The Government of Russia has begun the year badly, even ominously. The flailing impotence of Mikhail Gorbachev has been replaced by Boris Yeltsin’s control by stealth. Gorbachev was open about the need for the retention of All-Union institutions: Yeltsin condemned his efforts, helped form the Commonwealth of Independent States – and has since then ensured that Russia controls all of the formerly common mechanisms in its own name. The Central and Foreign Currency Banks (Gosbank and Vnesheconombank) are under the Russian State Bank, which means that it controls how much credit and currency all the republics – including the three Baltic republics – have access to. Russia’s price liberalisation of 2 January forced every other republic to follow suit, or have their shelves stripped by Russian shoppers. Communications and transport, necessarily centrally-controlled, are now under Russian rubrics – which means that Aeroflot in Moscow will not sell a return ticket from another republic, only an outward bound one.
Most dangerously, the military is stuck in an illogical impasse from which the republican politicians cannot, or do not care to, extricate it. Russia supports the upkeep of the military, wherever they are based (again, including the Baltics, as well as East Germany and Poland). On 8 January, Yeltsin signed a decree – which had not been cleared with his fellow leaders of the CIS, though the CIS is supposed to be a military alliance – establishing a new oath, to be taken by all military, pledging allegiance to the Russian Federation. The consequences of this are that nominally independent states have on their territories the weaponry of a foreign power and armies bound by oath to make war on them if the interests of Russia demand it.
The dynamics of inter-state negotiation make a fascinating study. As in the old, Communist days, the leaderships meet, publicly pledge friendship, make bland statements, issue high-sounding declarations – and conduct their real business in private, in a very different spirit. Now, however, there is no Party to determine the shares and the spoils; and the behind-the-scenes moves are made in a multitude of different places and forums by princelings and their courts who – poorly advised, poorly equipped, poorly trained for the jobs they find themselves doing – are constrained only by the thought of retribution or by calculations about what the West, giver of aid, bringer of capital, will approve.
In this world, Boris Yeltsin is of course the dominant politician, but in the end he, too, is governed by his own nationalist imperatives. In the recent controversy over the Black Sea Fleet, he told workers during a meet-the-people stop in Ulyanovsk that ‘the Black Sea Fleet was, is and always will be Russian’: something the crowd wanted to hear, something he was in a position to enforce, but an inflammatory statement when what was needed was a piece of grave mush which would have allowed time for negotiations. Yeltsin’s obvious strengths, his courage during the failed putsch, his early departure from the Communist Party, the links he formed with the democrats and radicals most admired in the West, his willingness to submit himself to the electorate, have all obscured the fact that his period in office has so far been undistinguished. His peacemaking efforts in the Caucasus have had no effect. He permitted himself to be bounced into sending troops into North Ossetia to keep that Russian autonomous republic within the bounds of the constitution, then withdrew them 24 hours later with nothing achieved except that the hand of the new ruler, General Dudaev, had been strengthened. He has been unable to stop relations between the Russian Republic and the Baltic states worsening, nor has he had any discernible effect on the struggle between Russians and Moldovans in the Dniester area of Moldova. He delayed far too long in instigating economic reform: when he finally selected a coherent government, he ensured that it had almost no room for manoeuvre, and that all it could do was to liberate prices – a move which is presently devastating shoppers’ budgets and against which there is no structural remedy, since the state monopoly has not been dismantled. He brought about the overthrow of Gorbachev and the end of the Union long before the central issues of the transfer of power had been broached, let alone settled. He has pledged himself to stand behind his government’s programme of economic reform by making himself prime minister – a move which gives the programme the only solid political backing it has, but which deprives Yeltsin of any flexibility, except at the cost of going back on his word.
Yeltsin proved himself in opposition: he has not yet done so in government, though it is fair to add that he has among the most testing leadership jobs in the world, and may be doomed to fail whatever he does, because the tensions and problems are simply too great for anyone. This is in part the theme of John Morrison’s efficient and often thoughtful biography, which sets out to show that, contrary to the view held (at least until recently) by many observers and politicians in the West, Yeltsin is ‘squarely in the democrats’ camp’. He reminds us that, as Moscow First Secretary, Yeltsin took the declared purposes of perestroika seriously; that he was cruelly hounded out of office by the old guard, with Mikhail Gorbachev in agreement; that he actually did try to change things. He is perhaps over-kind to the Yeltsin who was First Secretary of Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) during Brezhnev’s leadership, but like the good reporter he is, he deflates Yeltsin’s claim to have delivered a ‘fighting speech against stagnation’ in 1981 by looking up the printed record: the speech, Morrison finds, contained ‘merely a routine swipe at the central economic ministries: there was nothing in the text to distinguish it from dozens of others scripted in the uniquely flatulent, self-congratulatory style of the late Brezhnev period.’
Yeltsin’s real test is yet to come. In the case of the man he finally succeeded in pushing out of office, Mikhail Gorbachev, the dossier is probably more or less complete. For a long time, Gorbachev was like the Kremlin Cat: all that was visible of him was his mouth, endlessly talking, talking, talking about issues over which he had no real control while his substance melted into thin air. His final departure was dignified and uncharacteristically brief: it is a pity that his last publication, The August Coup, should be such a meaningless piece – part memoir, part political justification cobbled together to meet a Western publisher’s deadline. The section which describes his house arrest in his Crimean dacha for the few days of the coup is mildly interesting – chiefly for what isn’t said. The book is padded out with a banal political essay, on which he was working at the time and which contains such passages as ‘I am convinced that the discrediting of socialism in the eyes of the masses is a passing phase. People’s strivings for social justice, freedom and democracy are indestructible.’ Yet again he glosses over, as he did throughout his leadership, the fact that it was precisely those who strove most for freedom and democracy, and for the idea of social justice, who were most disgusted with the socialism they knew. Gorbachev came back from his imprisonment determined (he said) to democratise the Communist Party: within 48 hours, he had banned it. About this he says only that ‘the coup wiped out any hope of reforming the CPSU and turning it into a modern democratic party. That is why I resigned the post of General Secretary and proposed that the Central Committee should dissolve itself.’ In fact, the coup gave the decisive political advantage to those who had set themselves in opposition to the Communist Party, and made it impossible to conduct politics through it.
Gorbachev – and with him Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, the foremost reformers since 1985 – have seemed unable to express their thoughts in public except by means of high-sounding generalisations. Shevardnadze’s The future belongs to freedom is another instance of the same tendency. They achieved vast changes and liberated millions from a declining but still oppressive tyranny: they were, up to a point, consistent in their reformism – though Gorbachev, as General Secretary and President, had to tack and veer like a crazy ship in a storm. Perhaps it was simply that as senior members of the CPSU, they were so steeped in its meaningless high-flown rhetoric that it was the only medium available to them as they set about destroying it.
It was under Gorbachev that the new NEP-men the co-operators and the joint-venture capitalists, the exchange-dealers and the private bankers, began to appear, and latterly to flourish. Now, on the field formally emptied of Communism, this new force, the new capitalists, confronts the old base of the system: the Soviet working class. A. Craig Copetas has written a narrative of the new capitalism: it is largely about the co-operative movement, and within that it is largely about Volodya Yakovlev, now a successful weekly newspaper publisher and at the time when Copetas knew him – very well – the initiator of the FACT co-operative which worked at the cutting edge of perestroika by selling information – an extremely dubious practice to those in charge of creating a more open society.
It is a wonderfully bold narrative: Copetas, some years in Moscow with loose deadlines and a clear passion to understand, did succeed in penetrating much of the flim-flam put up as the official face of perestroika. His style can grate, but it is always a million miles from the measured, careful prose of professional Sovietologists and a fine antidote to it:
On one side of the battle line stood Yeltsin’s free-marketeering Russian republic legislators, an obstreperous lot of new-age Soviet democrats who thought Gorbachev and his policies might best be pole-axed like St Paul on the road to Damascus. On the other were Gorbachev’s docile, obedient and freely-elected Supreme Soviet parliamentarians, exhorting the Central Government to retain control of oil, gas, gold, diamonds and other raw materials for a cruel mix of realpolitik reasons. Somewhere in the middle was Volodya Yakovlev, who knew that the only trait shared among all the Soviet Union’s new democracy-lovers was an acute need for getting their hands on a dwindling supply of hard currency. Soviet democracy and the co-operative revolution were both starting to echo what the great jazz musician Paul Desmond said about dating fashionable glossy-magazine models: ‘They’ll go out for a while with a cat who’s scuffling, but they always seem to end up marrying some manufacturer from the Bronx. This is the way the world ends: not with a whim, but a banker.’
The tales Copetas tells, mostly about Yakovlev, are of ‘businessmen’ whose desire for Western cash and computers was so acute, and sense of long-term strategy so deficient, that they would brazenly lie, cheat and even steal to get what they wanted, with an apparent total lack of interest in longer-term relationships. They are the archetypal peasant-traders: cunning but ultimately stupid, or at best, intelligent but unable to apply their intelligence. This rings true: many are the consultants, advisers and gurus now passing through Moscow who testify to the tunnel vision of the politicians and economists with whom they work, who say that each has a view only of his specialty, and that thinking in the round is alien to them. It may again be a consequence of the removal of the Party from the scene: after all, it monopolised the right to see and to act upon a general view of the general good. Without it, the various institutes and experts lunge this way and that, each with a theory and none (or very few) with a vision.
However, Copetas allows this insight to extend too far. Knowing better than any other Western reporter the depths of corruption and resistance in the system thanks to his post as adviser to Yakovlev, he has made of his frustration a deterministic dystopia: ‘The honest Russians I knew ... expressed distaste; but at the same time, hesitatingly admitted that the only way to erase corruption – the single most profound obstacle to a functioning democracy in the Soviet Union – was, short of a full-bore revolution, to become part of the corruption and all that it represented. This was the conundrum of perestroika, the paradox of the co-operative movement, and the great Mobius strip that wrapped itself around Russian daily life with no beginning and no end.’
No end? Other societies have come to capitalism through swamps of corruption and coercion and murder – America is the most vivid case in point. Like Morrison, Copetas is too concerned to scold Western onlookers for their gullibility. In his anxiety to warn them that perestroika is not everything it is cracked up to be, he substitutes an eternal Russian nature for the process of change. Now, on the exchanges, in the banks, in the executive authorities of the cities and towns, there are people who are attempting to create a very different system from the one in which they were raised. That they are tainted by the past and move as through a bog of treacle is quite evident: but there seems to be no a priori reason why the grip of corruption and of the criminal networks cannot be loosened and a competitive capitalism take root. It may not happen, of course: there are many societies in the world in which criminality is endemic. But in the sixth year of perestroika and the first of non-Communist government, it is far too early to say.
It is too early to say chiefly because we do not know what the ‘masses’ (they are still talked of in that way) will do. The masses are the working class: the class which has ostensibly been the base and the core of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Socialist state, the people who have done badly out of perestroika. Walter Connor, whose specialty is the study of workers in Communist systems, has produced an often illuminating book which offers no large surprises but gives chapter and verse, and good reasoning, for what we half-know. In particular, he gives a kind of ironic justification for the inflated rhetoric with which Brezhnev, particularly in his later years, was always greeted: in relative terms, especially when compared with his successor, Brezhnev was the workers’ best friend. In his discussion of dissidence during the period, Connor notes that where there was dissidence on the part of workers, it was qualified by an acceptance of the goals of Communism, even of the current state leadership – and aimed usually at plant or local abuses.
Under Stalin, wages had become quite widely differentiated, with specialists and those in the intellectual professions often paid quite markedly more than workers – though of course the former were under more risk, at least in the later purges. Brezhnev narrowed differentials very greatly, so that the official spread of incomes was one of the most compressed in the world. Even when black market earnings are added in – for example, in the case of dentists, formally very lowly paid – the range is not wide. Intellectuals and workers lived in the same sort of accommodation (and still do) and enjoyed, or suffered under, the same quality of services. This did not make for comradeship: Connor reminds us that for many intellectuals, the workers were still the ‘dark masses’. But on the workers’ side it did make for a feeling that their manual labour was as well rewarded as the work of chattering intellectuals. Gorbachev broke up all that. Brain-work can now make millions for the person smart enough to get a job in the new centres of trade and finance. For decades, these had been the most reviled kinds of occupation: ‘with perestroika, the moral meaning of the story was reformulated.’ ‘Is the worker,’ Connor asks, ‘the defender of the authentic Soviet way of life, of what is real and supposed to last?’ This is a very good question to ask at the moment, when liberalisation has sent prices rocketing, and large crowds are gathering in the name – once more – of the working class, of the Union and of Communism. The phenomenon is known as ‘the March of the Hungry Queues’, a resonant title.
The new governments of the ex-Soviet republics, especially those in the Baltics and in Russia, are creating and/or have been bequeathed the classic Marxian preconditions for a proletarian revolution. There is a huge working class, steadily becoming impoverished in order to increase the rate of profit. There are governments governing in the name of, and drawn from the ranks of, the new finance capitalism. The new capitalism is directly parasitic on the living standards of the workers, and doing little to increase production or improve supplies. It would be an incompetent, indeed an irresponsible opposition which could not mobilise some support on standard Marxist-Leninist lines at this time: and indeed, they are trying. They have bases on which to build: the new Workers’ Parties and Workers’ Alliances, as well as the new trade unions (which are often ideologically hostile to the neo-Communist Parties). These groups have so far made little headway electorally – while those who in some respects spoke to their agenda did badly against democrats and radicals. But this means much less than it would in rich and relatively settled democratic states, where politics is more of a marginal activity in both senses of the word. Here, politics consumes every individual irrespective of their wishes.
As I write, strikes and demonstrations are mounting against price rises so huge that I have seen people in shops laugh, literally till they cry, at their absurdity: as if we were to come into a butcher’s shop one day and find mince priced at £200 a pound, with bread a tenner and a box of matches £2.50. Already, there are strong calls for the Government of Russia, and the Government of Ukraine, to resign. These administrations do not have the trust and support which underpinned the governments of Eastern Europe, at least for a time. Their politics may not be as volatile and violent as those of Georgia, where a President elected with 90 per cent of the popular vote is shot out of office in less than a year – but at some point down the road, they may be.
Everything here is steadily getting worse. This year will tell us whether there is a bottom from which the former Soviet Union can spring back to something approaching health. The alternative is decline, of a most massive kind, propelled by the most comprehensive system failure seen in modern times.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.