Why Have Russians Rejected the West’s ‘Values?’

Why have Russians rejected the West's ‘values?’
FILE PHOTO: McDonald’s in Moscow. © Bernard Bisson / Sygma via Getty Images

By Natylie Baldwin, RT, 11/21/21

When the Berlin Wall came down, many triumphantly declared that the West had won the Cold War and that its values would soon become universally accepted, pushing out the old systems that had dominated Eastern Europe for decades.

However, more than thirty years on and it is clear that Russians are in no hurry to emulate the liberal systems of countries like the US. One poll, released last month, revealed that nearly half of Russians say they don’t hold democratic values. Many Western pundits would quickly blame this on President Vladimir Putin, who they accuse of crushing their hopes for the country after the fall of communism, transforming it into a hybrid capitalist state. But why are so many Russians skeptical of the West’s promises in the first place?

There was indeed a honeymoon period immediately following the end of the Cold War when a huge majority of Russians viewed the US and its institutions favorably, and were open to the kind of democracy being touted from abroad. It’s not well understood how Russians ended up becoming disillusioned to the point where many of them now refer to democracy as “sh*tocracy.”  The answer to the question requires one to take an unflinching look at the Russian experience of the 1990’s.

Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Russia during the Bush administration, explained that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was wracked by “runaway inflation that destroyed all savings, even worse shortages of essential goods than existed under communism, a sudden rise in crime and a government that, for several years was unable to pay even [its] miserable pensions on time.  Conditions resembled anarchy much more than life in a modern democracy.”

This characterization is supported by many Russians as well as Americans who had on the ground experience in the country during the Yeltsin era, undercutting the sepia-tinged narrative put forward by many current western media commentators of a Russia that was a scrappy little democracy enjoying the miracles of the free market during the Yeltsin years, only to be destroyed by Putin.

Sharon Tennison, founder of Center for Citizen Initiatives who has been conducting citizen diplomacy between the US and Russia, as well as supporting community and business projects in the country since 1983, recalled in a series of interviews with me what she saw occurring on her regular trips to Russia during the Yeltsin era. According to Tennison, it was anything but democratic:

“[I remember] a frigid night I came up from the metro to see a line of three or four tiny grannies, wrinkled faces, worn coats and scarves, each holding up a packet of cigarettes for sale….Ordinary people planted food on the sides of roads and lots … young oligarchs drove $100,000 vintage cars in the two capital cities, where elderly people were living in parks, and millions had died from hunger due to loss of their rubles in state banks.”

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