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On the Eve

Figures in a Red Landscape

by Pilar Bonet, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, by Susan Ashe
Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 148 pp., $18.95

The Struggle for Russia: Power and Change in the Democratic Revolution

by Ruslan Khasbulatov, edited by Richard Sakwa
Routledge, 270 pp., $29.95


In his recent book The End of the Communist Revolution the historian Robert Daniels expresses some views about the collapse of communism and its aftermath that have become increasingly accepted. First, “the sequence of victorious democratic break-throughs in the former Communist realm was one of the most extraordinary and, to believers in democratic values, gratifying developments in all of modern history.” Second, the outcome in the former Soviet Union is “a congeries of feuding ethnic authoritarianisms.” And, finally, “the record of decolonization on other continents offers few examples to encourage optimism about the political future of the Soviet successor-states.”1

Why has the promise turned sour so soon? Is it now an exaggeration to use terms like “democratic break-through” to describe what has happened since the rise of Gorbachev? Why exactly did Soviet rule disintegrate? Did it do so too quickly for political stability to be even theoretically attainable amid the resulting chaos? How well or badly are particular successor states doing? Which of their many problems are the most severe?

These questions are raised in the books under review, and I often heard them discussed in Ukraine and in Moscow when I was there during the political crisis of September 21 through October 5. Ukraine, which I visited first, is potentially a rich and powerful country, comparable in population and resources to Britain or France. But its people were feeling vulnerable and frightened. As the cars thin out on the streets of Kiev for lack of gas, Russia continues to insist that in 1994 it will export energy only at world prices, which Ukraine cannot afford. Most articulate Ukrainians are saying that the government must urgently launch a program of reform to rescue the economy from continued decline. However, few believe that this will soon be done, while most have strong doubts that any such program will, in any case, succeed in averting economic collapse.

Again and again I was told that the parliamentary elections scheduled for March and the presidential elections for June were badly needed: President Kravchuk and the Communist-dominated Parliament are hopelessly deadlocked over economic policy and who should control it, and both have lost the public’s trust. The democratic Rukh movement is weakly represented in Parliament, and has lost much of the cohesion that enabled it to challenge the Communists in 1990 and 1991; it has failed to capitalize on the glaring failure of those in power to run the country effectively. Yet the coming elections are also viewed with apprehension: harshly fought political campaigns may seriously undermine political stability, and there is no guarantee that the newly elected legislature and executive will be better able to work together than their predecessors were. These fears are naturally deepened by growing concerns about the disintegration of Russia itself, to which Ukraine still has close economic ties.

In Moscow, I heard similar fears expressed with equal anxiety. Referring to the two weeks of national crisis that came to a climax with the storming of the White House on October 4, Muscovites with widely differing political and social views—perhaps a half of all those I spoke with—said: “But this is only the beginning. The worst is yet to come.”

Why did they speak of a “beginning”? First, because of the events of September 21 themselves. All year, the Parliament, aided by Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi, had subjected President Yeltsin to an intense series of provocations, for example increasing the dangerously high rate of inflation through its indirect control of the money supply, and undermining Yeltsin’s plans for privatization; and Yeltsin had responded in kind by trying to cut back Parliament’s powers, though usually with relative restraint. Finally the president took the extreme step of ordering Parliament to disband, thereby violating the constitution. This meant that, in the future, constitutionality could no longer be the restraining factor it had been for the previous two years—a significant obstacle in the path of any potential dictator and thus a reassurance to most citizens. Now that the constitution, for all its inadequacy, had been explicitly violated, constitutionality would henceforth be no more than a relative concept, one easily brushed aside by politicians in the name, for example, of maintaining, or restoring, social stability.

Second, many Russians told me, the events of October 3 to 5 were a beginning because this rupture of the constitution had brought the country to the edge of civil war, with at least 150 people killed in the first large-scale violence to take place in independent Russia. How much more blood would be shed in future clashes, or in a full-scale civil war of which most Russians live in dread? How, many people asked, could Rutskoi have ordered his men to take the Ostankino television tower by storm while the Orthodox Patriarch was still acting as mediator in negotiations between the two sides? How could Yeltsin, without giving any new warning, have ordered the brutal and destructive bombardment of the White House, when he could have dealt with parliamentary resistance less violently by issuing a strong new ultimatum backed up with the threat to use commando forces? Why, before he outlawed the Parliament on September 21, did Yeltsin not persist in seeking the compromise solution that many well-informed observers felt was probably within reach: an agreement to hold simultaneous early elections for both the Parliament and the presidency?

Apart from hearing these views in conversations and meetings, I also read them in press commentaries like those of the liberal Komsomolskaya pravda.2 The dominant theme was disgust with both the Rutskoi forces and the Yeltsin government for having caused such a tragedy and brought shame to Russia and its people. The disenchantment with all politicians, which had been growing among the public for many months, had now become deeper still.

Moving among the crowds of people who watched the shelling of the White House on October 4, I was struck by their silence. No one cheered when a shell set another room on fire, or when parts of the building fell to the ground. No one cursed at the four snipers supporting Rutskoi who were arrested on a rooftop near me and held spread-eagled by police until a truck came to take them away. No one denounced the more successful snipers who, from time to time, shot members of the crowd and kept the ambulances busy. Only three times in four hours did I hear anything like a debate. This occurred when supporters of the parliamentarians in the White House angrily denounced the brutality taking place. Those who responded did so in low tones. I heard no intense arguments and saw no scuffles. The overall mood seemed to be one of shock and anxiety, as well as disbelief that Russians could have sunk so low as to resolve political disputes by killing one another and setting the Parliament building ablaze with tank fire.

Subsequently, I heard it argued that Yeltsin had taken the right line throughout the crisis. A member of his Presidential Council told me that the entire course of events had been the best imaginable, because now the remaining Communists can finally be disposed of. The main concern of those who took this “optimistic” position—perhaps 10 percent of those I talked with—was that Yeltsin might not have the courage and resolve to follow through on his victory, and, as the legislator Yuri Chernichenko urged, “crush the scum” (razdavit’ gadinu)—i.e., jail the leaders of the opposition and outlaw all political activity that might seriously threaten Yeltsin’s dominance. 3

The more perceptive Russian analysts opposed this position because they believe it would cause both a breakdown of law and order and the fragmentation of the country—the end of Russia as we now know it. Such independent commentators as Igor Klyamkin and Evgenia Albats, who publish in various Russian journals, pointed to the dangers that threaten the country today: the loss of constitutional restraints; the political hatreds that have been further intensified by the recent violence, especially the hatred of Yeltsin by the right wing; the weakness, incompetence, and corruption of Yeltsin’s own administration,4 and its lack of a coherent economic policy which could encourage investment and halt the continuous fall in most people’s living standards. They pointed as well to the fragility of Yeltsin’s popular support, the impulsive and erratic quality of his leadership, and the almost dictatorial powers that he seized after October 3, and that he may be reluctant to give up.5 These powers include effective control of the executive, legislative, and judicial processes, and partial control of television, radio, and the press.

Yeltsin now seems to have strong support mainly from committed advocates of the “free market,” who make up perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, and certainly from foreign leaders whose open backing in an election would probably hurt him; he has less enthusiastic support from perhaps a quarter of the voters who see, as yet, no alternative to him. Well-informed political commentators in the press have called attention to the dubious loyalty and demoralized condition of the military, the police, and the security police; to the irresponsibility of military leaders who have been dragging Yeltsin into such quicksands as the Georgian civil war; and to the determination of many regional leaders to stay in power by keeping Moscow at arm’s length. A body politic as weak as this could not withstand the strains of a sharp and sustained turn by its leader toward authoritarianism.

Two weeks after storming the White House, Yeltsin seemed to sense this, and called for parliamentary elections and a referendum on a new constitution, both to be held on December 12. In theory the two votes will produce both a new constitution and a return to constitutional democracy. They may now be conducted less unfairly than previously seemed likely: censorship of the press has been suspended and, although the more extreme parties are still banned, their members will probably have the chance, if they vote at all, to back the more moderate Communist and nationalist parties. But much remains unclear, especially such questions as how effectively the regional leaders, many of whom have long opposed Yeltsin, and are now considering how to counter his new efforts to sharply cut back their power, will manipulate the ballot, and how much the government will aid its supporters and obstruct its opponents through its control of television and through police harassment. The central question for the coming months is whether the new Parliament will represent enough of the people to give it legitimacy. Or will sections of the public feel excluded from the political process and resort to demonstrations and strikes or other activities intended to bypass Parliament?

Finally, my pro-American friends in Moscow were in despair about current US policy toward Russia. How, they asked, could President Clinton not see the agonizing complexity of the situation; and why was he so heavy-handed in the way he took Yeltsin’s side? Why did he not express his support in a quieter and more nuanced way, as the Japanese did? Does he not understand that many Russians who want friendly relations with the US are not favorable to Rutskoi but oppose Yeltsin, from both left and right? By constantly boasting of the great US success in supporting Yeltsin and “saving Russian democracy,” the Clinton administration only makes most Russians more acutely aware of the US mistake of recommending shock therapy for Russia, and of the subsequent deterioration of their living standards. Clinton makes them wonder how he can have unquestioning faith in Yeltsin, and how he cannot see the fragility and ineffectiveness of Russian democracy.

  1. 1

    Robert V. Daniels, The End of the Communist Revolution (Routledge, 1993), pp. 2, 54. Daniels also argues that Yeltsin and his colleagues are making the understandable but serious mistake of discarding socialism wholesale in favor of capitalism, thus neglecting the positive elements in the strong Russian tradition of socialism, particularly its insistence on the rights to welfare and to jobs. He also pleads for the West, as it searches for new solutions to endemic social ills, to look at pluralistic socialism with a fresh eye.

  2. 2

    See, for example, the issue of October 6, 1993, p. 1.

  3. 3

    Interestingly, when I pressed a liberal sociologist of this persuasion about his political prognosis for the next year or two, he suddenly turned out to be a pessimist who foresees Russia’s fragmentation and the dangerous rise of extreme ideologies. He simply believes that a good dose of authoritarianism from Yeltsin now represents the best hope, if a slim one, that his gloomy predictions might not come true.

  4. 4

    Its corruption has had more coverage in the Western press than its weakness and incompetence, both of which caused loss of life and were mercilessly exposed by Russian newspapers during and after the recent crisis. In response, the government set up a censorship system, then suspended it. For the most devastating indictment of the Yeltsin administration by a high official that I have read, see Mikhail Malei’s lengthy interview in Komsomolskaya pravda, September 17, 1993.

  5. 5

    On this see my article “Dictatorial Drift” in The New York Times, October 10, 1993, p. E15.

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