Across Serpukhvskaya Street from my apartment is a vintage Soviet-style “Palace of Culture,” its blank concrete walls topped by an immense neon sign. Ten years ago it offered lectures on class consciousness to factory workers; now it houses a discotheque, which plays American rock music until 6 A.M. Ten years ago an order from the district party committee would have served as a de facto antinoise ordinance. Now my neighbors and I just use earplugs. The Russian language does not have a word for “privacy,” and the average Russian still does not expect to have much control over his environment. The country IS still a place of ubiquitous loudspeakers, which are now available to people who call themselves “biznesmeny” but who actually have more in common with Beltway bandits or Tammany Hall. The inherently collectivist tendencies of rock music fit rather well into this setting: Russia has subjected me to as much compulsory rock-listening—on Aeroflot, in Metro stations, even at the exclusive Menatep Bank—as my college dormitory did in the 1960’s.

Anti-Russian bigots are wrong when they claim that Russia was always a lawless state, an “Oriental despotism” having nothing in common with the West. In its deepest roots Russia is of course Western, an heir with us to Athens and Jerusalem. The Kremlin is not the Hindu pantheon. The 19th century saw the emergence here of an independent judiciary and trial by jury. But the Bolsheviks spent generations destroying the culture of lawfulness, and it will probably take generations to restore it. My neighbors rely on earplugs because they know that even if the city Duma were to enact an antinoise ordinance, enforcement would still be a matter of connections and bribery.

Russia’s cities are still safer after dark than America’s, but crime has risen as much here in just a few years as it has in New York or Washington in recent decades. Private security guards in military-style camouflage fatigues seem to be more numerous than necessary—until you realize that they play a dual role. I know of several cases in which firms such as travel agencies have experienced the following sequence: first, a mysterious visitor pressures them to pay protection money to keep their offices from being pillaged; second, they hasten to hire a security firm; third, the visitor returns, has a private chat with the new security guards, and leaves amicably—this time for good. It does not take a lot of imagination to deduce that for many of these security firms, the Russian mafia is less adversary than business partner.

One of the milestones in the transition to the rule of law was supposed to be President Yeltsin’s new constitution. Yeltsin and his allies proclaimed that their victory in the constitutional referendum made up for their defeat in the simultaneous parliamentary elections. (A recount has since shown that the referendum did not in fact produce a large enough majority for ratification, but both Yeltsin and the parliament—the very existence of which depends on the constitution which many of its members opposed—have simply ignored this awkward fact.) Today the constitution is largely a dead letter. The parliament usurps the president’s power of pardon, and the president usurps the parliament’s power to confirm high officials. Both ignore the constitution’s guarantees on freedom of the press. But nobody appeals to the Constitutional Court: a year after the new constitution took effect, the court still does not have enough judges to function.

When their government is dysfunctional, civilized men turn more than ever to voluntary associations of the sort famously described by Tocqueville. But most men do not live in countries where, for example, the very word “charity” (“blagotvoritelnost“) was suppressed until the 1980’s. Western groups seeking to distribute food and medicine through the Russian Orthodox Church were recently told by some of its own bishops that the church lacks the experience and networks needed to deliver humanitarian relief. Instead, the bishops advised the Western visitors to give their donations to state agencies! But in spite of such setbacks, Russians are slowly rebuilding a nonstatist culture from the bottom up.

Three blocks from the Kremlin, next to the favorite restaurant of Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, stands the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian—now girdled in scaffolding as repairmen make up for six decades of neglect. Orthodox services took place at this site continuously from the 14th century until 1929, when the state seized the building and suppressed the parish. Worship resumed only in May 1991, and at first only in a small room on the second floor: the nave was still occupied by a Communist Party printing press. After the August 1991 coup, the newly reborn parish could easily have expelled the printers and left them jobless. Instead, Father Aleksandr Borisov told his flock that they should let the printers stay until they could find another location in which to continue as a for-profit business.

In the tradition of the third-century Roman doctors whose names their church bears, the members of Cosmas and Damian take a special interest in the seriously ill. They have adopted a children’s hospital, and consequently suffer a 1990’s Russian paradox: as a specialized institution with a nationwide reputation, it now gets less state funding than neighborhood Moscow hospitals. Moscow is an island of prosperity compared with most of Russia, and its politicians are increasingly reluctant to help hospitals with non-Moscow patients.

When you first set foot in the Children’s Clinical All-Republican Hospital, the ratio of adults to children seems normal. But you soon learn that most of these adults are not doctors or nurses, but the mothers of patients. So many nurses have left their jobs—and so many of the mothers are from remote provinces and have no other place to stay in Moscow—that the mothers have simply moved in, becoming full-time unpaid staffers. It is increasingly the mothers who cook and serve the patients’ meals, keep them entertained, and even take custody of the blood donated by volunteers responding to the Cosmas and Damian blood drive. In the rubble of statism, they are building their own community.

Cosmas and Damian also sponsor the Father Aleksandr Men Open Orthodox University, named in honor of a renowned Orthodox priest who was mysteriously murdered in 1990. In the tradition of its namesake, a convert from Judaism, the university teaches about Orthodoxy not as a privileged possession of Russians but as a universal religion. It is one of 167 private institutions of higher education born in Russia in the 1990’s—an astonishing figure for a nation in a deep economic crisis and with virtually no previous tradition of independent schooling.

The healthiest institutions and personalities in Russia today are those which are the most remote from politics and power. Virtually the entire elite class still consists of people who were Communist Party members in good standing a decade ago; even the business world consists mostly of ex-apparatchiks who have learned how to convert political into financial clout. Though many of these have become sincere advocates of the free market, they are still shaped by the apparatchik legacy—obsession with economic policy, indifference to Russia’s spiritual traditions, and hostility to rural and peasant life. (Hence their dislike of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) While today’s “new Russians” are knocking at the doors of the International Monetary Fund and New York-style discotheques, Russia’s real revival will be taking place elsewhere.