Pessimism over Russia was not always as fashionable as it is now. Western commentators still refer automatically to the upheaval in the former Soviet Union as a ‘transition’, as though Russia and the former Soviet Republics were following a well defined and orderly course leading from one form of state to another. But in recent conversations with British, German and, above all, American policy planners, officials and scholars, I have found only a dogged determination to go on hoping for the best, while very much fearing the worst.
Until recently, Western policy, as set by Strobe Talbott, the former Time journalist (and Moscow correspondent), now Deputy Secretary of State-Designate in the Clinton Administration, was to shift attention away from the former Communist states and onto Russia alone, proclaiming the closeness of the US, and by extension the other major Western powers, to the Yeltsin Presidency and Government. But this policy has come under increasing attack, first from outside the Administration and now from within, in the aftermath of the Clinton-Yeltsin summit which saw Clinton trumpeting his belief in Yeltsin’s promise to ‘deepen reform’ even as the reformers were quietly departing from the Government.
There are profound economic and ‘national’ problems in the former Soviet Union, and most of them are getting worse. The question is whether the institutions – primarily, the political institutions – can take the strain. Is there enough inherent strength in ‘the sinews of the Russian state’, to use Peter Reddaway’s phrase, to sustain the free and democratic political life which its leaders advocate, and of which there are some signs? The answers Richard Sakwa and Alexander Yakovlev give to these questions are discouraging, even where they are not meant to be.
The shift in the politics of Russia which followed the December elections is very marked; it is also, as usual, murky. On one level, the result traumatised the liberal parties, especially the main grouping, Russia’s Choice, led by Yegor Gaidar, the man most strongly identified with radical reform. It has left only one prominent reformer, Anatoly Chubais, inside the Cabinet, ploughing a lonely furrow at the privatisation committee. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister and – as Yeltsin seems to retreat from the business of governing the country – de facto head of state, has declared his lack of interest in any further radical measures, and apparently wishes to boost industrial production without substantial industrial or economic reform. At the same time, he repeats his view that inflation remains the first enemy and that his cabinet must get it down to the kinds of level the IMF recommends by the end of the year.
The liberals are split, and eager to blame each other for the debacle which undid them all. But it is not clear that the new Parliament is dominated by reactionary forces, and it does seem clear that the country has not taken a lurch into fascism. As I write, the political process is suspended rather than set. But since no one expects the economy to improve this year or next, and since any effective remedy will deepen the short-term crisis, the strain can only get worse, and will perhaps become unbearable, I need hardly add that this is a very serious position to be in, since the next few months are likely to determine whether or not the conflict now evident at the perimeters of the former Soviet Union becomes more general, engulfing millions of people in civil and inter-state wars waged around nuclear bases.
In The Fate of Marxism in Russia we get one explanation of the reasons for the present disorder. Of all Mikhail Gorbachev’s associates, Alexander Yakovlev was the one most wedded to perestroika and glasnost. Yet he now presents a political landscape so blasted by Marxism-Leninism as to seem almost incapable of supporting healthy life in the next decade. In one of his many outbursts against the system in which he was a senior official and, finally, the guardian of the ideological flame, he says that Communism was
a system of social lunacy, which physically destroyed the peasantry, noble and merchant classes, a whole class of entrepreneurs along with the clergy, intellectuals and intelligentsia. It is a sower of crosses in graveyards, it is the ‘mole of history’, digging mass graves from Lvov to Magadan, from Norilsk to Kushka; it is an exploitation of human beings by all forms of oppression and ideological vandalism. Bolshevism is a landmine of enormous power that almost blew up the world; it is an anti-human precept, hammered in with the ruthlessness of ideological fanaticism that conceals its intellectual and economic nullity. The old life (that is pre-1917 Revolution) was not all sweetness and light, but there were not a million prisoners and the word ‘concentration camp’ did not even exist in the Russian language. Bolshevism’s ideological monopolism guaranteed universal control over everything and everyone. Minds and hearts were in the same category as things. Society was politicised through and through; those who disagreed were destroyed or isolated. Freedom of labour, freedom of thought, freedom of speech were abolished. Science and art were bolshevised and became a ‘material force’. Plagiarism was called art and science.
The blame – and this is the book’s most insistent message – lies not with Stalin or Lenin, but, in the first place, with Marx. The Russian Bolsheviks strove to put a Marxist programme into place and their success, their fidelity to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Marx (who was in any case rarely programmatic), destroyed Russia: ‘The Marxist programme of eliminating the market and market relations proved in fact to be a programme to destroy the pillars of human civilisation.’ Yakovlev’s enemy is his own former belief; what he describes is the systematic desolation of Russia and its subject states, undertaken in the name of progress and human enlightenment.
Soon after his return, in the latter half of the Eighties, from the Soviet Embassy in Canada to which he had been exiled for his attacks on national chauvinism in 1972, Yakovlev was appointed head of the ideology department of the Central Committee of the CPSU – the post he had held nearly fifteen years before. In this capacity, he set about dismantling the Communist pantheon. In a preface to the book, the philosopher Alexander Tsipko, one of Yakovlev’s former subordinates, describes their first meeting in the autumn of 1988, when Yakovlev was, in effect, the second in charge of the CPSU Central Committee and the national leadership: ‘Yakovlev impressed me by making his point very clear. He said to me: “It’s time to say that Marxism was a utopia and a mistake from the very beginning” ... As he spoke, I searched the ceiling for bugs and wondered: “Why isn’t he scared? Is it that Communism is really dead in this country?” ’
This remarkable sketch – in which the destruction of the Soviet system can be seen germinating within its own tabernacle under the guidance of its high priest – leads Tsipko to reject the leftist assumption, prevalent in both the former Soviet Union and the West, that the regime was undone by popular pressure. He argues instead that the people at the top of the Party were often the most conscience-stricken and clear-sighted about the pass to which their dogma had brought the country, and were thus the main instigators of collapse. These people, the core of the Gorbachevite reformers, believed that a liberal reform of socialism was possible – a belief that Gorbachev appears still to hold. Yakovlev, however, went further and soon took the view that socialism of anything other than the social democratic type was a distortion of ‘nature’, which he defines as the market. These two sets of views, produced within the system but captive to its own inability to change without being destroyed, gave rise to ever widening splits within the Party and, finally, to its self-immolation in the putsch of August 1991.
One is forced to conclude from Yakovlev’s own description of events that the Gorbachev reformers had no idea of the scale of the changes which would follow once they began to tinker with the system. Richard Sakwa says simply that the collapse of Communism, precipitated by its leaders, ended ‘the attempt to build a separate and distinct society’ and ‘destroyed a geopolitical community which had been centuries in the making’. The leadership, it seems, failed to foresee that this would happen, and Yakovlev does not account for that failure. When the record is drawn up, it will be hard to disentangle political blunders from the virtues that gave rise to them – a readiness to champion democracy and a reluctance to use force against the expressions of dissent which flourished as a result.
Late Soviet policy-making was shrouded in a perpetual fog. Cast adrift from Marxism-Leninism, it yawed between one position and its opposite: between embracing the market and rejecting it, between encouraging autonomy in the Republics and suppressing it, between creating the institutions of civil society and retaining so much party and personal control that these were mere formalities. In foreign affairs, the Soviet Union’s stony rejection of everything Western and its maintenance of a separate, hostile camp, composed of variously dependent and/or suppressed states, were abandoned with such dizzying rapidity that there was no time to develop the mechanisms required to cope with the consequences.
As Yakovlev shows, the leaders’ focus was blunted by an ideology which had once been able to promote repression and industrial growth – the success of the latter linked to the intensity of the former – but which, by the Eighties, had choked the life out of the economy. Because of the central importance of ideology to the system, the leadership spent huge amounts of time and energy covering their revisions with the cloak of legitimacy. Gorbachev had teams of philosophers and publicists signal the ideological shift away from pre-Revolutionary Lenin – from works like The State and Revolution – to late Lenin, and the handful of essays written before his early death in which he prepared the way for the adoption of the New Economic Policy. In short, Gorbachev and the reformers could not go further than Marxist-Leninist teaching plausibly gave them licence to. As a result, the changes that occurred were hobbled not only by the limitations of the system but by a need to present the faltering steps towards capitalism as a deepening of socialism.
It’s not surprising, then, that Yakovlev has cast this memoir as a set of overlapping and often circular meditations on the theory of Marxism and its Soviet practice. A burning torch in the hands of the Bolsheviks, Marxism had been rendered impervious, even before the 1917 Revolution, to the revisions of Bernstein, Kautsky and the other European Marxists despised by Lenin:
The Bolsheviks ... ignored the academic criticism of Marx’s teaching at the end of the 19th century, which was formulated as a result of new phenomena in the development of capitalism. They could not see the obvious contradictions in this doctrine, especially in the part concerning the premises and conditions for a revolutionary explosion. As a result, the disruption of the evolution of the natural progress of history escalated into a Russian catastrophe.
At first, the Party dominated everything. But, Yakovlev says, it ceased to be the ‘pivotal point of politics, the economy and ideology’ and was forced to cede much of its effective power to the other two members of the ruling institutional triumvirate – the apparats of the economy and of coercion – while ‘the outer decorum and rituals continued to be observed.’ The ministries, institutes and enterprises, escaping close party control by means of a series of genuflections, nurtured a new and large group of technocrats who may not have challenged the Party but were no longer paralysed by fear of it. This was ‘a social group ... of great intellectual and practical strength, potentially capable of serving as the spiritual centre of an anti-nomenklatura opposition. It was unorganised but numerous and fairly united in spirit. It was to become an opposition partly democratic and partly authoritarian in outlook. This group became particularly visible after 1985.’
It was these technocrats, whom Gorbachev saw as the social base of glasnost and perestroika, who ultimately deserted him for Yeltsin. In the non-Russian Republics, they became the backbone of the nationalist movements which rose to prominence in 1989-91 and were captivated by the project of recreating, or creating, their nations. It would be hard not to agree with Yakovlev that
everywhere, in all the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, the collapse of Communism has unleashed rampant nationalist passions. By freeing the people from responsibility for their economic status and deforming their economic and social thinking, socialism made them vulnerable to ultra-nationalist ideology. Nationalist extremism is like a tornado, sweeping away everything in its path and leaving behind only ruins.
Yakovlev’s problem, in his life at the top of the Party as in this book, is that he found no belief to replace his dying Marxism other than faith in a capitalism he could not build. Though more learned than the meagre volumes left by other Politburo members, Yakovlev’s book avoids giving any details of what went on inside the Gorbachev Kremlin. Nor is it specific about Yakovlev’s ‘policies’, which amount, in the end, to an affirmation of a vague, as yet invisible ‘third way’, described only as ‘the maximum possible use of the fundamental principles of public life tested by history’. Yakovlev, who recently returned to public life when Yeltsin appointed him head of Ostankino, the main state TV station, is obviously a decent man, but he has been unable to suggest anything more appealing to the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union than the ‘ultranationalism’ of which he is rightly afraid.
Richard Sakwa, one of the younger generation of British specialists on the former Soviet Union, is also among the best. His Russian Politics and Society is the best comprehensive treatment of the new state yet available on either side of the Atlantic. It has the virtues of the British school of Sovietology, as it was once called: narrative coherence, reliance on observation, a readiness to draw conclusions from the analysis presented. From his early reflection that the Soviet Union was driven by ‘an extreme version of the Enlightenment’, through his closely documented description of a ‘palpable sense of the retreat of government’ in the Yeltsin period, to the speculation that even a ‘democratic authoritarianism’ may now be impossible, Sakwa’s chronicle is an indispensable primer for anyone interested in how nations are born. Never a simple admirer of Yeltsin’s, he rightly asks how far the President of the Russian Federation can be held responsible for the fatal breakdown of relations with the Supreme Soviet, which culminated in its destruction last year. At the same time, he is mindful of the narrowness of the Presidential options and the chaos that Yeltsin inherited.
There is little to suggest that this chaos will abate in the course of 1994. On the contrary, we can expect very great turbulence. For one thing, the institutions of the Russian state and the individuals in charge of them lack the ability and experience needed for the challenges they face. At the apex is a figure with powers formally greater than those of any other democratically elected president of a major state. But for several months now, Boris Yeltsin has scarcely been seen. He took no part in the election campaign; and in his few public appearances since, he has looked defensive and weary. During his January summit with Clinton, he was said to be alert – and sufficiently engaged to mislead the US President entirely. In its aftermath, however, he has all but disappeared. The Russian Embassy in Washington is often unable to contact him for days on end to deliver messages from the White House. When requests go through to Russian aides and embassy staff asking that Yeltsin be informed of, and respond to, communications, they are batted back with the reply that he is at his dacha. In this vacuum, rumours of heavy drinking and ill-health flourish; Yeltsin’s puffy face and slow, or even frail, delivery tend to confirm them.
Yeltsin bases his power on the new Russian Constitution, adopted by around 55 per cent of those who voted in the elections of 12 December. Virtually the only substantive comment Yeltsin made on the elections was that the pro-Constitution vote ensures the validity and stability of Russian democracy. But the Constitution is a confused and incomplete document which few believe will survive. Its main flaws are, first, that it promises an array of quite detailed rights – to free medical service, for example, and environmental safety at work – which, if taken seriously, would clog any constitutional court with suits in a matter of days. Second, it gives the President the right to issue decrees untrammelled by anything other than observance of the Constitution – which would appear to mean that the legislature can be rendered superfluous at any time. Third, a number of vaguely worded clauses give the President the mandate to suspend rights on ill-defined grounds of national security. Fourth, the division of powers between the upper house of the legislature (the Federation Council) and the lower (the state Duma) is so vague as to allow the leader of the former to declare the latter an irrelevance.
Above all, the impoverished state of the political culture and the weakness of every institution, formal and informal, means that the Constitution is little more than a model slapped on chaos. The judiciary that it should usher in – constitutional, supreme and other court judges have yet to be appointed – will have the unenviable task of applying grand principles to a myriad of practices conducted in the absence of anything resembling civil society.
The Parliament, or federal assembly, is perhaps more promising. With 176 members, the Federation Council is a fairly small chamber composed of two representatives from each of the ‘subjects of the Federation’ – regions and Republics throughout Russia. One half of the Duma consists of members elected from constituencies across the Federation, the other of parties whose seats were allocated according to their showing in the polls. All the members have a stake in Parliament working as an effective law-making instrument and an influential body, while the prominence given to the parties should encourage them to consolidate.
The optimist might go further: though attention has focused on the victory of the Liberal Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, it does not at present seem that he will be able to stand at the head of a reactionary lower-house majority consisting of the LDP, the Communists, the pro-Communist Agrarians and the more centrist Democratic Party and Women of Russia. Zhirinovsky has treated his election success as an excuse to rollick across Europe shrieking insults at whoever catches his bilious attention. Though some of his supporters will be satisfied with this performance, many more – and nearly all of the majority which did not vote for him – will see it as a cause of shame (the really murderous dictators behaved with restraint, even decorum, on the international stage). It is true that large numbers of people voted for the LDP because of Zhirinovsky himself – he more than any other leader is his party – and that if he falls, that constituency will still exist. But it is not militarily organised, as the Nazis were, and it has stimulated no racist or other outrages since the election. It may be more evanescent, and less alarming, than at first appeared.
The danger for Parliament lies more with its claim to be moderate than its ambition to be extreme. The majority of deputies are committed to policies of ‘slow reform’: the continued funding of state enterprises, continued reliance on state and collective farms for the production of food, continued availability of easy credits, an effort to reconstitute the economic union of former Soviet states and an end to privatisation. Except in the very short term, this is without any doubt unworkable. While reforms which cut budget deficits, lower inflation, stimulate competition and rectify grotesque industrial imbalances may be delayed for political reasons, there can be no substitute for them – and if there is to be any hope for Russia’s future, a working majority of the political class must recognise that.
It appears, however, that they do not, which in turn suggests either that the Parliament will be drawn into conflict with the Government when it tries to persist with the necessary reforms, or that it will set the tone for a government which has no wish to challenge it, as at present seems more likely. Either outcome will send Russia down the same hyper-inflationary path as Ukraine, where the real value of money is rapidly dwindling and the industrial and supply systems are breaking down. Some believe that the failure of the ‘moderate’ strategy will usher the radicals back into the cabinet, and it might; but it is no less probable that the people, as well as the political class, will demand a heavy hand rather than a pretence at one.
The regions and Republics, whose representatives sit in the Federation Council, got a shock last October when what they thought was an inert central government roused itself and shot up the Supreme Soviet, with which the regional leaders had been playing footsie in order to put pressure on the Government. In the wake of the October events, Yeltsin fired the more overtly disloyal of the regional governors and, predictably, quelled open dissent among most of the others. However, these regional leaders remain in a constitutional limbo. Though the Constitution does provide – again, in vague terms – for a division of powers between the centre and the regions, there is little sense of a federal settlement having been reached. I don’t share the view that some regions will soon attempt to break away from Russia and attach themselves to richer contiguous countries, but it is certainly the case that mutual obligations between centre and regions are routinely unfulfilled and that the most critical of these – taxation – is in crisis.
One picture painted by the pessimists, whose presence is growing in Western policy circles, is that the military, angered by drift and weakness at the centre, and goaded by the frequent inability of the state to pay wages or ensure supplies, will be drawn into alliances with local leaderships and so give rise to feudal principalities throughout the Federation. There is at the moment little evidence of this happening within Russia, but it must be a distinct possibility in the non-Russian Republics. Military support of breakaway ethnic groups – the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians – in Georgia, for example, has brought the government of Eduard Shevardnadze to its knees and forced him to sign a treaty with Russia which, in effect, spells the end of independence.
Throughout Central Asia, the Russian Army is the national force and the ultimate guarantor of regimes which meet with Russian approval. In Ukraine, the Black Sea Fleet, nominally shared between Ukraine and Russia, has in fact remained under Russian control. The recent vote in Crimea for a president who favours reunion with Russia poses the gravest of threats to Ukrainian-Russian relations and could well embroil the military. In the Baltic states, the High Command has become steadily more reluctant to pull out the remaining troops, linking their withdrawal to the rights of the substantial Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia.
The foreign policy establishment in Russia is following the military lead. The ‘Westernising’ elements are in full retreat or, rather, they are asserting Russia’s right to hegemony over the ‘near abroad’ – a position now referred to by many officials in the West as ‘neo-imperialist’. Russia lacks the resources and probably the will to recolonise states where the national political élites are able to resist such moves, but it can put pressure on these élites to conform to Russian priorities – and this, too, will be a source of instability as time goes on.
This is the essence of the Russian institutional crisis: a pervasive, volatile, all-encompassing disorder, barely held in check by the central authorities. Meanwhile, the West is still officially committed to the support of a reform effort now more absent than apparent and needs urgently to make the decisions which it has so far ducked in the hope that things might begin to improve. Nearly every meeting of Western leaders and foreign ministers spends a large portion of its time discussing what is to be done. Russia’s lack of any clear direction allows the hard decisions to be put off, but not for too much longer. In destroying the system they had worked to preserve, Yakovlev and his colleagues converted their Marxist voluntarism into a liberal voluntarism, which understood the change to democracy and a market economy as little more than a behavioural switch. We know better now, but we do not know how to make this change, or if it can he done without a vast convulsion.