Radio Liberty and the Voice of America recently acquainted Russian listeners with Peter Reddaway’s article, “Russia on the Brink?” [NYR, January 28]. The eschatological title and its general tone are not appropriate to the real situation in the country. The author knows Russia very well, but he has experienced the same psychological change that occurs when people who live permanently in Moscow find themselves abroad for a length of time. Isolated from daily life, when information is drawn from the surrounding atmosphere, and forced to rely on newspapers, radio, and television, they very quickly—sometimes in a matter of days—begin to perceive everything hyperbolically, more acutely and even more tragically than they would if they were living at home. I know this from my own experience. In view of recent events, no one could say that everything is all right in Russia. But still, the future is not as black as it seems to Reddaway. And the reason for today’s difficulties does not lie in the errors on Yeltsin’s part that Reddaway describes or, at least, they alone did not create the problems.

Listing a series of Yeltsin’s critical errors over the last year, Reddaway names the first as the shock therapy approach to economic reform, which sharply lowered the standard of living for the majority of the population. He considers the second error to be Yeltsin’s lack of his own party, on which he could rely. Then come the Russian President’s naive (in the author’s estimation) hope for aid from the West, the fact that he did not go far enough in seeking compromise with the Civic Union (Volsky’s party), and Yeltsin’s statement, made long ago, that he did not plan to run for a second term.

And indeed these actions do appear at first glance to be mistakes that led to a sharp fall in the President’s popularity ratings and to his being forced to sacrifice Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and embark on a series of populist measures, some of which were initiated by the Congress. These include cancellation of debts for many state enterprises, colossal subsidies in some branches of industry, a significant rise in pensions, and higher salaries in the state sector. These steps destroyed the first signs of monetary stabilization that began to appear under Gaidar and brought the country close to hyperinflation.

But did Yeltsin have a real alternative? I don’t think so. The shock could have been eased by timely passage of laws on property, on private ownership of land, and on privatization. But the Fifth Congress of People’s Deputies in October 1991, to which Yeltsin presented his economic program, did not pass such laws; nor were they passed at the Sixth or Seventh Congresses. If we accept the logic of waiting for Parliament, Yeltsin could not have embarked on his reforms to this day. In these conditions, he took a decision that was extremely bold, knowing that it could lead to his losing not only popularity but power. And the fact that the response of the country to the freeing of prices, which almost immediately “devoured” people’s savings, was not a social explosion—general strikes, uprisings, and violence (as our home-grown Pythian oracles and a great many Western Sovietologists had predicted)—is the best proof that this was the only possible decision, and the only correct one. An approach to reform that would have turned this essentially revolutionary process into a dragged-out procedure could not have been more successful or easier on the public.

Yeltsin and Gaidar managed to move the country from a dead start. However difficult and troubled the process, privatization is under way, as is the dismantling of monopolies. Changes in social and economic relations have begun to take place, and I doubt that political cataclysms could stop them. Moreover, most of the people struggling for power in the upper echelons of society have a stake in one way or another in the new economic structures. And in their political struggle, which is now the top story in the mass media, they are pursuing personal and group interests rather than social aims.

Another mistake of Yeltsin’s, according to Reddaway, is that he failed to organize his own political party, a failure which seems obvious to people in the West. But for a country which had lived for seventy-five years under the all-powerful hand of a single party that was always “right,” the case for such a party is not so clear. People strongly fear that any party closely allied with the executive power and the head of state could become (even after the repeal of Article 6 in the Constitution!1 ) the one and only party, the infallible party. And if such a party carried out unpopular measures it would further alienate people from the head of state. It was not for Yeltsin to create and head his own party but for the democratic alliance that brought him to the presidency to do so. However, lacking their own charismatic leader, the democrats turned out to be incapable of expanding and strengthening their influence in society. Democratic consolidation lasted only long enough for the elections, after which, and especially with the start of reforms, the general direction of the democrats’ activity has shifted to struggle within Parliament.


As for aid from the West, I just do not believe that Yeltsin is so naive as to expect much more than a significant stretch-out in the repayment schedule of the debts that were accumulated, for the most part, before he became president. And the West must do that! Yeltsin did seriously count, and apparently still does, on Russia’s becoming attractive for Western investors. And of course, sooner or later, it will be, even though it is difficult to predict when that will happen. Reddaway thinks that Yeltsin should move closer to the Civic Union and the Union of Industrialists, and to Volsky personally. But in fact all the government concessions under Gaidar were the result of attempts at rapprochement with these groups, yet I doubt that they eased the course of economic reform. On the contrary. Yeltsin’s policy of rapprochement with the Civic Union and the Union of Industrialists continues. And it should be noted that Volsky’s personal role is rather exaggerated, especially since there are significant differences within the Civic Union; most of the directors of enterprises who are part of the Civic Union now realize the inevitability and necessity of reform.

Based on his analysis, Reddaway thinks that the Parliament reflects the mood of the country. And here I cannot agree at all. The Parliament is simply not representative of the country. Moreover, there is a complete break between it and society. Society has no mechanism to influence Parliament’s decisions—even the law on recalling deputies is ineffective—and the Parliament (like the executive) has no structures for carrying out the laws it passes. Parliament and society are on different wavelengths. Russian society generally is concerned with the problem of survival, and this is a sign of its having matured; but Parliament’s pre-occupation with the problem of its own (and only its own!) survival is a sign of its profound crisis. And Parliament’s endless machinations concerning the Constitution, including changes in it that suit the political maneuvering of the Parliament’s leaders, are visible evidence of that.

The furious and frantic demonstrations against Yeltsin (well organized in the Communist manner) are small in number compared to the mass democratic manifestations that took place between 1989 and 1991, and they do not reflect the real attitude of the majority of the population to the various parties and their internecine struggles. People are not interested in the current arguments about the referendum and whether or not it should take place and what questions it should pose—for example, about the basic principles of the future constitution, and whether there should be a Constituent Assembly or new parliamentary and presidential elections, or any other of the questions that are being discussed.

Voters would certainly reply positively to the question: do you want new parliamentary elections?—but the question will not be formulated that way because the question for the referendum, like the referendum itself, is to be set by the Parliament. This deprives the people of the possibility of expressing their will in a constitutional way and leaves only force, which no one—at least not the people and not the President—wants. Perhaps it was this absence of choice that led Yeltsin, after he appealed to the people during the Seventh Congress in December, to choose the path of negotiations and conciliation on the very next day. The current crisis is called a constitutional crisis, but this is quite incorrect since the Constitution has no mechanism for resolving a struggle between the legislative and executive powers. Such a struggle thus appears to be yet another path to nowhere.

Yeltsin’s statement, almost forgotten by Russians, that he does not intend to run for a second term, is seen as another error by Reddaway. However, at a time when passions run high over a nonexistent constitution and arguments continue over whether Russia should be a parliamentary or a presidential republic—and parliamentary deputies, in complicity with the speaker of the Parliament, are privatizing the state apartments that were assigned to them for the duration of their terms—the question of how many times a head of state can be reelected takes on a special significance. To set a limit of one term in office demonstrates not weakness but rather a desire to avoid a repetition of the sad experience of our country, when all but a few of our top leaders remained in their posts until their burial in the Kremlin wall. And perhaps the new Constitution (if we ever have one) should not only shorten the term for members of Parliament but limit the president to a single term, as is the case in South Korea, for instance.


Almost simultaneously with the publication of Reddaway’s article, a poll was taken of public opinion leaders in Moscow, the results of which were published in Nezavisimaya gazeta on February 24, 1993, as “Yeltsin’s Main Successes and Failures.” Using the Russian school grading system of one to five, Yeltsin came out with a solid three: 23 percent good or excellent grades, 28 percent unsatisfactory, and 45 percent satisfactory. Yeltsin’s activity as president was deemed unsatisfactory primarily by leaders of the Communist-oriented parties, such as the Communists of Russia and the Agrarian Union, and parliamentary deputies: 38 percent of the people’s deputies polled and almost as many of the Communist-oriented leaders feel that Yeltsin has had no success. But 40 percent of entrepreneurs and almost the same number of journalists feel that Yeltsin’s greatest mistake was dropping Gaidar and his great achievement the preservation of most of Gaidar’s team of reformers. This same group, including both entrepreneurs and journalists, considers the signing of START-2 a success, while the leaders of the other group, including people’s deputies and the leaders of parties still inclined to communism, consider it a mistake. On the whole the results of the poll give a picture of stability in Russian society despite the constant flow of agitated information presented by the mass media. And the generally satisfactory grade given the head of state at such a difficult period in our history confirms such a view.

The results of the popular television program, Public Opinion, are also of interest. In late February 90 percent of the viewers who responded to the questions voted for a presidential republic, 7 percent for a parliamentary one, and 2 percent for a military dictatorship. Of course all polls have to be used with much caution, but they certainly cannot be discounted.

But to return to Yeltsin’s errors, the basic theme that has caused me to take issue with Reddaway’s article. The main error of Yeltsin and of the true democrats (there are surprisingly few in the executive and especially the legislative branches) was to make an absolute of the idea of democracy—as could be seen in their excessive, almost fanatical adherence to democratic institutions and procedures in an undemocratic country, their desire to act only through legal, constitutional methods in a state that is neither constitutional nor based on law, and with a Parliament that was elected in a predemocratic period, in another country, and therefore strictly speaking, not legitimate.

I think that in August 1991 Yeltsin and the democratic minority—despite the existence of the USSR and the concomitant complications—should have acted much more boldly. They should have dissolved the Russian Parliament, a large part of which has not been democratically elected, and held new Russian elections. They should have established both economic reform, including private ownership of land, and laws guaranteeing and supporting it. Perhaps the West would have been horrified for a time, and some of the democrat-idealists and dreamers would have turned away from Yeltsin. But the reforms would not have been so painful for the population as they later turned out to be. By now there would exist a rather broad sector of property holders, capable of giving employment to most of those who lost jobs in the state sector.

We would, moreover, have had a constitution with normal federal, or even confederal, relations among Russia’s republics and regions. Private ownership of land would exist, and an influx of foreign investments would have started. The army would be the army of the state and not some vague, almost autonomous new entity (perhaps malignant). The KGB would not have taken heart again, as it has. The struggle with the corruption of the apparat and nomenklatura, and with crime, would be real instead of on paper. There would be no shamefully vague decisions by the Constitutional Court on the status of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its property—decisions that created the conditions for the party’s rebirth. And finally, the very institution of the Constitutional Court would not be in disarray; its chairman has been involved in pseudo peace-making activity between Yeltsin and his opponents, which is not part of his official responsibilities and is, in fact, leading to the destruction of the presidency in Russia.

We lost our August victory. The hope that it could be built on and developed by parliamentary means was Yeltsin’s main historic error. All the other errors were consequences of this one, as is the struggle at the top today and the so-called constitutional crisis. We could call the Seventh Congress, which came to end in December, a failed rehearsal for burning down the Reichstag. The Eighth Congress, which began on March 10, is in essence mounting an anticonstitutional putsch, like the one in August 1991, in which the Parliament is now trying to impeach the president—a procedure which incidentally is not provided for in our Constitution—who was elected not by the Parliament but by the people. And now the Parliament is preparing yet another resolution to destroy Russia’s main achievement—glasnost. Whether or not this attempted coup remains a coup on paper, like the almost five hundred changes in the Constitution and the hundreds of laws that no one obeys, depends on the Russian people, on their passive or active resistance, and on the line the president and his associates now take. The president, by his readiness to compromise in the last few months and by his rejection of anti-constitutional methods in August 1991, has proven his democratic principles; there should be no haste to write him off and, along with him, the new Russia and the new Russian people.

Does the West understand this? People there are saying once again that if the West had helped Russia more, Yeltsin would not be having these difficulties. But he would still be having them—because they are not basically in the economic sphere. And if Parliament does take away the power of the president and the government, all aid to Russia must be stopped, because it will only go once again to the military-industrial complex, to the army, the collective farms, and other archaic institutions.

The week since the Eighth Congress has shown that the President is determined to put an end to the Parliament’s anticonstitutional and anti-democratic actions. The statements by Vice-President Rutskoi, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Valeri Zorkin, and Gorbachev and others on Boris Yeltsin’s alleged anticonstitutional behavior are mere demagogy and blatant lies. The President’s actions must be supported by the West. There must be no contact with the Parliament and its speaker. This applies as well to the chairman of the Constitutional Court, who was supposed to be the guarantor that the agreement made at the end of the Seventh Congress would be observed but who did not perform that role. In August 1991, the people of Russia did not allow the intended coup that would have followed the scenario of Gorbachev and Yanayev.2 This March, Parliament tried to take away the right of the people to express their attitude toward the new Khasbulatov-Gorbachev variant of a coup. But President Yeltsin has returned this right to the people by calling a plebiscite for April 25.

Any attempts to appease the forces of the Communist past will lead to a second Munich in international politics and could promote the establishment of a new form of nationalist socialism, which would be a tragedy, and not only for Russia. The West must understand this clearly.

March 21, 1993
(translated by Antonina W. Bouis)

Peter Reddaway replies:

Since Elena Bonner has published many perceptive analyses of Soviet and Russian politics, I am happy to say that she and I differ much less than her letter suggests. She makes many judgments that are similar to judgments in my own article. She thinks we disagree more than we do, apparently because the radio stations which broadcast the extracts from my article that she heard in Russia could not convey its arguments in full.

However, before I mention a few of the points of agreement, let me comment on two broad issues, first that of Russia’s current stability or instability, where Bonner starts by disagreeing with me but then, inconsistently, ends up by making an argument that I endorse, and second, the issue of economic shock therapy (EST). Here, although we do indeed differ, she makes some statements that seem to me to undermine her case.

Regarding stability, Bonner argues at first that the “future is not as black as it seems to Reddaway,” and she endorses, on the whole, the “picture of stability in Russian society” presented by a recent poll of leaders of public opinion, and the “satisfactory grade” that they gave to Boris Yeltsin’s performance as president. “There should be no haste to write him off,” she comments later. However, these reassuring judgments are severely undermined by other comments she makes, some of them clearly written under the impact of the recent Eighth Congress of the Russian Parliament (March 10–13) and Yeltsin’s declaration of a temporary “special rule” on March 20.

This line of argument, which I support (and here condense), holds (1) that the irresponsible activity of the chairman of the Constitutional Court “is, in fact, leading to the destruction of the presidency in Russia”; (2) that last December’s Seventh Congress was “a failed rehearsal for burning down the Reichstag”; (3) that the Eighth Congress not only mounted “an anticonstitutional putsch,” but moved “to destroy Russia’s main achievement—glasnost,” and may now have prepared the way for “a new form of nationalist socialism”; and (4) that the West must boycott the Parliament, its speaker, and the Constitutional Court chairman, and prepare to cut off “all aid to Russia.” Hardly a “picture of stability”—although a realistic one.

As for Yeltsin’s approval ratings, polls must indeed be used with caution, and the views of Bonner’s “opinion leaders” may not be an accurate guide to Russian thinking. Certainly many of the more reliable polls of the opinions of the Russian people are not reassuring. Boris Grushin, for example, Russia’s leading pollster and a supporter of Yeltsin, found in October that while 33 percent of Muscovites approved in varying degrees of Yeltsin’s performance, 53 percent disapproved. Also, while 34 percent of Russians supported Yeltsin’s plan last December to disband the Congress and hold new elections, 66 percent opposed it. Russians have probably, however, become considerably more hostile to the Congress since December, in view of its obstructive, reactionary positions. Another reputable polling group, ROMIR, found that Yeltsin’s approval and disapproval ratings were the same (37 percent each), while those who approved of Vice-President Rutskoi (39 percent) heavily outweighed those who disapproved of him (16 percent), thus making him the most electable, or least unelectable, politician in Russia. Also, a number of polls, including an extensive one by the Times-Mirror Center, show support for authoritarian rule becoming more widespread than support for democracy, which is declining.

Bonner argues that Yeltsin’s fundamental mistake was not to call new elections for the Congress soon after the failed coup of August 1991. She implies that I overlooked this source of (as she believes) all his other mistakes. But this is not the case. I emphasized that his failure to hold elections was one of his biggest political errors. I also discussed, as she does, many of the baneful consequences of the failure to organize new elections. Unlike Bonner, however, I argued that Yeltsin made a further serious mistake by embarking on the policy of economic shock treatment before Russia was ready for it.

Bonner believes that, if Yeltsin had held elections before putting forward an EST program, it would have succeeded. “By now,” she writes, “there would exist a rather broad sector of property holders, capable of giving employment to most of those who lost jobs in the state sector.” Also, a normal federation or confederation would be in operation, private ownership of land would be legal, foreign investment would be flowing in, the army would be healthy, the KGB weak, and the fight against crime would have been launched in earnest.

Here I disagree. If new elections had produced a more cooperative congress, EST would, I believe, have made more headway than it in fact did, but not a great deal more. It would still have run into two formidable obstacles—the armies of old nomenklatura officials still holding most of the economy in a tight grip, especially in the provinces, and the Sovietized political culture of the Russian people, a culture which had begun to change under Gorbachev, but which still needed ten to fifteen years to be ready for EST. (The political culture of Poland, in which a version of EST appears to be having more success, is quite different from that of Russia.)

Bonner is aware of these obstacles. She refers to Russia, for example, as “an undemocratic country,” to the state as being “neither constitutional nor based on law,” and, later, to “the hundreds of laws that no one obeys.” But she does not explain why foreign investment would flow into such a country, especially when—as Bonner oddly fails to note, but would surely not dispute—provincial forces opposed to the central government have been eroding its authority for four years, creating the legal anarchy in which local laws contradict federal laws and both change frequently, unpredictably, and independently of one another.

That this legal anarchy is a key symptom of an inexorable trend toward political anarchy was the central argument of my article. Recent developments confirm me in that view. To mention only two of them, first the Republic of Tatarstan announced that it would not hold the referendum on constitutional principles that Yeltsin has been campaigning for. And then, according to The Financial Times (March 17), leaders of Russia’s regions and republics announced that they are opposed to any referendum or any election, whether presidential or congressional, taking place before 1995. Since many of these leaders may possess the power to prevent, or at least sabotage, any referendum or election that Moscow might impose on them, this statement carries great weight. While claiming nobler motives, most of them also want, it would seem, to be able to go on accumulating political and economic power for themselves and their friends (many of them so-called “mafiosi”) without the inconvenient disruptions that might occur if ordinary people were to get a chance to express their opinions at the ballot box.

My opposition to EST is based not only on its inappropriateness to the Russian political culture of today, a judgment that Bonner indirectly acknowledges and implicitly discounts, but also on other factors. First, the timing of the program’s introduction, in January 1992, was especially bad. Russian society had already been traumatized by the series of emotional blows listed in my article, including the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the loss of the Eastern European and internal empires, and the incipient fragmentation of Russia itself; and Russia had not, unlike Germany and Japan in 1945, been defeated in a war and occupied by the victors. This combination of circumstances made the further drastic destruction of familiar values and institutions that EST required too painful for many Russians to absorb. Society was bound to disintegrate more rapidly than it could adapt to new patterns, and growing anarchy was the likely outcome. This has now become a reality.

Second, I do not agree with Bonner and ideologues of EST, such as Jeffrey Sachs, that Yeltsin had no realistic alternatives to EST. A less drastic strategy would probably have taken fifteen to twenty years to be carried out, instead of five. Nothing, of course, can be proved about such projections, but the likely political and social costs would, I believe, have been far less severe than those of the anarchy and potential civil war that Yeltsin and many others now justifiably invoke as serious new dangers. Plausible but less drastic reform strategies have been spelled out by various economists, notably by Peter Murrell in several articles (see, for example, his “Evolutionary and Radical Approaches to Economic Reform” in Economics of Planning, No. 25, 1992, pp. 79–95).

Bonner rightly says that contrary to many observers’ predictions no wave of strikes and social disorder took place after the launching of EST. But she then claims this as proof that EST was “the only possible decision.” Let me note that I was not one of those who predicted disorder. As I wrote at the time, I felt that even with a faulty strategy, Yeltsin had enough authority in early 1992 to carry him through to the end of 1992, at which point his troubles would multiply rapidly. At first, in other words, most people suppressed their doubts about EST and trusted Yeltsin. Later, many of them changed their minds. Now, by declaring a “special rule” until a plebiscite on who should rule Russia is held on April 25, he has—even though he back-pedaled somewhat on March 24—at last made a desperate attempt to halt the erosion of his power and authority, and to break the paralyzing governmental gridlock in Moscow.

While his action is, in simple terms, unconstitutional, his argument that it is morally justified would, if he could carry it out through to the conclusion he wants, carry a lot of weight. But I doubt whether he will be able to do so, at least in full. Powerful political forces, including many provincial leaders, are opposed to him, some of them fanatically. The loyalty of many senior officers in the divided, demoralized military, police, and security organs is extremely uncertain. As for the plebiscite, the turnout will probably be low; some regional leaders may block the vote or add confusing local issues to the ballot, and the voters’ opinions may be far from conclusive. One can of course hope that Yeltsin will be able to prepare the way peacefully for new elections and a more democratic system, which would start a process of reunifying the country. But the danger is that Yeltsin’s tough line and the plebiscite could lead to increased fragmentation of the country, and even, if the hard-liners were to foment mutiny in police and military units, to incipient civil war.

None of this means that my view of the likely development of the Russian economy for the middle term differs much from Bonner’s. As I wrote, “Despite its unsuitable political culture, Russia is stumbling slowly and fitfully toward some sort of market, and even economic collapse and political fragmentation will probably only set back temporarily the transition toward a different type of economy.”

A few brief points to correct the false impression of my article that Bonner apparently got from Russian radio broadcasts. I did not argue that Yeltsin “should move closer to the Civic Union…and to Volsky personally.” I simply pointed out that, starting last summer, he did this. I agree, and do not disagree, with Bonner that Yeltsin’s mistakes “alone did not create the problems.” I considered sympathetically the view that the Russia he inherited from communism may perhaps be seen by future historians to have been ungovernable. Bonner says I think that “the Parliament reflects the mood of the country” and implies that I believe it is “representative of the country.” In fact, I described the Parliament as being “low in popular esteem,” “a discredited body,” and as having a 5 percent approval rating. None of this prevented me saying that in some of its criticisms of Yeltsin it was reflecting widespread popular attitudes. Gorbachev may indeed have connived in some degree with the coup of August 1991, as Bonner believes, but I find it hard to think that he has been a major co-conspirator of Khasbulatov’s in 1993.

Finally, I should correct a misleading statement in my article that Professor Michael Ellman of Amsterdam university has kindly called to my attention. I wrote that the attempt by Gaidar’s government and the Civic Union last November to compromise over a program for economic reform “ultimately proved impossible.” I should have written that a compromise document was in fact produced on November 30, but the political basis for it was destroyed a few days later by the acrimonious conflicts at the Seventh Congress.

March 25, 1993

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April 22, 1993