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Russia on the Brink?


Russia is on the brink of coming apart. Increasingly, its regions and ethnic republics are going their own ways, trying to secure as much independence as they can from the gridlocked politics and fraying institutions of the central government. Optimists see in this the gradual realization of Aleksandr Herzen’s nineteenth-century dream of a minimal state and a loose federation of self-governing communities. Realists see an ominous drift toward fragmentation and incipient anarchy.1

The Russia of 1917 irresistibly comes to mind. The similarities between then and now seem at least to equal the differences. In March 1917 and in December 1991, successive imperial autocracies collapsed. Intoxicating periods of freedom followed, apparently opening the way to democracy and a civil society. But soon the logic of a tragically fractured political culture began to assert itself. Many groups and regions wanted to take their own particular revenge against the oppressive ways of the fallen imperial center and their representatives, but they were too diverse in their aims to be able to agree on the new order that was to replace the old one. The initially dominant forces wanted to join Western civilization in almost all respects. More traditionalist and nationalist groups insisted that Russia should not, and could not, make such a wrenching, unnatural transition. Then—in this case only in 1917—the Bolsheviks came forward to offer a “third way”: a utopian, messianic ideology that appealed to elements of the popular masses and the intelligentsia, and was to be implanted in Russia by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Bolsheviks seized power, but the country was so divided that it soon fragmented, descending into brutal civil war, widespread anarchy, and, on the Volga, a pitiless famine that killed several million people.

Today, by contrast, none of the extremist philosophies being offered has, so far, won mass support. Evidently seventy-four years of Communist ideology have inoculated Russians for the time being against falling for a new utopia. Other circumstances, too, are different today. The outside world is much more ready—and potentially able—to play a helpful role than it was between 1917 and 1921. Moreover, whatever happens in Russia in the next few years, the rich countries will watch events there with care, in view of the large number of nuclear weapons located in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. These differences between today and 1917 may assist Russia’s Westernizing forces.

But other differences may help neo-Communist and nationalist groups. Since Russia today is not suffering from a defeat in a protracted world war, its reformist government of former Communists is at least spared the revolutionizing effects on its population of military defeats like those that buffeted the Provisional Government in 1917. Moreover, beneath the surface of the tsarist autocracy, elements of a new order—political movements, legal institutions, and industries—had been developing for some time. So when tsarism disintegrated, the collapse was decisive, and new, revolutionary institutions sprang up quickly. There was, in other words, a significant chance for a new order to be born.2

By contrast, under the more oppressive Soviet system, fewer elements of a new order were able to develop beneath the surface. In addition, the system collapsed much more suddenly and unexpectedly than tsarism did. As a result, the huge task that Yeltsin rashly took on of creating a brandnew, comprehensive, Westernized order was extremely daunting—even, in the short term at least, impossible. To try to launch simultaneously a political revolution, an economic revolution, and a social revolution, in a national culture that was not in fact ready for revolution at all, was to impose an intolerable burden on the Russian people. To do so when that people was going through a series of psychological blows of great severity was, in my view, even more foolhardy. True, the psychological dislocations have affected the middle and older generations more than the younger, and perhaps those with successful careers more than ordinary people. But Russian politics and the Russian press and television reveal every day the pain that has been inflicted on millions of people.

During the last four years we can list the following traumatic events: 1) the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989 from Afghanistan, “the USSR’s Vietnam,” after they had failed in their mission, lost 15,000 of their own men, and contributed to the deaths of one out of 15 million Afghans, and to the flight of a further 5 million abroad as refugees from their homeland; 2) the sudden loss of the entire “external,” East European, empire in 1989, followed by the humiliating withdrawal of troops, security agencies, and other personnel; 3) the much feared and supposedly unthinkable reunification of Germany in 1990; 4) the dramatic end, in August 1991, of three quarters of a century of Communist Party rule, which also marked the final realization by many people that the entire utopian program of communism, in the name of which tens of millions of lives had been sacrificed, had been a monstrous fraud; 5) the sudden loss four months later of the “internal” empire, as the Soviet Union split into fifteen independent states, with 25 million Russians finding themselves residents of “foreign countries”; 6) the dawning realization that the magical “shock therapy” that Jeffrey Sachs, the International Monetary Fund, Boris Yeltsin, and Yegor Gaidar had told the Russians would in three or four years, and with only limited pain, grant them the salvation of free markets, is also a fraud—having meanwhile done much to wipe out everyone’s savings and produce widespread poverty and mounting fear of economic collapse; and 7) the perception that now Russia, too, is threatened with the humiliation and dangers of fragmentation and collapse.

For many Russians, all this does not just represent an identity crisis of the sort that Dean Acheson accurately diagnosed in the British following World War II, when he noted that they had lost an empire and not yet found a role. It is something much worse: a many-layered feeling of moral and spiritual injury, a loss of one’s bearings, one’s sense of self and of society, bewilderment and frustration at the gaping divisions among one’s own people, uncertainty about even the physical dimensions of one’s country, let alone its values, and a growing fear of still greater insults and privations to come. Emotional wounds as deep as these tend to breed anger, hatred, selfdisgust, and aggressiveness. Such emotions can only improve the political prospects for the nationalists and neo-Communists, at any rate for a time.

In view of these circumstances, it is perhaps surprising how many bold and creative initiatives forward-looking Russians have taken in the last year and a half. In politics, for example, they have studied foreign models and worked hard to introduce a separation of powers, to create political parties, to protect human rights, to negotiate, not fight, when conflicts have arisen with neighboring countries, and so on. Yet their efforts often seem like drops in a huge and bottomless bucket, and the popular Western perception that Russia is now a democracy is, to put it mildly, exaggerated.3

While President Yeltsin was elected in a free popular vote, few other institutions or procedures score high marks for their democratic content or commitment. The parliament, for instance, was elected in March 1990 in only partly free conditions. Many of its members are directors of state-owned farms, factories, or other large institutions who have little interest in representing their constituents. They prefer to concern themselves with the interests of the professional “corporations” they belong to; they enjoy parliamentarians’ privileges like trips abroad or access to new cars, while lobbying for cushy jobs in Moscow or abroad.

Such behavior is encouraged by the fact that political parties have failed as yet to put down roots in society, with the result that party and factional discipline in the legislature is very weak. Correspondingly, the power of the autocratic, aggressive, and unpredictable speaker of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, is inordinately large. He manipulates parliamentary procedures, votes, and committees by employing a large staff and, until recently, five thousand guards, by controlling a wide array of privileges, and by acting as if he, as chief legislator, has the same status as the head of the executive, the president. He has again and again kept the support of an insecure parliament of dubious legitimacy by provoking fierce clashes with Yeltsin and the executive, then saying he really backs Yeltsin, then provoking a new clash.

Nonetheless, for one year, ending on December 1, 1992, parliament gave Yeltsin the power to rule by decree on most issues, except for such sensitive ones as declaring emergency rule or calling a referendum. As a result, most of the central government’s legislation in 1992 took the form of presidential decrees. Some of these were poorly or impulsively drafted. “Far from all” of them, as the country’s top legal officer complained, could be reconciled with recent legislation, 4 and many were never carried out. As for the government, it has had little cohesion and no sense of collective responsibility. The vice-president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, for instance, has for many months denounced in sweeping terms the government’s basic strategy for economic reform. For this, he received no effective punishment from Yeltsin, his public approval rating went up sharply in the polls, and people began to wonder about Yeltsin’s commitment to shock therapy.

Local government has been even less democratic than central government. Arguing that the local legislatures and their executive organs were too conservative to be trusted with carrying out the government’s policies, Yeltsin personally appointed chief executives to the regions and large cities. To try to ensure that these officials would not be dominated by the local political bosses, he also appointed “representatives of the president” to monitor their work and ensure that they carried out the center’s policies and laws. The results, however, have not been impressive. In the Tomsk region, for example, the president’s unusually able and effective representative recently calculated that he had only managed to get about 30 percent of the central government legislation put into effect locally. And Yeltsin charged local officials with “weakening Russia’s nascent statehood” by ignoring his decrees and government resolutions.5

Rather than obey unwanted laws of the central government, the local authorities prefer to pass legislation that suits themselves. In doing so, they show little regard for the rule of law in Russia. According to the procurator-general, Valentin Stepankov—whose staff of 20,000 performs functions equivalent to those of both the attorney general’s office and the General Accounting Office in America—the Procuracy filed in 1992 more than 200,000 formal protests against illegal actions by local authorities. Local officials had, for example, failed to send to Moscow the tax money they had collected, and, in 16,000 cases, they had passed official acts that violated the laws of the country.6 When challenged in such cases, they have typically replied that the central government should change its own laws to accommodate theirs.7 Alternatively, according to Stepankov, they have written him letters demanding the dismissal of troublesome local procurators, or requesting that the law be changed so that such procurators would be subordinate to themselves, not the center.

  1. 1

    See my previous commentaries in The New York Review on November 7, 1991, January 31, 1991, August 17, 1989, August 18, 1988, May 28, 1987, and October 10, 1985.

  2. 2

    The judicious conclusions of H.J. White in his chapter “Civil Rights and the Provisional Government” in O. Crisp and L. Edmondson, editors, Civil Rights in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989), stimulated my thinking on comparisons between 1917 and the present.

  3. 3

    For a useful review of the undemocratic working of most of the institutions of Russian government, see Julia Wishnevsky, “Anti-democratic Tendencies in Russian Policy-Making,” RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 1, No. 45 (November 1992), pp. 21–25.

  4. 4

    See the speech by Procurator-General Stepankov in Federal Broadcast Information Service: Eurasia (FBIS), FBIS-SOV-92-240S, December 14, 1992, pp. 31–35, at p. 33.

  5. 5

    The Tomsk figure was reported by the representative himself, Stepan Sulakshin, at a seminar at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Washington, DC, on October 8, 1992. For Yeltsin’s charges see ITAR-TASS, September 11, 1992, as quoted in A. Rahr, “Yeltsin Faces New Political Challenges,” RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 1, No. 42 (October 1992), p. 5.

  6. 6

    Stepankov, FBIS, p. 33.

  7. 7

    Talk by Andrei Kortunov at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, December 17, 1992.

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