Dreaming of a Democratic Russia

Memories of a year in Moscow promoting a post-Soviet political process, an undertaking that now seems futile

Geraint Rowland/Flickr
Geraint Rowland/Flickr


It’s election season in Russia again. At least in theory. In reality, political competition has been replaced by the personage of Vladimir Putin. Russian politics appears more neo-Soviet with each passing day— as minions applaud the advancement of a mystery candidate to replace Putin as president in the election on March 2, 2008, or as an ordinary weaver offered Putin’s name to head a “party list” for the parliamentary elections on December 2, 2007. This development will likely lead to Putin becoming a strange combination of the CEO of Russia, Inc., and general secretary, except of course, he will be called prime minister. Russia’s only political parties today are those that the state either created or tolerates. Any candidate who appears on television has been approved and is carefully managed by the authorities. The Kremlin follows rules that only it understands, making the late-Soviet period seem utterly transparent in comparison. If only the country’s leaders would step out on the Kremlin balcony, while a military parade passes by, then the world could once again know who’s up and who’s down.

What a difference a decade makes. When I worked in Moscow in 1994 and 1995 for the National Democratic Institute, an American nongovernmental organization, I could not have imagined the present situation. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union would be considered the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” as Putin claims, would have occurred to only a few hard-core, extremist (loony) Communist Party members. Suddenly, this view is not only mainstream but is shared by the youngest generation of Russians— even as they drink Starbucks coffee while surfing the Internet. Alongside Big Macs and iPods, a cottage industry of Soviet nostalgia has sprung up, complete with T-shirts, books, movies, bars, and restaurants. Stores even sell postcards of Stalin.

If Russians feel nostalgia for Soviet days, the run-up to the December elections stirred my own memories of a year of living not at all dangerously in what we thought of then as the new Russia. My thoughts, and those of so many others, go back to the era not only in Russia but also in the United States— the 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The United States’s efforts to promote democracy abroad had not yet become singed by the war in Iraq, and the democratic balance in its three branches of government seemed reasonably stable.

Back then, I was part of a cottage industry too: the democracy-promotion business. The National Democratic Institute has, since the early 1980s, promoted the development of political parties and elections around the world. It is not alone in this work. NDI, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party, has a Republican equivalent, the International Republican Institute. The British and Germans have similar organizations. NDI can take partial credit for some stunning overseas victories— getting Augusto Pinochet out of office in Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos out in the Philippines— but, as it turned out, achieving democracy in Russia was not to be among them.

I landed at Sheremetyevo Airport in September 1994 and joined an office of about 13 other young Americans and at least a dozen young Russians. I had walked into a world of optimism— earnest, naïve, sometimes brave, and sometimes embarrassed. We all believed that democracy had a chance to take root in the new Russia.

Our office was a five-room former communal apartment on the third floor of a rundown building in central Moscow. We later moved across town to a similar arrangement. From both places, we scrambled about the city, with our imperfect Russian, talking to those in seemingly reform-minded political parties about the fundamentals of Western-style campaigns and elections: how to develop the main message of a campaign and repeat it to voters; how to use research effectively; how to find the party’s constituency; how to understand the opposing parties and their constituencies; how to organize a campaign team; and how to put political advertisements together. In other words, Political Campaigning 101.

We thought we were on the frontier of a democratic revolution. We weren’t. We were witnessing a market revolution. Just four years into the new Russia, material changes were far ahead of political ones. We Americans living and working in Moscow had the social accoutrements we expected at home: cable TV, rock-’n’-roll radio stations, restaurants, bars, and health clubs. We could drink Coronas, dance the night away to the latest Euro— techno or trance— go home and watch mtv, or drop by an all-night diner. Sure, the air was polluted, the telephone lines undependable, and the potholes as big as cars. But if you were young and American (or rich and Russian), you could swaddle yourself in all the West had to offer.

Tex-Mex, for example, had hit Moscow in a big way. One of our favorite restaurants was Santa Fe, located in a refurbished building next to an office complex that had been built in 1990 with the early influx of Western investment. The food wasn’t bad, but we were there for other reasons. None of us was from the Southwest, and the décor was not particularly authentic, but Santa Fe could transport us to a more predictable world. Russia seemed so unsettled at the time, lurching about, searching for an identity, that we were drawn to something more familiar. Dining there was especially appealing after we returned from travel to one of Russia’s regions. A friend would call and say, “Come on. I need some robrishki (ribs).” What she really meant was: I need a fix of the West, where I can put the Aeroflot food behind me, forget the roach-infested hotel, and sit contentedly sipping frozen margaritas among the kilim rugs hanging from the walls, the lovely Southwestern-style tables and chairs, and the silver-plated ashtrays inlaid with tile. We were transported for a few hours to the mythical land of Tex-Mex USA.

We also went to Santa Fe because of the bizarre clientele. It was easy to spot Americans in their casual and neat blue jeans and cowboy boots. Russian women were the most interesting. At around eight on any given evening, long-limbed ladies, their hair well-coifed, would pour into the restaurant wearing Chanel suits or Versace outfits, complete with matching bags and shoes, lots of make-up, and that essential accessory— a rich man. When Russian women walked in with what were obviously Western men— usually Americans— my friends and I would murmur “busted” to one another, referring to the men. The tendency of American men to date Russian women seemed nearly epidemic, and we saw it as a sign of insufficient feminist socialization. It’s not that we didn’t like Russian women; to us the pattern was a sign of American men opting out of the 1990s and embracing an American feminine stereotype from the 1950s. We all agreed that Russian women were more likely to cook, clean the house, and darn socks than any American women we knew working in Moscow. In fact, we were working so hard that we could not quite manage these tasks for ourselves, let alone for someone else. We also noted that almost no American women went out with Russian men. (In fact, few American women seemed to be going out with anyone but their women friends.) Russian men, my American feminist friends would say, are definitely not an option. We reasoned that these men wouldn’t understand our ambitions, our desires, our dreams, our world, and especially our expectations of how we should be treated. We would not take on the roles that Russian (and many American) men expected of women in Russia.


The only Russian men we might have wanted to go out with (politicos or intellectuals) had no money. This lack of funds was a problem mainly because we had more money than they did, and, according to their rules of socialization, they would not let us pay for an evening out. The result would have been to spend many nights at home— most likely their homes, with their mothers hovering over us, to make sure we had eaten enough of the multicourse, mostly starchy meal that they had spent hours shopping for and preparing. Or so our fantasies had it. This type of entertainment was simply not conducive, we agreed among ourselves, to recovering from a hard week of building political institutions in the new Russia.

In the few short years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Westernization of work and leisure in Moscow had changed the way many of us Americans interacted with Russians. In Moscow in 1990, while researching my dissertation, I occasionally went out for a beer at the one Western hotel, the Radisson, but I lived more or less as a native. I shopped at local stores. I took the Metro. But by fall of 1994, when I was working a Western job, on Western time, with Western demands, I shopped at the nearest foreign store and hailed cars.

A regrettable result of this rushed way of life was that I lost touch with old Russian friends. I worked every day with Russians, some nice, some not so nice. But at the end of a long workday, I lacked sufficient energy to ride the Metro for an hour to the far reaches of Moscow and sit for several more hours, listening to how my pre-NDI friends were navigating their very difficult lives. This deficiency makes me feel callous and ashamed, but I know that at least some other Americans felt the same way. We lived in Russia but didn’t always want to live as Russians.

A few hardy souls did not take this easier approach— American expats who had been in Moscow for five or even 10 years became Russianized: they avoided Western restaurants; rode the Metro; and lived in apartments that cost a fraction of what other foreigners were paying, because they had moved in years ago when prices were low. They bought their groceries not at the fancy foreign stores but in the modest ones that sold only Russian goods; and then they dined at home with their Russian friends. These people probably looked at the rest of us— the vast majority of expats— with a mixture of disgust and puzzlement. I looked at them with admiration, wondering what reserves of energy they had that I didn’t. The person I knew who was most adapted to Russian life was Irene Stevenson. A Princeton graduate and former model, she had moved to Moscow in 1989 to work as a translator for tass. By 1994 she was a highly regarded labor activist running the Solidarity Center, and she remained so until the day in December 2002 when she was deported by the Russian authorities as a “national security risk.” Her crime was pushing to get fair wages for Russian workers. Did her apparent Russian assimilation irritate the authorities? Was that her real crime?

Before moving to Moscow, we were warned about the dangers of the city, how violent, how like the Wild West with pavement— Dodge City in the East. But overall, I felt safer in the Moscow of 1994 and 1995 than in any American city.

Taxis did not really exist then, but there were plenty of cars willing to take you where you wanted to go for a very reasonable few thousand rubles (a few U.S. dollars). In that year I probably rode in 400 random cars, all driven by strangers, men who never harassed me or uttered a rude comment. One friend who also hailed cars opined that this lack of harassment was because Russian male society is not macho. Men in Russia hold much of the power, but they do not flirt randomly.

We did follow specific rules. Never ride in a taxi from the airport; arrange to be picked up. The stories of foreigners being beaten and robbed on their way to and from Sheremetyevo were too prevalent. Never ride with more than one stranger in the car. Always sit in the back seat. And never take a lift from a foreign car. Ride only in poor, beaten-up, Soviet cars; drivers of those cars are more likely to be regular folk who really need the money.

I mostly followed those rules, although I did break the last one. Seduced by the smooth ride and good exhaust system of a Western car, I would occasionally and happily hop in. One time, I got a ride in a silver Mercedes. The driver told me that he owned the car. I was puzzled about how much to pay him. As he dropped me off, I made a gesture of giving him what would have been the going rate. He turned to me, smiling graciously, and said, “Thank you, but I think you probably need it more than I do.” Indeed— my nonprofit work paid very little.

The most important rule— as it would be anywhere— was never ride with someone drunk. Russian men are not known for their politeness when drinking. My friends and I used to swap stories of the various passes made at us by Russian politicians, bankers, factory owners, and the like, once they had had some vodka. Then, all bets were off, as they backed us into walls and tried to kiss us. But sober, these men were pretty harmless. The organization I worked for wanted me to take mace and a personal alarm to Russia. Too afraid that I would hurt myself with the mace and finding the alarm too bulky, I carried neither. Also, because I perceived violence to be less prevalent in Russia than in the United States, I felt encased, safe, in Moscow. I knew that no one is immune to the vagaries of fate, and tragedy has struck foreigners living in Russia. (A decade after I left Russia, an acquaintance, American journalist Paul Khlebnikov, was gunned down— not by chance.) I have colleagues today who, if they don’t shave, are repeatedly harassed by racist policemen who think they are from the Caucasus and thus are second-class citizens or, worse, foreigners. But so many people treated me either as if I belonged or as a special guest, I felt secure that I was not a target.

A gender gap of sorts followed us to Russia. With a few important exceptions, expat women seemed to be doing “good works,” while expat men were making money. One savvy female colleague looked around after only a few weeks in Moscow, and a few trips to various watering holes, and said, “Look. The guys are wearing suits. And their hair is slicked back. These men are definitely not working the same beat as we are. They’re doing business deals.” We were working the democracy side, helping people scrape together political parties and civic organizations, while these guys were working capitalism, helping rich Russians who went to restaurants far nicer than Santa Fe. At least that’s how we saw it when we were feeling particularly self-righteous.

We understood that the marketing men were a breed apart. We were happy to partake of the fruits of capital, happy to consume what little there was that we could afford, but we felt uneasy about what this meant for Russia. We were concerned about the costs and benefits for a society transitioning to capitalism, particularly the crippling damage of inflation. Was market capitalism going to leave Russia in a better place? What if this change never benefited most Russians? What if there was no trickle down? And yet, over time, rightly or wrongly, most Russians viewed the democracy-promotion crowd in much the same light that we viewed the marketing men.

By 2007 the negative associations with democracy promotion have been greatly encouraged not only by the Putin administration’s anti-American, anti-foreign-assistance campaign in Russia but also by the Bush administration’s conflation, in the minds of many people around the world, of democracy promotion and the war in Iraq. To be sure, back in 1994, I encountered some Russians and Americans who thought that our democracy work was tantamount to imposing foreign ideas, or to selling a way of life that would always and forever be alien to Russia. In short, what we did was seen as at best useless, and at worst sinister.

During my time in Moscow, I grew to realize the bitter contradictions and dreadful ambiguities in my world. We advocated to our political party colleagues that they monitor elections in the company of all other political parties. Never mind that we were suggesting to former Soviet dissidents that they should cooperate with the very people who had persecuted and jailed them not many years earlier. Ambivalence occasionally clouded my resolve that parties and elections were the best route for Russia. I was all too conscious of the likelihood that the “democratic” parties would do badly in the 1995 elections. And worse was yet to come. Today they no longer exist. Looking back, I wonder, what other choice was there? Stay home? Do nothing? Instead, we encouraged our friends— beckoned them, really— to come closer to what seemed in some ways like a beating.


As I left Moscow in the summer of 1995, reflecting on my work, I clung to a story told by Glenn Cowan, a democracy-promotion guru and co-creator of the Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT)— a method that can help citizens anywhere detect election fraud through representative samplings of polling stations. Not long before, in Bulgaria, democratic activists had cooperated in organizing a PVT, a monitoring effort separate from the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). They did this because they feared votes would be rigged to favor the not-so-reconstituted communists (renamed the Socialist Party). In the end, by the democrats’ own tabulations as well as by the electoral commission’s, the socialists did, in fact, win. The organizers of the PVT were aghast. Devastated by the outcome, they wondered whether they should announce that the vote was a fraud or commit to the process, despite what they knew was a loss for them. Through tears, their spokesman went on TV and announced the actual results. Process had to be more important than outcome. How could they know that a little over a dozen years later their country would join both the European Union and NATO? At that moment, they thought to themselves: if we don’t report the truth, we will be no better than the Bolsheviks where the ends justified the means.

I embraced that story as if it had happened to me personally. I remember where I was sitting when I first heard it. And yet, looking back, I think we were all a bit naïve to think that such an outcome could happen in Russia. Russians are not inherently dictatorial, as some people like to argue, and Russia was not too big to fail. In reality, Russia was too important to be left alone to decide its own fate. Months after I left Moscow, President Clinton was backing Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president who had almost zero popularity. Clinton’s support was so overt that he once confessed he wanted to run Yeltsin’s campaign. And yet, despite his rock-bottom numbers, Yeltsin “won” in July 1996 in what the U.S. government and international election observers called a “free and fair” election. Somehow I believed that modern election technology— using television to get out the message and the vote— would eventually be used by everyone in Russian politics. In 1995, the nationalists understood its usefulness better than others. Vladimir Zhirinovsky employed TV to great effect, while the West laughed at his buffoonery. More than a dozen years later, he is still in Parliament. None of the people and none of the parties we worked with are.

I returned to Moscow in December 1995 to observe the State Duma elections, and again for the elections of summer 1996, winter 1999, spring 2000, and winter 2003, always accredited by the Russian CEC and joining hundreds of other international observers. At first I was puffed up, anticipating what I considered to be no small victory: elections for a multiparty parliament in Russia. Process over outcome was still my mantra. Now, however, I see no point in observing fake elections. Putin seems to agree. He has become both the process and the outcome. The Russian authorities have accordingly delayed inviting foreign observers to the December 2007 elections, and in place of hundreds will be a few dozen— maybe.

Over time I have reluctantly come to understand why Putin has such enormous appeal for Russians, even young ones. He is their antidote to many things— to the trauma of lost empire, to the years of democracy building, where Westerners applauded faux structures and unpopular politicians. He is also the main node of what I have come to think of as an illiberal nationalist network.

We didn’t recognize it at the time, but we in the democracy-promotion business walked into a struggle that was midstream and at least several decades long. Some would say it had spanned centuries. Since at least 1975, in Soviet and in Russian politics, groups of people with radically different orientations have struggled over whether to import a Western-style political framework, and if so, how. Echoing 19th-century ideological battles, but conducted in a dramatically different and increasingly globalized context, liberal internationalists inside and outside the Soviet Union, beginning in 1975 with the Helsinki process, worked with increasing intensity to bring Russia into the larger European community. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these networks deepened, cutting across almost every sector, indeed almost every issue involving the state and society.

For 30 years Russian illiberal nationalists have rejected or been disdainful of the ideal of an internationalized Russia. Ten years ago they may have dined at fashionable restaurants in New York, London, and Hong Kong, but they envisioned Russia as a strong, hypersovereign state. They were allergic to the porous nature of the modern state and disliked foreign influence. For them, the West was a corrupt, uncultured place, pleasant to visit, perhaps, but to be resisted or contained.

From 1975 through the late 1990s, the liberal-internationalist tide rose gradually, peaking and eventually receding in the Yeltsin years. Since the late 1990s, a central issue emboldening the illiberal networks has been shoring up the weakened Russian state (creating a “vertical power” structure), which has been used effectively in rolling back the liberal internationalists. Many inside and outside Russia, and especially the marketing men (many of whom turned out to be simply illiberal) welcomed the sober strengthening of the “vertical” after the boozy Yeltsin years. The battle of these admittedly oversimplified networks will continue through the next decade at least.

I still go to Russia several times a year, hanging out with a liberal-internationalist crowd. So far the Russian authorities haven’t pulled my visa, although the focus of my research shifted almost 10 years ago to human-rights abuses— to the brutal war in Chechnya, hazing inside the unreformed Russian army, corruption by the police, health and HIV/AIDS, and the discrimination against and trafficking of young women. All of this work is done in close cooperation with young Russian activists, who are wise beyond their years and from whom I constantly learn. But as America’s own record on human rights has been so badly hurt by policies that involve indefinite detention and degrading if not torturous interrogation techniques, I have found it necessary to spend less time on Russia and more on my own country’s political developments.

When I do go to Moscow, new restaurants continue to beckon. They are still filled with beautiful Russian women on the arms of American men. Last summer, I dropped by the new Ritz-Carlton, sparkling and surreal, the site of the old Intourist hotel. My friends and I toasted the view, overlooking the Kremlin, its golden domes gleaming in the late evening sunset. In the corner, the marketing men were winking and sipping martinis. Moscow is still a city with many parties— none of them political.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sarah E. Mendelson is the director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative and a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up