Russians need help, not a billion-dollar handout

Arkhangelsk, Russia — The Germans called it humanitarian aid. The International Monetary Fund spoke of structural development, the World Bank of business development. Whatever it was called, it didn’t work. Ten years into political and economic reform in Russia, most of the Western strategies to “save” Russian democracy or to “stabilize” Russian capitalism–strategies invariably requiring billions of dollars in loans to the central government in Moscow–have gone wrong. And no wonder: If the West had really wanted to help the Russian people along the road to liberalism and free markets, there were better ways to do it.

We could have started, for example, by buying Galina Dundina a telephone.

Dundina, a diminutive, white-haired lady in a crocheted sweater, is the president, leading activist and driving spirit behind the Legal Defense Center of the Arkhangelsk International Human Rights Association, an organization that consists mostly of Dundina and a few volunteers. With no money other than her pension (and that hasn’t been paid in several months) and no office other than her tiny apartment (and that doesn’t have a telephone), she has nevertheless spent several years campaigning on behalf of the unjustly accused, the unfairly imprisoned, and even downright criminals whose rights have been violated.

She does not always succeed. But then, the importance of her activity does not lie solely in its results. The larger point about Galina Dundina is that her organization is self-motivated, self-organized and self-financed–to the extent that it is financed at all. No state official told her to work on behalf of prisoners, no communist party apparatchik has sanctioned her activity. However tiny, efforts such as the Legal Defense Center are therefore bona fide evidence of the growth of civil society in Russia, and particularly the growth of civil society in the Russian provinces. This is a revolutionary change, one almost wholly ignored by the politicians and the bankers who make Western policy toward Russia–and it should cause a revolution in the way they think about promoting reforms in the former Soviet Union.

Not that Dundina looks terribly revolutionary. On the contrary, she looks like the school teacher she used to be, and her classroom skills still show as she comforts a weeping 15-year-old girl incarcerated in Arkhangelsk’s prison on suspicion that she stole the ruble equivalent of $10. “There now,” Dundina says as she hands the girl a handkerchief. “You keep working on your algebra, and you’ll be out of here soon.”

Or so one hopes: Eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still possible to meet people who have been imprisoned for months without a trial, and the girl has already been in jail for a week.

For the past 70 years, former school teachers didn’t visit prisons or engage in any volunteer work at all, save that organized by the local party cell. Until recently, the Soviet state controlled all social organizations, from the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts to scholarly societies. That was the essence of totalitarianism.

But these days, even in Arkhangelsk–a northern port with a distinct deficit of anything resembling private enterprise–it is possible to find not only the Legal Defense Center but other tiny and under-funded organizations defending children’s rights and soldiers’ rights, as well as an increasing number of people abandoning the trade unions set up by the communist government in favor of their own. The local independent seamens’ union already boasts 6,000 members. There are smaller dockers’ and teachers’ unions, too.

Recently, the human rights activists and the trade unionists in Arkhangelsk have begun to act in tandem. It gives them more influence, says Alexander Ufrakov, co-president of the university teachers’ union, and it also makes intellectual sense. “We see human rights as including the right to be treated equally before the law, the right to receive the salary you are supposed to receive, the right to live in your apartment without being expelled because some local boss wants it,” says Ufrakov.

Although still relatively small, the groups now lobby together in favor of reforms and publish the bulletin Anti-Corruptsia, which looks suspiciously like an old samizdat manifesto and contains appalling stories about the corrupt local elite.

Indeed, it is impossible not to have a sense of deja vu in Arkhangelsk, which is no accident: The politics of the city do sound suspiciously like the politics of some parts of Central Europe ’round about 1979. Rauf Gabidulin, the teachers’ union’s other co-president, jokes that his city bears a distinct resemblance to the Polish city of Gdansk: the same windswept waterfront, the same ship builders’ cranes–and the same combination of intellectuals and free trade unionists that led to the birth of the Solidarity movement there in 1980, as well as the same harassment of the latter. When Gabidulin began his union work, he lost his position as head of his university’s philosophy department.

There is a difference, though. In Poland, Solidarity came before democracy. Not only did the founders of Poland’s first free trade union help push the communists from power, those who created Solidarity were in the position to form an alternate political class once the communists were gone.

In Russia, there was no such pressure and there is no such alternate political class. Russia’s politicians are still mostly former leading communists-turned-elected politicians, acting in concert with other former leading communists-turned-businessmen. Particularly in the provinces, the combination can be suffocating: the same corrupt elite still ruling the same region, still owning the local media, still controlling the local police and still running the local industry, except that now the profits go straight into their pockets.

This is where we in the West–and in the United States in particular–might have a role to play. If we are serious about helping to change the political culture of Russia over the long-term, and if we are willing to abandon the idea that “saving” Russia means making Russia safe for global hedge funds as quickly as possible, then these regional power structures–and the people who want to undermine them–ought to be the target of our efforts. If Arkhangelsk and Samara and Novosibirsk and other provincial Russian cities bear a striking resemblance to Gdansk in 1979, we should treat them the way we treated Gdansk in 1979.

We should give small amounts of financial support to their human rights activists, send the odd AFL-CIO delegation (or the odd Polish Solidarity organization) to advise their free trade unionists, offer suggestions about judicial reform and small business law and beam massive quantities of Russian-language Western radio across the border, to counteract the effects of their half-free press.

The U.S. government, the Soros Foundation and others do some work like this now, but not enough, and not nearly enough outside of Moscow. Yet tiny amounts of aid–the mobile phone, the spot of funding for a seminar–are much easier to target than the IMF’s billions. Mistakes–money meant for office rental that disappears into someone’s private bank account–are bound to happen but matter much less. The people who would genuinely benefit from help are not difficult to identify, as most provincial cities have a handful of known activists. There are also Russian organizations that have worked very hard to find and advise potential provincial reformers, most notably the Moscow School of Political Studies, an independently funded institution that holds seminars in economics and political philosophy for regional politicians. We should support them, too.

Of course, this is not a recipe for fast change. A new political class will take a generation or more to develop. Nor does the quiet distribution of a hundred dollars here or there have the same glamour as a superpower summit followed by a multibillion-dollar loan.

But it is a way to make our presence felt in Russia. The powerful oligarchs and nomenklatura bosses who run Moscow aren’t, for the most part, very interested in our advice or susceptible to our influence. However, among provincial reformers, who admire Western political ideas and would like to put them into practice, we have a great deal of influence indeed.

And not only among the reformers. Having traveled around Russia quite extensively over the past year, I have become convinced that, contrary to most reports, most Russians are not anti-reform and most Russians do not want life to return to the way it was before.

Most Russians are, however, opposed to “reforms” as they have so far been practiced by the kleptocracy that rules Russia. They know perfectly well that the economic system that has evolved in their country since 1991 is not capitalism as practiced in the United States, that presidential elections do not make for democracy as practiced in Western Europe (Boris Yeltsin, Gabidulin says, is just an “elected autocrat”). They even know that a wrangle with local prosecutors over the treatment of a 15-year-old prisoner has more to do with genuine “democracy” than elections which simply bring to power representatives whose parliamentary votes can then be bought and sold by Moscow billionaires.

Our task now is to help train the people who might organize these ordinary Russians, so that they are not always ruled by that kleptocracy. If Russian society doesn’t change, the Russian political system won’t change, either. Anne Applebaum, an occasional columnist for the Sunday Telegraph in London, is writing a history of Soviet concentration camps.