Fast Forward

Fast Forward

The sorcerer’s apprentices could not even stage a coup.


The sorcerer’s apprentices could not even stage a coup. They had neither the bloodthirstiness of a Pinochet nor the ruthless efficiency of a Jaruzelski. Surprised by popular resistance, they acted with the clumsiness of people resigned to the verdict of history. They were supposed to reverse its course. Instead, they accelerated the pace of events with a vengeance.

With the Ukraine leading the breakup of the Soviet Union, with statues toppled all over the land, with the assets of the Communist Party seized and the czarist two-headed eagle stamped symbolically on its headquarters, this is clearly the end of an era, the crucial Russian climax to the Eastern European upheaval of 1989.

That the Russians entered the stage as actors in their own drama, that they dared to defy tanks and the once dreaded K.G.B. is a tribute to the inspirer of glasnost, which awakened the Soviet people from their political slumber. But Mikhail Gorbachev failed to guide his country to some form of democratic socialism. Because of his background he was probably unable even to conceive a socialist alternative; besides, the C.P., designed to channel orders from above, was no instrument for a revolution from below. Under pressure, the monolith split into factions. The managers, the new priviligentsia, decided their interests would best be served under classical capitalism. The old apparatchiks wanted to preserve the features of the system insuring their prerogatives. Gorbachev stayed at the top as the only man who, by a brilliant balancing act, could insure a smooth transition from one to the other. The putsch, upsetting the balance, caused his decline and the rise of his rival, Boris Yeltsin. Prompted by the deepening economic crisis, Gorbachev also accepted the capitalist solution, but he did so as a cautious reformer, with scruples and social democratic leanings. Yeltsin embarked on this road with the skills of an opportunist and the zeal of a convert.

When the coup occurred, this apparatchik turned scourge of the Communists rose to the occasion. From the start Yeltsin urged the people to resist, the workers to strike, the soldiers to disobey unconstitutional orders from commanders. Faced with this unexpected opposition, and with the imprisoned Gorbachev’s refusal to make the slightest compromise, the coup collapsed, allowing Yeltsln to seize the levers of power. To guide its conversion to capitalism the Soviet Union lacked a resistance figure, a Lech Walesa with years of opposition and imprisonment. Now Yeltsin emerges with popular acclaim on top of his electoral legitimacy, and with an international blessing. Western embassies see in him, if not yet a substitute for Gorbachev, at least a convenient tool to force the Soviet leader to toe the line of the International Monetary Fund.

The way Yeltsin has humbled his opponent, suspended the C.P. and seized newspapers suggests that he may have more talent for the power game than for democratic niceties. But this ominous toughness may also be due to the feeling that the finest hour is bound to be followed by the moment of truth. While his economic advisers preach shock therapy à la polonaise, Yeltsin has not told the Russian people what this really means. In the recent presidential campaign he talked of grants, subsidies and compensation rather than of blood, sweat and tears. Even if his Western backers (hitherto keener to call the tune than to pay the piper, as Gorbachev found out in London) now become more generous, Yeltsin will have to translate his eloquence into a policy involving mass unemployment, falling living standards and rising inequality. And, as the Russians test his pudding, it will be increasingly difficult for him to blame the cooks in the center for spoiling its taste.

The paradox of Eastern Europe is that even genuinely popular movements lead, at least in a first stage, to a boost for capitalism. This is tragic but understandable, since people reject the ancien régime, and socialism is identified in their minds with the “really existing” variety. The reference to capitalism should not be taken to mean that the brass hats, jailers and apparatchiks who tried to usurp power were in any way defending socialism. They did not even pretend to be doing so. They were ghosts from the past, writing the last chapter in the Stalinist saga. The real socialist opposition to the regime will emerge in a new story, which is now beginning to be written in such dramatic fashion, and within a new generation. It will surface amid the very people Yeltsin called to action, amid workers, students, technicians and sections of the intelligentsia who, as they in turn discover the blessings of “really existing capitalism,” will ask for more people’s power: not just the right to come to the regime’s rescue in the hour of danger but the power to shape both their destiny and their everyday life. A distant dream? Maybe. But the theme for our times is, so obviously, not the end but the acceleration of history.

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