"Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone
Why then do we not despair?"

Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, writing in 1921

Mikhail Likhodei

investigators search through bomb remains
Moscow authorities investigate bombing at Kotlyskovskoye cemetery
which killed Likhodei's wife and mother, successor to his job and his wife.

As true today as ever....

"The actions of Russia.... are a riddle
wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Winston Churchill
Radio broadcast from London
October 1, 1939

      Neither today or ever has it been easy to understand the shifting and complex intrigues of power and wealth in Russia, and it is with no small amount of uncertainty that I write these lines. For the man I choose to eulogize here as an honest soldier and corruption-fighter might very well be quite the opposite - or most likely somewhere in the middle between angel and devil. Nevertheless, I choose to write about Mikhail Likhodei for two reasons. First, his murder and subsequent violence are especially shocking. Secondly, I find his death and the circumstances that surround it highly instructive of Russia as it painfully lurches into a new era of "democracy."

      Likhodei was murdered in a classic organized crime professional killing. He, along with his bodyguard, were blown-up by a bomb planted in the elevator in the lobby of his apartment building in Moscow. Likhodei, his wife Yelena, and bodyguard all entered the elevator, and then one of them pushed a button on the control panel detonating the explosion which killed the two men and slightly injured Yelena. This was on November 10, 1994.

      Exactly two years later, Likhodei's assassins would catch up with his wife. On November 10, 1996, Likhodei's wife and other mourners gathered at the Kotlyakovskoye cemetery in southern Moscow for a memorial service for Mikhail. The Sunday morning was chilly, and a metal table had been loaded with food and vodka for the more than 100 guests who had gathered to pay their respects to Likhodei and his wife. However, a bomber had buried several pounds of explosives under the table, and as soon as everyone had assembled he detonated them from a distance of some 40 yards. The explosion ripped through the mourners, set the food and drink flying, and catapulted the metal table high into the air where it eventually came to land next to Likhodei's grave.

      In total, 14 people died in the blast - among them Likhodei's wife Yelena as well as his mother, and the successor to his job Sergei Trakirov and his wife. After drinking two glasses of vodka that morning in honor of his old friend Mikhail Likhodei, Alexander Boiko described being suddenly knocked unconscious and then awaking bleeding from the head "surrounded by dead bodies." According to deputy director of the cemetery Pyotr N. Semenikhin, "Death was everywhere in this place - under the earth, on the ground and up in the trees." Although some 500 yards away from the blast, Semenikhin was temporarily deafened by the powerful explosion and was aghast at what he subsequently witnessed at the bomb scene: "Many people were lying around bleeding and moaning in pain. At that moment, I think those still alive must have envied the dead." Dismembered body parts hung down from the leafless branches of the trees in the cemetery like bloody streamers.

      7The whole grisly business seems to have revolved around the Afghan War Invalids Foundation founded to assist disabled veterans of the Soviet Union's ten-year war in Afghanistan. Likhodei, an army lieutenant coronel who lost a leg and an eye in that war, was head of a group that ousted former intelligence officer Valery Radchikov from the chairmanship of the veterans' organization for alleged corruption. Likhodei, who subsequently assumed the head of that foundation, and his backers filed papers in court claiming that Radchikov had supposedly set up sweetheart deals with "unscrupulous" businessmen to cut them in on over $800 million worth of duty free sales of liquor, cigarettes, and food whose sales were supposed to directly aid disabled veterans. Furthermore, Radchikov was allegedly unable to account for over $80 million in Afghan War Foundation Funds. Col. Stanislav Zhorin of the Russian Federal Security Police speculated that the cemetery bombing "was probably linked to a settling of scores." There would seem little doubt that Radchikov and his followers were responsible for the bombings. The conflict between the two factions seems to have been by no means one-sided, however. On October 29, 1995 Radchikov himself was wounded in a hail of bullets that killed his lawyer while in Moscow traffic the night before they were to begin criminal proceedings on corruption charges.

      A classic gangland "war" between two criminal enterprises? An honest ex-soldier trying to cleanse a charity organization of profiteers and criminals? There is no way to know which is closer to the truth. For the sake of Russia, I would prefer to think that Mikhail Likhodei was an honorable man who served his country with integrity to the end. However, I wonder if rendering such service is entirely possible in "democratic" Russia, where the scum seems to have risen to the top. Police today claim there are over 466 organized gangs in Moscow alone fighting for control over post-Soviet wealth and power in Russia. In 1994 alone, over 1,700 Muscovites were murdered. In 1996, there were approximately 250 contract killings recorded in the Russian capital.

      In the demise and death of the old Soviet regime, the Russian people have been offered a historic opportunity to shape a more "free" or "democratic" future. Unfortunately, the Russian experiment in democracy seems to be unfolding rather badly. Life expectancy for men, ridiculously low under communism at 63 years, has fallen to 57! Production of agricultural products has in many areas dropped well below 50% of what is was under Mikhail Gorbachev! Many Russians think the West has conspired to weaken Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union with its economic advice. Many Westerners think Russia is nothing but a headache and a failure, and so why even bother? It is a monumental mess! Socialism proved a failure in the Marxist-Leninism Soviet Union; capitalism seems to be heading towards a similar fate in the new supposedly "democratic" Russia. The pathetically feckless government of Alexander Kerensky in 1917 lasted only weeks before being supplanted in a coup d'etat by the Bolsheviks, and Russia spent the next seven decades serving as one large jail under Marxist-Leninism. What will be the fate of liberal democracy in Russia after the era of Yeltsin concludes? Will a nationalist authoritarian like Gen. Alexander I. Lebed slouch into Moscow to assume power in a desperate, resentful nation with a large nuclear arsenal?

      A democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government since it requires at least a core educated populace willing to participate actively in the life of the polis. Sitting back indifferently and letting other people make decisions is not an effective democracy. Letting the most ruthless and opportunistic in a society fight and claw their way to the top will not result in a "free" civil society. What is needed are a plurality of interested actors: grass-roots organizations, consumer groups, political parties, neighborhood and professional associations of a thousand different types and sizes. A genuinely free society needs to have at least a modicum of faith in the institutions (legislative, judiciary, free press, law enforcement, educational, industry, etc.) that collectively govern the affairs of that country. In such a manner, the people can hopefully see what happens around them and make informed decisions as to where the nation should go in the future. Russia needs interested involvement at the grassroots level to help build a mature civil society worthy of trust and resilient to corruption and demagoguery. Power must flow from the bottom up and not vice versa. But too many people in Russia still look at power as something "they" have over which no control can be wrested! After another bout of bad economic news people shake their heads resignedly and say, "What will they do to torment us next?" That is not enough. "Russia will never change," says the average Russian on the street. "All they [the politicians] do is rob people." The idea that a government should be accountable to its people, the people accountable for its government, has obviously in Russia not caught on. Russians supposedly even laugh about a comment made by Viktor Chernomyrdin, when he was prime minister the first time, that became famous: "We tried to do our best, but it turned out the way it always does."

      When gangsters and robber barons openly flout the law and prosper in full public view while decent and hard-working people struggle, the damage has a ripple effect throughout society. As respect for the law diminishes, the idea thrives that one lives better as a criminal than as an honest person and that it is the law itself which is the main obstacle to happiness and prosperity. Thus does organized crime become a cancer which eats away at the legitimate underpinnings of a civil society. Russia badly needs a functioning legal system with teeth! Pay-offs and bribes, intimidation and murder as a means for settling business disputes, barter rather than cash as the nexus of business transactions so as to avoid paying taxes, the unbridled venality and vanity in economic and political elites.... In functioning democracies, the proper vehicle for all this are lawyers and business codes and generally understood legal principles which carry the weight of an independent and sovereign judiciary. Law and order, business codes of conduct, regulatory structures, graduated tax schedules, etc., are no less a requirement for a market economy than privatization, price liberalization, and monetary stabilization. Free markets cannot exist without a supporting set of political institutions. What strange breed of government is there in Russia today? Top to bottom, Russia is a chaotic mess!

"This freedom came too soon to Poland. It was too sudden and abrupt. We are behaving like animals freed all at once."
Piotr Thiem, tearfully commenting on his son's brutal murder
by thugs wielding American baseball bats.
One could say the same exact thing about Russia.

      Whether democracy thrives or starves to death in Russia will not be the result of lawmakers or business elites but the byproduct of the actions and beliefs of everyday people. As Adlai E. Stevenson accurately, in my opinion, stated almost 50 years ago, "Democracy cannot be answered by supermen, but only by the unswerving devotion and goodness of millions of little men." On the other hand, if unchecked the insidious venom of apathy and cynicism working its way through the Russian soul will most assuredly murder nascent freedom while still in her cradle. The triumph or failure of democracy in Russia will be the collective triumph or the collective failure of the entire Russian people. The base on which market economics flourish is a stable political order; and to borrow the material and cultural accomplishments of the West - computers, compact disks, mass media, rock music, fashionable clothing, democratic politics - without also imbibing the fundamental values that created such technologies and trends in the first place is to live on borrowed time.

      Writing in the darkness of the 1930s when liberal democracy seemed in retreat nearly everywhere in the world in the face of advancing fascism and communism, John Dewey wrote the following:

Everywhere there are waves of criticism and doubt as to whether democracy can meet the pressing problems of order and security. The causes of the destruction of political democracy in countries where it was nominally established are complex. But of one thing I think we may be sure. Wherever it has fallen it was too exclusively political in nature. It has not become a part of the bone and blood of the people in daily conduct of its life. Democratic forms were limited to Parliament, elections and combats between parties. What is happening proves conclusively, I think, that unless democratic habits of thought and action are part of the fiber of a people, political democracy is insecure. It can not stand in isolation. It must be buttressed by the presence of democratic methods in all relationships.

Dewey wrote the above primarily with the failure of democratic civil society in Germany and Italy in mind. But contemporary Russia trying to emerge from the darkness of Marxist-Leninsm might be compared to the Weimar Republic in Germany after WWI, and I think we can look on Dewey's comments with considerable profit. Let us hope that Russia avoids the fate of Weimar Germany! For countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, the end of communism was a national liberation which brought to those peoples surges of energy which can accompany a sense of cultural fulfillment. On the other hand, the fall of communism in Russia meant the end of empire and brought a collapse of spirit and loss of national vision. Again, the parallels between defeated Germany after WWI and Russia today after the Cold War are unnerving!

      An old professor of mine who defected from the Soviet Union described to me once life in that time as the following: "We pretended to work, and the communist bosses pretended to pay us!" Such days (and thinking) in modern-day Russia are clearly over. Current Russian businesses MUST match production to actually meet sales in the marketplace. Russians today MUST actively participate politically to ensure their voices are heard and that the country is not run by cabal of opportunistic scoundrels. The corruption of "crony capitalism" -- where so-called private firms and private banks are owned and operated by a small clique of individuals with buddy-buddy under the table relationships with the government -- is not essentially any different from the failed socialist system of state control and financing! The Russians entered the 20th century suffering under despotism, saw their situation become worse, and still have not significantly improved their lot as the 21st century beckons at the doorstep. Back in 1854 the distinguished Russian scholar T.N. Granovsky wrote pessimistically to a friend, "One has to bear a great deal of faith and love in one's heart in order to keep up any hope at all for the future of the most powerful of the Slav tribes." How is it any different today?

      Some say that centuries of autocratic rule and pesant illiteracy in Russia have resulted in a culture nearly devoid of any tradition of democracy. They say that so many centuries of Czars and Commissars and the politics of the vozhd ("bosses") demanding nothing more from the average Russian than blind obedience have created a populace utterly lacking in individual initiative and corruption to the core. They say Russia is fundamentally different from the West, as well as from the advanced East. Can Russia outgrow such a social legacy? No country confronts the future and the challenges of the future with a clean slate absent of geography and history, and Russian society brings with it a sociological legacy of authoritarianism going back beyond recall. Russia is a society, after all, which never directly absorbed Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment. The most optimistic claim that Russia indeed is evolving slowly but surely -- that these are just "growing pains."

      I don't know. In watching the "new Russia" take shape, my heart has sunk right through my shoes! Life has become almost universally more impoverished and violent in Russia, and the future is an open question. Clearly, the present situation is hugely unsatisfactory, and the saga of unstable and heavily-armed Russia threatens to become the horror story of the late 20th century. The Russian people are tired and poor, largely indifferent -- beat down by seven decades of communist rule and then the more recent hardships. Whatever society eventually develops, we can only hope that the historical cycle of revolution-chaos-totalitarianism in Russia might come to an end. Whatever shape it finally assumes, I wish the land of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Rachmaninoff, and Dostoyevsky a peaceful and prosperous future to belie her harsh and absolutist past.

Wretched and abundant,
Oppressed and powerful,
Weak and mighty,
Mother Russia!

Nikolai Nekrasov

The Voice of Russian Tradition Speaks!
"A psychiatric ward is infinitely more interesting than a shopping mall."

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
"The ghost of Tsar Ivan the Terrible?
Or the Ghost of Tsar Chaos?"

Boris Yeltsin Resigns from the Russian Presidency
"I ask to forgive me for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the grey, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilized future in one go."

Some discussions....

Digging Potatoes and Drinking Vodka.
"Western democracy will not work in Russia with a very different history and culture."

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