Russia: Was There a Better Way?

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


It was Victory Day in Russia when I finished reading The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms, and Moscow was celebrating the fifty-sixth anniversary of Hitler’s defeat, the one event in Russian history which all Russians can agree to have been a great and glorious moment. In May 1945 Russia got it right. This is the holiday of which Russians will never tire.

If only events allowed them a similar measure of enthusiasm for their emancipation from Communist Party rule in 1991. Memories are being stirred, as 2001 runs its course, by a series of tenth anniversaries reaching a climax at year’s end with that of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But there are few celebrations, public or private. The intervening years have been too unkind.

Could the transition away from a failing dictatorship have been managed differently? That is the main question asked by Professor Reddaway and Dr. Glinski, though they put it a bit more grandly. “As for us,” they say,

we share the view of thinkers who believe that history does present alternative courses of action for both individuals and nations, and that denying their existence suggests a poverty of imagination—or lack of will—in those whose interests and beliefs would favour a different path of development.

If they do not finally persuade one that Russia could indeed have taken a much better “alternative course of action” in the 1990s, given the people and system and resources to hand, it is certainly not a poverty of imagination that inhibits their argument. Nor is it a lack of will, if strength of feeling is any measure. That Russia should have done it all differently is the point argued here with all the force that Reddaway and Glinski’s choice of title would suggest.

They depict the course of Russian policy under Boris Yeltsin as so ill-conceived, so twisted, so unprincipled that the pages of their dense and detailed book are barely enough to contain their scorn. They find that “Russia from at least 1990 has been sinking—from the socio-economic, demographic, cultural, and moral points of view—into turmoil and decay.”

They argue that Yeltsin’s fatal choice of economic policy—the liberalizing reforms, including a new system of market prices, commonly called “shock therapy,” and labeled by the authors “market bolshevism”—followed from his choice of allies in society. He was, they write, helped to power in 1989–1991 by a disparate coalition of interests in which nationalists and populists, hungry for power on Yeltsin’s coattails, mingled with social democrats and idealists who hoped that the Soviet attempt at communism could be supplanted by something closer to a Western European welfare state—“socialism with a human face,” in the rhetoric of the day.

The patron saint of the idealists was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear scientist and human rights campaigner whose death in December 1989 left a void that nobody else could fill. The social democrats clustered…

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