When I was in Russia as the Financial Times correspondent, from 1991 to 1996, I liked to think that the reformers who worked under the protection of Boris Yeltsin were good, and their opponents were bad. The story I told myself, and my readers, was more sophisticated than that, of course; but if you had to strip it down to its essentials, that was it. These were my guys.
When I was in Russia earlier this summer, I went to the launch conference of the reformers’ new party, Pravoye Delo (Just Cause). It was held in the Hall of Columns in Central Moscow, next to the Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin had lain in state after his death in 1953, and outside which hundreds had been trampled to death under the feet of the hysterical crowds who had turned up to mourn the passing of a terrible state god. Sviatoslav Richter in his autobiography describes being yanked out of a concert he was giving in Tblisi, and put on a plane carrying wreaths from the Georgian Communist Party to Moscow. All other flights out of Tblisi were grounded by fog, but the pilot had his orders. On arrival, Richter was driven straight to the Hall of Columns, shown an upright piano and told to play as the mourners filed past the open coffin. He began by playing Bach, only to be hissed by some in the crowd, for favouring a German composer. He tried some Tchaikovsky, only to be interrupted by a military band, which played the Death March over and over again. He carried on with the Tchaikovsky, hoping the March would not be for him, too.
No fear of a crush on the Saturday chosen for the conference, though perhaps a thousand people had turned up and the hall was full. To stare down from one of the galleries was to be reminded that in the early Nineties the liberal reformers had gathered a diverse following. They were all ages; young men in good suits and old ladies in faded print dresses. There were several quite senior Army and Navy officers, smart and self-conscious in their dress uniforms. An old man sitting beside me in the gallery looked sternly at my notebook, then asked if I was a Western reporter. When I said I was, he began to talk about his enthusiasm for Pravoye Delo, but added that there were ‘too many Jews’ in their ranks. Perhaps noticing my Western flinch, he added, in the same stern manner: ‘I am not an anti-semite! My wife was Jewish, and we were always close.’ His eyes moistened, and he turned away a little, saying: ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ There were lots of media, the cameras and interviewers seeking out the stars, wanting to know what their game was now, and did they have any chance?
They don’t have much. What they have are the old tunes of the early Nineties – reform, anti-Communism, liberalisation – which now grate on many Russian cars because they have produced so few rewards for the many and so much corrupt wealth for the few. Alexander Yakovlev, the great liberalising force of the Gorbachev years, thanks to his brief in the Politburo – Ideology – took the podium first. His limp is one of the rare memories nowadays of the Great Patriotic War. The Communists and nationalists who grew to hate him in the late Eighties were always slightly inhibited by it. I did a long interview with him in 1995, when he was completing a gentle descent from power by serving as chairman of the main TV channel. I’d asked him about his time as Ideology Secretary when, as Alexander Tsipko recounts in his 1992 book, Is Stalinism Really Dead?, he would sit in the vast office occupied for so long by the Stalinist Mikhail Suslov, and talk to young staffers like Tsipko about the inherently evil nature of Communism. He chuckled at the memory and said in response to a query: ‘Yes, Gorbachev believed that too, in some moods. But he was inconsistent, and he was a Leninist much longer than I was. In some ways he remains one. But’ (face darkening) ‘you’ – by which he meant the Western media – ‘ruined him by flattery! He was too easily flattered.’
In the Hall of Columns, he spoke again about the evil of ‘Bolshevism’ and about its success in tightening the grip on Russia of an inert but powerful bureaucracy which choked the life out of independent initiative. People hated that bureaucracy, he said; they had hated it before the Bolsheviks, during Bolshevik rule, and after the Bolsheviks; Pravoye Delo could, indeed must, become the anti-bureaucracy party, carrying on in new conditions the struggle he had begun in the Eighties, with the erratic support of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
It was a fine, well-applauded speech, but out of touch with the times. When the big figures of contemporary liberalism took the microphone, you could see only too clearly the huge burden under which they labour to establish themselves as a popular force. Boris Fyodorov, the former Deputy Prime Minister for Finance who went on to form his own party, Forward Russia, gave a speech which was implicitly critical of the rest of the platform, for not knowing what was popular and not putting it before the people. A few days earlier, he had said he might not go to the launch, that he was more interested in running for the job of governor of the Moscow Region, and that although Forward Russia was now part of Pravoye Delo, it was a conditional rather than an absolute merger. Irina Khakamada, the only woman with a leading role in liberal politics, gave a rousing little talk, which was rather more about Khakamada than it was about the new coalition. Yegor Gaidar, Prime Minister in the early days of the first Yeltsin Government, appealed directly to the Russian President to support the Prime Minister he had just appointed, Sergei Stepashin, against the intrigues of the big businessmen who plot and manoeuvre in the Kremlin corridors over the composition of the Cabinet, putting ministers in place on the express understanding that they further their commercial interests.