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Alexander Isayevich, when you were exiled from Russia in 1974, the order came from the top ranks of the Communist party. But in reality, it was from the KGB. Now an officer of this same secret police force [Vladimir Putin] is leading the new Russia. Could you have imagined this when you returned in 1994?

I didn't consider it impossible. We experienced neither reform nor democracy under Gorbachev or in the entire Yeltsin era. The West lived with the myth that democracy had been introduced to Russia under Boris Yeltsin, and market-economy reforms put in place. When Yeltsin stepped down, President Clinton called him the father of Russian democracy. That deserves only the most biting scorn.

Yet, Mikhail Gorbachev began the transition from communism with 'glasnost', freedom of expression and transparency in public life.

That was his only service to Russia. He experimented with half-steps and half-hearted measures; he was a completely indecisive politician. He dismantled the economic system that, in the Soviet time, got more things wrong than right, but he didn't know what to put in its place. He spoke of a socialist market economy which is simply unthinkable. When Yeltsin took over, he wanted to do something as quickly as possible and he said it didn't much matter what. He hastily threw together a team of bright young men who had no idea how to go about this. Suddenly the fate of Russia was on their shoulders. There was never a reform plan.

With privatisation of the state economy, every citizen was supposed to receive coupons giving him a share in the people's wealth.

That was the purest of lies. The state's goods ended up in private hands those of a few scoundrels and frauds. Entire industrial giants were plundered, sometimes for only a half or 1% of their actual value. Within two years, production dropped by 50%. Our reforms were a catastrophe. We lost 15 years. It is a tragedy. Late in the Stone Age people realised that the Earth can feed us. That's what we've come to today. More than half our people were plunged into poverty and live not by wages but from their own small patches of ground. And Gorbachevian glasnost is gone without trace.

After your return from America, you spoke with thousands of Russians in many regions. What do the people think?

Our people cannot believe, even today, that what Yeltsin did was a mistake or an error of judgment. The people are convinced that it all served only one objective: to destroy Russia, or damage her as seriously as possible. The myth that we now have a democracy has been so tirelessly repeated that it finally took root.

But you do have multi-party elections...

Our state Duma is not a collection of people's representatives. Under the communists, we had only one party and were happy with that. Now, a couple of guys who get together in their kitchen and found a party can take part in the Duma elections. Half the deputies enter the Duma with that sort of party list, and they dominate the other half ­ the people who were really directly elected.

At least the parliament debates and votes on laws.

The Duma performs like a provincial theatre. They don't want to pass the truly necessary laws.

Which ones?

Most importantly, on the self- administration of communities and districts. That's where democracy must begin...

Governors would be elected directly?

That's a lie, too. For a governor to be validly elected requires voter participation of only 25%. So whoever can get 13% of the people behind him the votes of one-eighth of qualified voters is considered to have been elected by the entire people.

And the prime minister?

Yeltsin tried out several prime ministers as possible successors and judged them all from only one viewpoint: who would best protect his clan. In the end, he picked Putin.

Can Putin turn the country around?

I distinguish between Putin's platform and Putin's personality. The Putin platform comes from Yeltsin and his entourage, the corrupt bureaucrats, the financial magnates. They are united by one great fear: that people will take from them everything they have stolen, that their crimes will be investigated and that they will be sent to jail.

Why did they choose Putin?

They assume that he guarantees their booty cannot be touched. Putin's first official act as interim president was a decree that Yeltsin and his family could never be brought to trial. Unbelievable! In many countries, even ruling presidents are tried for their crimes. In ours, the ex-president is untouchable. And that's about the extent of Putin's disastrous platform.

What about Putin's personality?

He is in many ways a puzzle. We don't know how he will act as president. He stands at a crossroads. Either he can give in to his sponsors, and lead the country inevitably to its ruin and him with it or he can break with clan loyalty and pursue his own policies.

What should he do first?

I hope that, as a man of undeniable dynamism, he will not settle for a puppet's role. Instead of assuring everyone that the ex-president will never be punished, justice must prevail. That is what the people are waiting for.
Putin says he will strengthen state power. That seems inevitable. The creative strengths of the people, which were repressed under the communists and still are today, could get everything moving. Millions of Russians are blocked by a wall of administrative and bureaucratic arbitrariness. They have no one to complain to; no court protects their rights. Every path toward Russia's rescue has been blocked. In some regions, the country is falling slowly apart.

Do you see local self-government as an answer?

A strong central government is needed to keep the state from falling apart. In parallel, a growing, equally powerful pillar of self-government will spring from the communities upwards. These two power structures must control each other. The central government has to enforce strict compliance with the laws, while self- governing councils must control the openness and responsiveness of state decisions on every level in the villages, the regions, the provincial government. Otherwise, our country with its vast distances, its countless peoples and its many religious groups cannot survive.

Wouldn't these two poles of power, from above and from below, eventually come into conflict?

They must complement each other, just as in the short existence of the Rus people in Moscow in the 14th century. The tsar could not force his will upon their representatives, he had to marshal powerful arguments to sway their opinion.
[Note de l'AAARGH: There was no tsar in Moscows in the fourteenth century, just a prince who was at war with other princes to get the leadership of the Russian land, still under by the Tatar yoke.]

Would it be possible, in today's world, to develop a self-organised economy in Russia's regions?

A democracy requires that people be independent as citizens and as economic subjects. If the exercise of power does not flow from below to above, then we will remain in the hands of bureaucrats and a few oligarchs. The last 15 years show that clearly.

What do you see as the national mission of Russia?

Quite simply, to save the Russian people. We must not permit the death of Russia as a nation. Our decline has lasted through 70 years under the Communists and 10 years after that. A rebirth is always far more difficult it will take at least 100 years. The demographic trends in our country are frightening. The nation loses nearly a million people a year, so greatly does the death rate exceed the birth rate. A nation experiences losses like that only in wartime.

What are the geographical borders of Russia in your mind?

Since 1990 I've considered Central Asia to be a region that should develop independently of Russia. The trans-Caucasian area must also be given this possibility. I consider it a mistake of imperial Russia that the response to calls for help from the Georgians and Armenians, who wanted protection from the Turks, was to absorb these peoples into the Russian state. The Baltic peoples, too, should be allowed to go their own way. I view the separation of Belarus, on the other hand, as a painful blow. Now Belarus again wants union with Russia. The question, however, is the independence of Ukraine.
That, too, pains me. I am fully ready to recognise the right of Ukrainians to develop their own language and culture. But we are bound together by the fates of millions of people: 63% of the inhabitants now call Russian their mother tongue. The way I feel about the division between Russia and the Ukraine is the same sort of pain as was felt over the division of the German people.

What should be done about Chechnya?

I made my opinion clear to Yeltsin at the beginning of 1992. At that time I told him: let the Chechens have their independence. If they want it, they should try it. They'll come back of their own volition. Instead we had a shameful war that ended with a shameful capitulation. The Chechens could have been building up their state. Instead, foreign Muslim fighters gathered in a network of training camps with foreign weapons, better than those of the Russian army. Chechnya grew into a world problem. And now an independent Chechnya would not be able to exist without Russia. We will have to pump money in there, station regiments there, and face constant attacks.

You once wrote that in the Gulag, the Chechen prisoners were the most determined of all.

They are courageous fighters, a proud, unbowing people; the tough soviet regime had such difficult problems with them that it sought to deport the whole population.
With the end of Communism, these problems have not been resolved. People thought that in a country newly freed from its Communist chains, there would be a great outburst of intellectual productivity. Are we wrong that this has not taken place? You're not wrong. There was an explosion of criminality. The remains of morality were devalued or denied. Many young novelists threw their spiritual values overboard, and did not feel responsible for their country or for their work. Yet, the road to democracy takes time and patience and that applies to both intellectuals and politicians. An automobile cannot come down from a high mountain by driving off a cliff it needs to take the long series of switchbacks. People wanted a democratic Russia overnight, without a period of transition, of learning and of growing accustomed to it. Now we're paying the price of having tried the great leap of driving off the cliff.

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