Neither the British and Americans, used to monolithic governments, nor even the Continental Europeans, accustomed to coalitions, find it easy to understand the post-Soviet Russian administrations. These tend to be made up of politicians separated by ideological gulfs wider than those that conventional western politics accommodates in a national spectrum, let alone in a national Cabinet. Russian governments have ministers who believe more in the efficiency of the free market than any other practising politicians on earth, but who sit and work with colleagues who think capitalism stinks. In a casual aside in his memoirs, Midnight Diaries, Boris Yeltsin mentions a head of the domestic security service (the FSB), Nikolai Kovalev, as one who "had an enormous personal antipathy to business and all of its representatives. He couldn't help himself. He simply despised people with large amounts of money."
In 1998, after the rouble crashed, Yeltsin replaced the 35-year-old banker Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister, first with Viktor Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko's 60-year-old predecessor, and then with Yevgeny Primakov, the 68-year-old ex-central committee adviser and ex-spymaster. Primakov also felt an enormous personal antipathy to business people, and tried hard to persuade Yeltsin to let him arrest some of them. Yeltsin explains how Primakov would come to him with files prepared by the security services and, on the basis of these, demand an official's dismissal or a businessman's imprisonment. Yeltsin says he always demanded that the person be brought to open court, if there was a case.
These insights make an otherwise very disappointing memoir worth reading, or at least skimming with the aid of the index. The main polemical purpose of Midnight Diaries, it appears, is to give a fair wind to Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's political "son" and now the Russian president. Finding such a figure was, it seems from the book, the main, if hidden, theme of Yeltsin's second (and inactive) term as president. Yeltsin sees him - alone among the senior figures in the last years of his administration, all of them better known than Putin - as intelligent, loyal, focused and patriotic. His one reservation is whether Putin can develop the instinct for the popular feeling, which, as Otto Latsis, Russia's most prominent liberal com- mentator, remarked in a recent column, was the secret of Yeltsin's political survival. (Yeltsin quotes Bill Clinton as saying to him at their last meeting, when Putin was already acting president, that Putin had to "learn to trust his feelings more".)
Yeltsin believes that Putin will continue his programme of liberal modernisation - a belief that has not been disproved, but which looked shaky in Putin's first ten months of governance. What is clear, however, is that the push-me, pull-you pantomime-horse style of government over which Yeltsin "presided" will go. Although there are different strands of thought in Putin's Cabinet, it is becoming clearer that this is (by world standards) a mildly nationalist, mildly authoritarian government, which will continue pursuing a way in which Russia can become successfully capitalist.
The past ten years have not produced this last outcome - although it was the most explicit pledge that Yeltsin made, and one of the largest themes in the first volume of his memoirs, Against the Grain, covering his life before the presidency. But nor have they produced the authoritarian, rabidly nationalist, even fascist, Russia that has long been foreseen by Russian and foreign observers alike. After a decade of unprecedented economic collapse, social dislocation, plunging demographic trends and vast loss of international prestige, that we can still talk of "mildly" when describing the Russian government must be some sort of tribute to Yeltsin, who was certainly always an anti-extremist.
But the other reason, apart from Yeltsin, is that politics have not gone that way. The national patriots - joined from 1992 onward by a breathtakingly cynical Russian Communist Party - were great on rhetoric. In Russian Nationalism Since 1856, a both detailed and clear account of the progress of the national idea through a century and a half, Astrid Tuminez offers copious quotations from, and impressions of, the vivid figures who stalked the landscape like postmodern Dostoevskys. The nationalist journalist Sergei Kara-Murza wrote a piece in the far right's favourite journal, Nash Sovremennik (Our Contemporary), which described watching television pictures of hundreds of corpses of Russians killed in fighting in Moldova during the independence upheavals. The report was followed by an ad for Vidal Sassoon shampoo. Kara-Murza concluded that, in the face of such vast desire for the good things in life, Russians could be assassinated "and the world would not even blink".
Capturing this comment from one of the most active and readable of the nationalist commentators shows a delicate and educated sensibility on Tuminez's part. Her years in Moscow made her aware of how "ordinary" things such as TV commercials - which, for westerners, are so much white noise - were for Russians loaded with meaning and menace. It meant, too, that Russians were transfixed by the sudden inrush of consumer culture, and determined not to be cut off from it - another and, in my experience, very important reason why political extremism has failed to take off.
"The most virulent nationalist ideas," writes Tuminez, "embodied in aggressive statism and national patriotism, had limited impact on Russian politics [in the Nineties]." Even where, as in the Kosovo conflict, a pan-Slavic conscience was stirred in Russia, the main Russian demand was to be consulted as a senior, rather than a junior, partner. The Russians withdrew any implied promise of support for Slobodan Milosevic during the Nato raids of April to June last year, and have come out, a little slowly, in support of the election of Vojislav Kostunica as Yugoslav president. Russia does not like US hegemony (few countries do - including, at times, the US itself), but it knows the facts of power when it sees them.
A further contributory factor to Russia's "pacifism" is that it has been consumed, not just by consuming, but by corruption. On one level, this has meant that ordinary citizens have probably had less effective recourse to the law than in the communist days - even though the Communist Party put itself explicitly or implicitly above the law, and even though its most senior officials (and their relatives) were at least immune from public accountability. But what was emerging in the Seventies and Eighties was a state that, while not fundamentally law-based, had elements of virtual legality. That is, law-abiding citizens had some hope of protection from and punishment of criminals; rights could be enforced and "social rights" - to a job, pension, medical services - were, if basic, generally available, except to those living in the more desolate parts of the poorer Soviet republics. After the collapse, liberal and social rights were enshrined in a constitution; but they mean less, in practice, than they did.
Herman Schwartz is an indefatigable chronicler of, and campaigner for, robust justice systems throughout the post-communist world. In The Struggle for Constitutional Justice in Post-Communist Europe, his narrative of the Russian constitutional court's near-decade of existence, he provides a sane, liberal and deeply pessimistic account. It is a story of an institution that started well and independently, but was increasingly riven by the burgeoning political ambition of its chairman, Valery Zorkin. He launched himself - first tentatively, then uninhibitedly - against Yeltsin, in alliance with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Russian parliament (then still called the Supreme Soviet).
A feature of the tense political season of 1993 was listening to Zorkin as he denounced the president in long, sometimes violently hostile, interviews. When Yeltsin and the parliamentary leaders moved towards a conflict whose denouement was an attack by the parliamentary forces on the mayoral offices and on the Ostankino TV station in October - and the subsequent shelling of the parliament by forces loyal to Yeltsin - Zorkin made no attempt to stay above a fray where legal/constitutional right and wrong were deeply murky. Sergei Kovalev, the leading human rights advocate, thought Zorkin's court's rulings were "dictated by political ambitions and political bias". Schwartz makes clear, however, that Zorkin had also found in favour of Yeltsin in previous cases, and that the constitution he had to uphold was a Soviet-era document emended - sometimes almost daily - by the parliament.
The "second court", reconstituted after 1993, has been distinguished not by ambition, but by a lack of it. It has avoided most burning issues: when forced to give a ruling on whether or not the presidential decision to send forces to Chechnya was legal (in the first Chechen war, from 1994-96), the court underpinned the decision by saying it was based on the "unshakeable rule that excludes the possibility of armed secession [that] exists in any state". Indeed, a large number of the court's problems derive from the unconstitutionality of many of the decrees and laws passed by the republican and regional authorities.
More intimately, the judges, although badly paid, are rewarded - in the Russian as in the Soviet system - by a range of privileges that includes flats, dachas, cars and foreign travel allowances. These can be extended and withdrawn at the whim of the state. "The second court is a deliberately weakened institution with a discouraging history," writes Schwartz.
The same might be said for the office of prosecutor general, Russia's highest legal officer. Yeltsin has appointed many officials to this sensitive post: the one that gave most delight was Yuri Skuratov, who was later filmed in bed with two prostitutes. The video of his antics was later aired on state television after - according to his account - he refused to play ball with security services. They had demanded that he drop cases whose trails led to the Kremlin and to the president's notorious "family", Skuratov said.
The family was thought to have comprised Yeltsin's daughter Tanya, a few close aides and the media tycoon "oligarch" Boris Berezovsky (later to be augmented, and Berezovsky displaced, by the younger oligarch Roman Abramovich). Yeltsin is at his most opaque when discussing the family. He dismisses all the charges against him as "absurd". To be sure, Skuratov is not a very engaging or convincing witness; his claims are too long, numerous and melodramatic. But his style does not necessarily negate the content, and that Yeltsin's "son's" first move, on becoming president, was to issue a decree granting his "father" amnesty from any future charges seems to point at least to a certain sensitivity. (Yeltsin says the amnesty was not his idea and that he did not approve of it.)
Corruption in Russia has been a great and growing theme in the past decade. In Economic Crime in Russia, Alena Ledeneva, a Russian sociologist now teaching in London, has assembled a group of mainly academic writers who, taken together, give less vivid but more systematic accounts than journalism can of the scale and depth of the problem. Workers, who often do not get paid, steal from their employers; company directors steal from the state; generals steal from the military budget and use recruits as free labour to build dachas; bankers construct networks of illegal money transfers and divert state funds to their private accounts; officials charge fees for every kind of transaction; and the mafiya grows and grows.
Ledeneva warns against the journalist-fuelled habit of seeing the mafiya as all-powerful and all-pervasive. The Russian mafiosi are still weaker than their Sicilian namesakes, and "less determined" than the Japanese yakuza. The judgement of a senior British policeman, in 1993, that the Russian mafiya would be the major organised crime element in Britain by 2000 has not been proved correct. More to the point - and no less chilling - is Ledeneva's comment that the criminal gangs have substantially taken over tax collection (in the form of protection money) and the enforcement of justice. Only 13 per cent of entrepreneurs in a recent survey, she notes, said they would go to the police if a crime had been committed against them or their property. Ledeneva spells out what this means: "The vacuum of civil society is being filled with associations and networks based on the exploitative and parasitic use of somebody else's resources and run by the logic of 'people of one's circle', inherited from the Soviet order and incompatible with developed civil society."
Big business - the "oligarchs" - are among the most visible characters in the Russian morality (or immorality) play. State power and private business have been inextricably intertwined for more than a decade. The oligarchs learnt that they could not guarantee their wealth and power without a network of contacts and clients in the sprawling and ever-growing presidential and government bureaucracy, over which Yeltsin often only theoretically presided. This meant that they "owned" ministers in a carefully graded system of status and power, headed and, to an extent, controlled by the two court oligarchs, Abramovich and Berezovsky.
We now have a superb piece of reportage on the central years of the oligarchic era - which may prove, at least in its pure form, to be coterminous with the Yeltsin period. In Sale of the Century, I must declare an interest. Chrystia Freeland was my successor as the Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, and is a close friend. But close friends can write bad books - in which case, the best tactic is to say or write nothing. This book, however, is a tremendous illumination of early Russian business methods: of both the nerve and the barefaced lying; of the existential intelligence to imagine oneself out of the Soviet system and into the capitalist one; and of the employment of the sleaziest means to become and stay a capitalist. Freeland's account of the central deal of the era - the oligarchs' provision of money and media support for Yeltsin's re-election as president, in return for the sale to them of the most precious state assets at knock-down prices - reads, at times, like Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full.
The oligarchs poured money and media time into what had seemed to be a hopeless campaign to get Yeltsin re-elected. Once they had their man back in the Kremlin, they reaped rich rewards. Now, four years on, they are being frozen out by Putin. Yeltsin writes in his memoirs of how he had wanted to distance himself from the oligarchs, but never got round to it. So can Putin succeed where his predecessor failed? And if so, can he avoid the tactic turning any purge into an attack on private property of the kind Primakov, his fellow secret service boss, wished to initiate?
One of the more comfortable victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the self-styled "sovietologist". Sovietologists were numerous, especially in the US, where state funds flowed thickly into a discipline that could both provide information on and propaganda against the USSR. Many of them, especially those on the left, were hugely enthused by Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to convert Soviet communism into a kind of social democracy. Of these, some were devastated when he failed, and became hostile - sometimes bitterly so - towards Yeltsin, whom they saw as the main agent of Gorbachev's downfall.
There are few sovietologists more bitter than Stephen Cohen, a professor at New York University and columnist on the Nation. Cohen, the author of the vivid biography Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, was lionised by the Gorbachev circle for his evaluation of Bukharin as a communist who, had he led the party, could have steered it away from what became known as Stalinism into a kind of social democracy. The idea accorded with the Gorbachevites' need to find in Bolshevism a strain, or an individual, not compromised by a fundamental penchant for dictatorship.
In Failed Crusade, Cohen states flatly that those Americans who described Russia, both to the world and to itself, in the 1990s - diplomats, consultants, advisers and journalists - "committed malpractice" and that "the results have undermined our values and jeopardised our nation's security". He believes that most reporting and advice was based on a view that Russia had to be driven rapidly by the west into capitalism in order to "transform [it] into some facsimile of the American democratic and capitalist system". He accuses the majority of his fellow sovietologists of cowardice in huddling around a "totalitarian model" of the Soviet Union because any other would make them suspect of pinko leanings. As a result, he argues, there has been a misunderstanding of Russia's needs, the destruction of Russian goodwill to the west, the undermining of democracy and the impoverishment of the country.
I had two contradictory reactions to Cohen's book. On the one hand, some of his targets are well chosen, but on the other, I felt anger at how his overall project was so badly skewed. He was an early observer of the impoverishment of Russia, especially outside of Moscow, and reported it graphically and insistently in columns in the Nation. More broadly, there is something to his charge that those journalists who spanned the end of Gorbachev and the first years of Yeltsin saw in the new Russian president, and in his team of reformers, people who had virtue as well as history on their side, and gave them the benefit of too easily quashed doubt.
There is something in this, but not too much. Journalists tend not to write happy news and, from an early date, the columns of western newspapers were filled with hardship stories from the cities and the provinces as the reforms began to bite. Writing in these early years, I was constantly upbraided - by Russians, diplomats, and business people - for being too pessimistic and downbeat. Cohen offers examples - mainly from US papers - of mistakes, or of what he says are mistakes. No doubt many were made. But a few selected quotations do not amount to an indictment. Nor does he attempt a reasoned and comprehensive survey of western, or even US, coverage, which would substitute his own prejudice with an analytical framework. Given that he, a scholar with a scholar's responsibilities, is accusing a profession of malpractice, he should at least have attempted such an analysis.
But the larger failure is to see the west as an evilly disposed meddler, foisting an ideological monstrosity on an inert society. In fact, the group of radical economists around Yegor Gaidar, some of whom clung on throughout most of the Yeltsin period, were both tough and independent, convinced of their own competence and the rightness of their judgements. The IMF and other economic advisers could not convince them to do things they would not do (although they could and did withhold funds that the reformers needed). What pushed the Gaidar reforms off track was ferocious opposition within the Russian parliament from deputies who were either ideologically opposed to a free market or reflecting the shock of their constituents when faced with huge price increases. Add to this Cohen's inability to believe that Gorbachev left to Yeltsin and his governments a terrible legacy - including a collapsed economy; a ruined empire; a ring of former Soviet republics that were sometimes openly hostile to Russia and yet were parasitic on it; a bloated military; the beginnings of a corrupted business class; and queues that stretched around the block.
Gorbachev was a great, if ambiguous, figure. He refrained from (most) violence, did more than anyone else to liberate the Soviet people from political repression and inhibitions on thought, speech and memory, and opened up the USSR to the world. But the economy began plunging on his watch, and it was uncontrollable by the time he was forced out of office.
Cohen thinks that most Russian politicians consider the west to be evil. On the evidence of the third issue of the journal Russians on Russia, they do not. Edited by Edward Skidelsky of the Social Market Foundation, and Yuri Senokosov, the Russian philosopher, who works with the Moscow School of Political Studies, it is a rich source for those who want to stay informed about the intellectual-political debate. It is not comfortable reading. A harsh realism is the dominant tone. For Yuri Levada, the veteran sociologist, the danger from Putin is "one-man rule shading into a mobilisation society" of the Soviet type. Vladimir Gelman, an academic at the European University in St Petersburg, says, in a sharp essay, that "the introduction of the institution of elections and the emergence of an electoral system in Russia . . . have not led to democracy becoming the 'sole universally recognised game'".
That is right, but less right than it was a decade ago. Yeltsin, absent when he should have been active, confusing inertia with liberalism, capricious and uninterested in much of the business of a chief executive, still succeeded in passing on a country that had not descended into chaos or extremism. We still cannot say how much the suffering that most Russians experienced in his years was due to his lack of attention, or to the slow and inevitable collapse of the world's last empire. Perhaps we shall never know.
Nor do we know, however, of a fundamentally different strategy of making the "transition", even if this transition has lasted too long and claimed too many victims. Cohen, who vaguely gestures towards recommending more money and less advice (as if that were possible), certainly has no plan. One of Russia's perennial questions, as Cohen reminds us, is: "Who is to blame?" He, the scholar, is anxious to blame everything on Yeltsin and the west. I, a journalist, think it is too soon to tell.
John Lloyd is the author of Re-engaging Russia (Foreign Policy Centre, £9.95)