THE AUGUST COUP: The Truth and the Lessons. By Mikhail Gorbachev. HarperCollins. 127 pp. $18.

THE FUTURE BELONGS TO FREEDOM. By Eduard Shevardnadze. Free Press. 237 pp. $22.95.

FOR A NEW RUSSIA. By Anatoly Sobchak. Free Press. 191 pp. $22.95.

CE QUE NOUS VOULONS FAIRE DE L’UNION SOVIETIQUE. By Aleksandr Yakovlev. Seuil. 157pp. 79 francs.

BORIS YELTSIN: From Bolshevik to Democrat. By John Morrison. Dutton. 303 pp. $20.

REBUILDING RUSSIA. By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 119pp. $14.95.

“At the burial of communism too many people want to jump from the coffin into the funeral procession.” The Polish author of these lines tried to convey the idea that the former practitioners now seem oblivious of their past performance. His image, however, does not go far enough, since they come to the funeral not to mourn but to curse. The more accurate metaphor would be that they try to Jump from the defense table to the prosecutor’s seat because, conveniently forgetting their own neo-Stalinist past, they lump everything together and damn Marx, communism and quite often socialism as dangerously utopian. Nor is it quite surprising. Restoration is a time for turncoats and for epidemics of amnesia.

Brushing up one’s memory may be a subconscious act. This came to mind when reading the proud assertion by the former Soviet Foreign Secretary that “since childhood I have never allowed any encroachments upon my own notions of duty.” In that case, the notions must have been quite flexible. The silver-haired, smooth and suave Eduard Shevardnadze, co-architect of “new thinking” In Soviet foreign policy, may have become the darling of Western chanceries (I almost wrote Ed, since he refers to James Baker as Jim), but the man was not born in 1985. By then he was party boss, i.e., supreme master, in Georgia, a post he reached through the Komsomol, the K.G.B. and the Ministry of the Interior, hardly a journey for a tender democrat. He does not deny the itinerary, only somehow misses its significance. A Georgian, Shevardnadze is a southerner, and one should possibly apply to him Alphonse Daudet’s definition of the French variety: “They don’t lie; they believe in what they say.”

The origin of the main reformers and the resulting ambiguity may indeed have contributed to the difficulties of this “revolution from above.” Four of the books under review are by key actors in the perestroika. In addition to the writings of Mikhail Gorbachev himself and of his master diplomat, there is a book by Aleksandr Yakovlev, for years the chief ideologist; and another by Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of Leningrad, rechristened St. Petersburg, and one of the stars of the rising generation. (He is the moderate legal spokesman, whereas the Mayor of Moscow, Gavril Popov, is the more adventurous economic messenger of the acquisitive priviligentsia.) Considering the prestige of the authors, the books are a disappointment. And not only because it is now impossible to publish fast enough to keep pace with the acceleration of history in Eastern Europe: Shevardnadze and Sobchak have managed to tag on a postscript on the putsch; Gorbachev spends a great deal of his limited space arguing in favor of a Union of Sovereign States, a plea that by now has only a historical meaning.

The feeling of dissatisfaction is also due to the fact that these are obviously potboilers. If two–Sobchak’s and Yakovlev’s–were produced with the aid of journalists, parts of the other two give the impression of having been written with the help of a staff, as one says of a painting that it is the work of the school of such-and-such master. Indeed, if one puts aside Solzhenitsyn’s pamphlet, clearly a case apart, the only normal book–though also a rush job–is John Morrison’s on Boris Yeltsin.

This is not really a biography of Russia’s present leader; for the personal story one must still go back to Yeltsin’s own, ghostwritten Against the Grain [see Singer, “Too Good to Be True,” May 7, 1990]. It is the story of the struggle with Gorbachev, a chronicle of the last few years, with emphasis on the political rather than the social and economic. Clearly written, fairly well documented, the book, while obviously biased, is not worshiping: The author, for instance, has to admit his hero’s authoritarian streak. Its chief limitations are those of all mainstream writing on Eastern Europe, and they are well illustrated by the subtitle–From Bolshevik to Democrat. Yeltsin was as much a Bolshevik as I am a Chinese dancer. It simply means that, with all pretense of distinctions dropped, Stalinists, Leninists, Marxists are now lumped together as dreadful reds and Bolshevik is a term of insult. The corollary is that capitalism equals democracy-as has been proved from Chile to South Africa–and Yeltsin, moving faster toward capitalism than Gorbachev, is a better democrat. Hence the author’s preference (and, presumably, the reason for the exasperating repeated description of Yeltsin as a “born rebel” when his record up to 1985 shows him plainly as an obedient, and occasionally sycophantic, bully).

F or all their individual weaknesses, these books collectively teach us something, and not only about separate aspects of Soviet life–Shevardnadze on diplomacy, Sobchak on parliamentary procedures and investigations. Taken together, they tell us a great deal about the momentous and unfinished transition, its protagonists and the reasons why it was driven In the capitalist direction None of the men involved were born yesterday. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, almost twins in age, are just 61. Shevardnadze is three years older and Yakovlev seven. Even Sobchak the newcomer, at 5 5 , is not entirely green. He cannot be seriously described as a former dissident, since open critics did not hold professorships at Leningrad University. But he can claim that he was an outsider, whereas all the others were princes of the former regime.

The main actors of the perestroika are often described as the children of the Twentieth Party Congress, the 1956 meeting at which Nikita Khrushchev delivered his indictment of Stalin. In terms of age, it fits. Our men may have entered political life under Stalin, but they were awakened by the thaw during Khrushchev’s reign. Yet they also prospered under Brezhnev and after. The only one whose career was temporarily diverted was Yakovlev–but whatever one may think of Ottawa’s climate or provincialism, ten years as Ambassador to Canada is hardly deportation to Siberia. As to Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Shevardnadze, they climbed to the very top of the party’s regional ladder, becoming proconsuls, respectively, of Stavropol. Sverdlovsk and Georgia. Perestroika was not the work of rebels. The transformation of the neo-Stalinist system was carried out by its main beneficiaries, who were conscious of the fact that it was doomed. Judging by conversations between Gorbachev and Shevardnadze as Communist Youth leaders, the seeds of doubt were sown long ago.

This does not mean that they set out in 1985 with the clear intention of taking their country on the road to capitalism. Very far from it. Why then the tremendous discrepancy between the original intention and the actual journey? One reason is that these men were the main beneficiaries of the system. They could envisage a transfer of power from one group of privileged to another, say, from apparatchiks to managers. They could even see the need for a dose of democracy to save the regime. They were In no position to mount an attack against all privileges. They were unable to turn a radical reform from above into revolutionary change from below. The second reason is that, even if they had intended to do so, they would not have known in which direction to move.

If Gorbachev and his fellows were children of Khrushchev, they were also grandchildren of Stalin, who had reduced Marxism to a theological book of useful quotations. The fundamental questions of socialism–about the social division of labor, the unwithering state, the capacity of people to gain mastery over their work and their lives–were totally alien to them. Or, to be more accurate, as one reads these books one becomes convinced that for them Marxism was a sort of liturgical Latin, spoken on special occasions in their Sunday best, and unconnected with real life. Thus, when they found the courage to admit that their society was in no way socialist, they were empty and, dazzled by Western wealth, ripe for conversion.

(For outsiders like Sobchak, Marxism is not Latin but Greek. Otherwise quite a rational writer, when it comes to his Weltanschauung, he manages to pack into a few pages an extraordinary amount of contradictory nonsense. Thus, he says that Stalin could not be called a Marxist, yet in the same chapter blames Marx and Nietzsche for the gulag and Nazism. The hodgepodge in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia is one of the grim heritages of Stalinism.)

I f the trend of this revolution from above was, possibly, inevitable, in dealing with individual leaders one must take into account two factors–the chronological and the personal. In periods of transition moods alter quickly, and books, written at one go and with hindsight, are deceptive. This is particularly true of the former Soviet Union, where the ideological shift to the right has been both swift and tremendous (at the risk of being called a dinosaur, I consider people who preach private exploitation, unemployment and social injustice to be right-wingers and not progressive radicals). Who now remembers that, say, Yuri Afanasyev, today great champion of capitalism, only a few years ago criticized the regime in the name of socialist principles? That Boris Yeltsin named “Communist social self-management” as the aim of perestroika? Yeltsin, many people will object, is ready to say anything in his quest for power.

There is no doubt that, with his light luggage of principles, Yeltsin has proved so far to be the champion at jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon. He, a highly privileged party dignitary, gained popularity as the enemy of privilege and champion of equality. He then presided over a campaign based on the Russian version of Guizot’s slogan “Enrich yourselves.” He now has to perform the acrobatic feat of preserving balance on two wagons, the Western one heading toward capitalism and the nationalist one leading toward a Russian empire.

The transition of Aleksandr Yakovlev has been less spectacular. He was one of the first Soviet leaders to deny his country the title of socialist. In his book he dismisses the Marxist vision “according to which in the future society each one will work according to his capacity and get according to his needs” as “utopian.” He also “rejects such formulae as socialism and capitalism.” Such signs are unmistakable. He has since chosen sides and dropped Marxism altogether.

The evolution of Eduard Shevardnadze is instructive because it illustrates the rise and fall of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in foreign affairs. The new policy started from the common-sense perception that nuclear weapons do not choose between social systems and that, since there is no need for overkill, the scope for disarmament is enormous. It then moved gradually to what is now Shevardnadze’s basic premise–that peaceful coexistence is incompatible with class struggle. This led inexorably to the acceptance of American suzerainty and to the admission that the capitalist rules of the game are the “universal values” of humankind. And Shevardnadze was not the only one to go that way. He shared this shift with his fellow “knight of Malta,” Gorbachev.

And yet, the case of Mikhail Gorbachev is more fascinating and dramatic than that of his colleagues. Not only because of his stature, because he dared to unleash such tremendous forces and had some initial success with glasnost, but also because he is the only one who gives the impression of trying to be somehow true to himself. Almost to the end he proclaims himself a Communist and states that his country must stick to the “socialist choice.” This emphasis is the more poignant since, having accepted “universal values” and the market as the guarantee of freedom, the choice is an empty one. Gorbachev, at the end of the journey, is really striving for that strange concoction–“capitalism with a human face.”

He is here almost at the end of his tether. Nevertheless, he regrets nothing. More precisely, he is sorry for mistakes committed, but not for the basic choice he made of shaking society. On the other hand, he does not study the underlying forces, does not ask himself why, when he was deserted by the priviligentsia, he stood so isolated, so tragically alone. Admittedly, the man cannot be judged by this book, this last-minute plea pro domo sua, written as he was desperately clinging to power and the nationalist tide was sweeping him aside.

The revival of nationalism. Writing about Solzhenitsyn some fifteen years ago, in the midst of the gulag controversy, pleading for the witness and against the prophet, I pondered why a man so obviously a figure from the past was still relevant in the Soviet Union. Little did I know. Rebuilding Russia is a reprint of a pamphlet written in June 1990 and published in Russia by that September. Some of it, however, is strangely topical. The idea of a “Slavic commonwealth” of Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians, launched last December, came straight from these pages, except that the exiled writer wanted to add to it the colonized northern parts of Kazakhstan. His purely mythical references to a civilized, prosperous czarist Russia also find an echo, notably in Sobchak’s book. His plea to send women back to the kitchen and the nursery has adepts too.

For all his topicality, however, Solzhenitsyn is not as much a prophet in his own country as one might have imagined. This is due to the fact that, for all sorts of reasons good and bad, he has no love of Western capitalism. He is unimpressed by its supermarket and shocked by its television. He imagines for Russia a rather odd mixture, combining for a time the strong central power of the present regime with local institutions inspired by the czarist model and a capitalism of small enterprises, little banks and no concentration. His model for the present bears as much relation to reality as his vision of the past.

This is not the place to bring up to date the old Russian controversy between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers, which even in czarist times did not neatly divide reactionaries from progressives. Among the former you had people, such as the narodniks, who hoped to skip the capitalist transition and move Russia straight to a higher stage, based on the mir or the commune. Among the latter, you had those who wanted to import from the West a good system of exploitation. On the whole, however, it was among the Slavophiles that one smelled the stench of jingoism, racism and reaction, while most of the Westernizers borrowed from the outside world its most progressive ideas, which at the time were increasingly socialist. By now, the lines are even more complicated. Today’s Westernizers may be better than the Slavophiles on such issues as human rights or ethnic discrimination, but the ideas they bring back are inspired by the Chicago school or the Heritage Foundation. Indeed, Boris Yeltsin is leading a strange coalition combining monetarists, the new golden boys (often newly converted teachers of Marxism-Leninism, which says something about the depth of their convictions), with Russian nationalists of the Solzhenitsyn vintage. It is an alliance he will find Increasingly difficult to keep together.

New Times of Trouble undoubtedly, but also times of transition, when people and ideas change faster than one expects. Writing about Solzhenitsyn in the past I argued that, when a genuinely socialist society emerges in Russia, it will have to pay tribute to the man, mentally as well as physically a casualty of Stalinism. Today the prospect seems even more distant, yet when it comes, it will also be necessary to find a special place for Gorbachev, dismantler and victim of the Stalinist heritage. Real biographies of Yeltsin and Gorbachev are still to be written, but though the first is now unquestionably the winner, there is little doubt that the second will take pride of place when historians come to deal with this unfinished story.