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 …

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