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A New Russian Revolution?


In the six-year-long disintegration of communism euphemistically known as “restructuring” (the meaning, after all, of perestroika) the Russian elections of June 12 will surely count as a revolutionary turning point. In presidential and municipal balloting, the homeland of Leninism elected three anti-Leninist leaders—Boris Yeltsin, Gavriil Popov, and Anatoly Sobchak—by between 60 and 65 percent of the vote, against less than 25 percent for three Party presidential candidates combined. This occurred, moreover, in a contest that explicitly pitted “democrats” against “communists,” and in which the declared goal of the democrats was to liquidate definitively the country’s crumbling “totalitarian” structures in favor of the rule of law, private property, and the market. And the citizens of Leningrad voted by 55 percent to change their city’s name back to St. Petersburg, thus symbolically repudiating the entire Soviet experience.

It would be idle to view this epochmaking turn of events as a matter of rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, real though that rivalry is. It would be equally superficial to continue to talk of Soviet events as a process of “reform” in which Yeltsin and Gorbachev must ultimately cooperate for a tidy “transition to democracy,” as if this is what perestroika had been about all along. For we are not dealing here either with a personal feud or with mere reform, but with the collapse of a total system. Nor are we dealing with some bland transition, but with a revolution by implosion. In short, the process taking place is analogous to what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989.

The events of 1991 can be seen as the second, Soviet phase of the anticommunist revolution that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989; and the Russian elections of June 12 are the rough equivalent of the Polish elections of June 4 two years ago, when Solidarity unexpectedly won a semi-rigged vote, thereby bringing to power Europe’s first postcommunist government, a breakthrough that soon led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and the end of Ceausescu.

Thus beyond the particular events of the experiment with perestroika it is now possible to understand better the historical process of the end of communism, its structure and stages. Solidarity in Poland was the pioneer in setting the pattern during the 1980s. The Democratic Russia Movement headed by Yeltsin is now attempting, and quite consciously so, to follow the same route. But how did Russia pull abreast of Eastern Europe so quickly? And what are democratic Russia’s chances of success?

Nothing makes sense in this process unless it is first recognized that Gorbachev’s perestroika was never anything more than reform communism. Following the precedents of Khrushchev, Dubcek, Kadar, and Jaruzelski, Gorbachev undertook to revive a Stalinist system in dire crisis by what he hoped would be controlled liberalization. The model for such a program, for Gorbachev as for his predecessors, includes an expanded but still limited right to tell the truth about the past and to criticize the shortcomings of the present; a measure of participation in public affairs by groups outside the Party; and a modest degree of managerial and financial autonomy for state enterprises, together with the emergence of a small sector of semiprivate businesses providing services. But reform communism never was intended to mean full cultural freedom, constitutional government, or a market economy with private property. And it never envisaged abandoning the hegemony of the Party, even though other political groups might be tolerated as part of a reform “popular front.”

Such a program, obviously, is always ambiguous. On the one hand, the leadership naively thinks it can mobilize society to revive the system and yet not lose control. On the other hand, some temporary allies of reform—Andrew Sakharov is the most prominent example—are in fact working to liquidate the system. And between the two, matters always get out of hand, with the result that attempts are made to restore “real socialism” by force, with the result taking the form of Brezhnevite stagnation.

The most vulnerable and crisisracked part of the system, moreover, has been Eastern Europe—the weakest link in the communist chain, to paraphrase Lenin—for the obvious reason that the system was forcibly imposed there as an alien order. And the most vulnerable part of Eastern Europe has been Poland, for cultural and historical reasons that have long been apparent. So, with Solidarity, there emerged the first movement that explicitly renounced reform communism as an illusion and sought instead to fashion what it called a “normal,” post-totalitarian society.

Solidarity got its chance to do this in 1988 and 1989 with the failure of Jaruzelski’s reform communism—which had been stimulated by Gorbachev’s perestroika. Confronted with strikes and economic collapse, the Polish generals accepted Round Table negotiations with Solidarity for an “anticrisis pact” involving limited power sharing, but a full sharing of responsibilities: that is, the pact provided that Solidarity members could take part in elections to the Sejm and the Senate that were partly rigged to yield a Communist majority (as were Gorbachev’s concurrent elections to the first Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1989). The Polish population, however, turned this occasion into a referendum on communism by denying to the Party’s candidates, on the first round, most of their allotted seats. As the Party and the regime began to unravel under this blow, the astonished leaders of Solidarity were obliged to form a new government on the principle of “your [Communist] president, our [Solidarity] prime minister.” And Solidarity soon took over the whole government.

Elections, even partly controlled ones, have thus proved to be the Achilles heel of reform communism. The formula of the Round Table was next taken up in Hungary, with similar effects leading to the liquidation of the Party. By the end of the year, the Round Table strategy had come to mean throughout the communist world the negotiated, phased transfer of power from the Party to the democratic opposition. As a tactic and a goal, therefore, it was taken up by the Russian opposition in early 1990, once the complete collapse of Eastern European communism made it clear that the days of the Party-controlled system were now numbered everywhere.


Gorbachev’s version of reform communism, which dominated the Soviet scene and captured the world’s attention between 1985 and 1989, was the most far-reaching ever in communist history, largely because the Soviet economic crisis was far deeper than any in earlier decades. Perestroika was strong on political change allowing the unprecedented cultural freedom of glasnost and semi-free elections to central and local soviets, or legislative councils. But perestroika was weak on economic change, permitting only “self-management” and “self-financing” for state enterprises, together with modest encouragement of cooperative enterprises. This was so in part because such measures were all that Gorbachev and his prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, believed in, and in part because the Party apparat resisted any serious reforms since this would threaten the control of the nomenklatura. The failure to perceive the contradiction between the political and economic aspects of perestroika brought the entire program down in 1989. As the radical dissident Sergei Grigoriants commented at the start, “Gorbachev doesn’t know what he’s ruling over.”

In the economic sphere, the limited autonomy of self-management and self-financing soon destroyed the vertical chain of command by which the state plan had always been carried out, without creating the arrangements for horizontal exchange among producers, distributors, and consumers which characterize a market system. The result, not only for farm and consumer products but for durable and capital goods as well, was that most economic activity became localized, and the country moved to an ad hoc barter system. Meanwhile the growing budget deficit was “covered” by printing more money and by accelerating inflation.

On the other hand, glasnost and democratization made it possible for people to complain about this state of affairs, as well as about seventy years of their accumulated grievances of every kind. Glasnost was exploited by increasingly radical intellectuals to expose the crimes of the past and the evils of the present. This, together with growing awareness of the economic gap between Russia and the outside world, soon destroyed what was left of the myth that socialism was leading to a “radiant future.” Most of the people began to feel swindled by “seventy years on the road to nowhere,” as a popular slogan had it. The system was desacralized and delegitimized, and by 1990 only criticism of Lenin remained taboo.

The democratic opening also permitted a nascent opposition not simply to express dissident views but to make a bid for power. At first, in 1988 and 1989, Gorbachev organized partially contested elections to the soviets because he wished to create a power base for reform communism separate from the recalcitrant main-line Party. But this maneuver backfired even worse than glasnost. It is true that Gorbachev obtained the support, as the historian Yuri Afanasyev said, of an “aggressively submissive majority,” which dutifully elected him “president”—to give him an aura of democratic respectability abroad and to make him seem the equal of George Bush at home—and regularly voted him sweeping but ineffectual decree powers, as the country’s general crisis worsened. But the elections to the soviets also permitted the emergence in the central Congress of People’s Deputies of independent political blocs, such as the “Interregional Group” of Andrew Sakharov, Gavriil Popov, and Anatoly Sobchak. And these groups moved increasingly away from reform communism toward outright repudiation of the system.

This turn to open opposition began during the spectacular first session of the Congress in June 1989 (at the same time as the Polish elections), which convinced the emerging Russian democrats that Gorbachev did not contemplate sharing power, and that he would therefore have to be drawn, or forced, into a “left-center coalition” against the conservatives of the apparat, and then by stages into a more radical economic and political program. In consequence, tension mounted between the government and the opposition movement—indeed between the government and “civil society” generally—as the country moved toward the local soviet elections set for the following spring. Although the “radicals” did not publicize their intentions, it became increasingly clear, especially in private conversations, that their goal was to wrest power from the Party and to move toward genuine constitutional government, a market system, and private property. By the end of 1989 this postcommunist program was basically ready, although not yet widely published or broadcast on television.

Then at the beginning of 1990, the Soviet situation was suddenly and sharply affected by the aftershock of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. For this event demonstrated that, contrary to Party dogma and the alleged logic of history, “the conquests of socialism” were in fact “reversible,” that subjection to the system was therefore not inevitable, and that hope for true liberation, as opposed to mere reform, was at last possible.

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