WASHINGTON -- When the dull power of the Soviet Union collapsed just 20 years ago this month, well-wishers and dreamers in the West were certain that democracy would be the next step for Mother Russia. Western economists from American universities poured into Moscow with all the answers.
In particular, economists from Harvard dreamed up ways to issue Russian-style chits to individual Russians presumably showing ownership in mammoth, formerly state-owned enterprises. Thus, it was believed, would capitalism come to Russia.
Only it didn't. The individuals sold their chits to big, largely unscrupulous guys who cornered the market -- within 10 years, it was said that seven men owned Russia.
Meanwhile, big Boris Yeltsin became president, and he genuinely tried to free the press, the justice system and speech in general. Only it didn't work, because the well-meaning Yeltsin had a severe alcohol problem and got the country into war in Chechnya during one particularly bad spree. He was out before the turn of the century.
Yet there was something touching about the bear of a man. When he left the presidency, he told the Russian people, "I'm sorry your dreams did not come true."
Then came the presidency of Vladimir Putin and his fellows in the old secret service, the KGB, and with it, to put it kindly, came a kind of "managed democracy." With all those fellow spooks around, no one really dreamed that in the parliamentary elections of last week, much light would be thrown on his administration.
But nor did anyone really dream about what DID happen. It was so bad -- and such a surprise to Putin -- that afterward he looked stricken, stumbled his way through his speech and barely made his way off the podium.
For two to three days, thousands of Russians demonstrated against the government and its cynical manipulation of the elections through ballot fraud, while the only pro-government demonstrators were publicly hauled into Moscow on government buses.
Russian analysts suddenly felt free to criticize Putin's party broadly. A famous blogger, Alexei Navalny, a critic of Putin's who was one of the heroes of the day, was hauled off to jail for 15 days even while his description of Putin's United Russia Party as a "party of swindlers and thieves" was the favorite of the crowds. These were the largest opposition rallies in years, and "corruption" was the word of the day.
In the end, Putin's party won only 53 percent in the Duma, or Parliament, down from from its past 70 percent; and speculation was that he might not even get enough votes in March's presidential election to win the presidency again.
In addition to the omnipresent corruption represented by his gang, many Russians are tired of Putin's preposterous and undignified heroisms, which include hunting a whale with a crossbow, fishing while bare-chested and supposedly discovering ancient Greek artifacts while scuba diving.
The seriousness of the situation was perhaps best shown by the Kremlin's leading political strategist who, after Sunday's elections, said in true Russian style that, yes, voter fraud had occurred, but it didn't make any difference. Quoted in The New York Times, Vladislav Y. Surkov, first deputy head of the presidential administration, said that he now supported the creation of "a mass liberal party or, more precisely, a party for the annoyed urban communities." In order to survive, Russia needed "new players."
Annoyed? Well, it's a little more serious than that! The nation that Russians face exactly 20 years after the fall of communism is one whose economy is oil and gas, virtually nothing more. More Russians have the opportunity to travel, but few have the wherewithal to do so. And most important, while the communist and the KGB elites are with Putin & Co., a new middle class is finally forming that is tired of the corruption and the domination by the few. These are the young people who were demonstrating.
It was a mistake in December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, to believe that the nation and its people could change immediately, could democratize within a reasonable time. It was really quite simple: These were the Russians who had either encouraged communism to flourish or who allowed it to exist.
How could they, after all the horrors their complicity and agreement had encouraged, turn against the system? They would be overcome with guilt. Foreign observers couldn't understand why the Russians, after 1991, didn't choose freedom; they didn't choose it, because they COULDN'T choose it.
The other historical point to remember is that communism did not come as a stranger in the night, whisking away some innocent babe. Communism was the direct descendant of tsarism, as so brilliantly outlined in "The Origin of Russian Communism" by the Russian Orthodox analyst Nicolas Berdyaev. Both Orthodoxy and communism were messianic ideas with the demand of total faith.
Now, for the first time, 20 years late for some, individualization and freedom may really be coming for Russia. That's not bad for a week's work.