Political change in Russia always comes unexpectedly. The tsarist minister Vyacheslav von Plehve, who before 1904 called for a “small victorious war,” never imagined that it would lead to a revolutionary explosion and force the monarchy to agree to a constitution, parliament and freedom of the press. Vladimir Lenin, complaining to the Swiss Social Democrats in January 1917 that “we of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution,” did not suspect that it was only a few weeks away. And absolutely no one in the summer of 1991 expected that by the end of the year the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would be banned and the Soviet Union dissolved.
The next time, change will come in exactly the same way — abruptly and unexpectedly. None of us knows the specific moment and specific circumstances, but it will happen in the foreseeable future. The chain of events leading to these changes was started by the regime itself [with its full-scale invasion of Ukraine] in February 2022. It’s only a matter of time.
And this means, as Alexei Navalny rightly pointed out in a recent and widely discussed article, that a window of opportunity for the reestablishment of the state on democratic principles will soon appear again in Russia. Not a “window of guarantees,” not a “window of a final result,” not a “window of a bright and happy future” — but rather precisely a window of opportunity that we must use wisely and not squander yet again, as was done in the 1990s. And that is why a serious, meaningful and public conversation about those missed opportunities is so important — not for historical reflection, but to avoid stepping on the same rake again.
Hardly anyone can dispute that the leaders of democratic Russia of the 1990s missed a unique historical chance. The only thing is that it was missed, in my opinion, much earlier than the events that Alexei writes about: long before the constitution of 1993, the loans-for-shares auctions of 1995 and the presidential election of 1996. The windows of opportunity opened by revolutionary change are generally very small and close very quickly. The new government will have only a few months, at best a year, to make a decisive break with the totalitarian past and prevent its return.
It was this chance that Boris Yeltsin’s team missed in those crucial months of 1991 and 1992, when every day was worth its weight in gold. A society that has gone through the trauma of a brutal dictatorship, massive internal repressions and aggressive external wars, that has lived for decades under conditions of total lies and deliberate distortion of normal human values, needs, above all, moral purification. This is the path that — in various forms, but with an unchanged essence — a variety of countries have walked in recent history: from Germany after National Socialism to the states of Latin America after military dictatorships, from the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe to post-apartheid South Africa. To prevent the return of evil, we must first comprehend, condemn and punish it — publicly and at the highest state level. In this way, neither the ideology underlying the previous regime nor the structures and persons implementing its repressive policy will be allowed to harm the young democracy, especially in the first, most important years of its formation.
This path of real renewal was open to Russia in 1991 and 1992. Society was ready for it. The rising strength of the social movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the August Revolution of 1991 were driven by anti-totalitarian passion, by the rejection and denial of violence on the part of the Communist Party and its “armed wing.” It is no coincidence that immediately after the victory over the coup plotters [in 1991], a crowd of Muscovites set off to remove the monument to [Soviet secret police founder] Felix Dzerzhinsky on Lubyanka Square. At the same time, they dismantled Yuri Andropov’s memorial plaque on the facade of the main KGB building. It is quite possible that the issue would not have remained limited to the plaque and the monument: the people gathered in the square were ready to go further — to the building itself. The leader of the victorious revolution, Yeltsin, personally came to Lubyanka to dissuade them from this. His authority in those days was undisputed, so people dispersed. This was the first red flag.
Just a few days later, at a different rally at the Mayakovsky Monument, Vladimir Bukovsky, a writer, long-term political prisoner and one of the founders of the democratic movement in the U.S.S.R., spoke words that proved prophetic. “Don’t be fooled: The dragon is not dead yet. It is mortally wounded, its spine is broken, but it still holds human souls and many countries in its claws.” Throughout the next year, Bukovsky and a few other farsighted democratic leaders, including Galina Starovoitova, a Russian legislator and adviser to Yeltsin, tried to persuade the Russian leadership to “slay the dragon”: to open the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the KGB, to publish documents about the crimes of the Soviet regime and its punitive bodies, and to condemn these crimes at the state level so that the people who committed these crimes could not decide the fate of new Russia.
This was not to be a “witch hunt,” as frightened party officials cried. “After all, the task was not to separate the less guilty from the more guilty and punish the latter, but to cause a process of moral purification of society,” wrote Bukovsky in his book “Judgment in Moscow.” “For this, it was necessary to judge the system with all its crimes.” In 1992, the Russian Constitutional Court conducted its hearings on the fate of the Communist Party, at which a few documents on the crimes of the Soviet regime were presented from the archives of the Central Committee; Bukovsky, who had been invited by the president’s office to act as an expert witness, wanted these hearings to become just the sort of “Russian Nuremberg trial” he envisioned. That same year, Starovoitova introduced in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation a bill on lustration that proposed a temporary ban (5-10 years) on government service for all former party officials and all former employees of the KGB.
As we know, nothing of the sort was done. Yeltsin was not ready for a final break with the Soviet past. Western leaders, afraid of being confronted with interesting information about themselves in the Moscow archives, pressured Yeltsin to keep them closed. The Supreme Soviet did not even consider Starovoitova’s bill. And the Constitutional Court made a halfhearted decision that avoided the main issue — the illegality of the activities of the CPSU itself. (The court dismissed the need for an assessment of this on the ridiculous pretext that the party no longer existed.) Anatoly Kononov, the Constitutional Court judge who expressed a dissenting opinion, called the court’s decision a “denial of justice,” noting that the materials presented in court “allow the characterization of this organization (the CPSU) as criminal,” including with reference to international norms “on genocide, war crimes and crimes against peace and humanity.” The judge separately noted the role of “subordinate CPSU punitive bodies” in these crimes.
But no official conclusions were made regarding those “bodies.” The archives, for the most part, remained closed. The KGB dodged even the mildest of reforms. It received a bit of an image makeover; that was all. And the people who took a direct part in repression ended up in leadership positions from the very first days of democratic Russia. In December 1991, Vyacheslav Lebedev, who had recently taken part in the imposing of sentences for political reasons, was confirmed as the chairman of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. In January 1992, the post of head of the anti-corruption department of the Ministry of Security of the Russian Federation was given to Anatoly Trofimov, who as a KGB investigator handled the cases of many Moscow dissidents, including those of Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov, Sergei Kovalev and Father Gleb Yakunin. Soon, Trofimov rose to the position of head of the Moscow department of the FSB and deputy head of the entire organization. There are many similar examples, but I will name only one more: In the same year, 1992, KGB officer Vladimir Putin, who in the 1970s had personally taken part in searches and interrogations of Leningrad dissidents, became the right-hand man of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Having failed to effect the changes he believed necessary, Bukovsky left Russia with a warning to Yeltsin’s team: “Look, it’s like a wounded animal: If you don’t finish it off, it will attack you.” In the end, the monstrous crimes of the Soviet system and its punitive bodies never received either a moral or legal assessment by the Russian state. I repeat: If we do not understand, condemn or punish evil, it will definitely return. On Dec. 20, 1999 — 11 days before he moved to the Kremlin — Putin, then the prime minister, unveiled a restored Andropov memorial plaque on Lubyanka, the same one that had been removed in August 1991.
We have no right to repeat this mistake when the window of opportunity opens again. All archives must be opened and published. All the crimes of both the Soviet and Putin regimes must receive a proper evaluation at the state level. All structures involved in these crimes — above all the FSB — must be liquidated, and the people who committed these crimes must be held accountable before the law. Those who served as conductors of repressive policies should be deprived of the right to hold government posts — and this will not be a “witch hunt” (as some current officials will once again shout), but the necessary protection against a new authoritarian revenge. And I would like to emphasize (although it goes without saying): To investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Putin regime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine, we will have to create an international tribunal (modeled on similar ones for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda), to which all suspects, regardless of their rank and position, must be transferred.
Only in this way — having fully confronted and condemned these crimes — will Russia be able to truly free itself from the burden of the past and move forward toward the creation of a free and modern state based on law and universal values. This will ensure that the country can finally avoid entering the same old vicious circle, so that the next generation of Russian politicians will no longer need to conduct the same old discussions between Vladimir labor camp and Moscow prison.