A really fascinating on the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet empire on RadioOpenSource. Really interesting discussion of Mikhail Gorbachev--as one commentator says we yet have the definitive biography on the man.
Russia is in the news quite a bit recently. The poisoning of a former KGB officer in London at the top of the list. In America the discourse often revolves around whether under Vladimir Putin Russia has gone from a democracy to an autocracy.
Which in American discourse is inherently a bad thing given than American, particularly right-wing thought so often confuses classical liberal rule of law/free markets with democracy.
The truth is after the fall of the Soviet communist party and Boris Yeltsin's takeover of power democracy was installed but in a non-rule of law situation, which led to the anarchy and despostism of the Yeltsin years.
During the Soviet era, the two "legitimate" illegitimate forms of networking, proto-capitalism, and marketization were the KGB and Mafia. When communism fell these two groups were the only ones placed to seize control/influence.
Under Yeltsin the Russian Mafia became one, if not the, most feared organized crimes unit on the planet. The mafia-like crime bosses (boyars) ruled in the early-mid 90s.
Putin comes from a KGB background and his reign has seen the former KGB-types reassert themselves. Putin has used the government to take control of industries (particulary natural gas), arrested boyars, taken on the mob.
The recent assassination involved this ring. The murder of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko likely was due to the fact that former insider had dirt on his former mates. Also recently murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya (photo in link above) involved her knowledge of atrocities committed by the Russians in Chechyna.
But the idea that Russia has gone from democracy to autocracy is ludicrous. The democracy under Yeltsin existed without a classical rule of law and therefore was an "illiberal" democracy, in Zakaria's brilliant phrase. Putin has squashed illiberal democracy (correctly) but has pushed too far in that direction, shutting down others forms of healthy free speech and power centers in society outside the Kremlin.
The Soviet system spent 70 years destroying the Russian Orthodox Church, so that when the pathological orange Soviet empire fell, there was no blue to help soften the "fall" as it were, and hence the capitalistic and governmental sphere fell to red (Mafia, black market economies, etc.).
Putin has re-introduced blue autocratic order which has increased their economic standing, brought stability to the country (Putin is very popular domestically). But it has come at a cost:
assassinations, atrocities in Chechyna, political intrigue in Ukraine, brinkmanship with Georgia, and human rights abuses, stamping down of free press.
The US in its Long War (Global War on Terror) has essentially farmed out security duties to Russia in Central Asia--whatever we dsilike about their actions on their Western flank (Ukraine, Georgia, etc.)-in the "istan" countries....Borat's own Kazahkistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc.
All signs are Putin will step down next year not making himself president for life as his Eastern brethren, but never count the guy out. He is brutal no doubt, but highly sharp. Watch for him to head into natural gas CEO ownership and become something like a Russian Carnegie.