The coup of August 19, 1991, and the recent formation of a commonwealth have dramatized the extent to which basic political assumptions have been transformed in what we used to call the Soviet Union. As recently as August, in the two hectic days when the Emergency Committee ruled, most Western observers reacted as if they were unaware of this change. They immediately assumed that the coup would be successful, and started writing obituaries of the Gorbachev era. In London, the usually reliable Independent devoted its weekend color supplement to a post-mortem—which by that weekend had already been brusquely upstaged by the revival of the corpse. Decades of living with totalitarian communism had accustomed us all to the grim moment of truth, when the bright hopes raised by this or that reformer are summarily crushed by tanks.

This time, however, the tanks moved in such a half-hearted manner that a barricade of trolleybuses and a handful of gasoline bombs were sufficient to restrain them. Why were the plotters so cautious? Martin Malia offered an explanation in these pages1 “What had begun as a coup within the Party was transformed under the new democratic conditions created by a revived Russian civil society into a genuine and world-historical revolution.” Peter Reddaway, on the other hand, questioned whether a civil society had yet taken shape, and warned us: “The current political order is highly confused: it is not pregnant with a new order.”2

One can agree with both of them. Civil society—in the sense of political and social movements independent of the state—has become a real factor in Soviet politics, but it has done so in conditions that must make us cautious about prospects for establishing a stable and peaceful order. It is not very surprising that, in a huge multinational state which is coming apart, the early stages of civil society should prove turbulent. If one examines the reasons for the coup’s failure, then the crowds that gathered around the White House in Moscow are only a part of the explanation. They could have been dispersed, or massacred, by a determined leadership with the army on its side, as happened on Tiananmen Square two years earlier. But that is precisely the point: the usurpers were irresolute because, at the decisive moment, they found the army and KGB were not a hundred percent behind them.

In that respect the White House of the Russian Parliament was more important as a symbol than the crowds around it. When it came to the decisive moment, a good many army and KGB officers declined to respond to the traditional call to protect the Union, or to the familiar slogans of the Communist Party, for this time there was a rival source of authority, and one with a more cogent claim to their allegiance. Only a few weeks before, many of them had voted for Boris Yeltsin as the first popularly elected president of Russia. When he clambered on top of a tank, exposed the unconstitutionality of the Emergency Committee, and warned that those who obeyed its orders would be laying themselves open to grave criminal charges, many officers saw him as the voice of legitimate Russian authority. Meanwhile, remaining in the White House behind Yeltsin, sealing entrances and putting up barricades, were the duly elected deputies of the Russian Parliament, the men and women who had speeded up Yeltsin’s political comeback by making him their speaker a year ago. Faced with a choice between constitutional Russian patriotism and the voice of a government not even properly elected seventy-four years earlier, many officers chose the former.

So the Russian Parliament and president were crucial. Without them the coup might well have succeeded, or atleast plunged the country into a prolonged and bitter civil war. Democracy, for once in Russian history, had won an important victory. But if we investigate how this democratic victory emerged, we shall be in a better position to understand both the opportunities and the hazards it presents for the future.

Only five or six years ago, the Soviet Union was, to all appearance, a highly unpromising place for the emergence of either democracy or civil society—that is, of institutions and associations independent of the state and the ruling Party. It was a uniquely centralized society, in which the Party-state apparatus dominated not only those activities normally associated with political authority, but also the economy, culture, science, education, and the mass media. Everyone’s employment depended on the state, and senior appointments in all walks of life were decided under the nomenklatura patronage system controlled by the Party’s Central Committee.

That is why the Soviet Union was properly known as a totalitarian, rather than an authoritarian, political system. It was very different from Spain, Portugal, or Greece, or from any of the Latin American countries feeling their way from authoritarianism to democracy during the late Seventies and Eighties. In all those countries there were social classes that long predated the authoritarian regime and did not owe their very existence to it; there was a market economy, distorted perhaps by the state but not entirely governed by it; there were autonomous churches and religious associations, interest groups and ethnic movements, even sometimes opposition parties, albeit underground. Such groups either did not exist in the Soviet Union, or were totally dependent on the state.


The Soviet Union, then, was a kind of scorched earth as far as independent political activity was concerned. What made it possible for new shoots to germinate? In one sense, of course, it was Gorbachev, with his program of glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya. Without him the new politics would not have been possible. But even more important was the way society responded, the initiative people displayed in taking up the opportunities Gorbachev offered them. Soon he was dragged much further toward change than he ever had contemplated going.

If the Gorbachev of 1985 could have seen the Soviet Union as it is today (when it is not even clear whether the name “Soviet Union” is correct), he would surely have thrown up his hands in horror and retreated behind the reassuring certainties of Brezhnevite “stagnation.” Gorbachev made the changes possible, but he controlled them about as much as the sorcerer’s apprentice controlled the water supply in the magician’s cottage. The greatness of Gorbachev is that he has accommodated himself to the changes with skill and flexibility (if sometimes belatedly), kept vicious opponents from destroying one another, and forestalled bloody chaos. (Things are bad, of course, but to keep a sense of proportion, compare them with 1917–1921, the last time the Russian empire went through upheavals on a comparable scale: then there was real famine, real civil war, and millions of people lost their lives.) In the process, Gorbachev had to adopt some ambivalent and undignified positions and to associate himself with some distasteful allies. It would not be unfair to regard the August events as a coup of Gorbachev against Gorbachev, in the sense that he appointed all the putschists to their high positions, and that they were carrying out one side of his policies.

The real importance of Gorbachev is that he created new institutions through which the long-suppressed grievances could express themselves. Revolutions never proceed simply from popular discontent, or even from the restiveness of disaffected elites. In addition to such discontent, they need some major force or group from within the ancien régime that is willing to break away and act, sometimes only half intentionally, as the catalyst of change. That role, a kind of “second pivot,” was played by the Long Parliament in seventeenth-century England, by the Estates General in France in 1789, and by the Duma in Russia in 1917.

The first person to apply this idea of the “second pivot” to Soviet society was the Lithuanian émigré political scientist, Alexander Shtromas. About ten years ago he proposed that the only way serious change could take place in the USSR was if an institution from within the system became “extrastructural” and began to serve as a center for the articulation of “potential dissent.”3 He identified the technocrats and military officers as the disaffected elites who would create the “second pivot” and use it to bring about change. In fact, pure scientists, scholars, and writers were to prove more important, but Shtromas’s general point stands.

Gorbachev’s political reform of 1988 created this “second pivot” by opening up the political system and ending its complete domination by the Party-state apparatus. Groups of citizens were allowed to nominate candidates for election to the soviets, first to the all-Union Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, then to the assemblies in the republics and the local soviets in 1990. The nomination process was complicated and fraught with hazards, but with skill and determination genuine opposition candidates, of whom Sakharov was the most prominent, could and did present themselves for election. By early 1989, more than a few independent political movements already existed to guide their nominees through this obstacle race. Where had they come from?

The first people to challenge the Party’s political monopoly were a few long-haired youths with guitars, rather contemptuously known as “informals” (neformaly), a label they accepted with cheerful defiance. When they appeared in the mid-1980s, they seemed to have not the slightest hope of bringing about serious change; indeed, that was not their aim, initially at least. They took up causes like the defense of a seventeenth-century merchant’s house in Moscow (one of very few to have survived the great fire of 1812, and in 1986 threatened by urban redevelopment), or the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, where the much-loved peasant poet Sergei Esenin committed suicide. They organized picket lines, collected signatures for protests, paraded with placards, and once or twice appeared on glasnost-conscious television. Some were longstanding hippies or pacifists, some were members of barely tolerated rock groups, others were students attracted by the freer atmosphere of the new era.


A bit later the neformaly, joined by more students, moved on to ecological concerns, protesting about the noxious fumes of a factory here, the construction of a nuclear power station there, the damming of a river for a hydro-electric project somewhere else. The Chernobyl explosion of 1986 gave powerful impetus to their efforts. Gradually they began to attract impressive crowds of people who were becoming aware of the carelessness with which bureaucrats had adulterated their food, poisoned their air, and contaminated their drinking water. The authorities were acutely embarrassed by these protests. In the age of glasnost, they could not simply suppress them. It was difficult to deny the facts of ecological degradation, and environmental health is like motherhood: you can’t be opposed to it.

The next stage of informal politics came when members of academic institutes began to get involved in these campaigns. To understand what this means, one must realize that scholars enjoy much higher prestige in the Soviet Union than they do in Britain or the US. The rulers need pure scientists and technologists to foster economic growth, while scholars in the humanities and social sciences used to help them produce the ideological pap they fed the people. That need, even under Brezhnev, gave scholars a certain independence, which some could use to shut themselves away in small groups, or even alone in their offices, and investigate subjects which had nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism but a great deal to do with the market economy, constitutional politics, religion and theology, folklore and ethnography. They could not publish their results at the time—or only in muffled and distorted fashion—but the results of their work are evident in the rich and varied intellectual life which suddenly blossomed, as if from nowhere, when censorship was lifted. The academic institutes in the republics also harbored future leaders who have since come to power: the musicologist Landsbergis in Lithuania, the orientalist Ter-Petrosian in Armenia, and the literary scholar Gamsakhurdia in Georgia.

By and large, it was younger scholars, rather than their prestigious seniors, who first went into informal politics. For example, in the early months of 1987 the so-called Klub Perestroika emerged from an ongoing seminar at the Institute of Mathematical Economics in Moscow. It brought together economists, jurists, sociologists, political scientists, and others, mostly research assistants and junior scientific workers in their twenties and thirties, to discuss the drafting of a new law on economic enterprises. The discussions were expert and wideranging, and soon outgrew the original theme, throwing light on the failure of the whole Soviet economy. Discussion of this stimulated in many participants the desire to move beyond academic debate and do something practical. They organized specialist task forces to give shape to these aspirations. A group concerned with “social self-administration” was set up to advise workers on how to make use of their rights under the new enterprise law; a “civic dignity” group undertook to advise citizens whose civil rights were threatened; another called Memorial solicited public support for the idea of a memorial center dedicated to Stalin’s victims. Analogous initiatives were undertaken in a number of cities, but Klub Perestroika was especially important. It is remarkable how many of Yeltsin’s closest advisers today—and also some of his leading opponents in the democratic camp—began their political careers there.

The next important stage took place in the Baltic republics, where the first popular fronts were organized in the late 1980s. Their appearance marked the moment when members of the Party-state apparatus began to transfer their allegiance to the “informals.” It was characteristic that this development took place not in Russia but among peoples who had long felt they were being oppressed by Russia. In circumstances of national oppression, any grievance, whether it had to do with the environment, education, the economy, the mass media, or whatever it might be, could be presented as an ethnic issue. Some Ukrainians, for example, were beginning to think of the Chernobyl explosion, not inherently an ethnic matter at all, as the product of a Russian policy of genocide directed against the Ukrainian people—a continuation, in fact, of Stalin’s elimination of the kulaks and his purges of the Communist Party.

So devastating had been the effects of Communist misrule that a great variety of issues were accumulating to be taken up by political movements that could construe them as challenges to Soviet Communist rule over the republics. In those circumstances, the proconsuls of the empire—the leading Party-state apparatchiks in the non-Russian republics—had to reassess the sources of their power. Hitherto they had mediated between Moscow and their home populations, but always on the assumption that real power derived from Moscow, and that serious disputes would ultimately be settled there. That assumption now had to be called into question. Increasing democratic participation gave them a stronger position in relation to Moscow, but also made it more difficult for them to deal with inflamed public opinion in their own republics.

After considering the new situation, some apparatchiks in the republics decided to throw in their lot with those whom they had hitherto considered “nonconformist” or even “dissident” intellectuals in their own homeland. The first to do so was Edgar Savisaar, a senior planning official in Estonia. Indignant at the undemocratic way in which delegates were being “elected” (in fact appointed) for the 19th Party Conference, he appeared on Estonian television on the evening of April 13, 1988, calling for the formation of a mass movement to press from below for the genuine democratization which Gorbachev was promising from above. He immediately received thousands of letters of support, and formed a new organization called the Popular Front in Support of Perestroika.

The idea was soon taken up in other republics, swiftly in the more urbanized ones where national feeling was strong and united, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldavia, more slowly where national feeling was weaker or more divided, as in Byelorussia and the Ukraine, or where there were fewer urban centers, as in Central Asia. During 1988 and 1989, with different emphases in different republics, these movements presented demands for their economies to become self-governing, their languages to have official status, their environment to be protected, their histories and cultures to be properly taught in schools, their victims under Stalin to be commemorated. In some republics, notably the Baltic nations, Moldavia, and Western Ukraine, the Popular Fronts received many votes in the elections of 1989 and 1990 and moved into positions of local power during 1990.

Before the beginning of 1991 nearly all of them were demanding “sovereignty.” This was a capaciously ambiguous concept—it might mean anything from full independence to the right to run your own refuse collection; but it had the advantage of providing an issue on which intellectuals and the local apparatchiks could co-operate. For the former, the word stood for their dreams of national self-determination and democracy; for the latter, it meant they would at last have real power—including the power to repel unwelcome measures of perestroika emanating from Moscow.

An excellent example of such an alliance of convenience was Ukraine’s virtually unanimous declaration of sovereignty in July 1990. This was in many respects surprisingly radical in tone, including demands for human rights, full-scale multiparty democracy, and a separate national army. But many Ukrainians remained distrustful, suspecting that the apparatchiks still in a majority in the Ukrainian Parliament had no intention of turning the words into reality. So a few months later students went on a hunger strike in the main square of Kiev to try to compel the Ukrainian government to do what it had already declared was its policy. The struggle to turn a theoretically sovereign Ukraine into an independent state has finally been won with the referendum of December 1. The struggle to transform the newly independent exapparatchiks into democrats, however, is likely to go on much longer.

Ukrainian independence has forced Yeltsin to borrow yet another idea from the “informals,” that of a commonwealth of free nations, on the rough model of the British one. It was originally put forward by Sakharov, at the first Congress of People’s Deputies, and has been promoted by Democratic Russia. The success so far of the “Slavic commonwealth” of Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia in attracting other former Soviet republics to join the new arrangement gives it a good chance of minimizing the chaos and violence inevitably attendant on the dissolution of an empire.

In other republics, too, the often troubled relations between former apparatchiks and the old nonconformist intelligentsia remain critical. In Azerbaijan, for example, the renamed Communist Party and its apparatus have managed to defeat the Popular Front and hold on to power. They have done so by imposing martial law during the elections, by handing out patronage, and by manipulating popular fears about the Armenian claim to Karabakh.

In Central Asia the Communist Party (again rechristened in various guises) has three main rivals: (i) Islamic movements; (ii) liberal movements of the Popular Front type; and (iii) Russian ethnic movements. In Tadzkhikistan in September 1991 these three forces proved strong enough to thwart a crude Communist restoration, but not to prevent the election of a Brezhnevite apparatchik to the presidency in November. In Kyrgyzstan, President Akaev (former head of the Academy of Sciences) has drawn enough support from all three groups to sustain a relatively democratic regime. In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, however, President Karimov and President Nazarbaev have maintained the apparat’s grip on power, with a reformed authoritarian regime that is moving toward a market economy.

Only in Georgia has an “irreconcilable” come to power, a leader who spurned both the Communist Party and the Popular Front, wanting to have nothing to do with the remnants of the Soviet system of government. But even Gamsakhurdia had to make use of the Soviet elections to attain the presidency in October 1990: a striking testimony to the “second pivot” theory. His conduct in power demonstrates that in confused and sometimes threatening circumstances, former “informals” can easily switch into an authoritarian mode. He abolished the autonomy of Southern Ossetia, turned Georgian television into virtually a government propaganda organ, and arrested several leaders of the extra-parliamentary opposition.

In Russia things have been more complicated. There was no nationwide Popular Front, for there was no obvious ethnic target to protest against; and no unified feeling that a national liberation movement should be directed against the empire. Indeed, most Russians over the centuries have automatically identified Russia with its huge multinational territories, to the extent of confusing nation and empire. It followed that not all Russian national movements were democratic in aspiration either: Pamyat, the first one to be widely publicized back in 1987, was decidedly authoritarian, and anti-Semitic as well. And even those that were democratic have been deeply divided over whether to try to keep the Union together in some form, or to allow the non-Russians to go their own way into full independence, if they wanted.

The Russian movement that most nearly took on the characteristics of a Popular Front was Memorial. Its founders, like the historian Yuri Afanasyev, believed that troubling questions about nation and empire could be put aside in the face of the over-whelming need to investigate the truth about Stalin’s repressions, and to make that truth known in order to commemorate the victims and ensure that nothing comparable could ever happen again.

Memorial had a very powerful emotional impact. In November 1988 it sponsored a “week of conscience” in many towns. In Moscow a “wall of memory” was erected, to which thousands of photographs of the victims were pinned. People came to see it to seek out relatives they had lost, and to leave forlorn notes asking, for instance, “Does anyone know my father?” In front of a huge map of the USSR marked with the islands of the Gulag Archipelago stood a convict’s wheelbarrow in which visitors could place their donations toward a fitting memorial.

This project of a memorial, to be accompanied by a library, archive, and exhibition hall, led such prominent and established figures as the writer Anatoly Rybakov and the actor Mikhail Ulyanov to support ideas that until very recently had been outlawed. Memorial held impromptu polls in the streets, to find out who the public thought should lead the project. It was a kind of unofficial popularity test for public figures. Significantly, nearly all those who received large numbers of votes were writers or scientists. The lone politician to be thus honored was Boris Yeltsin, whose outspoken attacks on privilege and corruption, followed by his expulsion from the Party Central Committee in 1987, had given him enormous appeal to ordinary people.

Some of the leaders of Memorial began the process of rescuing Yeltsin from the political wilderness into which he had been cast when he was purged in 1987. Together with other “informals” that had emerged from the Klub Perestroika, they organized political meetings for him before the elections of March 1989. Among those involved were some of the leading figures of post-Communist Russia: Alexander Muzykantsky, later chairman of the Moscow Association of Voters and now one of Yeltsin’s “prefects”; Sergei Stankevich, now a Russian State Councilor; Lev Ponomaryov, of the Moscow Association of Voters and Democratic Russia; Pavel Kudyukin and Leonid Volkov, of the Social Democratic Party; Igor Chubais, of the Democratic Platform and the Republican Party. At the climax of their campaign, on the eve of the poll, they are reckoned to have gathered some 20,000 people in the Luzhniki Stadium.

In his autobiography Yeltsin gives a brief picture of his “informal” helpers and supporters, and acknowledges his debt to them:

I shall always be grateful to them for their selfless support, their sincerity, devotion and loyalty. Many people asserted that I was making a terrible mistake by choosing as my campaign aides people who were not professionals—not politicians, not experts, but plain, intelligent, decent human beings. I knew none of them before the election campaign started; they either rang up or came to see me, saying that they wanted to be my campaign assistants. I was grateful for this, but warned them that it would be extremely tough going. They knew this, of course, and many were dedicated enough to have taken unpaid leave to help in my campaign. And they worked, without exaggeration, literally night and day.4

Not only did the “informals” work hard for him, they also began his political reeducation. During the 1989 campaign he had little more to offer than general democratic notions combined with denunciations of privilege, corruption, and incompetence. At the time that was sufficient, and he won by a vote of nearly 90 percent. But once he was in the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he was recognized as a kind of unofficial leader of the opposition, he had to offer some coherent alternative to Gorbachev’s policies on a wide variety of issues.

This was where Yeltsin first met some of the country’s leading intellectuals, elected, like himself, through the campaigning efforts of the “informals.” Their relationship was not easy at first. There were many reasons why a former apparatchik should distrust university professors, and vice versa. But together they formed the Interregional Group of Deputies to coordinate an opposition strategy; and they began to tolerate and even respect each other. As one of his associates later commented: “What Yeltsin knew much better than the others was the inner-Party kitchen and what they were cooking up. I think he added some intellectual qualities to his natural wolflike intuition, and became the fully formed personality he is today.”5

Important though it was, the Inter-regional Group suffered from the way ethnic claims became imposed on virtually all political issues during 1988 and 1989. Although the alliance in principle united deputies from different nations and republics, it was torn apart by stormy interethnic rivalries. Besides, the interregional group made up only a small minority of a legislature still dominated by what Yuri Afanasyev called the “aggressively obedient majority” of deputies nominated by the Party-state apparatus.

So the Interregional Group was an unsatisfactory power base for Yeltsin, and early in 1990 he decided to shift his position and take advantage of the upcoming republican and local elections. With his sure instinct for power, he had seen that “sovereignty,” troublesome enough for Gorbachev when claimed in Estonia or Moldavia, would revolutionize Soviet politics generally if it were declared in Russia. The Russian Supreme Soviet, hitherto a pale legislative shadow, could become a new strategic vantage point from which to challenge both the Communist Party and the Soviet president.

There was no Russian Popular Front to organize his campaign, and Memorial was withdrawing from politics to concentrate on its cultural and historical mission. But a substitute for both appeared when the various “informal” groups, though riven with disputes about nation and empire and about what kind of democracy was appropriate, managed to create an electoral bloc called “Democratic Russia,” with branches in all the major Russian towns. Its program invoked the memory of Andrei Sakharov, and commended his proposals for a new Soviet constitution. In line with Yeltsin’s new program, it proposed that “the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia should do what has not yet been achieved at the all-Union level and assume the full power of the state in Russia.”6

The upshot of Democratic Russia’s campaign was a legislature much more evenly balanced than the all-Union parliament elected the previous year: the “aggressively obedient majority” was no longer a secure majority. Yeltsin was elected as the parliament’s speaker by a narrow margin but, once he was installed in that post, he was able to use it to launch his bid to become, the following year, the popularly elected president of Russia. Thus he reached the position from which he was able to defy the coup.

What is also remarkable about the Russian Parliament is that many of its members who originally seemed to be faceless apparatchiks have gradually been “infected” by the ideas of the democrats. As in the non-Russian republics, this infection has taken place through the notion of “sovereignty.” During the prolonged sterile disputes over the numerous economic reform programs that were put forward but not carried out during 1990, many deputies came to feel that no single program would work for the whole of the Soviet Union (whether a Union Treaty were signed or not) but that it made sense to try to adapt reform programs to each republic individually.

When Yeltsin was under pressure in the spring of 1991 from the army and the Communist Party, a small but decisive number of Communist deputies in the Russian Parliament deserted their colleagues and supported him. Their caucus, the “Communists for Democracy,” led by former Afghanistan hero Colonel Rutskoi, threw their weight behind the democrats and ensured that Yeltsin would not be removed from his position as speaker.

Both parliament and president of Russia, then, owe their current power and legitimacy to the process of political fermentation that started with the meetings and protests of long-haired “informals” back in 1987. Yeltsin was rescued from the political wilderness by the “informals” and the academic and other reformers who joined with them. They gave him a new kind of political program, and organized his campaigns. The Russian Parliament too owes many of its reformist ideas and much of its public support to them.

At the same time, there are dangers in continuing to rely on such amorphous organizations. The “informals,” especially in Russia, grow out of small “study circles” (the kruzhki), which have a long tradition in Russian society. Usually such circles are claustrophobically concentrated around a single leader, and intensely jealous of rival “circles,” especially those with similar programs. The visitor finds that their natural habitat is the dissident’s flat, littered with cigarette ends and dirty coffee cups (though today often equipped with a personal computer); their natural activity is the impassioned all-night debate on fundamental principles, which often ends with a row and a permanent split. The Democratic Russia organization is an uneasy alliance of such shifting coteries, and in November 1991 it split over the nagging unresolved issue of whether to try to preserve the Union in some form, or to let it finally dissolve. Three of its member organizations, led by Nikolai Travkin’s Democratic Party of Russia, have broken away to set up their own movement, Popular Accord, calling for a “united and indivisible Russia” and “protection of the rights of Russians in former Union republics.” The remainder continue to favor Sakharov’s idea of a commonwealth, and accept the secession of republics which do not wish to join it.7

As an instrument for mobilizing public support against the apparatchiks, the Democratic Russia group worked fairly well. But the combination of public panache and internal disarray is not a good basis either for coping with economic crisis or for the meticulous legislative work which must underpin a broad reform program. The failings of Yeltsin’s entourage, whose members largely come from Democratic Russia, have been conspicuously on display since the collapse of the coup, and the public is swiftly becoming disillusioned with the spectacle of their leaders immersed in personal squabbles while the shops remain empty of food.

As yet, no real political parties have emerged to act as intermediaries between the public and the politicians, and to impart some discipline to the legislative process. A large number of associations call themselves political parties, but most of them are outgrowths of the “informal” coteries, have very small followings, and almost identical programs. Colonel Rutskoi’s Communists for Democracy, who reorganized themselves in October as the People’s Party of Free Russia, and claim to be legal heirs to all the property of the Communist Party, may turn out to be more serious. (Rutskoi has already put distance between himself and Yeltsin by persistently sniping at his economic program.) So, too, may the Movement for Democratic Reforms, led by Shevardnadze and Yakovlev. The Communist Party, shorn of its apparatus, has transformed itself into the Socialist Party of Working People, while the people who own or want to own businesses have set up a Party of Free Labor. In any case, now that the Communists no longer exercise an artificial and enervating hegemony, the conditions for establishing genuine parties are better than they have previously been in Russian history.

The existing parties, however, are fragmented, untried, and encumbered with the defects of their past. Unless they can dramatically change their ways, we may, during the next few years, see various kinds of authoritarian regimes consolidate themselves in the different republics. That is not an ideal outcome, but how bad it is depends on whether these regimes, like that of Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, deliberately enflame nationalist sentiments, or whether, like that of Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, they are more technocratic and drawn to a market economy. In the first case, the former Soviet Union could face years of communal violence and economic chaos. In the second, it has a chance of relatively peaceful development of the kind that would enable civil society, hitherto a fragile and vulnerable growth, to become more robust.

December 19, 1991

This Issue

January 16, 1992