In his recent book The End of the Communist Revolution the historian Robert Daniels expresses some views about the collapse of communism and its aftermath that have become increasingly accepted. First, “the sequence of victorious democratic break-throughs in the former Communist realm was one of the most extraordinary and, to believers in democratic values, gratifying developments in all of modern history.” Second, the outcome in the former Soviet Union is “a congeries of feuding ethnic authoritarianisms.” And, finally, “the record of decolonization on other continents offers few examples to encourage optimism about the political future of the Soviet successor-states.”1

Why has the promise turned sour so soon? Is it now an exaggeration to use terms like “democratic break-through” to describe what has happened since the rise of Gorbachev? Why exactly did Soviet rule disintegrate? Did it do so too quickly for political stability to be even theoretically attainable amid the resulting chaos? How well or badly are particular successor states doing? Which of their many problems are the most severe?

These questions are raised in the books under review, and I often heard them discussed in Ukraine and in Moscow when I was there during the political crisis of September 21 through October 5. Ukraine, which I visited first, is potentially a rich and powerful country, comparable in population and resources to Britain or France. But its people were feeling vulnerable and frightened. As the cars thin out on the streets of Kiev for lack of gas, Russia continues to insist that in 1994 it will export energy only at world prices, which Ukraine cannot afford. Most articulate Ukrainians are saying that the government must urgently launch a program of reform to rescue the economy from continued decline. However, few believe that this will soon be done, while most have strong doubts that any such program will, in any case, succeed in averting economic collapse.

Again and again I was told that the parliamentary elections scheduled for March and the presidential elections for June were badly needed: President Kravchuk and the Communist-dominated Parliament are hopelessly deadlocked over economic policy and who should control it, and both have lost the public’s trust. The democratic Rukh movement is weakly represented in Parliament, and has lost much of the cohesion that enabled it to challenge the Communists in 1990 and 1991; it has failed to capitalize on the glaring failure of those in power to run the country effectively. Yet the coming elections are also viewed with apprehension: harshly fought political campaigns may seriously undermine political stability, and there is no guarantee that the newly elected legislature and executive will be better able to work together than their predecessors were. These fears are naturally deepened by growing concerns about the disintegration of Russia itself, to which Ukraine still has close economic ties.

In Moscow, I heard similar fears expressed with equal anxiety. Referring to the two weeks of national crisis that came to a climax with the storming of the White House on October 4, Muscovites with widely differing political and social views—perhaps a half of all those I spoke with—said: “But this is only the beginning. The worst is yet to come.”

Why did they speak of a “beginning”? First, because of the events of September 21 themselves. All year, the Parliament, aided by Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi, had subjected President Yeltsin to an intense series of provocations, for example increasing the dangerously high rate of inflation through its indirect control of the money supply, and undermining Yeltsin’s plans for privatization; and Yeltsin had responded in kind by trying to cut back Parliament’s powers, though usually with relative restraint. Finally the president took the extreme step of ordering Parliament to disband, thereby violating the constitution. This meant that, in the future, constitutionality could no longer be the restraining factor it had been for the previous two years—a significant obstacle in the path of any potential dictator and thus a reassurance to most citizens. Now that the constitution, for all its inadequacy, had been explicitly violated, constitutionality would henceforth be no more than a relative concept, one easily brushed aside by politicians in the name, for example, of maintaining, or restoring, social stability.

Second, many Russians told me, the events of October 3 to 5 were a beginning because this rupture of the constitution had brought the country to the edge of civil war, with at least 150 people killed in the first large-scale violence to take place in independent Russia. How much more blood would be shed in future clashes, or in a full-scale civil war of which most Russians live in dread? How, many people asked, could Rutskoi have ordered his men to take the Ostankino television tower by storm while the Orthodox Patriarch was still acting as mediator in negotiations between the two sides? How could Yeltsin, without giving any new warning, have ordered the brutal and destructive bombardment of the White House, when he could have dealt with parliamentary resistance less violently by issuing a strong new ultimatum backed up with the threat to use commando forces? Why, before he outlawed the Parliament on September 21, did Yeltsin not persist in seeking the compromise solution that many well-informed observers felt was probably within reach: an agreement to hold simultaneous early elections for both the Parliament and the presidency?


Apart from hearing these views in conversations and meetings, I also read them in press commentaries like those of the liberal Komsomolskaya pravda.2 The dominant theme was disgust with both the Rutskoi forces and the Yeltsin government for having caused such a tragedy and brought shame to Russia and its people. The disenchantment with all politicians, which had been growing among the public for many months, had now become deeper still.

Moving among the crowds of people who watched the shelling of the White House on October 4, I was struck by their silence. No one cheered when a shell set another room on fire, or when parts of the building fell to the ground. No one cursed at the four snipers supporting Rutskoi who were arrested on a rooftop near me and held spread-eagled by police until a truck came to take them away. No one denounced the more successful snipers who, from time to time, shot members of the crowd and kept the ambulances busy. Only three times in four hours did I hear anything like a debate. This occurred when supporters of the parliamentarians in the White House angrily denounced the brutality taking place. Those who responded did so in low tones. I heard no intense arguments and saw no scuffles. The overall mood seemed to be one of shock and anxiety, as well as disbelief that Russians could have sunk so low as to resolve political disputes by killing one another and setting the Parliament building ablaze with tank fire.

Subsequently, I heard it argued that Yeltsin had taken the right line throughout the crisis. A member of his Presidential Council told me that the entire course of events had been the best imaginable, because now the remaining Communists can finally be disposed of. The main concern of those who took this “optimistic” position—perhaps 10 percent of those I talked with—was that Yeltsin might not have the courage and resolve to follow through on his victory, and, as the legislator Yuri Chernichenko urged, “crush the scum” (razdavit’ gadinu)—i.e., jail the leaders of the opposition and outlaw all political activity that might seriously threaten Yeltsin’s dominance. 3

The more perceptive Russian analysts opposed this position because they believe it would cause both a breakdown of law and order and the fragmentation of the country—the end of Russia as we now know it. Such independent commentators as Igor Klyamkin and Evgenia Albats, who publish in various Russian journals, pointed to the dangers that threaten the country today: the loss of constitutional restraints; the political hatreds that have been further intensified by the recent violence, especially the hatred of Yeltsin by the right wing; the weakness, incompetence, and corruption of Yeltsin’s own administration,4 and its lack of a coherent economic policy which could encourage investment and halt the continuous fall in most people’s living standards. They pointed as well to the fragility of Yeltsin’s popular support, the impulsive and erratic quality of his leadership, and the almost dictatorial powers that he seized after October 3, and that he may be reluctant to give up.5 These powers include effective control of the executive, legislative, and judicial processes, and partial control of television, radio, and the press.

Yeltsin now seems to have strong support mainly from committed advocates of the “free market,” who make up perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, and certainly from foreign leaders whose open backing in an election would probably hurt him; he has less enthusiastic support from perhaps a quarter of the voters who see, as yet, no alternative to him. Well-informed political commentators in the press have called attention to the dubious loyalty and demoralized condition of the military, the police, and the security police; to the irresponsibility of military leaders who have been dragging Yeltsin into such quicksands as the Georgian civil war; and to the determination of many regional leaders to stay in power by keeping Moscow at arm’s length. A body politic as weak as this could not withstand the strains of a sharp and sustained turn by its leader toward authoritarianism.

Two weeks after storming the White House, Yeltsin seemed to sense this, and called for parliamentary elections and a referendum on a new constitution, both to be held on December 12. In theory the two votes will produce both a new constitution and a return to constitutional democracy. They may now be conducted less unfairly than previously seemed likely: censorship of the press has been suspended and, although the more extreme parties are still banned, their members will probably have the chance, if they vote at all, to back the more moderate Communist and nationalist parties. But much remains unclear, especially such questions as how effectively the regional leaders, many of whom have long opposed Yeltsin, and are now considering how to counter his new efforts to sharply cut back their power, will manipulate the ballot, and how much the government will aid its supporters and obstruct its opponents through its control of television and through police harassment. The central question for the coming months is whether the new Parliament will represent enough of the people to give it legitimacy. Or will sections of the public feel excluded from the political process and resort to demonstrations and strikes or other activities intended to bypass Parliament?


Finally, my pro-American friends in Moscow were in despair about current US policy toward Russia. How, they asked, could President Clinton not see the agonizing complexity of the situation; and why was he so heavy-handed in the way he took Yeltsin’s side? Why did he not express his support in a quieter and more nuanced way, as the Japanese did? Does he not understand that many Russians who want friendly relations with the US are not favorable to Rutskoi but oppose Yeltsin, from both left and right? By constantly boasting of the great US success in supporting Yeltsin and “saving Russian democracy,” the Clinton administration only makes most Russians more acutely aware of the US mistake of recommending shock therapy for Russia, and of the subsequent deterioration of their living standards. Clinton makes them wonder how he can have unquestioning faith in Yeltsin, and how he cannot see the fragility and ineffectiveness of Russian democracy.

They therefore doubt America’s ability, amid so many promises and boasts, to really help Russia. The US administration, they say, only plays into the hands of the nationalists and Communists who have long been arguing that the West deliberately destroyed the USSR through its agent Gorbachev, and is now destroying Russia through its agent Yeltsin. I heard much talk in Moscow of Americans being included among the targets of the political terrorism that is expected to develop. Other likely targets, it was said, may be found among Russia and Western businessmen, the “omen” riot police who stormed the White House, and members of Yeltsin’s administration.


If we look for books that can help to explain the background of recent events, a good place to start is Figures in a Red Landscape by Pilar Bonet, the Moscow correspondent of the Madrid newspaper El País since 1984. Her short book presents deft portraits of people caught up in the bewildering changes that took place between 1989 and 1991. She decided “to avoid Muscovite politicians and intellectuals, who knew little about their own country,” and traveled around the provinces, hoping to talk to people who would have new ideas that could reinvigorate Soviet political life. In fact, each person she met

showed a particular blend of the doubt and insecurity generated by a breakdown in norms of behavior and an absence of new guidelines…. People who thought they were citizens of a feared, all-powerful state now found themselves caught up in its death throes, much like the victims of an earthquake or shipwreck.

It is true that “for the first time in their lives they were freely exploring their unique, individual destinies,” but they were doing so “in a reality that was growing ever harsher,” and they seemed to be “actors in events that overwhelm them.” All this still rings true today.

Bonet visited the miners of western Siberia’s Kuzbas coalfields in the company of Aleksandr Bir, a well-known strategist of the workers’ movement. Bir told her about the unprecedented miners’ strike of 1989, which resulted in the Communist Party being expelled from the mines and the entire region “put in the hands of strike committees…. They gave us the power, but we didn’t know what to do with it…. All we were thinking about was the money side.”

A mine director told Bonet in 1990 that he had achieved considerable autonomy for his mine—on paper. “In practice, however, the state is still laying down conditions, fixing the price of coal,…and dictating how the mine must use its revenues.” Worse, this director, who sympathizes with his workers, foresees a “wave of approaching chaos,” and “fears that in their eagerness to find a scapegoat his comrades will end up cutting off innocent heads.”

Sentiments of this sort echo throughout Bonet’s book. Another mine director “so fears widespread upheaval that, to avoid it, he would endure stern measures. He is also afraid of a power vacuum, on the grounds that fascist groups may slip into the space vacated by the Communist party.” As for Aleksandr Bir himself, “chaos is Aleksandr’s worst nightmare.” Should it come, Bir told Bonet,

only a strong figure could save us, someone not afraid…of spilling blood, someone who could steer society onto a governable course…. When a society falls apart, it’s no time for ethics. What’s needed is a person who knows how to use power…. If a Malyuta Skuratov is necessary, so be it.

Skuratov was the head of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police.

In the old provincial capital of Ryazan, the mayor is a democrat who has skillfully outmaneuvered the oldguard Communists. But his views were not much different from Bir’s. He thinks that “the period of transition to a market economy will require a decade, that its nature will be more Asiatic than European, and that it will depend on a firm hand and a semi-dictatorial regime. The voters themselves, he believes, will demand this.” Already they want the KGB and the Army “to stand up to local organized crime and keep order.” But keeping track of official crime is difficult in Ryazan. When the Communists were voted out of power, they took with them many of the city’s records and so were able to cover up their illegal business dealings.

Another of Bonet’s subjects, Georgy Khatsenkov, moves from one career to another in ways that have become fairly familiar. A senior official of the Communist Central Committee, he saw that Gorbachev could not reform the Party and, in 1990, he resigned. Along with the chess champion Gary Kasparov and others, he set up the Democratic Party of Russia. They aimed to recruit a million members in their first year, and ordered 500,000 membership cards. But people were apathetic toward politics and they signed up fewer than 100,000. So Khatsenkov became a businessman and started selling diamonds for the government of the Siberian republic of Yakutia. He moved into a plush Moscow apartment formerly occupied by a Communist leader. “The funniest thing of all,” he told Bonet, “is that I still eat in the Central Committee’s canteen, just as I did when I worked for the communist apparat. The canteen now belongs to the Russian government, and I get in on my Yakut cabinet minister’s pass.”

Bonet also describes a liberal Orthodox priest who was murdered—apparently for speaking out against anti-Semitism—and a Karakalpak intellectual who has long campaigned to save the Aral Sea in Central Asia, only to find that as it retreats fifty miles from formerly coastal towns, the pervasive salt it leaves in its wake is destroying the environment. Her book is particularly valuable for its concentration on the provinces, which today wield more political and economic power than Moscow, for its unsentimental chronicling of the disastrous legacies of communism, and for its insights into the ways people’s identities have been shattered by events and are only slowly and tentatively taking on new shapes. Bonet often refers to the forces of conservatism and reaction, but, with the partial exception of a traditional farm chairman, she unfortunately does not include an authentic representative of these forces in her book. She also omits anyone who was young enough to have avoided sharing any responsibility for communism, and who therefore might be expected to have a somewhat different perspective.

Bonet finished writing her book in 1991, as the USSR was breaking apart. The suddenness of this collapse was in many ways tragic. Most of the fifteen successor states were far from being ready for independence. They had no chance, moreover, to resolve among themselves even the most basic questions of how they would divide the empire’s closely integrated assets and liabilities, or how they would co-operate in the future over political, economic, and military issues of daunting complexity. Hence the predictable ineffectiveness of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the temptation felt by the Russians to act in ways perceived as neo-imperial, for example in their military interventions in Georgia, Tadzhikistan, and elsewhere.

Exactly how the elites and societies of each of the USSR’s constituent republics struggled—or more often scrambled—for independence, how they responded to the union’s collapse, and how they subsequently survived it, is a story still largely untold. However, a few excellent studies have already appeared: Anatol Lieven’s finely written and perceptive book The Baltic Revolution was recently reviewed at length in these pages by Czeslaw Milosz6 and is by far the best book we have on the recent history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. John Dunlop’s The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire is the first serious attempt to analyze the last six years of the Soviet Union from the perspective of that union’s largest member, the Russian Federation. The task is formidable, but Dunlop undertakes it with style and clarity. Although he could have said more about the causes of economic failure, I doubt whether his main judgments will be seriously undermined in the years to come. Unlike most students of Soviet politics, he has a strong grasp of the relevance of cultural and religious factors, discussing, for example, the growing influence of the Orthodox church on the political right.

In treating the five years before the attempted hard-line coup of August 1991, Dunlop does not proceed year by year, but traces changing attitudes to the relations between Russia and the USSR through four political perspectives, first that of Mikhail Gorbachev, then of Boris Yeltsin, then of the democratic “left,” and finally of the statist (that is, pro-Union) “center-right” and “right.” The same events discussed from different points of view in separate chapters give one a vivid sense of the differences among Russia’s main political factions.

A true Marxist internationalist, Gorbachev, as the head of the Soviet federal system, had no cultural or political sympathy with an autonomous Russia, and he understandably felt increasingly threatened when such a Russia emerged. Yeltsin, as Dunlop writes, was less of an internationalist and more inclined to use the rhetoric of populism and anti-imperialism. Although he had only very moderate sympathies for nationalist views, he not surprisingly rode the tide of Russian nationalism when, in 1990, it offered him a ready-made way to recoup his political fortunes by setting Russian interests against those of the Union. Above all, he saw, correctly, that taking this line would gain him strong support in the Russian Parliament.

The democratic left, following the lead of Andrei Sakharov and his circle, was at first strongly anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist; but some elements, including the prominent politicians Sergei Stankevich and Nikolai Travkin, soon moved from these positions to the political center and became statists—that is, they believed that the Russian state should remain strong and should serve as the nucleus of a new, more genuinely federal version of the USSR. The statists of the center-right and right were hostile to any political arrangements in which Russia did not continue to be the nonnationalist core of the Union. They sensed that once Russian nationalism was aroused, as it was in 1989 by growing economic chaos and surging nationalism among the Balts and other peoples, the entire system of imperial and Communist rule would come under mortal threat.

Dunlop pays little attention to the center of the political spectrum, apart from the politicians who have gravitated to the center from the left. Many of those who are now considered to be in the center are economic managers who, since the empire’s collapse, have been quietly appropriating the state’s assets for themselves through de facto privatization and joint ventures with foreigners. But he does quote an unguarded and revealing boast made last year by one of the managers’ leaders, Arkady Volsky: “Power belongs to those who have property and money. At present it is not the government but industrial managers who have both.”

Dunlop’s lengthy account of the coup of 1991 contains the most cogent analysis that I have yet read of an event whose continuing mysteries will probably produce books comparable in number to those on the murder of President Kennedy. Dunlop identifies four main riddles about the coup, but he makes no claim to have solved them. They are: What happened at Gorbachev’s summer house in the Crimea from August 18 through 21? Why was Yeltsin not arrested at his summer house early on August 19? And why was the Russian White House not stormed by the plotters either on the night of August 19 or on the following night?

Dunlop is clearly inclined to agree with the conclusion of the report of an official investigator of the public prosecutor’s office that Gorbachev’s “long contact with the members of the plot, who were his close colleagues, and some aspects of his character…gave the plotters the right to think that sooner or later, after one, two, or three days,” they would bring Gorbachev over to their side. If this is in fact true, it explains a lot, including the more dubious aspects of Gorbachev’s own accounts of the coup, particularly his claim that his communications were cut off throughout the coup. These accounts have, as Dunlop says, aroused “great skepticism” in Russia, and he effectively proves parts of Gorbachev’s story to be false.

I would mildly challenge Dunlop on only two broad points. He does not pay much attention to several more or less secret deals between Gorbachev and Yeltsin during the post-coup period. These were, it seems to me, designed to ensure that Gorbachev would “go quietly” as the Soviet Union collapsed, and that Yeltsin would not prosecute him for having some responsibility for the coup.7 They may also have led the Russian government to quietly connive in some of the distortions of the record to which Dunlop calls attention, such as Gorbachev’s misleading claim that he was under “house arrest.” Second, Dunlop seems to have assumed too easily that just because the KGB provided crucial help in organizing the coup, its head, Vladimir Kryuchkov, must have been the coup’s main initiator and leader. He does not ask whether Oleg Shenin of the Communist Central Committee and Oleg Baklanov, an official of the military-industrial complex, may have played similarly important parts as initiators and leaders of the coup.

In any case, Dunlop is persuasive in arguing that, contrary to my own belief at the time, the coup—notwithstanding the clumsiness of those who led it—came very close indeed to igniting, at the least, a brief civil war. If it had done so, thousands of people would almost inevitably have been killed in a matter of days.

Dunlop’s analysis also raises interesting questions about the respective contributions to the breakup of the Union by the coup plotters. Gorbachev, the Balts, the Ukrainians, and Yeltsin and the Russians.8 Here I believe that, like most other observers, he underemphasizes one crucial factor. As the union was gradually subverted between 1988 and 1991 by Baltic nationalism and growing economic disorder, the political future of the Communist leaders of the republics and regions was increasingly threatened. Many of them saw that their only chance of hanging on to their power and wealth was to switch their loyalty from communism and appeal to the nationalism or regionalism of the local populations. This switch of allegiance took different forms in different regions, but it severed the arteries of the Union by destroying the discipline of the Party apparatus. Dunlop concludes with a brief treatment of the downward path of Russian politics in 1992, when “Yeltsin appeared unable to create a broad political and social base in support of his policies.”

A major reason for this inability was the opposition of the Russian Parliament and its leader, Ruslan Khasbulatov. In The Struggle for Russia Khasbulatov covers much of the same ground as Dunlop, though often in a self-serving way. However, his book is more interesting than one might expect from a sly politician. In addition to being inordinately ambitious and vain, and having almost demonic powers of political manipulation, Khasbulatov is decisive, hardworking, and intellectually bold. During the coup, which he describes vividly, he showed real bravery as one of Yeltsin’s chief allies when, in the face of occasional wavering by Yeltsin and others, he consistently argued for uncompromising resistance to the putschists.

In his book Khasbulatov reflects on the kind of constitution and, more particularly, the type of federation needed by Russia. Displaying considerable knowledge of comparative government, he argues that “a federation is the constant search for a political balance between the state and its constituent parts on the basis of legal agreements.” He also has some real understanding of how the market works, and of the legal conditions, including the inviolability of ownership contracts, without which it will flounder and fail to attract foreign investment. He blames an incompetent government for Russia’s mounting crisis, but does not spare the parliament either, writing that “today the authority of all components of state power is falling.” Among the causes are

the non-fulfillment of laws by both the centre and the localities, and the failure of parliament even to obey its own “internal” laws and regulations…. In Russia there (are)…colossal difficulties in local government and a lack of professionalism in governing bodies in general, many of which are almost unfit to serve.

Khasbulatov’s recommendations, as he must soon have realized, could not be carried out quickly in the current state of Russia’s political culture, and he was not willing to collaborate with Yeltsin, whose job he coveted, in slowly trying to realize them. He shifted in 1993 to a center-right position, declared open political warfare against Yeltsin, and made his fateful alliance with Rutskoi. Now held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, he is one of those who bear the heaviest responsibility for the tragedy of early October.

The political culture of Russia and the Soviet Union is the subject of The Morphology of Russian Mentality by Vladimir Zviglyanich, a philosopher from Kiev. He has immersed himself in the writings of such Russian thinkers as Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilin, who, he believes, have much to tell us about the traditional political and economic values of most Russians. These he sees as being largely dominated by a spirit of collectivism, fatalism, and submission to the “nanny state.” In Russian and Soviet conservatism he finds a mentality that is dependent on doctrine and that encourages people to worship authority, not question it. However, he argues, Gorbachev’s reforms ushered in a period analogous to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, in which a variety of popular attitudes and emotions and dissident ideas could at last be expressed. The “positive pragmatism,” or common sense approach, that Zviglyanich advocates then began to be expressed in what he sees as a “carnival”—a carnival of the type that Mikhail Bakhtin, writing in secret in the Stalin period, described as accompanying the breakdown of the absolutist authority of the medieval church in Europe.

Cultivating “positive pragmatism” as a national attitude will require deep shifts from collectivism to personal property-owning, and from the dominance of “vertical” relationships between the individual and the state to “horizontal” relationships between citizens and their associations in a civil society. Only success in this huge transition can, Zviglyanich argues, provide political stability for the Soviet Union’s successor states. However, Zviglyanich recognizes that the Homo Sovieticus mentality cannot be changed quickly, and he concludes his often original but, alas, poorly translated book on a note of apprehensiveness about the future.

Dunlop, for his part, concludes with an apocalyptic quotation from Solzhenitsyn, which he modifies only by his own comment that Russia’s future seems “to be blanketed in a thick fog of uncertainty.” Solzhenitsyn holds that “Russia lies utterly ravaged and poisoned: its people are in a state of unprecedented humiliation and are on the brink of perishing physically, perhaps even biologically.” Khasbulatov sees Russia facing “national catastrophe,” but he believes that its salvation might eventually come from better economic performance and greater political cohesion in at least some of its more prosperous regions.

Arriving in Moscow after I had read the books under review, I found the perspectives of the authors confirmed by events I witnessed and by my own impressions of the conflict between Rutskoi and Yeltsin. Perhaps that perspective is best summed up by Robert Burns, whom Alec Nove quoted recently in a stimulating lecture on the fall of the Soviet system.9 “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” Burns wrote, leave only grief for “promised joy”:

But och, I backward cast my ee
On prospects drear,
And forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess—and fear.

This Issue

December 2, 1993