In Russia, there is power beyond Putin

05/03/2014 4:00 PM

05/03/2014 10:32 PM

Through much of their country’s modern history, it has been the fate of the Russian people to pay dearly for their rulers’ mistakes.

During the seven decades in which communist ideology governed nearly all aspects of collective and private activity, the virtues of a once vibrant and creative culture were brutally repressed.

The celebration of Soviet life was seen as the principal mission of literature and the arts. Deviation was unthinkable, and harshly punished.

That was the spiritual cost of a mindless tyranny. More clearly visible to anyone traveling in Russia during the last 40 years has been the outrageous and crippling

economic

cost.

For the great majority of the residents of that vast and resource-rich country, the effort to make lives of decency and comfort has been a struggle against almost insuperable odds.

During a three-month journey the length of Siberia’s longest and most pristine river in 1991, our expedition party met and visited with a great number of people and saw the hardness of their lives.

Almost without exception, they spoke of their distress and disappointment at a political system that they felt had cheated them of their chance and their country of its promise.

Farmers worked with antique and broken machinery. They were told what to plant and what animals to raise. And when harvest came, they said, the authorities stole their crops.

Women crawled on their knees down the rows of milelong fields, weeding the crops by hand.

And the pain was not limited to country people. Distress was evident among city folk as well. Luxuries were few. The ruble, their basic currency, was all but valueless. Medical care was rudimentary, if available at all. And luxuries were unavailable, except for the governing elite.

The Russian people deserved better. What’s more, they

knew

they deserved better.

And that is why on that morning 23 years ago — the morning when eight communist hard-liners tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and restore Stalinist-style rule — hundreds of thousands of courageous Russians took to the streets, defying the army and the KGB and causing the coup to collapse.

Much has changed since then. The Russian economy is more robust. The people live marginally better. But if the Kremlin’s miscalculation of the West’s seriousness in Ukraine leads to ever more stringent U.S. and European sanctions and worsening economic isolation, the impact could be felt by people who have suffered enough.

And Vladimir Putin should remember the events of 1991 well enough to know that such disappointment can have consequences.

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