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.

This realization produced a great leftward surge across the country, which was expressed, first of all, in a series of “declarations of sovereignty,” beginning with the Baltic states, among the fifteen constitutent republics. This “parade of sovereignties,” as the hard-line commentators called it, was accompanied by a “war of laws,” in which the republics, municipalities, and even districts voted measures to take economic and administrative power from the Party and the “center,” as Gorbachev’s government was now called. By the end of the summer of 1990, the Soviet Union had virtually collapsed as a cohesive structure, and Gorbachev’s primary concern came to be working out a new union treaty to salvage state unity.

At the same time the demise of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes produced the first concrete economic program for postcommunism. This was the “shock therapy” of Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz’s “big bang” plan to install a market system and to privatize industry in Poland. Hitherto these subjects had been taboo in Soviet public discussion. Suddenly, in the spring of 1990, they were actively discussed within the government. Experts began drafting proposed laws, and momentum started building toward what would become by summer the 500-Day Plan of Stanislav Shatalin and Gregory Yavlinsky, Russia’s first program of genuine economic transformation.

It is during this period that Boris Yeltsin, hitherto often dismissed as a “maverick populist,” became a central figure in Soviet politics. He did so because he combined the ideas of republican sovereignty, the market, and elective presidential power to give Russia, at last, its post-perestroika program. In march 1990 the radicals of the Democratic Russia Movement won the local Soviet elections hands down, electing Popov mayor in Moscow, Sobchak in Leningrad, and Yeltsin a deputy in Sverdlovsk. In late May Yeltsin, against Gorbachev’s open opposition, got himself elected, though barely, chairman of the presidium of the Russian Republic’s parliament. In June, taking his cue from Lithuania’s declaration of independence, he had the Russian parliament declare Russian sovereignty, thereby in effect threatening to break up the union. In July he resigned dramatically from the Party during the televised Twenty-eighth Congress. And in August he adopted the economic program of Shatalin and Yavlinsky and even got a weakened Gorbachev to endorse it.

No doubt, as with virtually all politicians, Yeltsin was driven in part by personal ambition. But his record shows that he is also moved by principled anticommunism, by a conviction that he derived from his own experience with the system. At the beginning of perestroika he was an enthusiastic if naive reform communist, the Party boss of the city of Moscow. In November 1987, at a Central Committee meeting he spoke out angrily against Yegor Ligachev’s conservative obstructionism and Gorbachev’s centrist equivocations. He was then subjected, with Gorbachev presiding, to an old-style Communist party heresy trial, which removed him as Moscow Party leader and sent him into the wilderness.

This experience apparently was the crucial episode in his mature political life. He became convinced that the system could not be reformed, a sentiment reinforced as he was vilified for the next year and a half in the Party press, with no opportunity for reply. This ordeal also made him, along with Sakharov, the only prominent democratic leader to have been a victim of the system; that he had suffered at its hands helped to guarantee, in the eyes of many people, the honesty of his convictions. He evidently resolved to pursue as his life’s mission both his “political rehabilitation” and the emancipation of Russia from the Party. With his election in 1989 as Moscow deputy-at-large by 90 percent of the vote, he began his long march to become Russia’s first democratically elected executive. It is difficult to see how any other Russian democratic leader could have managed such a feat.

By the autumn of 1990 the rising strength of the opposition forces supporting sovereignty for the republics, the market, and Yeltsin himself produced, as was only to be expected, a reaction that led to a six-month attempt to roll back the gains that had been made. In October Gorbachev abandoned the 500-Day Plan. By November he was moving close to the army and the KGB. In December Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation sounded an alarm against possible “dictatorship.” In January Prime Minister Ryzhkov gave way to the even more conservative Valentin Pavlov, an economist in the most primitive Soviet command tradition. During the same month the army and the police moved against Lithuania and Latvia, killing some twenty people, in what appeared to be a prelude to martial law. The central government also acted to bring Soviet television under direct control. By February it seemed that a planned crackdown was being carried out. By March it appeared as though Soviet reform communism would end, as all such previous efforts had, in repression, and that Gorbachev would turn out to be his own General Jarulzelski—in the style of 1981, not of 1989.

Although there is still much that is mysterious about this episode, it is at least clear that Gorbachev was leading as much as he was led. He is consistently on record as holding fast to the principle of a “one and indivisible” union and as being opposed to private property. As he puts it, his principles are “the socialist choice made in 1917” and “the communist perspective.”

In veering toward authoritarianism he was also, and quite understandably, anxious to stave off the seemingly imminent collapse of the economy. This concern could explain Pavlov’s inept policy of confiscating rubles, imposing a new sales tax, and setting up a traditional Soviet-style “anticrisis program.” Such a combination of measures suggested to some Soviet commentators that Gorbachev was contemplating an authoritarian market economy, a policy known in Russia variously as the Pinochet scenario or the Chinese model. Whatever his real intentions, the new policy of the “iron fist” fizzled ignominiously in March and April, and the democrats came back in force.


They did so because they mobilized actively against the creeping coup d’état. Although some, including even Sobchak, wavered during the winter, declaring that authoritarian government might after all be necessary, most liberal intellectuals publicly abandoned Gorbachev for Yeltsin: most of the best political minds of Russia are now firmly in his camp and on his councils.

And Yeltsin provided superb leadership. On March 17 Gorbachev held a meaningless referendum on preserving the Union, and to it Yeltsin appended a proposition calling for direct election of the Russian president. When this passed easily, he took the matter to the Russian parliament for implementation. There the near majority of Communist members tried to impeach him, certainly with Gorbachev’s support, since Yeltsin was calling for the Soviet president’s resignation. Yeltsin beat back the impeachment attempt, split the Russian Communist party, and obtained a June date for elections. He won this victory in large part because on March 28 several hundred thousand Muscovites defied a ban on rallies issued by Gorbachev, and backed by fifty thousand troops, in order to demonstrate their support of his cause.

At the same time Yeltsin backed a two-month-long miners’ strike in Siberia, which put forth not just economic but also political demands, including Gorbachev’s resignation. When this strike movement spread in April to hitherto quiescent Byelorussia, the balance of power was tipped decisively in Yeltsin’s favor. The result was the “9 plus 1” agreement, negotiated in secret on April 23 between Gorbachev and nine republic presidents led by Yeltsin.

Although formally a compromise, the April 23 accord gave far more to the nine than to the one. Two concessions were made to Gorbachev: a call for “work discipline” and a ban on strikes, and both of these angered some of Yeltsin’s radical supporters. But the nine republics obtained implicit acceptance of the Baltic and Caucasian republics’ right to secede; the transfer of significant economic and administrative power from the center to the remaining republics; and a promise of a new constitution and genuinely democratic elections throughout the Union by 1992. Yeltsin then persuaded the miners to return to work in exchange for shifting mine ownership to the Russian Republic, with a pledge to allow the miners to privatize their enterprises as joint ventures working for the market, not the Plan, thereby asserting that local control meant economic transformation. Finally, in unpublished protocols to the April 23 agreement, Yeltsin won two further victories: independent television for his republic and a partly separate KGB. Although the term “Round Table” was not used formally, it was used privately by Yeltsin’s advisers. And the agreement was in fact the first session of a negotiated transfer of real power in the USSR, though many further sessions will be required to complete the process.

The demonstration of March 28 and the agreement of April 23 produced a new surge to the left in Russia, which culminated in the democratic break-through of the June 12 elections. The right, discredited by its failed winter coup, now appeared as a paper tiger inspiring more contempt than fear. And Gorbachev, in another display of this capacity for creative adaptation to defeat, became once again a “reformer” and an ally of Yeltsin. In return, Yeltsin ceased his populist attacks on the diminished president and assumed a statesmanlike willingness to cooperate with “the center” to overcome the national crisis.

Thus Russia, two years after the Polish revolution, found itself with its first non-communist government, but obliged to coexist with the still-standing communist regime. Such dual power obviously cannot last, any more than it did in Poland—or in Russia in 1917. One or the other party will eventually have to go; and the preservation of communist authority is incompatible with constitutionalism, private property, and the market. Yeltsin and the democrats therefore are determined to roll back communist authority as fast as is compatible with preventing a general collapse into anarchy. Their immediate aims are to dissolve Party cells in all economic enterprises and to have the Communist chairmen of local soviets throughout Russia stand for direct election. These two measures would in effect smash the Party apparat and all the command structures of the system. Will the army, the KGB, and the managerial bureaucracy—the three pillars of the regime—resist the popular will in this matter? And will the Party, with its millions of members, have the strength to fight back? Or is it now so demoralized that it will splinter and collapse, with a hemorrhage of resignations, as occurred in Poland and Hungary? The democrats believe they can expect the second outcome, though they are also bracing for many months of further struggle.

In any event, on June 12 the essential point was made about the conditions under which Russia’s transition to a “normal” society and “its return to Europe,” in Popov’s triumphant phrase, can take place. This point is that successful economic transformation must be preceeded by political democratization. So long as the Party is in control, the modern market economy that is indispensable to Soviet revival cannot be built.

But for Russia, after six wasted years of failed reform communism, the hour is now very late. One of the world’s richest countries can barely feed itself; its infrastructure and capital stock are so deteriorated that they must be almost entirely replaced. Russia’s newly elected democrats, unlike their predecessors, know this and understand why it has come to pass. They also possess, again unlike their predecessors, and like Poland’s Solidarity, a mandate and the popular support to do something about the disaster, and to ask the population to bear the sacrifices that will inevitably be required. This venture will surely be the great historic gamble of our own fin de siècle. The outside world, insofar as it can affect the outcome, should offer whatever moral and material support it can to consolidate what the Democratic Russia Movement sees as the victory of the spirit of the February revolution over that of October, of Petersburg over Leningrad.

June 20, 1991

This Issue

July 18, 1991