Russia: After The Fall

st. petersburg russia march 2000

In Russia, the big question in Sunday's election is not who will become the next president. The question, nine years after the fall of communism, is whether people still have faith that democracy can work in Russia.

For most Russians, the good life remains one of capitalism's unkept promises. People are yearning for order, and grappling with signs of decay and corruption everywhere they look. CBS News' Dan Rather reports.

In St. Petersburg and across Russia, voters say they are looking for someone to crack down on crime and lift the nation's stagnant economy. That's a program that gives hope to Russian entrepreneurs, who are perhaps the brightest spots in the economy. They are small businesses willing to take on big challenges.

"Things will change because everything changes in life," says Lena Gournova. She runs Generator, a 6-month-old advertising agency in St. Petersburg that promotes products from Tampax to tea bags. But these are tough sells.

"I think, first problem is that they're expensive," she explains. "On the average, the economical level of average people is rather low. So it means that most of the foreign products, if you take it as they are, they don't work price-wise."

It's not easy to raise consumer interest in a country where there's so little income, but Gournova would not go back to the Russia of her parents' time.

"I think older people in this country, they were spoiled by socialism, to my point of view," says Gournova, "because everything was guaranteed, and they didn't have to fight for things."

Her parents' Russia is remembered by New Yorker editor David Remnick, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Russia and the fall of communism.

"1991 was euphoria for a lot of people. It was an open promise," Remnick recalls. "1991 (when Gorbachev resigned, Yeltsin came to the fore, and the Soviet Union collapsed) is a very, very long time ago, far longer ago in Russia than it is in the United States. Every year is like 10. That's what happens in a revolution. And certainly, most of the promise and all of the euphoria of that time has long since been erased."

Russia Wildcard

A nation once accustomed to the steady if harsh rule of powerful czars and, later, of communist dictators finds itself thrown off balance by democracy. Freedom opened the door to corruption and exploitation.

After 1991, when the new government failed to stir the economy, when the rules of democracy failed to curb the elites who plundered the country's resources, many people turned for guidance to the Russian Orthodox Church.

"Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there really is no Russian national idea, and the hurch as a symbol rushed into a vacuum to replace Soviet ideology," Remnick explains. "The Russian Orthodox Church rushed into this vacuum as a symbol of Russian-ness. Now this is a church that had been oppressed, certainly, but now it's become a kind of official church."

But neither the church nor the state has had much impact on organized crime, a growing problem in Russia. Brother, a vastly popular Russian movie, shows rival gangs in St. Petersburg bumping each other off, including the contract killing of a gang leader who happens to be from Chechnya, the Russian province in the south that is fighting to break away.

Partly because of unchecked crime and crushing red tape, even cities like St. Petersburg with glorious areas to rebuild have failed to win the western financial investment they so desperately need.

So some Russians put their hopes in other pursuits, perhaps finding a mate to leave the country with. Outbound migration is at a record high.

The city of St. Petersburg, famous for art and culture and a proud past, is trying to cope with an uncertain future. As in the rest of Russia, people there are trying to make a living while coping with gangsters, corruption and an instability that makes many yearn for order.

That yearning may explain the popularity of the leading candidate in Sunday's presidential election.

Vladimir Putin, 47, born in St. Petersburg, joined the Soviet secret service right out of graduate school. After 15 years in the KGB, Putin became assistant to the St. Petersburg mayor.

Now, running for office for the first time, he is way ahead in the polls. Putin has said next to nothing about what he'll do as president, leaving people free to believe he will do whatever is necessary to cure Russia's ills.

Valery Musin, a colleague of Putin's in St. Petersburg city government, says Putin lives by the words of a former U.S. president, Richard Nixon: "The one who discloses his aims will never be able to achieve them."

As acting president, Putin's main aim has been to step up the war against Chechnya, and he has turned it into an enormously popular war among Russians. Polls show most Russians view the war as a necessary action taken by a confident and strong leader against a group of terrorists.

But it's a war that worries the entrepreneur Lena Gournova.

"I am concerned about it because I have a son," she says. "And if this war continues, and he will be in the army, and I'm afraid for him, for his future."

She says she's concerned about Putin's authoritarianism but, given the rampant corruption and tough economic times, she like most Russians will probably vote for him.

"Why not? The other choices so far do not attract me either. So he's the least bad."

Perhaps that attitude explains the Russians' cautious view of democracy nine years after the fall of communism. This is not the best of times. But for now at least, to the millions out votig at the polls, democracy is the least bad choice for Russia.