Since the end of Yeltsin’s reign the debate waged in the Western academic and policy communities over the outcome of reforms in Russia has gradually subsided. The focus of security concerns has shifted to the Islamic world. Against this background, it often appeared (at least until the deadly hostage crisis in Moscow) as if Russia, with the exception of the North Caucasus, had regained stability, its people having come to terms with tectonic changes in their society, and with the new economic order in particular.
This misperception resulted from the fact that Russian critical thinkers—the voices of Russia's silent majority—are rarely heard at the international level. This is in spite of the fact that Russia's own elite, as well as a large strata of critically minded Russians, played such a central role in the formation of the present world order since 1989 by withdrawing unilaterally from the Cold War and by taking initiative in the process of the demise of the bipolar system. The current troubling failure of Russians outside the ruling circles to make themselves heard by a global audience gives rise to extreme forms of alienation and hostility, while the West is unprepared for the looming danger that this situation creates.
The spontaneous mass boycott of the national census in Russia was just the latest reminder that the appearance of social calm and political stability in Russia proper (that is, after the Chechen tragedy is conveniently compartmentalized) has all the qualities of the proverbial Potemkin village. The gap between the pretensions of the ruling elite and the shadow reality of desperation and discontent is an explosive source of permanent instability—just as it was in the decades of narrowly concentrated growth coupled with international ambitions that ended in the state collapse of 1917. […]