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.

Rightly seeing in all this “a serious threat,” Stepankov created an uproar at the recent Congress of People’s Deputies by announcing that he was preparing a report for the president on “the most malicious violators of the law among the heads of local government, with a view to having them dismissed. He reminded the deputies that “a unified constitutional legal system is the pivot of our entire Federation.” He warned that the entire system “is beginning to unravel.” As one of his examples, he described how officials in the self-proclaimed independent republic of Chechnya had forced the local procurator to leave at the point of a machine gun.

More generally, Stepankov concluded that all the official assurances that the state was now based on law “do not correspond with what is really happening today.” Those in power do things their own way, and their “political or private ambitions continue to dominate as before.” All this undermines “the trust of ordinary people in the possibility of changing or achieving anything.” Moreover, he said, crime is soaring, partly because “the old system of crime prevention has collapsed.” A new system needs to be built “on quite different principles.” Stepankov’s powerful speech was accompanied by equally alarmist and detailed reports to the congress from the ministers of security and internal affairs.8

The insubordination of officials in the localities has deep roots. During the Soviet period they were angry but largely impotent when the central government routinely took from them more of their resources in taxes and goods than it gave back in services and investment. Moscow then spent the surplus on things of little or no interest to the regions, such as the KGB, foreign aid, subversion abroad, and luxuries for entire armies of officials. Then in 1989 Soviet republics began proclaiming their “sovereignty,” so as to control more of their own affairs. The regions and cities of Russia were impressed by this daring, and followed suit. When a partially democratic system designed to represent the voters in new Soviet and republican parliaments was set up during the same year, this failed, unfortunately, to counter the trend to local sovereignty. As mentioned above, the lack of an effective party system, coupled with the less than free nature of the elections and the limited powers of the parliaments, all combined to make the deputies ineffectual as representatives of their constituencies. Many voters, moreover, disillusioned by the remote and squabbling politicians in Moscow and by increasing economic hardship, soon lost faith in both national and local elections. Consequently, no movement to recall delinquent deputies was launched, and public apathy toward politics deepened.

All this has made it even easier than before for the small groups of top officials and factory directors who wield real power in the towns and regions to increase what the Moscow political scientist Andrei Kortunov aptly calls “the feudalization of the country.”9 These tough-minded men are, with few exceptions, no strangers to power, having held important posts in the Soviet period, but unlike some of their colleagues they have been flexible enough to adapt to the emergence of semidemocratic institutions, and then to keep them weak. They seem also to have successfully “coopted” most of Yeltsin’s local appointees. That done, many of them are now maneuvering to privatize the huge assets of the state to their own advantage, often, it seems, working with the proliferating “mafias,” private business groups operating illegally or semilegally.10 The resulting covert syndicates drawn from the mafia and local government sell goods abroad without informing Moscow, and bribe their way through customs. They send to Moscow, by current estimates, only 35 to 40 percent of the taxes the government has budgeted for. They develop cozy relationships with commanders of local military and police units, and with local courts and KGB chiefs. As a result, if Yeltsin’s trusted adviser Gennady Burbulis is correct, by October of this past year the government had lost control over the police and procuracy offices in many regions.11

At the same time there have been other more promising initiatives, like the local economic strategy that the leaders of the Nizhny Novgorod region asked the economist Grigory Yavlinsky to prepare for them.12 But the pattern I have described seems generally to prevail, and this sort of regionalism undermines democratic trends and scares off foreign investment. Especially in regions where ethnic tensions are acute, the new local bossism may facilitate violence and secession. And ultimately, if the country falls apart, anarchy and rule by warlords, possibly of the Bosnian or Lebanese types, could follow.

A foretaste of such potential developments is currently unfolding in the south of Russia. Here in the northern Caucasus, the declaration of independence from Russia by the republic of Chechnya, with a population of nearly a million, has lasted for more than a year, and still goes unpunished. While using force to end the secession would have been a disastrous and bloody mistake, reluctantly tolerating secession has encouraged a movement among other peoples of the region to imitate the Chechens. The chief sponsor of this movement, called the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus, is, not surprisingly, the Chechen Republic. At the same time, old feuds between the local peoples are flaring up. A dispute between the Ossetes and the Ingush over a piece of land recently caused hundreds of deaths, and prompted Moscow to send several thousand troops to try to restore order.

Some liberal Russians believe their country would be wise to cut its losses, abandon the chronic strife in the north Caucasus, and redraw Russia’s border a few hundred miles to the north. But the rising tide of Russian nationalism, strengthened by the force of the recent traumas I have mentioned, makes this option unrealistic for the time being. Meanwhile, the Caucasian example is helping to inspire secessionist trends in the very center of Russia, along the Volga. Tatarstan, with four million inhabitants, has declared itself an independent state, but is ready for diplomatic reasons to sign a document saying that it is still part of Russia—even though its newly adopted constitution makes no mention of this. Recently, strong Tatar nationalist groups started using tactics similar to those of the Chechens, moving to set up with neighboring Chuvashians and others a “Confederation of Peoples of the Volga and Ural Regions.”13 While this body would have mainly economic goals and would not apparently advocate secession, its sponsors clearly hope that it will promote developments of the Tatarstan kind in nearby regions. This in turn would help the movements for Siberian independence.


Boris Yeltsin is a brave man with some good qualities, and historians may perhaps conclude that when the USSR collapsed, Russia found itself in such intractable circumstances that it was essentially ungovernable. Still, Yeltsin has not in my opinion been a good leader of Russia during the last year. The responsibility for some of the regressive trends I have described seems to me to lie at his door. Above all, he has made serious strategic errors that a wiser leader would have avoided.

His greatest error was to be seduced, in October 1991, by the fatal attractions of economic shock therapy (EST), whose mechanistic simplicity and confident promise of quick, dramatic results appealed to his Bolshevik-trained mind. He did not like to admit that Russian political culture (heavily influenced, of course, by Bolshevik rule) would be an obstacle that could not be surmounted in a few years. He did, however, admit openly that he was taking a gamble which, if it failed, would end his career. And soon he began to fear seriously that he had made a bad choice. Presumably because of this, he never launched the extensive and continuing propaganda campaign that would have been essential if the Russian people were to be persuaded of EST’s virtues and necessity. True, Yeltsin spoke favorably of EST and its architect Yegor Gaidar, especially when his audiences were foreign. But he soon stopped giving Gaidar strong and direct support and adopted a position of being “above the fray.” By implication he was accepting that some members of his administration were either openly or privately against EST; he therefore did not oppose policies certain to undermine EST, such as increasing the money supply and stepping up credits to tailing industries. But he did not even come close to repudiating EST until, following his defeat by the anti-EST parliament in December, he hinted that he was prepared to abandon the EST approach. While on a visit to China, he praised that country’s economy and rising standard of living, and said: “The Chinese tactic of reform is not to hurry, not to force, without revolutions, without cataclysms, which is very important, and I think that for us it has a certain significance. Russia doesn’t need revolutions or cataclysms either.14

Yeltsin’s other strategic errors may derive in large measure from this first one. For he clearly understood in principle the necessity—if his extraordinarily bold revolutions were to have any chance—of building up the power and authority of the presidency, of giving it a strong social and political base, and of leading the revolutions himself, as Ataturk did in Turkey. Yet apart from obtaining extra powers for one year from the parliament in December 1991, he did remarkably little to achieve these goals—perhaps because he feared the structure of EST might in fact be built on sand. Above all, he failed to translate the 57 percent of the presidential election vote that he received in June 1991 into a real political base. He could have done this a year ago by capitalizing on his election victory, his strong leadership of the resistance to the coup attempt of two months later, and his skillful pursuit of Russia’s interests amid the chaos of the USSR’s collapse in December. He could then have promptly formed his own party and called new parliamentary elections. These would have given him a large majority of deputies, to use as legislative troops.

Instead, despite much wavering over many months, Yeltsin failed to call elections and claimed he deserved credit for not forming his own party or aligning himself openly with any existing parties. He made himself a lame duck by announcing that he would be a one-term president, and, from April onward, quietly succumbed to pressure and sacrificed some of his supporters in the administration while appointing ministers opposed to shock therapy. As a result, a hostile, only semi-legitimate parliament, with a popular approval rating of some 5 percent, survived to make life increasingly unpleasant for him. It could do this partly because the government’s watered-down EST policies soon caused inflation to rise to 25 percent a month. This disturbed the IMF, the Western industrial nations, and would-be foreign investors. It made all Russians—even the intensely envied rich—feel economically insecure, and pushed Yeltsin’s popular approval rating down to the range of 30 percent, at which point calling a referendum became risky. The parliament also learned that if it barked loudly enough, Yeltsin would rarely fight—except to make empty threats about abolishing it through a referendum—and would usually make quiet concessions to it.

That brings us to Yeltsin’s third big error. He appears to have believed that if he voluntarily made concessions to the parliament, it would be grateful to him and become more cooperative. However, Khasbulatov and the parliament could sense his growing political weakness, and always ended by demanding more. The legislature was more hostile to both EST and Yeltsin personally than Yeltsin—who was understandably befuddled by Khasbulatov’s wily tactics—seemed to realize. Only in November, panicked by the approach of the fateful congress, did he suddenly call for the creation of a presidential party to support him. But just as he has squandered much of his popular support by not using it, and his friends’ support by abandoning them, now he is politically too weak for such a party, if it is ever formed, to become a serious force.

Yeltsin’s fourth big error was to go against his sound initial instinct and put much too great a store on aid from the West. This laid him wide open to charges from across the political spectrum: that he was naive in thinking both that the aid would be easy to get and that it would give the economy a boost whenever it did arrive; that he did not trust the Russian people and regarded them as idle; that he was blind not to see that the West really wanted a weak Russia; and that, as members of the hard right put it, he and his team were willing agents of the West who were “occupying” Russia in order to bring about its territorial, economic, military, and cultural destruction.

During the summer, Yeltsin the cautious trimmer, looking more and more like the Gorbachev of 1990 and 1991, decided that in order to be politically safe, he must shift his government from its center-left position toward the political center. At first he made subtle hints to this effect, but in September he had a senior adviser, Sergei Stankevich, say flatly that a government based mainly on the centrist “Civic Union” group, or even a center-right coalition, was now desirable, and that this was Yeltsin’s opinion too.15 This was an invitation for Khasbulatov, behind his smoke and mirrors, to go for Yeltsin’s jugular. First, using his armed guards, he orchestrated the parliament’s attempt to take over the generally pro-Yeltsin Izvestia, which had earlier belonged to the USSR parliament.16 Then, on October 21, the parliament rejected by a two-to-one margin Yeltsin’s insistent request that the next biannual session of the Congress of People’s Deputies—the larger parliamentary body of 1,041 members, which elects a rotating standing parliament of one quarter the size, the Supreme Soviet—be postponed from December until the spring, on the grounds that the draft of Russia’s new constitution was not yet ready. And then the parliament passed a draft constitutional amendment which made government ministers primarily answerable to the parliament, not to the prime minister and the president. At the subsequent congress the amendment, in a fiercely contested ballot, was not ratified because it just failed to get the votes of two thirds (or 694) of the deputies, passing only by 690 to 133 (the rest abstaining or absent).

In the autumn Yeltsin fought back, parrying the assault on Izvestia and strenuously seeking the support of such key constituencies as the industrial managers, the military, and provincial leaders. He sent Gaidar to work out a compromise between the economic programs of the government and the Civic Union, a task that, despite claims of success, ultimately proved impossible. The industrialists of the union, mainly former Communist officials, were open to reform but not revolution; they would not swallow enough of Gaidar’s EST medicine, even though this was by now heavily watered down. At the same time, most of the democratic left, including trusted members of Yeltsin’s administration, convinced that the right was planning some sort of coup, urged him to declare a state of emergency (which could only be done legally with the parliament’s consent) and disperse the parliament.

Such ideas, which had reportedly been urged on Yeltsin by Gennady Burbulis since at least July, were discussed inconclusively at a meeting of the cabinet on October 24.17 A few days later they were apparently debated again in a smaller, perhaps informal meeting, at which the ministers of security and internal affairs reportedly said that their organizations, “by virtue of their general condition and state of morale, are not ready to carry out the measures suggested by the president.”18

This may have been decisive for Yeltsin. Certainly the polarization and tensions in Moscow were becoming dangerously explosive. For example, an anonymous “Group of generals and officers of the General Staff and the headquarters of the Moscow Military District” published a statement warning that if Yeltsin were to disperse the parliament, this would be an illegal coup and that the “Russian Armed Forces will confront the organizers of the putsch and crush it by force.”19 In view of the extreme confusion and disarray in the Russian military, this group was probably small and even more probably bluffing. But no one could be sure. The Soviet military is in a degenerate state. A weak and widely discredited minister of defense is in charge. Enormous military resources have been lost to the former Soviet republics. As divisions are pushed out of various foreign countries and arriving home, competition for jobs and scarce apartments has become fierce. Draft evasion is so rampant that the goal of reducing total personnel to 1.5 million by 1995 has changed to trying to keep it up to 1.2 million in 1993.20 In these circumstances the possibility that some enraged hard-line officers might do something wild cannot be completely discounted.


The congress that met between December 1 and 14 was a long and turbulent event, and I can touch here only on some of its main developments. The congress was a symptom of Russia’s travails and it is not likely to affect the deep political and psychological processes at work in the country. By reaching some messy compromises it avoided either a complete gridlock of Russian government or factional armed clashes on the streets. Khasbulatov was probably right when he said that “Congress has established itself as the supreme organ of state power.”21 Although he and the parliament are low in popular esteem, they had nonetheless expressed the deep anxiety and despair of a large part of the population, and on most of the central issues they brilliantly outmaneuvered the Yeltsin forces.

Probably the most ominous outcome of the congress was that while it greatly weakened Yeltsin, it produced no one who seems capable of taking his place. Thus Russia will have even weaker leadership than before, just when it needs a very strong and skillful president who might be able to arrest the trends toward disintegration.

The unfortunate Yeltsin spent much of the congress bargaining for votes in smoky backrooms. In a few cases he got just enough, but in too many he did not. He suffered many humiliations. Despite his pleas for peace between the executive and the legislature and invoking the danger of “a ruthless civil war,” his request for full control over economic policy was rejected. He was not allowed to keep Gaidar either as prime minister or acting prime minister, even though he sacrificed some of his closest colleagues both before and during the congress, gave the congress veto power over the choice of four key ministers as well as giving up considerable power over the choice of the prime minister, and promised to purge the bureaucracy of liberals. He felt compelled to pick as prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin, an undistinguished, traditional, industrial apparatchik from the Communist past. Chernomyrdin’s appointment delighted the center and right, including many former Communists such as Arkady Volsky, one of the main leaders of the centrist Civic Union. It also horrified left-wing groups—including such people as Gleb Yakunin and Pyotr Filippov—which made plans to go into formal opposition to Yeltsin and to try to rebuild the popular support for the left that he has helped to destroy.

But the humiliations do not end here. When Gaidar was first rejected, Yeltsin tried the new tactic of exploding with anger and demanding a quick, clear-cut national referendum in which the public would “choose me or the Congress!” But he was forced to agree to a referendum on the general principles of a new constitution, and to a date four months hence, when his approval rating is likely to stand a lot lower than it does today. Few of his former allies had supported his referendum plan, and some, like the dynamic Boris Nemtsov of Nizhny Novgorod, announced that they would not help him win the referendum in the regions they run.22 One of his most hard-line and fastest rising officials, Yury Skokov, clearly implied that pursuing the referendum “could only lead to general chaos and the disintegration of Russia.”23 Congress also rejected Yeltsin’s proposal that he should be given the power to call a referendum without its agreement. Finally, after excoriating Khasbulatov on December 10, Yeltsin was compelled to shake his hand demonstratively in front of the congress two days later, to mark the convoluted compromise they had eventually reached.

Yeltsin is politically weak and cannot expect to recover his former power. The people who voted for him as president, already angered by Panglossian statements like “the people have lived through the hardest part, the worst has passed,”24 are bound to desert him in increasing numbers. Chernomyrdin, a former manager in the state oil industry, will surely be a weak prime minister, since he is unknown in Russia, and was, in effect, selected by a discredited body. He is bound to be under intense pressure from every side, an experience for which he has no training and which will probably produce even greater government paralysis than existed under Gaidar. This outcome seems to me likely even though the composition of the new Chernomyrdin government is not greatly changed from that of Gaidar’s, and now also includes Boris Fyodorov, a liberal reformer admired in the West. The forces supporting Chernomyrdin will probably move the government further in a conservative direction during the coming months.

The greatest immediate danger is that Chernomyrdin’s policies may set off the hyperinflation that Gaidar and others have repeatedly warned about. Chernomyrdin’s apparent intention to assert more central control over the economy is in most experts’ eyes doomed to fail: the central government could not do that effectively without a dictatorship, yet no reliable instruments for exercising a dictatorship exist, and the will to set up one is limited to very narrow circles. Even the so-called “patriots” of the hard right, though they optimistically expect to come to power quite soon and openly espouse extreme authoritarianism, sometimes acknowledge that the country’s disintegration has gone so far that they too will probably not be able to rule for long.25 Many observers agree that any sudden authoritarian initiatives coming from Moscow would probably accelerate sharply the secessionist trends in many regions.

Russian foreign policy seems likely to swing toward “neutrality” between the West and China, that is, away from its previously strong pro-Westernism. This will probably exacerbate the already growing tensions over Western aid, which is predicated on steady Russian movement toward the market and democracy. More dangerous, though, may be the growth of Russian neo-imperialism toward countries around its borders. In recent months, for example, Yeltsin has swung from strongly disapproving of the would-be Russian and Ukrainian secessionists in eastern Moldova to actively supporting them, both politically and with large-scale military aid. The precedent that this policy sets is truly alarming, since 25 million Russians live in neighboring countries. Already Vice-President Rutskoi and large sections of the parliament speak openly of Russia taking the Crimea back from Ukraine before too long.

Political power in Moscow and the provinces is now largely in the hands of the less rigid members of the old Communist elite. Economic power, too, is passing into their control as they manipulate the formal and informal mechanisms of a privatization process that is, both economically and morally, very confused and corrupt. Despite its unsuitable political culture Russia is stumbling slowly and fitfully toward some sort of a market, and even economic collapse and political fragmentation will probably only set back temporarily the transition toward a different type of economy.

But how will ordinary people react when they realize that the revolutions that Yeltsin promised them have not only impoverished them and deprived them of their identity, but have also left political and economic power in more or less the same hands? As Russia threatens in 1993 to unravel, this question, too, will surely become of growing importance for the country’s future.

December 30, 1992

This Issue

January 28, 1993