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.

The problem is the lack of depth in the institutions of governance and representation; the uncertainty and rawness of the democratic reflexes; and above all, the scale of economic and social dislocation which faces all post-Communist societies. In these societies, especially in the former Soviet states, life is conducted vertiginously: people attempt to tread the routine paths, but discover that they are now pacing them out on the edges of cliffs. None of the major questions is settled: the economy is not securely a market one, the polity is not securely a democratic one, the constitution is not even yet in place and the rule of law is still arbitrary. More important, daily supplies have been desperately scarce and are now hugely expensive, while the minimal guarantees of care and security which the state provided are in many cases no longer available – either as a result of decay or because the market has taken over.

We all know that in countries with longer traditions of democratic rule than Russia, parliaments, presidents and governments have been blown away by economic blizzards of the kind now engulfing the former USSR and replaced by dictators willed in by a population, or a large enough part of it, desperate for the security promised by men like Lenin/Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and lesser imitators. Their will power and visionary transcendentalism made them extravagantly, often insouciantly cruel and at the same time caused them to be trusted with a fidelity which in many cases, Lenin’s especially, outlasted their fall or death. To be sure, there are no obvious Lenins, Hitlers or even Mussolinis on the horizon: the self-confessed candidates, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party or Generals Makashov and Sterligov who position themselves within the ‘Red-Brown’ coalition of Communists and nationalists, are risible to most Russians and are made to seem more so when their rantings are featured on the famously cool medium of TV.

The challenge, at least at present, doesn’t come from Zhirinovsky et al, but from those who themselves played a leading role in ending the rule of the Party. These men – Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Parliamentary Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, Presidential Counsellor Sergei Stankevich and Social Democratic Party leader Oleg Rumyanstev – were all leading democrats: a designation which was used to distinguish them from hardline Communists in the late Eighties and in 1990-91, but which now usually figures in quotation marks. Today they would claim two things about their adherence to democracy: first, that they are truer democrats now than they once were, because they express the will and opinions of the people in their opposition to the economic reforms which are having such a savage effect on living standards, in their increasing resentment of the anti-Russianness of the other Republics and their concern for the fate of the 25 million Russians living in these Republics, and in their growing dislike of the intrusiveness of institutions such as the IMF – forever demanding more monetary rigour and forever withholding financial assistance.

Secondly, they would claim to be purer than other ‘democrats’ who have pursued different paths in the last year, pointing to the growing unpopularity of such figures as Anatoly Sobchak and Gavril Popov. One way or another, ‘democratic’ politicians who came to power in the past three or four years have done little to dispel the cynical view that whatever the banner under which power is exercised, the first concern of those who have it is to enrich themselves. The Italians of the Mezzogiorno, connoisseurs of corruption, complained during the Socialist Party’s leadership of the government that the Socialists were worse than the Christian Democrats in the rapacity of their corruption because they were unused to power and did not believe (rightly) that they would hold onto it for long: just so are the Russian democrats characterised by the Russians.

The consequence of the democrats’ failure to produce a coherent ruling class, a failure compounded by the lack of any obvious economic success, is a political vacuum into which some force must step, probably sooner rather than later. It seems increasingly the case that the best one can and should hope for is not a deepening of the fledgling institutions of democratic authority, or the success of the radical economic strategy so bravely promoted by Yegor Gaidar and his cabinet, but a form of authoritarian rule as benign and mild as possible – one which keeps alive the hope for another, better stab at pluralism.

The state created by the Party, it now appears, was and remains too strong to be removed by mere governments speaking in the name of a different kind of order. When the idealism which animated the worst of the Party’s excesses, as well as the best of Gorbachev’s beatifically muddled reforms, had gone, it left a vast hinterland of administrative, productive and distributive systems which it had taken decades to pound into the shape they still retain. In no other country, including China, was the economy fashioned with so little regard to the market choices of individuals, whether consumers or putative producers. Consumption was a residual: choice regarded as inimical to the ideology. Production and distribution and what services existed were fashioned according to a model of society in which the goals were not only scientifically given but dictated both the needs and the methods of their satisfaction.

Mary McAuley’s slim primer on Soviet politics, a very slightly altered version of the series of lectures she gives to first-year students on her course in Oxford, is a clear exposition of 74 years of Soviet power, as good a choice as any for the reader wishing to know the background to contemporary events in the now defunct Union. It is insufficiently changed from the text of these lectures, and has too many phrases of the ‘to return to the Khrushchev period’ or ‘we now reach August 1991’ kind, and since it gives an average of less than two pages to each year of the Soviet period, it cannot be more than a sketch. However, it concentrates on the main structural elements of the edifice, and often illuminates them. Above all, it stresses that the distorted, inhuman nature of the Communist state was rooted in the early Bolsheviks’ complete lack of concern both for the complexities of a modern industrial society and for the balances between different levels of governance. ‘The Bolsheviks made little attempt to delineate spheres of competence, to establish the rights of different government institutions vis-à-vis each other or clarify the relations between central and local bodies.’ This was coupled with a desire, born of the belief that the state and production were mechanisms capable of being understood and run by all, to involve the approved sections of the working class in government – spawning a vast plethora of committees and institutions. The resulting chaos, immeasurably deepened by the Civil War, led to the Party resorting to dictatorial means to carry through its will: these, under Stalin, became routinised and took precedence over, then finally snuffed out, most of the vestiges of political life. By the end of the Terror, McAuley argues, the dominance of the Party had been replaced by that of the NKVD – and ‘the dislocation created by the system of terror was so great that it is difficult to talk of the political system functioning in any coherent way.’

With Khrushchev there came a violent swing away from Stalinist methods. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a remark quoted by McAuley, ‘breathing and consciousness returned.’ The Khrushchev years and the first period of Brezhnev’s long rule – that is, the period between 1954 and 1974 – were ‘the best period in Soviet (and Russian) history for the ordinary citizen in terms of raised living standards and peace’. However, it was achieved at a hidden cost (now being painfully paid) and was accompanied by the disappearance of Party idealism.

Gorbachev took seriously the evident decline in the Soviet economy from the latter part of the Seventies. As McAuley notes, he could have prolonged the rule of the Party, tinkering here and there, for perhaps twenty years: instead, he attempted to renew its rule on the basis of consent, coupled with modernisation. Yet he instituted a series of contradictions – elections within a political monopoly; openness of expression (glasnost) against a backstop of infallible (Party) truth – which could be resolved only by a reassertion of authoritarian rule. Gorbachev’s enduring and greatest monument is that he did not respond in this way – except unavailingly, and relatively briefly, in early 1991. Instead, he flailed wordily and futilely against the forces to which he had allowed expression, until they overcame him.

McAuley ends, in a conclusion appended to the lectures, with a series of questions:

Have we witnessed a revolution? ... there are grounds for hesitation. Where, in Russia, was the evidence of significant action by new social groups that resulted in power passing out of the hands of the old rulers? ... Was not a regrouping under way, a merger of the old party-state élite with sections of the professions and new commercial talent which could organise economic and political control in a new but far from democratic way? Unlike the revolutions of 1789 or 1917, the new rulers did not offer grand ideas of a new order but dwelt rather on the need to undo the mistakes of the past. Are we then witnessing a restoration rather than a revolution?

Marshall Goldman, deputy director of the Russian Research Centre at Harvard, is one of the best known economic commentators on the Soviet Union. He is also well-known for his pronounced scepticism about the possibilities for change: a scepticism so deep that for some time he refused to believe that Gorbachev was ‘for real’, and may have had some influence in persuading members of the Reagan and Bush Administrations of his view. Though I have heard him admit that this was a mistake, it is a view which many Russians still hold, and his holding of it for so long demonstrates his close attention to Russian opinion.

What went wrong with perestroika? is an incisive, at times amusing account, eschewing Sovietologists’ jargon and rich in examples. Though he does not always keep the question of the book’s title in his sights, Goldman makes it clear enough that the perestroika project was doomed to fail because of the crippling contradictions within it: a market reform undertaken by a leader who, even at the end of the process, could not bring himself to believe in private ownership; political liberalisation which was unable to tolerate the expression of political freedom, especially in the Republics; a huge inherited planning apparatus but no scheme to contain the increasingly improvised reforms. On the other hand, it is wrong to blame Gorbachev for all the failures, as most Russian and some foreign commentators do. He was unusual among Russian (and Soviet) leaders in not being the sole actor and not having perfect control of the situation. Goldman agrees with Vaclav Havel’s observation, in his first major speech as President of Czechoslovakia, that ‘all of us have grown used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an immutable fact, and thereby actually helped to keep it going. None of us are only its victims: we are also responsible for it.’ The people, says Goldman, have to take a share of responsibility for the awful pass in which they find themselves:

Mikhail Gorbachev’s struggle to bring a better life to his people was a valiant initiative. However, even if Gorbachev had adopted a more rational and coherent policy, it is unlikely that he would have succeeded. The Soviet population, especially those in the Russian Republic who had lived for sixty years in a Stalinist system, were too resistant to evolutionary change. For that reason, the odds are that no one else would have done much better.

Gorbachev’s successor – or as close as he comes to having one – is anxious to show the world that he can do much, much better. Yeltsin certainly has achievements which he can claim as being at least partly to his credit; and in key areas, he showed greater courage and decisiveness than Gorbachev. It is wrong, however, to take sides between them: though neither of them will see it, vain and vengeful as they both are, their achievements are best understood as complementary, the first giving scope to the second, the second building on possibilities created by the first.

Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova fall right into this trap: for them, Yeltsin liberated the Russians from centuries of slavery, where Gorbachev had merely attempted to mitigate the servitude. Quoting the Marquis de Custine’s famous description of Russia as the ‘military camp substituted for the orderliness of a civil community ... a state of siege become everyday social normalcy’, they go on to say: ‘thank God, the Marquis was finally out of date; his conclusions did not apply to Yeltsin’s Russia.’ It is too early to be sure: and if it turns out to be correct, as it may, it will in part be due to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Solovyov and Klepikova left the Soviet Union in the late Seventies; they say, to escape arrest after they had established an independent news service. Before that, they wrote a biography of Andropov debunking the assiduously promoted image of the man as a pro-Western, intellectually inclined liberal and claiming that, from his position as chairman of the KGB, he had engineered a coup against the elderly, enfeebled Brezhnev. The Yeltsin biography, like its predecessor, is entertaining and ambitious; makes exciting assertions which are frequently not sourced; is tremendously insightful in parts and terribly rambling in others; and rarely resists the temptation to psychoanalyse its subject, as in: ‘both Gorbachev and Yeltsin seem to have been sexually inhibited in their student years ... accordingly, they have made faithful virtuous husbands without a roving eye.’ It is as much a celebration of Russian independence as an account of the life and achievements of Boris Yeltsin, and you are never quite sure when to trust it. (Do they know that both men are faithful in the sense of knowing it for a fact, or do they ‘know it’ because faithfulness is what one expects from sexually inhibited adolescents in their adult life? And does one?)

The stout defence they mount of Yeltsin at every turn – he is not a heavy drinker, there were no amorous or other escapades which led to his falling or being pushed into the Moscow River in 1989, at the nadir of his political fortunes – may or may not be right: there is not enough evidence to tell, and it is no longer enough to blame it all on the KGB (which, no doubt, played its part). Further, in their anxiety to depict Yeltsin as a man of the people who has not lost his ordinariness – especially compared to Gorbachev – they take far too much on trust. They approve of Yeltsin for saying: ‘As long as our lives are so poor and miserable, I cannot eat sturgeon and caviar; I cannot speed away in a limo, ignoring traffic lights and people leaping out of my way; I cannot take imported miracle drugs, knowing that my next-door neighbour has no aspirin for her child. I would simply be ashamed to do that.’ But that is precisely the life he does lead. How could he avoid doing so? He is not Gandhi, nor was meant to be. In taking seriously Yeltsin’s stump oratory, they muddle the populism of the aspirant with the real politician. Yet there is something in the book which seems to capture more of the essence of the man than John Morrison’s much more balanced biography, published last year. Yeltsin is clearly a more ‘natural man’ than the garrulous, self-regarding Gorbachev. Though incurably populist and rough of tongue, he has also, so far, stood behind reform in the economy, a broadening of democracy and the settlement of conflicts by negotiation. Solovyov and Klepikova overdo it, but their enthusiasm expresses well the best hopes for the Yeltsin Presidency – hopes it cannot hope to avoid disappointing, but which it has not (yet) dashed.

Like McAuley and Goldman, they end with a flurry of questions. ‘Can Yeltsin survive? Can the Commonwealth? ... does he still have enough time? ... does Russia have a future?’ With winter approaching and a hundred delayed conflicts demanding resolution, we may not have to wait very long to know the answers.