What is the role of ideas in modernization in general and in post-Soviet modernization in particular? There is no consensus among experts on the contribution of ideas to the building of new institutions and practices in various countries in various historical periods. They answer differently the question of whether ideas cause transformations or the other way around. However, when it comes to political, economic and social transformations in post-Soviet Russia, the prevailing view is that ideas were secondary to the interests of key players . Does that mean that the role of ideas in Russia in the late 20th and early 21st century has been negligibly small and that political analysis should focus on the activities of opportunists-politicians and businesspeople driven exclusively by selfish motives, who achieve or fail to achieve their goals regardless of ideas, or using them solely for manipulative purposes? Although post-Soviet Russia offers many examples of this sort [37; 17; 7], it would be wrong to reduce the processes of economic and political change in the country to the struggle between opposing interests and to ignore ideas: in the course of transformations, these dimensions complement rather than supplant one another.
Meanwhile, ideas and ideologies (elsewhere these terms will be used interchangeably) in modern Russia differed markedly from ideas in a number of post-communist countries which, during the same period, faced a similar “dilemma” of simultaneous political and economic transformations . In the East European countries, the ideas of building democracy (here and elsewhere referred to as democratic ideas) and a transition to the market economy (here and elsewhere referred to as liberal ideas) mutually complemented each other in the process of post-communist transformation from the fall of the former regimes until accession to the European Union , facilitating the solution of key tasks in a relatively short time. By contrast, in the 1990s, Russia liberal and democratic ideas (and their proponents) clashed. The notion that the country’s path toward economic prosperity could and had to do without democracy, which could hinder, if not reverse, economic reform, prevailed in public discourse and indeed influenced political decision-making. As a result, the ideas of building democracy were first excluded from the list of political priorities, then sacrificed to the ideas of the country’s economic modernization, and in 2000-2010 were dropped from the list of the ruling elite’s agenda altogether. By contrast, the ideas of building an effective market economy dominated the official narrative of the ruling groups and provided an important benchmark in charting the political course in the 1990s and 2010s, although their traction was diminishing over time. Finally, in the 2010s, they were stricken from the political agenda, such that today their influence on the political processes and the political course of Russia is insignificant.
How does one account for the “divorce” of democratic and liberal ideas in post-Soviet Russia that occurred in the 1990s and their subsequent decline in 2000-2010? Was the present-day decline both of democratic and liberal ideas due to that divorce? The search for answers to these questions calls for a reconsideration of the role of ideas in Russia’s modernization and the trajectories of democratic and liberal ideas over the past three decades. These ideas were promoted by their proponents-politicians, analysts and journalists (here referred to as “democrats” and “liberals”)1-whose role in the late 1980s and early 1990s can hardly be overestimated. This article seeks to state the problems of the genesis and evolution of these two ideological trends of Russian modernization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the contradictions between them, the cleavages within the ranks of their supporters and the impact of the ideas of post-communist modernization on the progress and results of social transformations in Russia.
I maintain that the “divorce” of democratic and liberal ideas in 1990s Russia was not predetermined from the start; but the weakness and inchoate character of reformist ideas by the time of perestroika, the contradictions between the 60s and 70s generations, as well as false assumptions and expectations against the background of sweeping change, made an indelible imprint on the ideational trajectories of “liberals” and “democrats” and exacerbated the contradictions between them.
Ideas and Modernization: The Case of Russia
The works devoted to Russia’s post-Soviet political and economic development proceed from the assumption that ideas played a limited role in these processes. Thus, Henry Hale believes that in their bid to gain and hold power, the authorities relied on mobilizing the patron-client networks while demand for and supply of ideas was low, due to the dominance of the client-patron policy over a programmatic idea . Stephen Hanson, comparing the ideological landscape of post-communist Russia to that of Weimar Germany and the emergence of the Third Republic in France , noted that in the case of Russia ideas were insufficiently well formulated and structured which, in his opinion, stymied the formation of the party system in the country. This writer largely shared similar opinion, pointing out that after the collapse of the USSR ideas had little impact on the transformation of Russia’s political regime, whose outcome hinged on the character of the power struggle among the elites .
Does it mean that we can neglect ideas in analyzing post-communist modernization in Russia? Such a verdict would throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ideas have always been important in setting political priorities and state building in the country. They are very important at “turning points,” when politicians make a strategic choice in favor of this or that option of the country’s development. Indeed, the very fact that ideas have little influence on the process of change in the country calls for an explanation. If ideas influenced the behaviors of members of the elite and the masses in the course of modernization in other countries and were an important driver of change during perestroika when various ideas of reform were hotly debated in the USSR [71; 53; 59; 61], why was it that in the following decade and later, the significance of ideas plummeted?
To determine the place of ideas in Russia’s modernization, one first of all needs to clarify the concepts. In this article, the author considers ideas in an instrumental way, that is, not as a set of political doctrines but as a way of perceiving problems. Ideas matter for the modernization process owing to their positive and normative functions. They help the elites and the masses to formulate their notions of the desired social system and ways of achieving it [49, p. 49], to assess to what extent the status quo matches these notions and minimize the amount of information required for making decisions (which is particularly important under conditions of uncertainty). Thus, ideas enable the actors to form and support a picture of the world in accordance with which they act after receiving information. This was the approach Vadim Radayev used to analyze the change of economic ideologies in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s [52, pp. 276-306], and the team of authors, including this writer, used to analyze the ideology of reforming local government in Russia .
Such interpretation of ideas suggests that in routine conditions, there is little demand for ideas: the elite and the masses can follow former schemes for a long time, and the generators of ideas-politicians, experts and independent intellectuals-can repeat earlier judgments, modifying them only partially. However, in periods of rapid change characterized by radical transformations, like that of Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, demand for new ideas soars. They arise and are promoted by their producers and popularizers, who try to sell them to the elites and the masses and gain support in the market of ideas by ousting and/or taking over rivals. Sometimes it takes several decades for new ideas to be formed and promoted (as with Neoliberalism in the West) ), but sometimes they experience a boom much faster. Some ideas arise spontaneously and endogenously while others are imported from political and intellectual contexts and are modified by their recipients in line with their perceptions, often undergoing metamorphoses in the process. The combination of changing dynamics of demand and supply of ideas along with the impact of the activities of various agents aimed at promoting them go a long way to determine the outcome of the ideological struggle in periods of radical change.
The ideological situation in the Soviet Union as it entered the period of transformations in the second half of the 1980s was rather peculiar. For decades, the market of ideas had been monopolized by the dominant official version of Marxism-Leninism, while alternative ideas penetrated this market in a roundabout way, facing the dogmatism of the establishment, which sought to suppress dissent [58; 14]. The official Soviet dogma was so outdated that in the period of “the long 1970s,” it was unable to perform positive functions: the life of Soviet society was in stark contrast with official norms, and knowledge based on official ideology could not offer valid answers to the country’s problems or possible solutions. In the absence of conditions for the development of social and human sciences, which could provide an intellectual environment for the development of new ideas for transformation, discussions of options for the country’s development were confined to narrow circles at the level of informal groups and seminars [62; 8; 16].
The USSR was immeasurably less exposed to external ideological influences than the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The key figures of post-communist transformations, such as Vaclav Klaus and Leszek Balcerowicz, regularly traveled as exchange scholars or to attend conferences at US and West European universities long before the start of reforms. Young Soviet economists had to secretly read articles by their Eastern European colleagues at restricted access libraries, while foreign travel for most of them was not allowed until the start of perestroika [62; 72]. That is why Soviet specialists had only fragmentary knowledge of the foreign experience of modernization and their contribution to international discourse was all but non-existent. As a result, the views of Russian intellectuals on the problems of political and economic development of their country and the world were, with few exceptions, inconsistent and prone to change in accordance with circumstances. Having been isolated from the international environment over many decades, Russian intellectuals embraced the idea of Russia’s “special way” and the uniqueness of its past, present and future, an idea, which to this day is prevalent in Russian social thought . These trends manifested themselves in the rejection of the import of some ideas. Joachim Zweynert, who studied the struggle of economic ideas during the market reforms in Russia, came to the conclusion that in the 1990s, many Western ideas met with such fierce opposition within Russia that here (unlike Eastern Europe), they failed to take root in the decades that followed .
Small wonder that the collapse of the former monopoly on the Soviet market of ideas in the late 1980s was a “big bang” against the background of the rapidly changing situation in the country. The bans were dropped as demand for new ideas on the part of the elite, which was looking for ways out of the mounting crisis, and on the part of the public, soared [68, ch. 1]. Public debates among intellectuals took center stage while the discredited official dogmas were losing ground.
The resulting vacuum in the market of ideas was filled spontaneously: import of ideas from abroad quickened interest in their ideological heritage and fashions for ideas and their labels changed at a dizzying pace, while critical reflection on the ideas was often wanting. The sky-high barriers for entering the market of ideas dropped dramatically, paving the way for marginal ideas ranging from Eurasianism to geopolitics . Those who produced and/or promoted these ideas had no difficulty gaining a foothold in the market to exert not one-off but systematic intellectual influence on political decision-making and on the hearts and souls of fellow citizens.
As the transformations in the country gathered pace, demand for new ideas diminished. Moreover, the range of problems changed dramatically: what was discussed in the late 1980s ceased to be relevant in the mid-1990s. The political agenda came to be dominated by the clash of group interests as ideas had less and less influence on political decision-making. After the authoritarian regime dug in in the 2000s, the Russian authorities, if they needed ideas at all, were interested in the political and technological aspects. Modern Russian authoritarianism is not anchored in a dominant ideology , and its leaders can pragmatically use various ideas to further their ends. The public, which responded enthusiastically to ideological struggle at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, was paying less and less attention to ideas and their proponents, who were also evolving. The monopoly on the market of ideas was supplanted by pluralism so that in today’s Russia, one can easily find advocates of the most diverse ideological trends. Unlike in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they tend to ignore one another and exist in parallel, rather like people in a restaurant sitting at separate tables with separate menus for different categories of clients , with nothing like an efficient dialog. Even so, ideas are an important filter for the perception of problems by the Russian elites and political leaders, who transmit their perceptions to fellow-citizens [63; 66], and the legacy of the ideological battles of the 1980s and 90s is still relevant to understanding the logic of this perception. Indeed, the ideological trends of that period are still on the Russian political map: they change over time but the experience of the 1980s and 90s is still an important reference point for understanding the current problems and trends and for recipes of further changes (or lack of them). Many producers of ideas were themselves involved in or witnessed transformations, knowledge which made a big imprint on their perception of the country’s current problems.
Vadim Radayev notes that within a space of less than ten years (from the middle of the 1980s to the middle of the 1990s), the country saw a succession of four dominant ideological paradigms: from socialist to democratic, then to liberal and conservative [52, pp. 276-306]. Each of these pivots followed changes in the political arena: attempts to renew the Soviet economic system (1985-1987/88), glasnost and democratization in the USSR (1987/88-1990/91), crisis and collapse of the Soviet system and the launching of radical economic reforms (1990/91-1993), and reforms running out of steam followed by post-revolutionary stabilization (after 1993). However, one should not see the transformation of the ideological landscape solely as the projection of current political and economic transformations in the USSR and Russia. Each of the critical junctures of the 1980s and 1990s and their consequences were the results not only of the struggle among interest groups (significant as it was) but also of the struggle of ideas. This warrants a closer look at the ideas, which were oriented toward political and economic reform and envisaged the building of democracy and a market economy in the country. Such analysis is called upon to explain why (unlike in many East European countries) ) in Russia the ideas of democratization and market reforms were in many ways juxtaposed, which had a serious impact on the outcome of political and economic transformations [6; 27].
Speaking about the clash of ideas in post-communist Russia, researchers paid considerable attention to communist and nationalist trends [74; 21; 16; 41]. At the same time, works devoted to democratic and liberal parties in Russia, which promoted the various ideas of the country’s modernization in the 1990s [34; 28; 75], merely scratched the surface of their ideologies. Critical reflections of the “democrats” and “liberals” themselves [59; 62; 8], although they contain a fair amount of valuable data, only partially discuss the causes and consequences of the “divorce” of these two ideological trends. We therefore need to trace their genesis and mechanism of evolution against the background of tectonic changes in Russia.
From the start, let us make it clear that the “liberals” and “democrats” in Russia were rather like overlapping sets: the same politicians, analysts, journalists and other producers of ideas sometimes were at once “liberals” and “democrats” and even publicly identified themselves with one or the other camp, and some of them switched sides. However, in the framework of this article the two categories are identified for analytical purposes as ideal typical specimens which helps us to gain an insight into the logic of the ideological landscape of post-communist Russia.
“Democrats” without Liberalism: Lost Illusions
The main advocates of democratic ideas during the Soviet perestroika were active members of the 1960s generation, especially intellectuals and public personalities whose political views and professional and public careers were shaped in the period between the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.2 Khruschev’s Thaw and the hopes for successful development of the country it generated shaped or substantially changed the world-view of the “men of the 60s” . However, subsequent stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev stymied the careers of many members of that generation and rendered irrelevant many ideas formed during the Thaw: the Sixties generation was “frozen” for twenty years [80, ch. 9]. When the “men of the 60s” moved to the forestage of social and political life during perestroika, it was as if the Soviet Union was briefly back in the Thaw period. “The children of the 20th Congress” moved into leading positions in the government structures, dominated the media and proposed the main ideas for society’s development. Those who joined the “democrats” in many ways took the cue from the “men of the 60s” and to some extent still adhere to the intellectual and ideological traditions they had established.
For the perestroika “democrats,” the main goal was to carry on the Thaw program: political pluralism in the media and in decision-making, condemning political repression, broader freedoms and lifting of the many Soviet-era bans (censorship, foreign travel restrictions). Initially, the proposed plans were modest , while the changes turned out to be too sudden: democratization and free elections quickly whetted appetites, and it briefly seemed that it was enough to remove the remaining barriers for Russia “to become Europe,” as one perestroika herald put it . However, faced with real transformation problems, the “democrats” proved to be unable to formulate meaningful and realistic positive alternatives to the rapidly deteriorating situation [20; 59]. Their reading of the situation in many ways reflected the system of coordinates set by the collective experience of the Thaw, with all its good and bad characteristics. That system envisaged gradual and partial changes of the Soviet political and economic relations (with the former put above the latter) and not their total revision or replacement, something many “democrats” turned out to be unprepared for. It did not take account of the changes that had occurred in the country and the world since the times of the Thaw: “men of the Sixties” entered perestroika like the last battle of a (past) war, equipped with notions that were in many ways outdated. Not surprisingly, they eventually lost that battle and the ideas they proclaimed were discredited. Their experience and worldview made them unfit for using the opportunities perestroika offered for transforming society.
What was holding back the evolution of the ideas of the “men of the Sixties” was above all lack of opportunities for translating words into deeds. The discussions about the transformation of the USSR, which had been conducted from the mid-1980s led nowhere. Articulating their position, setting forth their views and communicating them to a narrow circle of readers were becoming an end in itself. Disseminating ideas became more important than putting them into practice. “Men of the Sixties” probably never seriously thought about implementing their ideas because that seemed to be a very remote perspective. So they directed all their energy, talent and passion into outwitting the Soviet regime in order to air their views. When the hour of reform struck, many “democrats” failed to come up with a viable alternative to the course pursued by the country’s leaders, still less to implement it. Moreover, by no means all the “democrats” were ready to assume personal responsibility for making and implementing key decisions. Thus, for example, in 1992, looking for an authoritative figure to replace Yegor Gaidar as Prime Minister, members of the Yeltsin team turned to Academician Yury Ryzhov. A brilliant 1960s intellectual, appointed Russia’s ambassador to France in 1991, he turned down the offer, not wishing to trade his exalted position for the hard slog of taking the country out of its crisis . Although many rank-and-file activists among the “democrats,” especially in the provinces, obviously fell short of the standard required for taking part in the making and implementation of important decisions [20; 43], the more capable of them later learned a lot and acquired considerable managerial experience (such cases though, were few and far between).
Experience of the Thaw and the collapse of the suddenly bestowed and later withdrawn freedoms engendered various complexes and syndromes. It was not only that perestroika “democrats” sought to solve problems by petitioning the authorities and rightly or wrongly were afraid to be deprived of freedoms. Many of them shuddered at the thought of any actions by radical communists and/or Russian nationalists, even though these trends had little support in the then nascent market of ideas. Presenting their ideas to the public the “democrats” reproduced the binary opposition of “the CPSU nomenklatura versus democracy,” prompting many critical remarks to the effect that they perceived democracy as the power of the “democrats” . Although democracy was presented as the necessary condition for eliminating the current challenges, the “democrats” had a very vague idea of how to go about the job. For example, they proposed to solve the nationalities problems with a “let’s all be friends” attitude without a serious effort to understand the causes of these problems . The slogan, “Russia is one, but it is divisible” put forward by Yury Afanasyev, one of the democratic leaders,in the fall of 1991 in response to the challenge of separatism, puzzled even the activists themselves .
The economic agenda of the “democrats” was marginal in their worldview. While supporting the country’s transition to the market economy (on the principle “for everything good against everything bad”) the “democrats” for the most part had a vague idea about how the problem should be tackled. That is why they sometimes looked to outdated models (like Hungary’s “goulash socialism” or Yugoslavia’s workers’ self-management) and/or proposed a combination of incompatibles, and, taken as a whole, their perception of the mounting economic problems in the country could not stand up to criticism . Thus, the program of the Democratic Russia bloc in the 1990 campaign to elect the People’s Deputies of the RSFSR combined calls for equality of all forms of ownership and the demand to freeze retail prices during the period of transition to market. According to Viktor Sheinis, one of the authors of the program, it was basically a compilation of the proposals put forward by various democratic candidates [59, vol. 1, pp. 255-259] without as much as a hint of the mechanisms of implementing it. The unrealistic character of such proposals even then met with justified criticism, but it was not discussed seriously. History has no use for the subjunctive mood and we shall never know what economic policy the “democrats” would have pursued if they had come to power levers back in 1991, but one has to go along with the claim that the “democrats’ ” ideas of economic reform (and not only that) were based on wishful thinking .
In fact, the “democrats'” political program was fulfilled in August 1991, and not so much through their own efforts as due to unintended consequences of ill-thought-out actions of the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev. The collapse of the former leadership, which came out of the blue, put the “democrats'” ideas into question. The majority of them were obviously not equipped to work out a new agenda [53; 59, vol. 2]. Some “democrats” were deeply disenchanted with the first steps of the post-communist Russia , and the developments in the wake of 1993 pushed them in the direction of hardline opposition to the Russian regime . Ideological leadership was snatched from the “democrats” by the representatives of the other trend, the “liberals,” whose baggage, priorities and approaches to cardinal problems differed from those of their predecessors: the Sixties “fathers” were replaced by the Seventies “sons.”
The dividing line between these generations was tenuous and although 1968-the crushing of the Prague Spring and the end of the Thaw in the USSR-was an obvious watershed, the shaping of personal priorities took a long time and was neither linear nor unambiguous, and the views of many Russians changed substantially over time . Among the “men of the Seventies” there were some politicians, analysts and journalists whose perception of the world and the corresponding system of coordinates were closer to those of the “men of the Sixties” (the reverse happened much less frequently). The generation gap played a considerable role in further divergence of the trajectories of the Russian “democrats” and “liberals.”
“Liberals” without Democracy: Politics without Illusions
“Men of the Seventies” came of age during the “long Seventies,” the period between the collapse of the Thaw and the start of perestroika transformations. This period was noted not only for the deficit of meaningful transformations in the USSR, the wish to preserve the status quo in politics and economics, but also for a lack of hope for “a bright future” characteristic of the youth of the “men of the Sixties.” The new generation had to learn to live by the moment according to the ground rules set by the country’s leaders, which bred pragmatism and sometimes cynicism. Against the background of apathy and/or disdain of official communist ideology, pragmatism took diverse forms, and it was necessary not to dream of improving or worse, transforming the Soviet system, not to build “castles in the air,” but to achieve concrete results “here and now.” Very often a high-level skill set and successful career went hand-in-hand with indifference to the communist ideology [78; 32].
However, the fact that the “men of the Seventies” were indifferent toward official ideology did not mean that they were insensitive to all ideas. Simply, they perceived ideas through the prism of pragmatic interests, i.e., not in the normative but in the positive way, not as abstract benchmarks for the whole society but as a means of furthering their own ends. So, while the rhetoric of the 1960s “democrats” tended to juxtapose the authorities and society , the 1970s “liberals” barely mentioned society in their memoirs [62; 8]. They were concerned about the economy, while politics at best was seen as a set of conditions and obstacles for the conduct of policy, and at worst attracted no interest at all. A pragmatic perception of ideas determined the attitude to the transformations under perestroika: unlike the “men of the Sixties” with their ungrounded expectations, many “men of the Seventies” had no illusions from the start.
The “men of the Seventies” supported market reforms because they saw them as a way of getting rid of the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy and boosting living standards: these priorities along with acquired knowledge in the economic sphere made them “liberals.” The economic agenda dominated their discussions during perestroika [62; 72] and remained at the focus of debate in the decades that followed . For the “liberals,” the rest of the system of coordinates (including but not limited to politics) was almost entirely linked with the categories of economic efficiency [40; 52, pp. 276-306]. Meanwhile, the ideas of democracy that had moved to the foreground in the late 1980s were seen in a strictly instrumental way and or at least with some reservations, which partially reflected the general trends of post-communist neo-liberalism . While they approved of political liberalization as a means of lifting the more egregious and irritating bans (lack of access to information, restricted foreign travel), the “liberals” had mixed feelings about the ideas of democracy as the power of the people, the separation of powers and protection of the interests of minorities. Moreover, against the background of the worsening crisis of the former system during perestroika, they perceived the rambling and sometimes fruitless discussions on general political matters as a “gabfest” and many of the Soviet leadership’s economic policies as profoundly disappointing [5; 47].
In the late 1980s, differences over priorities (politics for the “democrats” versus economics for the “liberals”) caused an ideological rift. The “democrats” saw a clash of “good” and “bad,” seeing perestroika as a confrontation between its ideological supporters and enemies . The “liberals” stressed the struggle between “bad” and “very bad,” that is, the straggle between the reluctance to change anything about way the economy and the country were ran, on the one hand, and incompetent attempts to fix the situation by half-measures, which merely worsened the crisis, on the other . While the “democrats” saw the surge of social activism during perestroika as a sign of democracy, for the “liberals” it was a sign of “chaos” and a source of risk for the economy and state governance . These different perceptions prompted the “liberals” to look for alternative solutions in the realm of politics. It is no accident that some “liberals” took up the idea of the need for market reform under a tough authoritarian regime as opposed to the “simultaneity dilemma.”
The idea that authoritarianism was necessary and even desirable as an instrument of reforming the Soviet system was introduced into the public domain by Andranik Migranyan (his joint interview with Igor Klyamkin published in Literaturnaya gazeta under the tell-tale headline “Is an Iron Fist Needed?” ). That discussion (like other episodes of the public debate of the time) did not have a meaningful impact on the political agenda and it would be an exaggeration to see it as a harbinger of an authoritarian pivot in Russia after the break-up of the USSR . However, the taboo on discussing authoritarian decisions of the country’s problems was broken: while the 1960s “democrats” who had experienced Stalinism and saw it brought down during the Thaw, rejected authoritarianism in principle because it was associated with repressions, the 1970s “liberals” saw it as one of the possible options for implementing economic transformations.
In 1989, Sergey Vasilyev and Boris Lvin noted the widening gap between the pressing need for drastic and painful economic reforms and the intention of the authorities and the democratic public opinion to extend this process in time using soft and ineffective measures. In their opinion, the Soviet leadership was increasingly tempted to resort to authoritarianism for the sake of reform whereas the Soviet republics might be pushed toward democratization under nationalist banners . In terms of policy recommendations, similar ideas informed The Memorandum on the Concept of Transition to a Market Economy in the USSR prepared in March 1990 by the Association of Social and Economic Sciences3 . The authors of that document proposed a wide range of authoritarian measures designed to prevent the danger of a populist economic policy and mass protests under anti-market slogans. They assumed that authoritarianism for the sake of market reforms was inevitable and had no alternative. This was not a combination of political and economic conditions characteristic of the majority of post-communist countries: authoritarianism had almost nowhere contributed to market successes [36; 23], as witnessed by the experience of market reforms in Eastern Europe unfolding before the “liberals’ ” eyes [62; 8]. It is also worth noting that the authors of the Memorandum saw the transition to a market economy as a one-off leap with a binary outcome (either success or total failure) while intermediate and/or compromise variants were not even discussed.
By that time, the models the “liberals” sought to emulate had begun to change. As early as 1989, Vitaly Naishul suggested that in implementing market reforms, the USSR should emulate the examples not of Hungary and Yugoslavia, and not even of Western Europe with its over-regulated economies but rather the experience of the United States . The search for models to emulate also inspired the trip of Russian “liberals” to Chile organized by Naishul in April 1991 (crowned by a meeting with Pinochet who by that time had been forced to resign under the pressure of democratization). Numerous positive references to the success of Chilean reforms reinforced by photos in the company of the former dictator went a long way to change the perception of Pinochet. In the eyes of the Soviet propaganda, the former villain turned into the chief reformer, while in reality, the Chilean experience was complex, multi-faceted, and in many ways, an exception from the rules [18; 69, pp. 587-600]. Although critics claimed that after the trip to Chile, future Russian reformers sought to use Pinochet’s experience in practice , it proved to be a passing fad to the extent that years later those who went on that trip recalled it without much emotion [62; 44]. However, the myth about Pinochet as a “model” reformer (and similarly about the “Chicago boys” as a role model for Russian “liberals”) acquired a life of its own. Russian “liberals” did not forget the brief infatuation with Pinochet and later some of them tried to detect the desired traits of a strongman-reformer in Vladimir Putin.
It would be no exaggeration to say that by the time of the start of economic reforms in Russia in the fall of 1991, the Russian “liberals” had an adequate idea of how to go about reform, what kind of economy was to emerge as a result of reforms and what political system was necessary and desirable. They saw democracy not so much as an obstacle in the way of market reforms as a luxury Russia should defer, while the inherent “defects” of democracy-reliance on elections, risks of a populist policy and a hamstrung government-were thought to be incompatible with market reforms. Subsequently, many “liberals” [70, p. 8; 15] retained and even strengthened their view of politics that prevailed on the eve of the collapse of the USSR. Moreover, that perception, which boiled down to the formula, “a firm yes to liberal economic reformism, generally yes to democracy in politics but not now and not as a priority,” surfaced in numerous programmatic documents of the Russian authorities (Strategy-2010, Strategy-2020, etc.) to which “liberals” contributed extensively.
Two Roads toward the Edge of One and the Same Cliff
The year 1991 marked the start of a generational change in Russian politics. Gaidar’s reforms elevated many Seventies “liberals” to leading positions in government and in the public sphere while the Sixties “democrats” were going downhill, and not only because of age. The “democrats'” agenda seemed to have been fulfilled while the “liberals” appeared to be just the right people to solve the tasks of transformation. Without going into the argument as to whether the 1990s offered other options of economic and political reforms and whether they could have been implemented more successfully than did the Russian “liberals,” it has to be noted that many traits of the Seventies generation left a significant imprint on the vector of transformations. While lengthy debates gave way to concrete measures, they chose priorities and means of achieving the aims based on a pragmatic agenda: ideas of what was desirable and what was possible, short-termism in planning, flexibility and a penchant for compromise were combined with an ability to get things done. Besides, the failure of the Sixties “democrats” who missed the last chance of transforming the former system during perestroika sent a clear signal to the Seventies “liberals” about how not to act. In this situation, the approaches of the “fathers” and “sons” could not but be diametrically opposite, including on the issue of prioritizing economic and political system transformations: the “liberals” sacrificed democracy for the sake of market reforms.
In late 1991, when Russia “froze” all the political institutions and the national state system, the number one priority for the political elites (and the public opinion) was implementing economic transformations. The “liberals,” who backed these moves, hoped that radical economic reforms would, within a relatively short span of time, rescue the country from its crisis, whereupon the turn would come of democratizing the political regime . But these hopes were not destined to come true: the Russian government failed to bring about an early financial stabilization, economic reforms were greatly extended in time and the transformational decline of the economy was full of dramatic twists and turns and ended in default and devaluation of the Russian currency. The political context of economic transformations in 1990s Russia bore little resemblance to the experience of post-communist reform in Eastern Europe . The difference was partly due to the state’s military and distributive potential in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union while the decline of production turned out to be more serious and prolonged than in the neighboring ex-communist countries.
Subjective factors, which had to do with the political tactics of reforms carried out by the “liberals” and their allies , also played a considerable role. It was effectively a series of tactical agreements not with the losers at the first stage of reform, but on the contrary, with those who benefited from it and were therefore not interested in further change , i.e., the oligarchs, regional leaders and other rent-seekers. The Seventies “liberals” (unlike “the men of the Sixties”) were prepared to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances and, if necessary, easily made compromises to achieve what was possible having in mind short-term tasks rather than starry-eyed dreams of “a bright future.”
This circumstance partly accounted for the phenomenon of 1990s Russian reforms noted by specialists and actors themselves [62; 8]: on a number of key issues of economic reform, the Gaidar team easily surrendered its positions, hoping to gain a tactical advantage from compromises and seeking to gain the desired result in other spheres. Thus, yielding to the pressure of powerful lobbies, it agreed to give up its anti-inflation policy arguing, among other things, that it needed to hold its ground on the issue of privatization of enterprises. However, the course for privatization  was also compromised, as a result of which the biggest beneficiaries, compared to the initial intentions, were insiders-the work collectives and directors of enterprises . “Appeasement” of the narrow interest groups that sought to collect rent  led to high political costs of reforms (both for reformers and for the country as a whole), while subsequent change of the government’s policy in the 2000s prompted a revision of some results of transformations [76; 24]. In other words, the course the “liberals” pursued in the 1990s in many ways ran counter to their own ideas formulated before the start of economic reforms.
Part of the reason for such inconsistency was that initially, the “liberals” themselves assumed the role of reformer-technocrats and not independent actors on the Russian political scene and stayed out of the public struggle for power, which made them vulnerable . When, in the course of 1993 parliamentary elections, they finally assumed a more active role, they discovered that their ideas and leaders had limited support, while facing competition on the part of the “democrats” who, in the wake of 1991, seemed to have been written off. Things came to a head in September-October 1993 when political polarization in the country, which had been mounting since 1990, reached its peak . The “liberals,” who approved of Yeltsin’s actions, actively supported the dissolution of the Russian parliament and the use of force to suppress it because they felt that these measures removed the obstacles in the way of reform. At the same time, the “democrats,” if not openly condemning Yeltsin’s actions, dissociated themselves from them.
The ideological rift between the “liberals” and the “democrats” spilled into politics in the shape of differences between Russia’s Choice bloc and its successor, Russia’s Democratic Choice and the Union of Right Forces, on the one hand, and Yabloko on the other. Russia’s Choice, which was formed by leading “liberals” and made a bid for power in the course of 1993 elections, managed to make use of the organizational resources of the former democratic movement but did not do very well in the elections ; after some of its representatives lost their posts, the bloc transformed itself into Russia’s Democratic Choice. It was a typical “semi-opposition” , combining as it was moderate criticism of aspects of the government policy with unreserved support of the Kremlin on key issues while its representatives kept important posts in government. In the unfavorable economic context of the mid-1990s, such a strategy held no promise of dividends, and the costs were considerable. Not being able to influence key decisions, the “liberals” were seen by the electorate as being responsible for the government’s failures, and their influence in the corridors of power waned. By contrast, Yabloko, initially a motley assemblage of politicians, managed to get across its programmatic principles and attitudes and attract a small but noticeable number of voters. Subsequent efforts by Yabloko’s leader Grigory Yavlinsky and some other members enabled it to become a full-fledged political party [34; 75; 28].
Thus, the “liberals” and “democrats” became political rivals and their relations became strained. This happened because institutional and political incentives toward a coalition policy for the Russian parties were small even for ideologically close parties: the only option for coalition-building was “unfriendly takeover” of small entities by larger ones . The difference of potentials of Russia’s Choice-Russia’s Democratic Choice-Union of Right Forces and Yabloko was not sufficient for such a takeover, and the claims of the pro-Kremlin RDC, which had clout to trangle Yabloko in its embrace, met with fierce criticism on the part of “democrats” . If one looks at the way the two parties positioned themselves on the more significant issues, their approaches differed cardinally. During the December 1993 Constitution referendum, the “liberals” backed the Presidential draft of the constitution and actively supported Yeltsin’s re-election. The “democrats,” on the contrary, refused to back the draft Constitution [59, vol. 2], and in the 1996 elections, Yavlinsky himself ran for president. In the second round, Yabloko refused to back Yeltsin.
As regards strategic positioning, Yabloko “democrats” were torn between drawing closer to the “liberals” and distancing themselves from them. Sporadic attempts to shift Yabloko toward the “democratic left” niche never met with support from the “democrats.” Yabloko failed to clearly formulate an ideological alternative to the “liberals” as regards the political course. The party’s position on the whole was somewhat to the left of the rival “liberals,” especially on the issue of privatization . These differences, however, were not always understood by the members of both trends or by rank-and-file activists, which is why the differences between the “democrats” and the “liberals” were perceived by observers as signs of personal conflicts. “Liberals” for their part were not a monolithic bloc; frictions in their ranks increased over time: today it is hard to imagine that Sergey Glaziev, a statist and advocate of the “Russian world” concept, and Andrey Illarionov, a radical critic of the policies of the Russian authorities, were both members of the “Gaidar team” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even when the “liberals'” programmatic positions remained more or less unchanged on economic policy they did not always follow their basic principles in practice.
Although the RDC suffered a debacle in the 1995 Duma elections, the “liberals,” far from dropping out of Russia’s political elite, increased their influence because they took an active part in the motley pro-Yeltsin coalition in the 1996 presidential elections and subsequently held a number of government posts [7; 22; 37]. After the 1998 financial crisis, which was blamed on the “liberals,” they managed to rally and form a new coalition, which did well in the 1999 elections as The Union of Right Forces. It is worth noting that by that time, the “liberals” had made a strategic decision to renounce the legacy of the “democrats” and positioned themselves as the Right throwing their weight behind Putin during the election campaign. Thanks to the Kremlin’s support, they managed to get back into parliament and score a crucial victory over the Yabloko rivals. The “democrats” in turn faced a profound internal crisis: Yabloko opposed the Kremlin’s initiatives, systematically refused to choose “the lesser of two evils” and ended up becoming an opposition that was, in principle, unable to take part in government, which hindered its efforts to broaden its electoral base. In the eyes of its supporters, Yabloko did not look like a party capable of implementing its plans. Attempts to reverse the situation failed and its poor performance in the 1999 elections demonstrated that the “democrats” electoral prospects were illusory .
As a result, in 2000-2003, both the “liberals” and the “democrats” were reduced to the status of a “semi-opposition” For the “liberals,” it meant that the Kremlin only needed them as allies for tactical reasons, while the dividends from the claims to a junior partner of URF were insignificant. Yabloko’s crisis grew worse during the same period. Several prominent Duma deputies and regional activists resigned from the party, the demand for the “democrats'” former ideas dropped and no new ideas were offered. Against this background, the URF, which was the engine of the new wave of liberal reforms in the early 2000s and seemed to have perked up, made several attempts to strangle Yabloko in the embrace of the “democrats.” During the 2003 Duma elections, the “liberals” sought not so much to garner votes as to get Yabloko rivals out of the way. The latter responded in kind, which undermined the positions of both parties to the conflict. Indeed, these elections were the “swan song” of both parties: the “liberals” and the “democrats” failed to win seats in the Fourth State Duma, which led the chief of the President’s staff Vlaldislav Surkov to declare that these two parties had exhausted their historical mission in Russia.
Subsequent events demonstrated a dramatic decline of both political camps: the “liberals” split into “systemic” Kremlin loyalists and “non-systemic” critics of the Kremlin who drew closer to the “democrats,” who in turn became more and more marginalized politically as authoritarian trends in the country increased. Over time, their confrontation became less and less important in the public eye, especially as a new generation of opposition politicians was emerging . And yet, the causes and mechanisms of the ideological struggle between the “liberals” and the “democrats” in Russia, as well as its influence on the trajectories of transformation of the country and the prospects of reformist ideas in the future remain unclear.
In Lieu of a Conclusion: The Rise and Fall of Reformist Ideas in Russia
Why do some ideas make an impact on the processes of social change and others do not? The answer to this question can be gleaned through the prism of demand and supply in the market of ideas. The demand grows in the periods when the situation in this or that society is perceived by the elites and by public opinion as one of crisis, but as uncertainty disappears, it may fall leaving those who produce and disseminate ideas out of a job. From that point of view, the rise of reformist slogans during perestroika, the decline of the “liberals” and “democrats” in the 2000s can be explained as the consequences of the dynamics of demand for ideas. Before the start of perestroika, interest in alternative ideas was artificially restricted, and after the post-communist transformation, as the new political and economic system in Russia took root, demand for liberal and democratic ideas disappeared. A new groundswell of demand in the market of ideas in the 2010s brought to the foreground concepts far removed from modernization while democracy and market reforms could find no niche in this market.
However, in the analysis of the struggle between various reformist trends, the study of demand in the market of ideas has to be complemented by an assessment of supply, not only in terms of the content of these ideas but also of the actions of those who produce and disseminate them. Although supply of concepts is not always directly linked with their impact on the current agenda , one can hardly speak of the impact of concepts without articulated programs and active efforts of various agents. Supply on the part of “democrats” was too general and poorly articulated while its producers and disseminators were not equipped to meet the sudden surge of demand. The demand on the part of the “liberals,” although more coherent, focused on just one key aspect of the post-communist transformation (the building of a market economy) and was geared to one-off application in the concrete context of reforms. The “democrats” and even more so the “liberals,” both in the supply of ideas and their implementation, had in mind not the broad masses but rather narrow interest groups, which lost them the trust of the elites and of society. Although the “liberals” were able, due to a favorable concatenation of circumstances (change of generations amid disaffection with the democratic narrative), to score a tactical victory in the market of reformist ideas in the early 1990s, both the “liberals” and the “democrats” suffered a crushing defeat in the medium-term perspective.
Another important lesson of the Russian experience in the late 1980s and early 2000s was that what matters in the struggle is not only or largely the concepts as such, but their acceptance/non-acceptance by the elites and the public, multiplied by the perception of the figures of the producers and disseminators of these ideas. The Sixties “democrats” lost to their younger, better educated and more modern rivals, the Seventies “liberals.” However, they too failed to become the intellectual beacons of large groups of intellectuals, not to speak of the broad public (although some of them influenced the positions of the Russian elites in the 1990s) even though they played no small part in the preparation and adoption of significant decisions (the “liberals” still have some traction but only on a small scale).
The defeat of the “democrats” and the “liberals” does not mean that their ideas proved to be useless for Russia’s transformation in the late 20th century. The fact that Russia managed to build a market economy and proclaim itself to be a democracy, declaring (but not putting into practice) the principles of political and civic freedoms, was to a large extent the result of the promotion of reformist programs. Although the producers and disseminators of these ideas in the late 1980s and early 1990s would hardly find signs of implementation of their ideas in the 2020s Russia, the reformist ideas helped our country to come out of the impasse in which it found itself at the start of perestroika and helped to make this result irreversible. However, this fact in itself does not guarantee against new impasses in the future and neither the “democrats” nor the “liberals” were prepared for such a turn of events by the beginning of the 20th century.
By the early 2020s, the “men of the Sixties” had left the stage and even their successors, “men of the Seventies,” are unlikely to propose anything new in the market of ideas. But what can the new generations of “democrats” and “liberals” bring to the struggle of ideas that is distinct from their predecessors? Will their programs be met with demand in the foreseeable future, and if so, what will be their main thrust? The answer to this question is anything but obvious. Granted, after the debacle of the 2000s, the “democrats” more or less successfully switched to human rights activities to preserve the core of their producers and distributors. But the “niche” character of their slogan, although making it possible to reproduce the former ideals, objectively leaves little chance that if fresh demand for democratization arises in Russia, the “democrats” will be in demand in this capacity. Attempts to transform the “democrats'” ideas by grafting populism from Aleksey Navalny  in the 2010s are questionable. Although these attempts are called upon to stimulate fresh demand in the market of ideas, it remains unclear to what extent supply will be integral and successful, or whether it will end up as another political technology ploy in the struggle against the current regime. It is more difficult to assess the prospects for the Russian “liberals” whose ideas (and proponents), after short-lived success, were in many respects (justly or unjustly) discredited in the eyes of the Russian public. The advent of the new generation has not changed the landscape in this political camp, and the new slogans need to be better articulated if they are to seriously battle for the hearts and minds of Russians.
Be that as it may, the programmatic ideas for the Russian modernization proposed by the “democrats” and the “liberals” in the late 20th century should not be thrown into the trash can. In the future, new attempts to move forward will need reform programs, which of course will differ from those that were prevalent 20 or 30 years ago. Their success in the market of ideas will go a long way to determine the agenda of the new round of Russia’s transformation, which is why the experience of the “democrats” and the “liberals” remains relevant in terms of Russia’s prospects.
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1 Here and elsewhere the terms in quotation marks are self-appellations. Whether the views and actions of the Russian “liberals” and “democrats” correspond to the respective doctrines is a question beyond the scope of this article (see critique in [40; 43]).
2 Here and elsewhere the materials of an article published earlier are used .
3 Founded in 1989 and headed by Anatoly Chubais.
Translated by Yevgeny Filippov
This article was first published in Russian in the journal Mir Rossii (Universe of Russia. Vol. 29. No. 1, pp. 53-79; DOI: 10.17323/1811-038X-2020-29-1-53-79). The article was published as part of the University Partnership project of the National Research University Higher School of Economics to support the publication of authors at Russian educational and research institutions.