Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991

Perry Anderson reflects on his experience of the Moscow coup, and of its failure, and considers Gorbachev’s failure and success

5976 words

‘The people are exulting’ – narod likuyet. The phrase was spoken with impassive distance – perhaps even irony – by a heavily-armed commando in the White House, as we looked down at the first, still rather scattered and tentative outbursts of revelry among the crowds camped in the night below round the Russian Parliament. There was still no hard news of what had happened in the Crimea, but by the evening of 21 August the rumour outside was already of victory. Inside, there was the traditional mêlée associated with a revolution – corridors flowing with confused eddies of soldiers, activists, politicians, journalists, militia, interlopers of every kind; real tank crews rubbing shoulders with stage Cossacks; a balcony priest moving alertly through it all. An Australian could be overheard saying it reminded him of Managua. Hispanic echoes were, as it happened, everywhere in Moscow in those days. Resistance broadsheets read No pasaran; graffiti denounced the khunta; citizens demanded of armoured units if they were prepared to re-enact Chile. Popular celebrations and revolutionary images were in place. But the nature of the overturn in August is only partly suggested by them.

When the State Committee for the Extraordinary Situation announced its takeover and tanks entered the city, the people of Moscow as a whole did not stir. The Metro – the nervous system of popular concourse in the capital – offered a curiously vivid representation of their mood. When small, faintly-printed stickers containing Yeltsin’s decrees of resistance as Russian President (one of the first upbraiding the Patriarch for his silence) appeared on the dimly-lit marble walls, a continuous visual equivalent of an opinion poll could be seen. Little knots of six or seven would cluster silently round them, straining over each other’s shoulders to read the messages. Behind them, a hundred more proceeded indifferently on their way. This was not assent to the coup; 80 per cent of the population had voted for Yeltsin a few months earlier. Nor was it fright. One of the most striking aspects of the roads and squares above was the absence of that. People strolled casually about their business. The tanks were mostly parked unobtrusively in sidings, under bridges; no infantry were in sight; traffic and telephones functioned normally. There was none of the chilling parade of a real state of siege, as Guatemala City or Santiago know it, where fear is tangible at every street crossing. The conspirators were counting on economic exhaustion to secure their ends with a minimal show of force.

This was not a miscalculation of the popular fatigue. Yeltsin’s call for a general strike met with no response in the capital. But it miscued the institutions that have developed under perestroika, across the board. Paradoxically, the plotters did realise that – in the now consecrated phrase – the country had changed. They bent over backwards to avoid violence of the kind that Grechko and Jaruzelski had employed, and to preserve constitutional appearances. There were no arrests; no closure of offices; scarcely any crowd control; not even much censorship. Gorbachev was sequestered, but never treated like Dubcek. Unable to disguise the originating illegality of the coup, this approach, designed to propitiate, looked merely nerveless. On the one hand, the forces of political opposition – the Russian President and Parliament, and their lively immediate following – were left at large. On the other, the levers of the unitary state – from quite senior to junior ranks of the military, security, communications and ministerial apparatuses – were left without credible direction. There was no preparation in depth behind the attempt at a takeover. The would-be junta seems simply to have assumed that if the chief of each major institution was squared, orders would be automatically followed downwards – the obedience of the organised clinching the apathy of the disorganised. But the new political class in the Soviet Union today is not confined to the area of leaders and demonstrators active in civil society: it also includes the younger cadres of the state, who follow public affairs no less passionately than their counterparts in the electoral arena, from a similar spectrum of positions. There exists a circuit of connections between these two – of which the number of serving officers in elective bodies is a prominent reminder – quite unlike anything in the West. The crude fig-leaf of a Presidential indisposition was never going to secure compliance from the many attached to the measure of democracy and legality that had been won under Gorbachev.

The black farce of the Committee’s sole public manifestation – its press conference on the evening of the 19th – would have made it clear to any waverers that the coup was stillborn. In full view of the television cameras, the master of ceremonies was unable to recall the names of the nonentities on the podium whom he was supposed to introduce; in the middle of them, Yanayev could not control the trembling of his hands; in front, jeering incredulity was in virtually every face and question from the massed bank of journalists. Rarely can a regime have given such a wretched exhibition of weakness. It is little wonder that belated orders to advance on the White House should have had no effect. The courage and resolution of its defenders quickly did the rest. The building lies just below the Barrikadnaya district, called after the street-battles in the 1905 Revolution. In a famous piece on it, ‘The Lessons of the Moscow Uprising’, Lenin wrote that what it had taught was the importance of fighting not against, but for the troops. Within a few hours, Yeltsin had successfully accomplished this, and the putsch disintegrated.

There had been two triggers for the attempt at a takeover. The first was Yeltsin’s decree banning Communist workplace organisation throughout Russia, which struck directly at the remaining bases of the Party’s power. The second was Gorbachev’s agreement to a Union Treaty which effectively dissolved the bonds of the Soviet state, leaving the centre with no more than – literally – a tithe of its revenues, to be remitted at the discretion of the Republics. The first outcome of the coup was to consummate the destruction of the CPSU, as Yeltsin moved immediately to proscribe and expropriate it outright. The gesture with which this Act was suddenly flourished and signed in the Russian Parliament, under Gorbachev’s nose, announced the new rulers of the country. In one sense, it simply brought forward into a single swift blow what was anyway a foregone process, since it was already clear before the coup that the Communist Party was likely to be decimated in Russia at the elections scheduled six months after the passage of the projected Treaty. Dramatically accelerated, however, it acquired another significance by dealing the quietus to the authority of Gorbachev as well. On returning from the Crimea, he had refused to disavow the ideals of the October Revolution when challenged to do so. Ya ne fliuger – ‘I am not a weathercock.’ Defending ordinary members of the Party, he declared his fidelity to the broad traditions of socialism. The following day, at bay in the White House, he still resisted the clamour from the floor that he should now help to ‘drive socialism out of this land’, and vainly tried to halt Yeltsin’s decree with the cry ‘Be a democrat – to the end.’ Twenty-four hours later, a terse communiqué announced his resignation as General Secretary of the CPSU, and the dissolution of its Central Committee. It would be unfair to call this surrender to the gale the turn of a mere vane. What it brings to mind is the fate of another modern President.

The analogy would not occur to most politically-conscious Russians, more at home even with Latin America than Asia, but there is an uncanny resemblance all the same. In October 1965, the President of Indonesia was sequestered in an attempted coup; the plotters were rapidly routed by the leading figure of authority left at large; the saviour of the hour then turned on the Communist Party, as the architect of the coup, eliminating it for ever as a force in the country; and reduced the President to a captive figurehead, suspected of collaboration, and forced to preside over the liquidation of everything he stood for. Half a million Communists were killed; Sukarno died soon afterwards; Suharto is still in power. This was one of the great turning-points of South-East Asian history. In Russia, there has been no massacre, and a civilian democracy should emerge from the crisis rather than a military dictatorship. But the passage of power resembles a repetition en douceur of the same scenario in other notable respects. There were shadowy links between the conspirators who staged the coup in Java and individual leaders of the PKI, although the latter played no more than a passively expectant role: the Communist Party at large, which paid the price of existence for it, knew nothing of the affair. The plot took Sukarno by surprise: but it was his rescuer Suharto and not his kidnappers who broke him, by tarring him with the same brush.

In the USSR, the Communist Party had become so ineffectual an institution that the organisers of the coup – it was one of its most striking features – simply bypassed it. Individual functionaries were tipped off, but not the apparatus as a whole, still less the mass of the membership. The status of the Party in the events was pretty well suggested by a comic exchange at the Committee’s press conference, when an editor of the official historical journal of the CPSU rose to enquire angrily what right Yanayev had as a member of the Politburo to participate in the unconstitutional takeover, to which the hangdog pretender replied that a Party historian should know that he was not a member of the Politburo. In fact, no one from that more or less defunct body seems to have played a major role in the coup. The putsch, of course, counted on the conservative sympathies of the majority of Party functionaries. But the Central Committee could not even be convoked because the opposition to the coup prevented a quorum. When Gorbachev, back in the Kremlin, dissolved it by decree, he was not only breaking its own statutes, as Roy Medvedev pointed out, but yielding up his independence too. Savouring the repudiation they had forced, his enemies were not to be satisfied with it. Within a few hours, Russian television was showing footage from the Crimea hinting that he might himself have something to hide about exactly what had occurred there. The skill of this flick of menace is characteristic of the viewing channel (No 2) that Yeltsin’s camp has created, one of the most impressive features of the new political scene. For sheer technical bravura – of camerawork, rhythm, montage, voice-over – this is a television whose aesthetic leaves most Western counterparts standing, and calls for some revision of McLuhan’s opinion of the medium: a trademark combination of hypnotic speed and staccato declamation makes this as ‘hot’ a machinery of communication as any wireless in the Thirties. In the days after his return, it was used relentlessly to close Gorbachev’s remaining space for manoeuvre. Even efforts to do his rival’s bidding were of decreasing avail, as Russian ministers submissively nominated to Soviet positions pointedly declined them. In the aftermath of the coup, it was as if the President had moved from physical seclusion in Foros to moral quarantine in the Kremlin, as the ultimate author of the debacle just averted.

How did such isolation come about? For all the unceasing glare of publicity surrounding him, Gorbachev remains the most enigmatic of modern political leaders. Should we agree with the banner across the Times Literary Supplement, an unlikely source, proclaiming ‘the Greatness of Mikhail Gorbachev’? There can be no doubt that he has one genuinely great historical achievement to his credit – the introduction of competitive elections for the first time in the history of the USSR in the spring of 1989, the original act of political emancipation from which all else has followed. In that specific sense he can be regarded as the founder of whatever democracy will now take shape in the territories of the Union. Internationally, his most substantial single achievement – the one which was truly negotiated, and brought most benefit to his people – was the orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe that brought the Cold War to an end, on the other hand, was not his doing: Soviet policy, confused and indecisive, could anyway not have stopped it – in his negative role, Gorbachev had less weight in the matter than Attlee in the independence of India. The arms reductions that followed are a more authentic merit, though one of direction rather than anything near completion. If they are one-sided, their terms simply acknowledge the realities of all-round Soviet weakness.

The central source of that weakness, on the other hand, has steadily worsened under Gorbachev. Perestroika turned a declining economy into a disaster zone. Disrupting the old centralised planning system, it provided no coherent alternative, leading to a spiralling breakdown of supplies and accelerating fall in output. In material provision the majority of Soviet citizens now live worse, some much worse, than under Brezhnev. For many, their personal security has deteriorated too. For perestroika also undid the old centralised administrative system that kept ethnic differences under rigid control, without putting any effective federal framework in its place. The result was increasing outbreaks of communal violence around the perimeter of the Union. Westerners often express a certain irritated puzzlement at the low standing of Gorbachev in his own society (unspoken is: he has done so much for us). It is true that the hostility towards him among much of the intelligentsia often has an immoderate, even hysterical edge. But the ordinary mass of the people have plain reasons for disenchantment with a leader who has made their existence poorer and more precarious. To put it coldly, there have been more goods in the shops and fewer dead in the streets under Li Peng than Gorbachev. This was ‘the extraordinary situation’ on which the August committee was relying for its acceptance.

Unpopularity, however, is one thing and isolation another, the distinction between them being the difference between opinions and institutions. The really striking feature of the last two years is the way Gorbachev sleep-walked across this gap, into the final solitude by the Black Sea. The path that led there was paved over the Party. Here lay Gorbachev’s basic strategic mistake, and the political reason for his downfall. From the start, his greatest skill and success lay in his handling of the CPSU. No other General Secretary, not even Stalin, consolidated his power over the Party so quickly and effectively. Between 1985 and 1989 Gorbachev removed not only every single survivor of the Politburo to which he had been promoted, but many of his own subsequent appointees, in a sweeping series of changes of rhythm without precedent in Party history. As Central Committee plenums, Party Conferences, Party Congresses succeeded each other, doubt and opposition to the direction in which he was taking the Party steadily grew. But his ability to impose his will never altered. In July 1990 he restructured its leading bodies more drastically than ever before, with a new Deputy Secretary and a radically neutered Politburo – still securing an overwhelming Congress majority for his scheme. A year later, he pushed through a new programme effectively jettisoning the whole ideological heritage of the Party, once again getting a virtually unanimous vote for it. The CPSU, in short, was not a serious stumbling-block for Gorbachev: it consistently proved to be putty in his hands. But from early 1989 onwards, he detached himself from it more and more visibly.

The crucial change came, of course, with his creation of an executive Presidency in March 1990. When he had taken the post of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet the previous spring, there was obvious political sense in a move which helped secure him against the chance of deposition by a Party intrigue of the sort to which Khrushchev had fallen victim. The Presidency looked like a logical further strengthening of this constitutional independence. But there was a fatal contradiction in it from the start. For Gorbachev refused to accept the challenge of a direct election to the position, relying instead on a safe vote from the Congress of People’s Deputies. He thereby divorced himself from meaningful Party leadership without at the same time acquiring any broader popular legitimacy. The two consequences were connected. To fight and win a direct Presidential election, Gorbachev would have had, not merely to manage, which he had always done, but to mobilise the Party of which he remained the head. This would not have been easy: he would have had to animate an organisation unfamiliar with anything like a country-wide campaign in a free contest, and he would have had to risk personal exposure to the voters. He might have lost; or to win, he might have been forced to detach himself from the Party altogether. He preferred the caucus short-cut. The political result was to be the worst of both worlds. As President, Gorbachev for most practical purposes ignored the Party: but for the population he continued to be the symbol of it. Communists were demoralised by his rule: he was delegitimated as a Communist. The paradox was unsustainable.

How could such a skilled politician, a tactical master of the mechanics of power in his country, have been drawn into it? One general answer stands out. More and more, Gorbachev became absorbed with his role on the international stage. There, the belief that the USSR was a super-power comparable to the United States had long been the mainstay of bureaucratic pride. Strategic and diplomatic parity with America was a point d’honneur of the Brezhnev period, through détente and renewed Cold War alike. Gorbachev inherited this outlook, which was then enormously reinforced by Western acclamation of his role in winding down the Cold War. In the new honeymoon atmosphere, the position of the United States in Soviet perceptions of the world – always pre-eminent in importance – altered in value, from adversary increasingly to cynosure. The Presidency created in 1990 was one of the results: an office designed and named after the American model, as the appropriate partner for it. The entourage of the President came to resemble a Russian version of the White House staff, aides indeed often recruited from the research institutes dedicated to the study of North America. The insulation of the US original is notorious in its own context; but at least the Presidency is directly elected, on a Party platform – however weak. In the Soviet setting, the reproduction of this rootless structure, a political air-capsule for the ruling ego, was naturally more drastic in effect. Ensconsed within it, Gorbachev increasingly lost touch with the real relationship of forces at home, while devoting more and more of his time to the trumperies of summits abroad. This is, of course, an occupational hazard of politicians in the late 20th century, when international affairs are the arena of vanity par excellence. Another victim of it was Margaret Thatcher, ditched for neglecting her party while she affixed her signature to the Paris Charter. Her condolences to Gorbachev were more than fitting. It is no accident that the two most successful political machines of the postwar world, which in 45 years have never relinquished office, should be the ruling parties in Italy and Japan, countries virtually without a foreign policy, where no distractions are allowed from the unremitting business of keeping power at home, and prime ministers come and go without pretensions.

The lure of cutting a figure abroad generally exacts some domestic costs, but there is no other modern case of such a gap between external adulation and internal repudiation as eventually opened up in Gorbachev’s government of the Soviet Union. The consequences were all too visible in his own loss of balance: gazing too long into the pool of Western admiration, he was bound to keel over. Nothing illustrates the logic of that fall so well as the last episodes of his ascendancy. The two overshadowing crises at home were the contraction of the economy and the fraying of the Union. His response to the first was a series of erratic shifts between the improvisations of one projector after another – Aganbegyan, Abalkin, Shatalin, Petrakov, Yavlinsky, Pavlov – until finally he arrived this July at the table of the G7 in London. He had nothing to show, and received nothing (but there was the honour of the invitation). A month later, after long ignoring the national questions in the USSR – indeed ruling through a more exclusively Russian circle than Brezhnev or Khrushchev had ever done – his solution to the second was to run up a fill-in-the-blanks constitution so vague that it was tantamount to dissolving the Union, without apparently noticing what it was doing. Its contents, incoherent enough, are of less significance than the way in which it was confected – in a few hasty hours of secret talks, mainly with Yeltsin. The only word that describes it is ‘light-minded’. The fundamental problems of framing a federal state, let alone a multi-ethnic one, which had taken the Founding Fathers weeks of public debate in the US, were being given about as much time as a couple of ceremonial excursions to Europe.

The draft Treaty precipitated a coup to block the prospect of what threatened to become disunion. The result of the attempt to stop this was to bring it about immediately. Within a fortnight of the tanks retiring from Moscow, Republic after Republic had formally declared its independence. Paradoxically, this second and larger outcome of the events in the capital has temporarily reprieved Gorbachev from oblivion. Yeltsin won Moscow in the name of democratic resistance to a military takeover, but also as standard-bearer of the rebirth of Russia. The decrees of the Junta were annulled by force of Russian law; the Patriarch was summoned to his duty as head of the Russian Church; the troops were rallied as sons of Russian soil; the crowds were roused with the Russian anthem. In front of the White House, during its three days of encirclement, a barrage balloon trailing the Petrine tricolour still carried lesser bunting – Georgian or Lithuanian emblems – below. On the fourth, the Meeting of the Victors declared the square renamed Free Russia; the other side of the building, facing the river, was placarded with the black and gold Romanov eagle. Suddenly, the archaising locution Rossiyane – ‘Dwellers of the Russian Lands’ – was cascading from every speech. At the Orthodox funeral, vividly recorded by John Lloyd in the last issue of the London Review, for the three who died at the underpass – one of them Jewish, but Russified for the occasion – Yeltsin, in the best style of the Little Father, resonantly besought forgiveness from the Russian people for having failed to protect their sons.

This outpouring of Russian national sentiment, overlaying the democratic cause in Moscow, inevitably released its counterparts and opposites in the non-Russian Republics that still subscribed to the Union. There, the political field was typically divided between the local Communist apparatuses, usually already adjusting tactically to popular aspirations for autonomy, and emergent nationalist movements. Once Yeltsin’s forces had effectively seized power in Russia, the two groups had a common interest: the former in escaping an extension of the anti-Communist purge to the periphery, the latter in pre-empting the rise of a neo-Russian hegemony. The logic of the lunge for independence was such that it was not even Moldavia or Armenia, but the Slav Republics of Ukraine and Belorussia that led the way. The landslide of breakaways caught the victors in Moscow by surprise: this was not what Russian freedom had bargained for. Yeltsin’s immediate response was to threaten truants with revision of their frontiers. In short order the Union, butt of objections so long as it was Soviet, had become something worth defending – at any rate, pending a more advantageous settlement.

It is in these conditions that Gorbachev has been left in place, as the juridical symbol of a space yet to be satisfactorily divided. For the moment it is in Yeltsin’s interest to keep him there, as a brake against conclusive Russian losses. Living up to his stop-gap role with panache, he quickly produced the arrangements – seven clauses presented to the People’s Deputies on a single sheet of paper – that currently serve as the interim framework of the state.

The social realities of the vast tangle of national relations and collisions in the territory of the USSR are a long way from that tenuous diagram. It is natural to compare the fate of the three great multi-ethnic empires that dominated Eastern Europe at the beginning of this century – the Habsburg and Ottoman that were destroyed by the First World War, and the Romanov realm that survived it in new Communist form and to view the present break-up of the Soviet Union as the belated completion of a process that began over a century ago. But it is a mistake to think that the structure of the three empires was similar, or – a related belief – that it was only the accident of Bolshevik victory that held the Tsarist one together when the other two collapsed. The major reason their paths diverged was the quite different weight of the core communities within them. The Austrians made up less than a sixth of the population of the Dual Monarchy, and the Turks were perhaps a third of the subjects of the Ottoman Sultan. The Russians comprised about half of the peoples of the Tsarist Empire. Richard Pipes has argued that Russia became an empire before it was a nation, but the judgment only holds by Western standards. In the Eastern context, Russian national consciousness stands out very early and starkly against the court cultures of Vienna or Istanbul. Bolshevism provided a new ideological structure for the multi-ethnic state: but the cement that fastened it was Russian demographic and civic predominance.

There was to be a second feature that distinguished this empire as well. All over Eastern Europe, ethnic groups were intermingled in complex patchworks and pockets unlike the relatively clear-cut separation of regional communities to be found further west. This was a long-standing pattern, the sediment of two opposite historical movements – successive waves of nomadic incursions from Asia, and colonial settlements from Germany – common to all three empires. In the Soviet state, however, a specifically modern phenomenon was superimposed on it: the massive churning of populations, partly directed, partly spontaneous, accompanying forced-march industrialisation. The result is a scale of interethnic imbrication beyond anything in Eastern Europe, in which perhaps forty million people live outside the borders of their own Republic or region. Of these, about twenty-five million are Russians. The combustible material for national conflict is strewn from one end of the USSR to the other. But the central problem of its break-up – the reason why, for better or worse, it is unlikely to resemble the end of the other multi-ethnic conglomerates – lies in the combination of the lopsided and dispersed weight of the Russians. They still outnumber all the others put together, and their diaspora alone every group save the Ukrainians. No common political structure – however confederal – could create equality here. The independence of the other Republics, in which the Russian élite still cannot quite believe, will be based on this simple fact, which cannot be circumvented. Politically, the Republics have nothing to gain as the bear’s litter. Yet they remain not only tied economically but interwoven demographically with Russia. It is not hard to envisage the kinds of conflict that are likely to ensue.

These will not be confined to the Russian borderlands. Within Russia itself, there are allogenous populations with – as they are quick to point out – as good or better claims to national sovereignty than the Baltic States. Amid the dozens of potential flash-points, it seems arbitrary to pick out any handful. But so far as Russia is concerned, if a shortlist were to be drawn up of major powder-kegs, it would include territories acquired across all four centuries of its imperial expansion. In the middle Volga, there is the Turkic community round Kazan – more numerous than all Balts put together – which was subdued by Ivan IV in the 16th century; and is now an autonomous Republic with substantial oil production and heavy industry, soon to run direct flights to Ankara, and claiming independence as Tatarstan. In Siberia there is the vast expanse of Yakutia, comparable in size to India, which was first penetrated in the time of Boris Godunov: possessor of the largest gold and diamond mines in the USSR, not to speak of coal, gas and timber, and home of an increasingly assertive indigenous population demanding republican status. These are within the RSFSR. Outside, there is the Crimea, conquered by Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, traditionally prized as the Russian Riviera: emptied of Tatars by Stalin, it was made part of the Ukraine by Khrushchev (whose political base had been in Kiev) in honour of the tricentenary of the Treaty of Pereslavl uniting the Cossacks with Russia – where the gesture is nowadays not appreciated. In Central Asia the northern belt of Kazakhstan, annexed in the last century, is a zone of predominantly Russian settlement that was already earmarked for reunion with the motherland by Solzhenitsyn in his (on the whole, prescient and generous) ‘Letter to the Nation’ last year; it happens to contain what may be the largest petroleum reserves in the world.

This is the scene into which Yeltsin flicked his match on 26 August, threatening new frontiers. It would be wrong to attribute any deep-lying Russian chauvinism to him. He has used national sentiment to dislodge his rival, but had their positions been reversed would no doubt have been quick to denounce it. The very communiqué menacing territorial revisions artlessly excepted the Baltic States from them. Not because their frontiers are ancient (they do not coincide with pre-war borders) or their populations homogeneous (they contain the two largest Russian minorities in the Union): but simply because they were tactical allies against Gorbachev, with whom he had struck a deal the previous year. Their exclusion merely indicates the lack of principle in his claims. He rode to power on a crest of Russian national sentiment and, peremptory in temperament and populist by instinct, it was in character that he would play abruptly to it. Yeltsin’s position, however, raises the wider question of the future of Russian politics as capitalism settles in. For the moment, he towers above the rest of the landscape as a charismatic leader, uplifted at the polls and consecrated on the barricades. But around him there is an emergent political world that is socially and generationally quite distinct from the rough-hewn plebeian and Party background from which he comes. It is composed of younger academics, lawyers, journalists, professionals, whose political careers date only from the period of glasnost. Yeltsin has drawn on these for his incipient machine: his two closest aides, Burbulis and Khasbulatov, are products of this milieu. But it is much wider than his immediate entourage, and contains many figures of substance independent of him. Its ideology is confessedly liberal.

Historically, Russian liberalism was a richer – and more radical – tradition than is often remembered. But as it took shape in Cadet politics, it always had an Achilles heel. It was nationalist and expansionist. Struve, its most distinguished mind, declaring that ‘Russian liberalism will always doom itself to impotence until such time as it acknowledges itself to be Russian and national,’ maintained that ‘the touchstone and yardstick of all so-called domestic politics ought to lie in the answer to the question: in what measure does this policy further the so-called external power of the state?’ His hostility to Ukrainian culture and identity was so virulent he was eventually dropped by the Cadets in 1915. In 1917 Miliukov, less extreme on the Ukraine, demanded the annexation of Istanbul as essential to ‘Russian freedom’. Even the idealistic Nabokov, the writer’s father, fearing a Tatar danger, scotched Crimean autonomy in 1918. How far are these attitudes likely to be repeated? The first signs in Moscow were not reassuring. Rather than criticising Yeltsin’s bluster, Sobchak and Stankevich – perhaps the two most accredited liberals – glossed or excused it. These are still tentative reactions. Events and reflection may bring other conclusions. But there is no doubt that the first great political test of the new Russian liberalism will be the one its predecessor failed – real respect for national self-determination.

The second will, of course, be the nature of the political system to emerge inside Russia itself. The sudden, peaceful springing into the air of Communist rule has been an extraordinary psychological liberation for its people. The freedoms now being gained will not be lightly lost. Their best long-run guarantee will come when the hopes and energies of those who have grown up under Gorbachev find their own political expression. For the moment, a well-grounded pluralism of outlooks and organisations is still some way off. The risks of the interim are obvious enough. The plebiscitary authority of Yeltsin might, in the short run, produce something not unlike another one-party regime. For the moment, at any rate, no aspiring politician will care to challenge him. This would be a democratic electoral order, but not necessarily a liberal one. Fear would keep the remnants of the old system under the hatches, and favour absorb the representatives of the new. So long as mass political formations are lacking – and there is still little sign of them developing – the media will be the main instruments of rule. The sheer bi-continental size of Russia is anyway bound to give an exceptional premium to control of them: politics is likely to be a matter of television more even than in America. Channel Two is a hint of what this could mean. But, whatever the attraction between the Russian and American establishments, it is hard to imagine Russian society becoming as depoliticised.

In due course, party competition along East European lines is more likely, with perhaps the same kind of symbolic polarity as exists in Poland – Sobchak playing a robuster Mazowiecki to Yeltsin’s Walesa (it would be interesting to see if he could break the sequence that has made Russia’s second city a political graveyard since the capital moved to Moscow: Zinoviev, Kirov, Zhdanov, Kozlov, Romanov). In time, the vitality and complexity of the whole strange society that has come out of the Soviet experience will make themselves felt, in any free political framework. Independent organisation among the working class was beginning before the coup, not only in the mines, but in a co-ordination of work-collective councils across industries covered with silence in the press. These were concerned not only with wages and working conditions. They were raising in the most detailed and undeceived way the central social question of the coming period – who are to become the proprietors of the factories and installations in which they work? However battered by the changes to come, labour will be an actor. So too, in a different way, will the intelligentsia, in the pre-Soviet meaning of the word. Beneath the rather prim culture, full of respectable sentiments, of those now in political orbit, there is another, more irreverent and exuberant one, whose voices are going to be heard saying improbable or scandalous things. That note can already be detected here and there in surprising places in the press. The spirits of Ilf and Petrov, or of Komar and Melamid, have not disappeared. Different kinds of satire and rebellion are in the making. Within the larger certainties of the restoration, we are in for some surprises.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991

If we must have long history lessons from Marxist academics about the final collapse of the Marxist empires, they might at least be accurate. Perry Anderson (LRB, 26 September) attributes the ethnic diversity of Eastern Europe to ‘two opposite historical movements – successive waves of nomadic incursions from Asia, and colonial settlements from Germany’. He thus overlooks two other historical movements of equal and indeed continuing importance: the survival of various indigenous peoples in many places, and the expansion of Slav peoples over the whole area.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Vol. 13 No. 20 · 24 October 1991

Perry Anderson’s difficulties in assessing the ‘enigmatic’ role of Mikhail Gorbachev (LRB, 26 September) perhaps reflect some disappointment that Gorbachev did not after all achieve the modernisation of the Soviet Communist Party and its transformation into a democratic, ‘mobilising’ institution. But his actual achievement has been on a large canvas, much greater than the specific act of introducing competitive elections that Anderson mentions.

Gorbachev’s great achievement was to have introduced some fundamental truthfulness into political debate in the East, and to have insisted on the resolution of problems by means other than force. (It was his public renunciation of armed intervention that precipitated the changes in Eastern Europe.) It is surely amazing that the climate of fear and paranoia that prevailed between East and West for over forty years has been dispelled, largely by Gorbachev’s initiatives. It is virtually without precedent that a monopoly of power on the scale of the Soviet empire’s has been given up almost without the use of force. Nothing is more to the credit of the Communist Parties of most of Eastern Europe and the USSR than the fact that they have ultimately accepted the expressed will of their peoples.

Gorbachev’s continuing commitment to some version of socialism was vital to this peaceful transition since it identified him as at least not an enemy of the old regime, and therefore as someone with whom dialogue remained possible. For all his misjudgments in the economic sphere, he remained remarkably consistent in his dedication to political methods of problem-solving in a society in which politics has had virtually to be reinvented. The modernisation of the political sphere is, whatever some people may now think, as important as the state of the economy. It was the normalisation of these new political forms which seems, fortunately, to have sapped the will of the plotters. Most Western governing classes would be less inhibited, faced with serious threats to their interests, as we need look no further than ruined Kuwait to see.

Michael Rustin
London NW2

It is always good to read Perry Anderson. It was fascinating to have his account of events in Moscow. And it would be even more interesting to hear what he now thinks about Marxism. Will you offer a platform, or should we await a blockbuster in the What’s Left Review?

Aldan Foster-Carter
Department of Social Policy, University of Leeds

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences