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Clio's Temple

Unspoken fears

On this date thirteen years ago, something unprecedented happened: Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation. In the bleak annals of power in that part of the world, a peaceful act of succession was a milestone. Nowadays, though, we're not sure where the road leads.

Yeltsin, despite his Communist past, was a man hard to dislike: big-framed, rather like the fabled Russian bear. His struggles with the bottle only made him seem human. When he stood up against the anti-Gorbachev coup of August, 1991, he became a hero to many who had never given much thought to what was happening as the Soviet Union crumbled. Two years later, his reputation took some smudges when he used the army to attack his opponents in the Duma. That seemed like a reversion to the age-old pattern of Russian autocracy. It wasn't: the subsequent looting of Russia's natural resources by the oligarchs was a sign that the age of buccaneer capitalism, its own Gilded Age, was at hand.

My wife and I visited Russia two years ago. She had been there in 1993, chaperoning a group of Methodist youth. She had vivid memories of the all-too-visible decrepitude of many of the apartment blocks. Some of these are still visible, although as often as not there are glittering high-rises within a few hundred yards of these Stalinist relics. There, too, it seems that Russia is retracing some of the steps the U.S. took in its political evolution, with a jarring mix of wealth and poverty side by side. As we cruised the waterways from Moscow to St. Petersburg, dachas that were little more than fishing shacks stood near residences that would fit right in on Hilton Head or Pawley's Island.

There's the rub: it looks as though too much of Russia's wealth is either on display in the form of posh dwellings, or is offshore in Cyprus and other such places. Putin's apparent determination to hang on to power is another worrisome sign. One of the reasons why Russia's history has so much sadness is that progress seems always to be in conflict with the determination of the wealthy and powerful not to use their wealth to build a modern nation. Old patterns of power die hard in Mother Russia. Will things be different twenty years from now?

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