The best one can hope for

John Lloyd

  • Soviet Politics, 1917-1991 by Mary McAuley
    Oxford, 132 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 878066 4
  • What went wrong with perestroika? by Marshall Goldman
    Norton, 282 pp, £12.95, January 1992, ISBN 0 393 03071 7
  • Boris Yeltsin: A Political Biography by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova
    Weidenfeld, 320 pp, £18.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 297 81252 1

It is a little over a year since the attempted coup of August 1991, which was designed – if such a word can be used of the most botched affair in the annals of power-grabbing – to stop the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and instead accelerated it. It is perhaps worth trying now to assess both the freedom which was said to have resulted from the collapse of the Evil Empire and the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin himself. Individuals have always had a more than usually decisive influence on Russian politics: throughout its history the country has had a centralised, pyramidic system of rule, enabling the character, concerns and whims of the supreme leader to determine the style of government. Marshall Goldman, in What went wrong with perestroika?, quotes Gorbachev as saying, in December 1991: ‘A General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was a dictator who knew no equal in the world at that time. No one possessed more power, no one, do you understand?’ It is too soon for the system to have changed: after the Coup and Gorbachev’s final fading away, Yeltsin simply stepped onto the top of the pyramid.

The chronicle of his first year in office is not bad, though it has darkened since the brilliant flash that marked the failure of the Coup. The ending of Communist rule was more unequivocally a good thing than the ending of the Soviet Union, though the two could not in practice be separated: the power of the first was needed to ensure the survival of the second. The Union, though it was a prison for the individual nationalities, also kept those nationalities from slaughtering each other – as recent events in the Transcaucasian and Central Asian Republics bear out. Similarly, since the economy was designed to function as a complete whole, the breaking of the links between individual enterprises has done more than anything else to disrupt production and drive down living standards.

The Party was of course officially reformist, but there was little likelihood that it would have peacefully given up its monopoly of political power without the final discrediting which the Coup, headed by leading Communists, brought about. It also gave shelter to a horde of petty tyrants, power fantasists and looters of the people against whom there was no reliable protection. These people still exist, and their activities are often more obvious and less constrained than they were: but the fact that they have lost their party-state cover at least allows for the possibility of a civil society in which they would be brought to book.

There is democracy of a sort, but it isn’t exactly established. It isn’t, for example, very evident in the reflexes of either the governing or the governed. There are, however, many new, democratic institutions: a parliament, an elected presidency, a cabinet of ministers which submits its legislation to the parliament, elected regional and local councils, a superabundance of political parties, a constitutional court which is currently deliberating the legality of a Presidential decree banning the Communist Party, newspapers which support often quite violently opposing positions, TV channels which give at least some access to ‘opposition’ speakers; there is relative freedom to travel and to speak one’s mind.

Furthermore, Russia, the dominant imperial power for four centuries, has repeatedly renounced its hegemony over the other former Soviet Republics. It has withdrawn, or is withdrawing or has promised to withdraw, its army from most of the places where it is no longer welcome, only leaving it in those territories which still claim Russian protection – notably, Armenia and the Central Asian states. Yeltsin, in meetings with fellow Presidents, has defused areas of tension or actual conflict in Georgia, Moldova and the Crimea, and has generally not responded to the Russian-baiting which passes for politics in many of these now independent states.

These are no small achievements: one only has to reflect on the tyranny exercised by the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, still incarcerating and torturing political opponents even as it much more successfully nurtures market-led growth, to see what might have happened instead. On an optimistic view, which I am inclined at least in part to share, the fact that these changes have occurred and are becoming a normal part of the landscape makes a return to totalitarian rule increasingly unlikely. I do not believe, as some people do, that the Russians are endemically incapable of democratic habits: that they have a deep and perhaps unconscious longing for the firm smack of dictatorship to save them from their anarchic idleness. During the Coup, they showed a restraint which few other peoples would have shown; and despite living standards plunging with a speed and to a depth of which none of us in the West of any age has any experience, they have so far spurned extremism. It is of course possible to point to the ‘explosions’ which have punctuated periods of passivity in Russian history: but this can be done in the case of the French, the Spanish and the Germans.

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