In 1997 you said Russia should not be mistaken for a democratic state. Ten years later?
All of us who stood along the banks of the Moscow River on the night the KGB-led coup collapsed in August 1991 and dreamed of the rapid rise of democracy in Russia were, understandably, romantically deluded. Russia had known a thousand years of autocracy and 70 years of communism. Nothing else. The cost in human life, in the distortion of psychology, and in the ruin of economies was beyond imagining. And yet for a short time people allowed themselves to think that the transformation could be rapid, as it had been in smaller places like the Czech Republic, Estonia, and even Poland, where there had been traditions of relative freedom and markets.
Under Yeltsin in the nineties there were elements of budding democracy— particularly in the area of civil liberties—but there was also erratic development and some terrible mistakes, including the war in Chechnya and crony capitalism. The tragedy of the Putin era has been that a dramatic rise in oil prices has provided some economic improvement and stability, but the rise of authoritarian rule is, to put it mildly, more evident than the establishment of democratic institutions. The most optimistic view of things is that it is like Mexico or South Korea, essentially a one-party corporatist state that will eventually evolve into something better.
What is your greatest fear— and your greatest hope—for the future?
My greatest fear, of course, is that the authoritarian behavior of the government will grow even more pronounced and last a long time. I fear that the 2008 elections will be no elections at all, an offense to the idea of political choice. And that is more likely than not. My hope is that younger people will develop a free Russia in spite of it all. There's no doubt that a middle class is growing in the cities in terms of income, and historically speaking, that is where the demand for democracy comes from. This is one case where globalism works in favor of development; middle-class Russians who are exposed, through travel and work, to the rest of the world will not settle for the kind of state that is being arranged for them in the Kremlin.
How do you think Russia's relationship with the United States has changed?
The most foolish thing was to believe that the collapse of Communist ideology meant the West could ignore Russia. We do so at our peril. Russia remains fantastically important to the collective future. Not only does it have a nuclear arsenal on our level but it also has enormous potential—more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil—and an educated populace. Putin has been able to exploit Russia's disenchantment with the West and arouse a lot of animus toward us as a way of creating a national self-identity. The truth is that for all of Putin's abuses, the Bush administration has not done much to enhance the moral contrast in our favor. Russians see things like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the use of torture on the detainees at Guantánamo Bay (scandals that are easily pumped up on state-controlled TV) and they grow less interested in lectures on democracy and human rights from George W. Bush or any other Western leader.
What's the last book you read on Russia?
I recently reread, for the sixth or seventh time, Moscow-Petushki (or Moscow Circles, as it's sometimes translated) by Venedikt Erofeev, a favorite of seventies-era intellectuals. It's basically a comical drunken escapade, one man's perambulations and inebriated inner monologue, and it is the funniest Russian book since Nabokov's Pnin or Gogol's Dead Souls. Joseph Brodsky used to say that The Brothers Karamazov was a comic novel. Maybe. But for laughs I'll take Moscow-Petushki.
Is there a place in the country you haven't been but are longing to visit?
There are so many places: the Kamchatka Peninsula, where tigers roam free; the Buddhist enclave in Ulan-Ude; some of the polar cities such as Noril'sk and Vorkuta. And in general I'd love to go back to Siberia, which I could never get enough of when my wife, Esther Fein, and I lived in Russia as correspondents.
What do you miss most?
The style of friendships, the endless informal kitchen talk—vodka or no vodka—which was at the center of our lives. The rise of money and business and a new kind of familiar ambition has inevitably impinged on all that, but I really do miss it. And I loved marinating in another language. Russian, like English, is the sort of language that one never reaches the end of. When I was in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, my head hurt for the first few days—it was an adjustment to living in that language again—but then that eased. It seemed almost criminal to get back on the plane to New York and to land once more in a place where Russian was only at the margin of my life and not at its bewildering center.—S.R.