Nobody knew what surprises the Y2K changeover would bring. Some
commentators thought there would be major disruptions. Others said the
disruptions would be minor. As the world turned, as one time zone after
another crossed the threshold, no major catastrophes took place. Those
responsible for managing the dangers of the changeover, from the Joint
Chiefs of Staff to executives of utility companies, were vigilant and
responsible in their preparations. The bugs were fixed and the
transition to 2000 went smoothly. But there was one surprise. On New
Year’s Eve Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigned his office.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is now Russia’s acting president. Putin
is also the candidate most likely to win the presidential election which
will take place in March. Of all the things that might have happened on
New Year’s Eve, this was the event that grabbed the world’s headlines.
The man who represented reform and good relations with the West has
stepped down in favor of a former chief of the secret police.
Yeltsin’s farewell address was tearful, sentimental and apologetic.
At various places in his speech he addressed the Russian people as “dear
friends” and “my dears,” underscoring his fatherly concern for the
nation. “I am not leaving because of my health,” said Yeltsin, “but
because of all the problems (of Russia) taken together.” Yeltsin said
that a new generation was taking his place. He praised Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin as “a strong person, fit to be president, with whom
practically all Russians link their hopes. …”
Yeltsin then asked forgiveness. He had failed to make the transition
from “the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past” into a “civilized
future.” The project had been too difficult. Russia could not be
transformed from a police state “in one go.” Ironically, Yeltsin’s only
recourse was to hand the state over to Putin — a career KGB officer.
The resignation of Yeltsin is part of a year-long shift in Kremlin
policy. Most experts acknowledge that Russia’s current relations with
the West are “icy.” On New Year’s Eve, for example, Prime Minister Putin
— the new acting president of Russia — would not take a call from
The events of the last year follow the pattern of the past. Russia
has gone through periods of reform before, and these periods have always
ended in renewed hostility toward the West. Since the Bolshevik
Revolution of 1917 Russia has gone through six periods of openness and
restructuring, followed by six totalitarian contractions in which
repression and hostility has returned in full force.
The first openness and restructuring happened in the spring of 1921,
when Lenin announced the failure of Communism. In order to salvage the Soviet
regime, Lenin announced his New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin’s
restructuring of the Communist system involved political liberalization, extensive
“self criticism” and economic freedom. Amnesties were offered to
dissidents. Accommodation with capitalism was the word of the day.
During the NEP period anti-Soviet organizations appeared in Russia.
But these were controlled by the Kremlin’s secret agents. The Monarchist
Alliance of Central Russia and other such organizations were created by
the secret police to fool the West. The scheme was to acquire Western
loans and money to rebuild a Russian economy shattered by revolution and
In 1929 the first period of Soviet openness had accomplished its
objectives. After eight years of political and economic liberalization,
after eight years of Western investment, the hidden totalitarian
structures of the state went into action. Private businesses were
nationalized and foreign joint companies were expropriated.
This was the first totalitarian contraction to follow a period of
The second liberalization was of much shorter duration. In 1936
Stalin suggested that the Soviet economy become more capitalistic. He openly called
for “perestroika” (restructuring). Profit incentives were brought into
the economy. Stalin also announced that Russia was returning to a
Western type of political constitution. The 1936 Soviet Constitution
made all the right promises about citizen’s rights, elections and
freedom, but it was just a scrap of paper. Nothing changed except the
perceptions of Western observers.
Inevitably, the 1936 Soviet Constitution was made a mockery of in
1937 when Stalin brutally purged the Communist Party. Once again, as
long as the secret police remained in place, any liberalization or
promised reforms could not be trusted.
The third period of Russian openness and restructuring came in 1941
after Hitler attacked Russia. Stalin was desperate to win the hearts and
minds of his own people, and he was desperate to show good will to his
wartime allies — America and Great Britain. Stalin assured the West
that Communism had mellowed. He dissolved the Comintern, which promoted
world revolution. Stalin also allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to
function, and removed references to world revolution from the Soviet
But with the end of World War II Stalin returned to a policy of open
hostility to the West. Communist subversion was promoted once again. By
1948 the Cold War had begun, and by mid-1950 there was fighting in
The fourth period of reform in Russia came after the death of Stalin.
At the 20th Party Congress on Feb. 24, 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin
as a dictator. A period of liberalization, amnesties and reforms
followed. Predictably the reforms ended with a new period of
confrontation, with the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban
The next period of supposed reform and openness was called “detente,”
and took place from about 1970 to 1975. This phase ended with the
realization that Russia was building a superior nuclear-missile arsenal.
In addition, there were Communist takeovers in Angola and Nicaragua,
among other places. There was also severe repression in Poland and the
Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Cold War was continuing in earnest.
The sixth and longest period of openness and reform began over a
decade ago with Mikhail Gorbachev. The “evil empire” reconfigured itself
on a new basis. The most dramatic changes took place in Eastern Europe
in 1989 and 1990, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the
reunification of Germany. Certainly, the controlled liberalization
wasn’t under perfect control. But as the smartest observers noted, the
Russian secret police remained intact. The collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1991 was not a triumph for capitalism and democracy — as advertised.
The Russian secret police continued their clandestine maneuvers. The
changes in Russia caused the West to adopt a friendly attitude toward
the Kremlin leadership. Billions of dollars poured into Russia, along
with supercomputers and other high tech equipment.
And now President Yeltsin — the central figure behind the reforms in
Russia — has resigned. “I want to ask you for forgiveness,” said
Yeltsin to the Russian people, “because many of our hopes have not come
The reforms, the openness, the restructuring has failed.
Now it appears that a sixth totalitarian contraction has begun. The
new acting president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has risen to national
acclaim on a platform that a leading Russian newspaper, Izvestiya,
characterized as “kill and protect.” And the Russian people
overwhelmingly approve of this platform.
The year 1999 was the year Russia’s sixth period of openness came to
a carefully staged end. If the trend continues, 2000 will bring a
further increase in tensions as the pattern of totalitarian resurgence
repeats itself once more.
On Nov. 23 Prime Minister Putin delivered a report to the
Coordination Council of Russia’s domestic commodity producers. He said
that “the situation in the world arena is not developing as envisioned
by scenarios certain Russian politicians advanced in the early ’90s, so
there is a need for adjustment.” In fact, according to the prime
minister — now acting president — Russia needs to build up its
military industrial complex. That is the path that Putin marked out last
History repeats itself once again.