society will want to do this again. The Russian people may take a detour, one that someone else wants them to take. Where will this detour lead us? Only those who are now trying to seize power know the answer. We don't know what they have on their minds.

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