NOT long after arriving in Moscow more than four years ago, I began to hear a phrase that would be repeated countless times. ``We want,'' Russians of all kinds would tell me, ``to live in a normal country.''
Normal. What does that mean to a Russian? For some, it then meant freedom from fear, from the lurking shadows and the viciousness of a police state. For many, it was a yearning to live like the images of life in the West that increasingly filtered through the Russian state television airwaves. Sometimes it was something quite simple.
About a year after arriving, my Russian cousin Marina and her husband, Leonid, were emigrating to the United States from the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Leonid came to Moscow to receive his exit documents, for which he had to have a plane ticket in hand. Through friends, as was always the case in those days, he had heard it was possible to acquire an Aeroflot ticket for a combination of dollars and rubles.
We went the next morning to a drab office and joined a long line of would-be ticket-buyers. Through the day, it moved slowly, as the woman hidden in the shadows behind a Plexiglass window disappeared for long breaks. Leonid grew nervous - if he had no ticket by the next day, he might lose his permission to emigrate.
As we neared the window, Aeroflot announced that the office was closing for the day. We panicked and pleaded. The woman dismissed us: ``Come back in a month,'' she sneered. Leonid was despondent, and I too felt that sense of absolute powerlessness in front of a faceless, nasty bureaucracy.
Only as we drove back did it occur to me that I could buy him a ticket. We met at the Pan Am office and, in a matter of minutes, two tickets to New York were in hand. Leonid was shocked. ``It's like a dream,'' he told me. ``You just walk in and buy a ticket.''
``Leonid,'' I replied, in a moment of revelation, ``where I come from, that's normal.''
Four years later, Russia is in many ways becoming ``normal.'' The long lines have virtually disappeared. Money has largely replaced blat, the personal connections that used to be necessary to get anything. The Communist Party and its sword, the secret police, no longer rule people's lives.
But if ``normal'' also means a society governed by laws and a government that is responsible to its citizens, then Russians are still far from achieving their dream.
By that definition, Russia never has been a normal nation. Since the first days of the Muscovite princes in the 16th century, the state has always been supreme and the individual its servant. Four hundred years later, the Bolsheviks only improved upon the czsarist original, creating a dictatorship of the party and of the bureaucracy.
In a trenchant analysis of the ``betrayal'' of the revolution, Leon Trotsky - the fiery Marxist revolutionary sent into exile by Joseph Stalin in 1929 and later murdered by the KGB in Mexico - wrote in 1937 that while the populace was impoverished, the bureaucracy used its power, as the previous ruling class had done, to secure its own well-being.
``Hence the enormous egoism of this stratum, its firm inner solidarity, its fear of the discontent of the masses, its rabid insistence upon strangling all criticism, and finally its hypocritically religious kowtowing to `the Leader,' who embodies and defends the power and privileges of these new lords.''
Some 53 years later, Soviet Russia's ``lords'' still lived in privileged fashion, while ordinary Russians waited years, sometimes decades, for tiny, cramped apartments, often shared by many families.
My friends Sasha and Lena are ``golden youths,'' as the offspring of the state elite were known. They live outside Moscow, behind guarded gates, in a dacha colony previously reserved for Soviet Cabinet ministers. After a long driveway through leafy glades, a series of roads leads to two-story wood-frame homes with multicar garages, like an upscale suburban development in the US. Residents could dine at a special hall offering fine, subsidized meals, and then watch films in the cinema or play billiards.
Communist Party apparatchiks, ministers and deputies, and the directors of state enterprises (from grocery stores to vast defense plants) formed the nomenklatura, the Soviet ruling class. Serving them was a massive Army, the KGB, and the police. But it was the state's command over the economy, and hence over every detail of daily life, that gave this class its enormous power.
Beneath the state, popular society was struggling to free itself, expressed in everything from dissident writers to the shadow, black-market economy. With each leap of the technological revolution in the West, the Soviet Union fell further behind, including in its military prowess.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 with the goal of all great Russian reformers - to save the Russian state, and by so doing, to make Russia greater. After seven decades of totalitarianism, he promised to make Russia a ``law-governed'' state. He chose the weapon of glasnost to let information flow, free people from fear, and inspire them to revive Soviet socialism.
But glasnost also allowed the Russian people to discover the full extent of the ``betrayal'' of the nominal ideals of Soviet Communism that the Party had professed.
Irina, a young chemist, was deeply troubled by the revelations of the crimes of the past that emerged in the Soviet media. She had never known, for example, about the massive famines in Ukraine induced by Stalin's forced collectivization in the early 1930s. But Irina was also shocked when Russian television first started showing extensively the realities of daily life in the West. ``I knew we had shortages and problems, but I always believed that we lived close to the rest of the world. Then I found out we were years, maybe decades, behind.''
MR. Gorbachev was trapped by his loyalty to the Communist Party. His hesitant attempts to reform the economy with market methods were feckless. Countless economic reform plans, announced with grand rhetoric, crumbled before the stubborn resistance of the state.
Finally, in August 1991, the gray men sought to oust Gorbachev once and for all. But these were pallid bureaucrats who lacked either the steely belief or the ruthlessness of their Bolshevik forebears.
The failure of the coup was a magic moment. Ordinary Russians felt the exhilaration of taking their destiny into their hands, defying their masters, and winning. The swift collapse of the Communist Party broke many of the remaining shackles of fear.
Sasha, our stolid driver provided by the Soviet government, found a voice we didn't know he had. He bubbled with political opinions that we never thought existed. There were millions of Sashas, buoyed by a new optimism for the future.
Boris Yeltsin, the brash head of the Sverdlovsk Communist Party whom Gorbachev brought in to help shake up Moscow, was the expression of that hope. Thrown out of the party leadership by the die-hards, betrayed by Gorbachev, Mr. Yeltsin was free to challenge the apparat.
The first freely elected leader of Russia in its history, Yeltsin, like his predecessors, shares the goal of a great Russia. But he was also determined to destroy the Communist Party, to end its command over the state and the economy. He saw democracy and the market as the means to that end, even if he did not always understand what those words implied.
But Yeltsin had the sense to put his faith initially in a man who did - Yegor Gaidar, a young economist with remarkable clarity of thought and determination. I first met him in late 1991, just after he had been appointed deputy premier of the new Russian government. Sitting in a conference room where the Politburo used to meet, he forcefully declared his intention to dismantle the command economy.
In the first few months, Mr. Gaidar tried to cut the Gordian knot of the state - by freeing prices from state control, by opening up the borders to trade, and by beginning the process of privatizing the economy.
But the statists fought back. In the parliament, they mobilized supporters to challenge Yeltsin. At the vast granite blocks where the central ministries held sway, the bureaucrats switched their name plates and tried to hold on.
An executive at the Tupolev design bureau, responsible for Russia's long-range passenger aircraft, complained to me in mid-1992 that the ministry, now renamed a ``production association,'' still issued him orders. In the Kaluga region, the local bosses said that all the collective farms were being converted into ``joint-stock companies.'' But the same directors were in place, the same crops were sold to the same state enterprises, and the same miserable farm laborers drowned their sorrows in vodka.
But Gaidar and his boys had made enough cracks in the wall for change to begin, often driven by Russia's youth.
Unable to find work after graduating as an engineer, the son of my friend Galina, with his buddies, became ``bizness tourists,'' joining tens of thousands who travel to Turkey, Poland, or China. They sold Russian goods (such as caviar) and exchanged the money for cheap consumer goods - all turned over for a healthy profit in the street markets and kiosks blossoming all over Russia.
Others made fortunes buying Russian oil, minerals, and metals at their still-subsidized prices to sell them abroad. Corrupt bureaucrats sold export licenses and state property out the side door. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs began to fill Moscow streets as the new entrepreneurs, the old elite who had ``privatized'' their power, and the rising criminal class showed off their wealth.
Ultimately the revanche of the state drove Gaidar from his post as acting prime minister after a year. Yeltsin was forced to replace him in December 1992 with pro-statist Viktor Chernomyrdin, a veteran boss of the Soviet state gas industry. The economy, still without real legal foundation, is an often mad mixture of state and market, its hopes for revival resting on the outcome of a race between the growth of the private sector and the collapse of the state sector.
``Capitalism practically cannot be stopped,'' Gaidar wrote recently. ``The dilemma is in the following: bureaucratic [state] capitalism or democratic [open] capitalism? If you take the famous historical analogy - let's go along either the `Prussian' or `American' way. This is the focus of all the social and political battles of today.''
MEANWHILE, 1991's enthusiasm has been replaced by deep cynicism, by a loss of faith in political leaders, perhaps in politics itself.
On Siberia's Lake Baikal, boat captain Grigory Cherepanov, past retirement age but still sailing, lets loose on those in power.
``We should have gotten rid of all the partocrats back in 1991,'' he says, using a favorite term for the Communist apparatus. ``Why do we need a Ministry of Hairdressing?... People sit and wait for somebody to give them something. Factory directors wait for credits. People wait for work.
``Yeltsin - people liked him when he got kicked out of the Politburo. But then he didn't do anything to dismantle the partocracy. Party officials in Irkutsk just went to the `financial structures,' taking party money to start banks. What's that?''
Russians make fun of the endless series of decrees issued from behind Kremlin walls, and of their do-nothing parliament. For them, it is the same paper spewed forth by the bureaucracy for centuries.
The ``rule of law'' loses much of its meaning when the president admits, as he did recently in a memoir, that he acted ``unlawfully'' in dissolving the parliament last September. Moreover, criminal gangs terrorize the populace with apparent impunity.
Legal reform is on Russia's agenda, but the record to date is unimpressive. Yeltsin pushed through a hastily drafted new Constitution last December. But the Constitutional Court, Russia's equivalent of a Supreme Court, is without even a law to underpin its existence. When Yeltsin issued an anticrime decree in June, human rights specialists said it violated eight clauses of the Constitution.
Economic reform is similarly burdened by vague, often contradictory legal foundations. Stock exchanges operate without any law to protect shareholders rights or to control conflicts of interest in the market. Private property is enshrined in the Constitution but there is no law to define or protect private ownership of land.
Amid this chaos, many Russians yearn for the order of the past. They are losing faith that their country can ever achieve the West's ``normalcy.'' And some, like returned dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitysn, argue forcefully that Russia must find its own unique path, one that explicitly rejects the model of Western liberalism.
The consequences of these confused yearnings were vividly displayed in the parliamentary elections of last December. Gaidar's attempt to regain power through electoral politics failed when his well-funded and much-touted reformist Russia's Choice party was handily defeated by the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and by the Communists and their allies.
The ability to exploit the public's deep mistrust of those in power has become the greatest attribute of a successful politician in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Zhirinovsky offers the Russian people the same honeyed promises as those before him - a better life, order and stability, a Great Russia.
And Zhirinovsky is destined to be the same kind of ruler. Sasha and Lena report that the man who assails the privileges of the elite in his rabble-rousing speeches has moved into their exclusive dacha colony.
Russia's `normalization' is under way. But the lesson of the last years is that it will be an agonizingly slow process, ultimately not a matter of years but of the passage of one or more generations.
* Next week: Russia - empire or nation?