What a difference a decade makes. When I worked in Moscow in 1994 and 1995 for the National Democratic Institute, an American nongovernmental organization, I could not have imagined the present situation. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union would be considered the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” as Putin claims, would have occurred to only a few hard-core, extremist (loony) Communist Party members. Suddenly, this view is not only mainstream but is shared by the youngest generation of Russians— even as they drink Starbucks coffee while surfing the Internet. Alongside Big Macs and iPods, a cottage industry of Soviet nostalgia has sprung up, complete with T-shirts, books, movies, bars, and restaurants. Stores even sell postcards of Stalin.
If Russians feel nostalgia for Soviet days, the run-up to the December elections stirred my own memories of a year of living not at all dangerously in what we thought of then as the new Russia. My thoughts, and those of so many others, go back to the era not only in Russia but also in the United States— the 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The United States’s efforts to promote democracy abroad had not yet become singed by the war in Iraq, and the democratic balance in its three branches of government seemed reasonably stable.
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