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14 years after evil empire, a stable Russia

FOURTEEN YEARS ago yesterday, the Soviet Union disappeared. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991. Boris Yeltsin became independent Russia's first president. The Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union, dissolved itself. The iconic hammer and sickle flag that had flown over the Kremlin for seven decades came down. What Ronald Reagan rightly called the ''evil empire" was erased from the map. In its place emerged Russia and 14 other newly independent states.

As former Czech president Vaclav Havel observed, ''Things have changed so fast we have not yet taken time to be astonished." Nowhere is this truer than on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Who could have imagined the evil empire disappearing -- without war?

Who could have imagined a revolution that buried communism -- without blood? Recall: Crane Brinton's classic, ''The Anatomy of Revolution," requires blood for a genuine revolution.

Who could have imagined US victory over its Cold War rival -- with a whimper rather than a bang? The tectonic collapse of one pole of a bipolar international system with so few aftershocks?

Who could have imagined that a communist, totalitarian dictatorship would be becoming a ''normal" middle-income transitional society analogous to Brazil, Venezuela, Indonesia, or Nigeria?

Who could have imagined that 14 years on, not one single nuclear bomb from the entire Soviet arsenal would have been found outside Russia? In December 1991, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, appeared on ''Meet the Press." In that interview, he warned: ''If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons -- let's assume they've got 25,000 to 30,000; that's a ballpark figure -- and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control."

Who could have imagined a Russian government that is wealthy? A government that worries today that it has too much money, rather than too little? A Russian economy growing at over 7 percent per year since Putin came to power in 2000? International lenders stampeding to put money into Russia rather than take it out, just seven years after the August 1998 financial crash?

Who could have imagined a stable Russia -- after years in which further disintegration of the former Soviet Union seemed as likely as stability?

Who could have imagined that one week hence, on Jan. 1, 2006, the president of Russia would become chairman of the G-7 -- soon to become G-8 club of leading industrial democracies?

Russia remains a kaleidoscope of contradiction. It is still, in Winston Churchill's oft-quoted line, ''a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." But who could have imagined that 14 years on, Russia would be where it is today?

Most Americans see Russia's glass as half empty rather than half full. In light of the Putin government's backsliding on democracy, including the impending adoption of a law that would severely limit foreign nongovernmental organization activity, there are always enough negatives to support the pessimists.

In my view, Russia is still the land of the Matrushkas and Potemkin's village -- much more subtle and complex than we realize. One peels off one shell only to find another -- each layer embodying elements of truth, competing with contradictory realities both within and beyond.

Relative to our grandest hopes, Russia disappoints. Compared to our darkest fears, who could have imagined Russia today?

Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense.

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