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After Fitful Start, Revolution Finally Underway in Russia

Last in an occasional series on the former Soviet states, 10 years after the fall.

January 01, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — Looking back over the 10 years since the demise of the Soviet Union, many Russians are apt to say it was a disappointing decade--their hopes for democracy were dashed by criminals and gangsters, and hopes for prosperity ended in lawlessness, poverty and despair.

But that would not be the view of Alexander Maryagin, a walking symbol of how this land has changed.

On Dec. 31, 1991, the day the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics faded into history, Maryagin was a 21-year-old, wandering the grim streets of Moscow, a place of empty store shelves and long vodka lines. Back then, he would sometimes hawk calculators on the freezing pavement outside a railway station.

"At that time, I couldn't even imagine that I would ever own a car, let alone drive it myself," Maryagin said recently, seated in a chic cafe as though he owned the place. (He does, in fact, own part of it.) "It was like thinking about flying to the moon."

Maryagin did not have success handed to him. Instead, he lived the American dream--in Russia.

He started with nothing, toiled 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He made countless shopping trips to Turkey to buy cheap goods to sell in Russian markets. He paid bribes when he had to. He plowed his earnings back into his business and seldom had time to look at his calendar or his watch.

Today he owns shares of two cafes and a shopping center and is looking into acquiring cinemas. He has an apartment and a 4-acre estate, and when he wants to drive someplace, he can choose from his Dodge Durango, his Jeep Grand Cherokee or his Lincoln Town Car.

"And I created all this from scratch with my own hands in my own city in my own country," the 31-year-old says in a voice that expresses more marvel than boast.

"It seems to me that Moscow today is entering a stage which can be described as la dolce vita compared to the gray and cold Soviet times, which seem like hundreds of years ago."

The revolution that has taken place in Russia, the largest and most populous part of the former Soviet Union, has been chaotic, drawn out and marked by false starts and retreats. Even today, few could argue that it is finished.

But on the whole, most analysts and observers believe that Russia is well on its way to becoming what many Russians and almost everyone in the West would have wished for: a country of free markets, democratically elected government and private property operating under the rule of law.

President Vladimir V. Putin heralded that assessment Monday night in his annual New Year's address to the nation.

"The year 2001 differed significantly from those that preceded it," Putin said. "We managed not only to maintain the growth in our economy, but also to improve people's lives, at least to a small degree."

Of course, each item on Russia's list of achievements can be debated: How free are the markets when bureaucrats and gangsters can demand bribes and protection money? How democratic are the elections when small parties have been limited and local governors use "administrative means" to shape voting results? Is private property really private when there is scant respect for ownership by courts beholden to those in power?

Yet there is a sense that these phenomena are on the decline and that the country is slowly becoming more orderly. Surveys indicate that the 10th anniversary of the end of the U.S.S.R. finds the Russian people more optimistic than they have ever been in the post-Soviet era.

"Today a majority of people are inclined to believe that the worst times are already over," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, a Moscow think tank. "People are looking to the future with a greater optimism, though they regard the last decade as an epoch of huge failures."

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who started the reforms in the 1980s and sealed the end of the union with his resignation Dec. 25, 1991, said the process of building Russia is ongoing.

"But it is already a serious, accomplished fact," Gorbachev said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. "People who have tasted independence and freedom will never part with it. And thank God for that!"

Such an optimistic, albeit cautious, outlook might come as a surprise to Western pundits who sometimes used to argue over "Who lost Russia?"

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, it had become a truism on the talk show circuit that the United States had made big mistakes in its policy toward Russia: It was said to have been inattentive, or too wanton with aid, or else had an overly personalized attachment to ex-President Boris N. Yeltsin.

As Yeltsin's health and grip on power waned, the Russian currency collapsed and a generation of kleptocrats and robber barons fought in the courts and the streets over national assets. Vast, nuclear-armed Russia was widely thought to be in danger of disintegrating into anarchy or giving rise to a new authoritarian dictatorship.

Common Wisdom Was Frequently Wrong

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