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Russia: the end of an unnoticed revolution?


This story begins in August 1991 when hope of true democratic reform dramatically became alive in Russia. It ends in June 1996, just as those hopes may be dashed in the first round in the presidential elections. The contenders are: Gennadi Ziuganov (the Communist Party candidate), Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Zhirinovski (more fascist than Liberal-Democratic as his party is misleadingly labeled), and Grigori Yavlinsi (the real liberal democrat). But the last two don't really count: Zhirinovski and his LDPR's belligerent attempt to scare anybody who does not behave (Yeltsin, Communists, anti-Russian legislators in neighbouring countries with Russian minorities, and the West) does not work in the strange combination of atomization and polarized society that is Russia today; and Yavlinski is regarded by too many as a nice-guy-who-unfortunately-cannot-defeat-the-Communists.

The real choice will be between Ziuganov and Yeltsin, between ending the Russian Democratic Revolution and remaining stuck in the present limbo where there is at least hope for the future even if there are no moves toward that future. If the Communists (CPRF) win under Ziuganov, we in Russia will live the grim and scary consequences of this vote. He is not a social democrat as some Westerners like to believe, and the bulk of his party comrades even less so. To be more precise, his CPRF is best described as a national socialist party. The only alternative is Boris Yeltsin--even with the Chechen war raging on, and corruption, poverty and economic disorder ever present. For under the Communists all this will definitely be worse--but who can prove it to people in the street until it comes?!

There is great irony in Russian Democrats having to support Yeltsin as the lesser evil. For evil he certainly is in 1996. But it didn't start out this way just five years ago.

In the early seventies, a popular joke furtively told in Moscow kitchens (and there were a myriad of such jokes, as humor was our only weapon against the repressive regime, and the safest place to tell them was the kitchen, far away from the possibly bugged telephone) went as follows:

In the year 2000, a customer enters a Moscow cafe and orders a cup of tea and a fresh issue of Pravda (the Communist Party newspaper with a compulsorily huge circulation--about 11 million in the 1970s).

"But the Soviet power has been overthrown, and Pravda isn't published any more," says the waiter.

"Okay, then bring me a cup of coffee, and today's Pravda."

"I have said, `I can't!' Pravda is not published any more!"

"Oh, in that case bring me just some hot chocolate and Pravda."

The waiter gets angry: "How many times do I have to repeat; there is no more Soviet rule and no newspaper called Pravda!"

"Yes, I know. But I so enjoy hearing you say it!"

In the `70s that was only wishful thinking; then came the revolution.

The Revolution

Incredibly in August 1991, this dream of a Russia without Pravda came true. After six years of Gorbachev's cosmetic perestroika which simply restructured the same old communist system, people came to the realization that life could be changed and had to be changed. The hard-line Communists tried to stop the winds of change by attempting to overthrow the non-elected and spineless President of the U.S.S.R. (Gorbachev never trusted his people enough to try to win general presidential elections.)

This move brought an unexpected reaction by the people. Under the pretext of defending the "rightful" president of the USSR, Russians engaged in mass civil dis-obedience against the new rulers. Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites and people from nearby cities and towns assembled around the Russian White House (headquarters of the Russian--not Soviet--Parliament) and the recently elected President Boris Yeltsin (elected in the first democratic general election in the millennium-old history of Russia). The status of the puppet Russian Soviet Federation Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in the framework of the U.S.S.R. was at that moment very uncertain--of all the Union republics, it had been the most puppet. Yet about one-third of its parliamentary members elected a year earlier had been backed by the anti-communist Democratic Russia (DR) movement which also backed Yeltsin, who previously had been one of the chief--though dissenting--Communist leaders. Yeltsin had quit the Party in 1990, as did most of his close supporters who joined the DR movement. On June 12, 1990, the Russian Parliament proclaimed sovereignty for the RSFSR while still staying in the framework of the Communist (Gorbachev)-led U.S.S.R. Then 11 months later, the RSFSR struck another step for independence by starting its own TV channel.

All this went almost unnoticed by Western media. They did not even cover the first session of the first democratically-elected Russian Parliament, instead focusing their attention on "Gorbachev--the good Communist." But hard-liners or "bad" Communists did take notice and tried to stop the process of Russia going out-of-control with their infamous "Putsch" on August 19, 1991. But they did not succeed in stopping the people's move toward democratic change. Three days and nights of active confrontation with the people followed, with Soviet tanks burned and seized by the Russians (as we called ourselves in that struggle). I was there the night the first barricade went up on August 20/21. With tracer bullets passing over my head, I witnessed the death of a young man who truly was a Martyr of the Unnoticed Revolution. I and my colleagues at the barricade felt real fear at being on the streets--but, knowing the significance of what was happening, to be left out and stay at home was even more alarming.

For two days, crowds ravaged the streets and squares of Moscow, destroying Soviet leaders' monuments. Some armed groups occupied buildings that had belonged to the Communist Party and immediately banned the Party as a criminal organization. The KGB chief, a leading putschist, was arrested and sent to prison And indeed, just as the old joke went, Pravda was closed down.

One of the DR's most prominent leaders, Father Glen Yakunin (a dissenting Orthodox priest who had spent several years in prison), led a group to KGB headquarters, opened the archives of this grim organization and exposed the close collaboration between the top Orthodox Church hierarchy and the KGB. Another political ex-dissident, Eugene Savostianov, became the Chief of Moscow Regional State Security branch, and the leader of the DR movement. Arkadi Murashov took over as head of the Moscow Police.

On August 21, the Russian Tricolor flag flew over the White House (and later over the Kremlin!), replacing the Communist Red Flag. It was quite an emotional moment. When I saw it first go up, I must confess that I, a 45-year-old father, unashamedly cried! Here was the symbol of my Motherland's revival, the three-centuries-old flag of Russia, banned by the Bolsheviks in 1917. When I was a little boy, my grandmother once furtively drew for me the white, blue and red stripes, and said, "Look, this is the real flag of your country. Remember it!" and then quickly destroyed the drawing. As late as 1990, members of the militant Democratic Union had been arrested by the Gorbachev police for openly waving this flag. And now it was flying over the Kremlin!

The red flag's territory soon shrunk even more. By December 1991 the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist (it was not "replaced" by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as many Westerners think: the CIS never existed as a state, being from the very beginning a loose organization, looser than NATO or even the OECD). We had witnessed the rebirth after 74 years of the Russian state. The August revolution had destroyed--or so we believed--an anti-human ideology and fearful entity called the U.S.S.R. Now, we hoped, we could look forward to economic reform that would make Russia just another prosperous country of the free world, and win for her a place somewhere between Canada and Japan (which was also a bit late to join the free world community, but did it very successfully).

Did not Understand--or Did not Believe?

All that was clear in Moscow, but the farther one got from main centres of Russian intellectual and political life, the less the public understood what had "really" happened. The long-suffering and long-repressed, hard-drinking "simple" people of Russian provinces, and especially the agricultural ones, viewed all these tumultuous events in Moscow with naive cynicism: they were just another planned campaign, another "game of the Bosses." And right they were. The old Communist nomenklatura had kept its vested positions, not only in most republics and provinces but also in the "centres." The key middle level of administration of enterprises, industrial, agricultural, service, even educational, were completely controlled by the Communist-appointed "Red directors" (even though they had ceased to call themselves Communists), on the official pretext that they were "specialists." Similar "specialists" went on managing the Armed Forces and the police. (The Moscow police chief remained an exception.) Much of the immense fund of money accumulated by the Communist party (in August 1991--about 300 billion rubles--$50-$100 billion) had "disappeared" somewhere into the hands of the ex-nomenklatura, whatever it called itself now; while those who seemed to know where the monies had gone just happened to commit suicide. The old system built up over seven decades proved to be much more crush-proof than its surface ideology. And people felt it.

One could see this in the reactions of ordinary people. For example, on New Years' Eve 1992, a Moscow TV journalist interviewed workers who had to be on duty while others were out celebrating the holiday. At one of Moscow's railway stations he asked an employee a rather banal question: "Why do you work when everybody's drinking?" The railway worker who was a bit drunk but wanted to please the journalist (a Man of the System, in his eyes) and the public, answered very seriously: "Because we Soviet workers are always ready to work when and where the Party and the Government wants us!" (The Party and the Government was a traditional Soviet formula. In Soviet shorthand it was written by just one sign!) The journalist smiled maliciously and patronizingly asked, "What Party do you mean?" The worker was a bit embarrassed, "Ah, the Communist Party has been overthrown, I forgot. Well, I mean, the Democratic Party!" Old habits die slowly; old ways of thinking may take even longer.

By that time, hundreds of political parties had been created, and a couple of those dwarf parties were using the label "the Democratic Party." However, they had nothing to do with the Yeltsin government, which saw itself "above" political parties. Half a dozen new Communist parties were allowed to re-emerge (and Pravda reopened), but that was not where power or the Bosses were. "If the Bosses wanted now to be called Democrats, that's what we will call them": that was what the little drunk railway employee thought. And he was right. Less than three years later, in 1995, the Yeltsin-appointed Chernomyrdin government and the Presidential administration organized their own political party, called "Russia Our Home." We used to have "The Party-and-the-Government." Now the new-old elite set up a "Party-of-the-Government"--ideologically different but functionally analogous to the late CPSU.

An old friend of mine from university days who had become a Big Boss in his native North Caucasian republic (not Chechnya) came to see me in Moscow not too long ago. He read one of my articles in the pro-Democratic Stolitsa magazine, ridiculing one of the top Communist leaders (freedom, sir!). After reading it he looked worried and asked me whether I had had troubles with the KGB because of his article. I smiled: "But Hassan, the Moscow State Security branch, the KGB, as you still call it, is in our hands, the Democrats!" He skeptically smiled ... and he was right. By 1995 there were no more unofficial Democrats among the high-ranking officials of the police and the Security forces (Democratic supporters appointed after the August Revolution eventually had to resign). Practically all the branches of economy are lead by people who before the August Revolution were members of nomenklatura. They have changed their phraseology, and also their ideology. They do not stand for Communism anymore. Instead of just managing the economy and getting some perks for this position as in the Soviet Union, they want to own it in a "capitalistic" way. And that means we live now in an absolutely different country, with much the same elite but which now has new and different goals and aspirations.

I am not sure the emergence of the New Russia was ever understood or even really noticed by the Western public. I remember in 1992, when I was still full of revolutionary enthusiasm, being shattered by a remark made by a young Canadian MA student. At the end of a two-hour, wide-ranging discussion in which we had conversed about world problems and the Canadian and Russian economic and political situation, he gave me his photo and wrote on the back, "Our meeting has shown that in spite of all ideological differences, Russians and Canadians can find a common language." "What differences do you mean?," I asked, puzzled. He thought it over and blushed ...we both understood that he had stereotyped me in the typical Westerners' mentality: I was a Russian, a "Red Russian," therefore, supposed to be a born communist. Thus a Russian, if he is not a refugee, is doomed to being stamped a commie. According to this stereotype there were only two types: bad commies like Stalin (who was not a Russian, by the way) or the movie KGB spies, or good commies like Gorbachev. Once I understood this I could see why Gorbachev is still so popular in the West. He has, from his very first days, corresponded to the stereotype, he was understandable, unlike the mysterious "maverick" Boris Yeltsin.

It is easier to think that instead of the big Bad Soviet Union (which also was very incorrectly and unjustly called "Russia" in the Western press) now we have a tamer "CIS." But I repeat, there is no such country (even though it is shown on the world map at Montreal's Dorval airport). Instead, we have a brand-new country born in 1991, called the Russian Federation, with the same Russian-speaking majority but based on absolutely different principles of social organization. Understanding it requires a different mentality.

A New Ruling Class

According to the results of an interesting sociological study published last year in the Kuranty (a Moscow independent pro-Democrat daily), 23 percent of the top private entrepreneurs in Russia are exmembers of the above-mentioned new/old nomenklatura, including some ex-top Communists like the ex-premier under the Gorbachev government Nikolai Ryzhkov, who is now president of the mighty private Tver Universal Bank. Most of these people used Communist party money and connections for their start. They control half of the privatized industry, one-fifth of the banking and more than one-quarter of the stocks listed on the Moscow exchange. Another 17 percent of the present business elite which controls more than one-third of the stock exchange businesses has come through the professional Young Communist League (Komsomol) structures. Another 15 percent (two-thirds in private banking) have come through the system of the former State Bank of the U.S.S.R. A further eight percent were children of the high-ranking Communist nomenklatura and had advanced themselves through using the money and connections of their families. About 15 percent had been employed in scientific and research institutions and used their knowledge for starting their businesses; and only 5 percent of the elite were real Western-style self-made men. (The remaining 20 percent were no longer in these positions by the end of the period of study.) These people manage the privatized economy of the country not with a view of enhancing the "world socialist revolution" or building the "just society," but rather to make a quick buck. And they do make it.

But they have inherited an ugly, structurally unbalanced half-economy of a half-Soviet Union with a huge and unnecessary military-industrial complex, which most of them try to manage with their old professional skill. The "ex-Red" directors do not want to close the old outdated enterprises (for example, the old factories producing coal in order to produce coke to produce iron to make into steel to produce machinery to produce tanks). Hence, the slow pace of the reform. To hold on to their jobs the workers support the directors--now owners--of these enterprises. In addition, the directors have close links with their only possible customer, the military headquarters of the shrinking Russian army inherited from the Soviet superpower, with 10 times the number of generals needed. The generals need armed soldiers and tanks to justify their existence. They also need a new enemy to replace the U.S. and NATO, and find one in the unnecessary and shameful war in Chechnya (approved by the New Ruling Class but not by the Russian population--after beginning the Chechen war, President Yeltsin's popularity fell from 53 percent during the April 1993 referendum, to an unprecedented 6 percent in March 1995). Knowing that Yeltsin is indebted to them for coming to his defence during the new Communo-Fascist putsch of October 1993, the generals are in a good position to apply government pressure. This is especially true since the government members are drawn mainly from the ex-nomenklatura, Red Directors--most of the radical Democrats having resigned in 1994.

Agriculture: On the Farms

The same "old ruling class in new clothes" dominates agriculture. Agricultural policy, both at parliamentary and government levels, is in the hands of the so-called Agrarian Party formed in 1993 by the state farm directors and collective farm "chairmen" who were in a sense the Communist landlords. Most of those huge ineffective agricultural economies, conceived by Stalin along with the Gulags, still exist, some under the guise of "associations" and the like. The rural population, having been demoralized and robbed of initiative over the long decades of Party/Government rule, gives cynical support to the local bosses on the grounds that "all politicians lie anyway, but since my boss may refuse me daily fodder for my cow if he were to discover I did not vote in the proper way, I'll vote as he wishes." Those who have ventured into becoming private farmers have no assurance the land given to them (usually the worst land in the area) by the local collective or state farm really belongs to them as there is no coherent land-ownership legislation, amendments to this effect having been blocked by the Agrarian and other pro-Communist parties in Parliament. As Izvestia (no. 9, 1995) pointed out, "farmers are strangled by the monopolistic state system of purchasing, treatment and distribution of agricultural production."

This has resulted in a food crisis deeply affecting the lives of all ordinary Russians. In 1994 imports of meat and poultry at world prices to Russia increased 4.5-fold; and butter by 24-fold. Most of the food sold in Moscow now is imported and prices are practically the same as in Canada (sometimes even higher: for example, in August 1995 milk cost $1.40 a litre in Moscow) even though salaries are not comparable.

The number of private farmers in Russia increased from 270 000 to just 280 000 between 1993 and 1994 which, in a country that had been agriculturally based and which has a population five times that of Canada, is extremely few. Many of those farmers are unable to efficiently run their agricultural operations, and, in order to survive, turn to various local commercial activities.

The Agrarian Party's anti-farmer policy gets ideological support from numerous pro-Communist and "Patriotic" (Russian chauvinist) organizations who ridicule the existing small pro-Democratic Peasants' Party (led by Yuri Chernichenko). Like the old guard of the past, they insist East Slavic tradition requires collective economies, adding that the huge North American grain crop is the product of huge corporate farms exploiting the hired labour of "simple Americans and Canadians." So, the Agrarians maintain, the only possible way to future affluence is to keep the megafarms operating, and not what they call the "ridiculous family farms."

Adopt-a-Professor: The New Poverty

To gain credibility for these fallacious arguments they search out academics able to clothe them in intellectual respectability. (You and I understand that this is rubbish but they manage nonetheless to find "patriotically minded" Russian scholars and even Canadian Studies' specialists who repeat that rubbish in their academic writings.) Many former democratic-minded people from academic circles have become aggressively servile officials at the service of the new elite, some even became members of this elite and ridicule their old Democratic Russia movement comrades, branding them as "demschiza" (that is, "democratic schizoids"). Some serve as consultants of Agrarian and other pro-Communist and ultra-patriotic parties, including that of Zhirinovsky. Even the notorious, overtly Nazi party called the Russian National Unity, which is openly anti-intellectual, prints articles in its newspaper claiming to be authored by "such-and-such, Ph.D."

Why is it so easy to buy an intellectual in Moscow? The explanation for this mass betrayal in what was a revolutionary force--the Moscow intellectuals--is very simple. It is the widespread poverty of the population, especially of those working in the state budget sector, which includes science and education. Average salaries and wages in Russia are now equal to about US$100 a month: "but how do they live?" you ask. I asked the same question when I learned that the average monthly salary in Georgia was about $8. The monthly salaries of the Fellows of the Russian Academy of Sciences Research range between $25 and $60. I am richer than others because on top of my $60 I get a special well-publicized honorary "President Yeltsin's stipend for Outstanding Scholars for 1994-1996"--unindexed, of course, which in mid-1995 was equivalent to $16 per month. I should add that I also receive a special allowance for knowing English and French languages. For each of those I had to pass a separate three-hour exam. These allowances were never indexed (despite a 2000-fold increase of prices between 1990 and 1994) and today I receive an extra pay allocation of 35 rubles for my English and 15 rubles for my French--which means that I receive one Canadian cent for the English and less than half a Canadian cent for the French.

At the same time, the monthly salary of a typical Red Director exceeds US$3000; and in general, the top 10 percent of the salaried employees (mostly top officials and the New Rich--which is sometimes the same) earn 26 times that of the bottom 10 percent of the new social ladder (differences you can find only in Latin America). Yet these 10 percent are really the "middle class" of Russia. They are in the middle in the sense of being between the top 1 percent who are of the rich and the majority who are poor. According to official statistics, between 30 and 50 percent of Russians live in real poverty, with incomes under the living minimum, spending their meagre incomes only on the cheapest foodstuffs and trying to survive for the time being.

Only 5 percent of respondents in a 1994 opinion poll believed that the privatization campaign was launched in the interests of all society (65 percent responded: "in the interests of a few people" or "of the administration"). Sixty-four percent were sure their salaries would not increase if they worked harder. And among agricultural workers, like employees in education, medicare and culture, only 6 percent of respondents said they "hoped to get wage increases through boosting their labour efficiency"! That makes the present-day Russia a powder keg if radical reforms are not undertaken--such as cutting government spending on the useless industries (beginning with the military-industrial complex and still-collectivized agriculture) and the huge (and growing) bureaucratic machine.

Instead, we have the trillion-ruble Chechen war, growing appetites of the military, prestigious government-sponsored mega-projects and optimistic promises to completely rebuild Grozny, the Chechen's ruined capital (the size of Quebec City) destroyed by the federal army under our eyes. It is destroyed, as the generals explain with a criminal naivete, because "it is a Russian city, and Russian land, so we cannot allow the Chechens to secede!" In one bizarre scene on TV, the Minister of Defence actually demonstrated the typical happy smile with which, according to him, a typical young Russian soldier "dies for Russia"!

And there are the ex-Democrats, ex-professors, who, having joined the Presidential Council, justify the Chechen war from a "scientific" point of view on the same TV screen! I know one of them, a man I had profoundly respected as honest and open. After he left the university to go to the Very Top, I was pleased: I saw it as proof that Democrats are getting power and President Yeltsin's personal attention! But then I saw him on the TV screen justifying this war.

I was heart-sickened by his hypocrisy. But when I took over the Moscow University course (on the economic and social geography of Canada), I came to better understand why this man whom I had so respected had "sold out," purporting this war just, and reporting to Yeltsin (and the public) only pleasant things about the President's actions. When I finished the course (18 hours of lecturing plus exams), I was paid an equivalent of US$23. One buck an hour! A mere pittance of what one would make as a "Yeltsin Advisor." So, of course, this former friend did not want to return to the university. He wanted to be able to afford to drink milk--real, white, tasty milk--every day! That is not something which Russian professors can easily afford nowadays.

This is why so many economists and political scientists have left the ranks of the demschiza. It pays more to advise the nomenklatura democrats who now surround Yeltsin, or even Zhirinovsky. But you have to be willing to give them only the advice they want to hear. What they want from you is simply a good "wordification" of their primitive ideas--as we called it mockingly in the good old communist times.

In some ways, the New Times in Russia really do resemble the Old, so perhaps the people in the West and in the Russian provinces who have not "noticed" our revolution may not be that wrong. Maybe it will take a whole generation's life span to prove that the new Russian Federation and the old so-hated Soviet Union are in reality different countries. But all has not been without hope. As I look back over the last few years I am proud to have witnessed some of the steps which have taken us closer to democracy in creating the new Russian Federation. In October 1994, our Democratic Russia movement become a federal political party and we have some good political allies (including the small but growing Peasants' Party). Also, we have some good members in the present Parliament. And we must not forget that once we even had our candidate elected as the President of the New Russia, the first-ever elected leader in the millennium-old history of our motherland. He always won when we supported him. But then he turned his back on the very reforms he personified from 1991 to 1993. (Now, he will have to do without us!)

Our country abounds in resources, our people are naturally clever, witty, educated, and intelligent. They are only awakening. And the most important thing: we definitely still have Freedom, and that really makes Russia different from the Soviet Union. One proof is that I dare to publish what I write. So everything is not so bad, as long as the people have freedom to think, to discuss and to choose.

This world is small and interdependent, so it is in the interests of the whole world, including our dear Northern Neighbour and almost physical twin Canada, to help us to retain this freedom. As the first step to helping us, please, just try to believe in us. Do not lose faith in us and our revolution in these difficult times.
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Author:Arkadi Tcherkassov
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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