18.05.2005
«People Got Ready to Move…»
№2 2005 April/June

“People got ready to move…” This phrase by Sergei Solovyov, a
Russian historian of the 19th century describes the social,
political and spiritual background of the historic changes in
Russia at the end of the 17th century. He believed that the country
had recognized the necessity of change and was living in
anticipation of a reformist leader, a role finally taken on by
Peter the Great. Solovyov was one of many Russian scholars to
address the specifics of historical changes in Russia, but he was
certainly the first to have had so much insight and shrewdness.

Ever since, there has been a continued debate on whether such a
phenomenon as ‘reforms a la Russe’ exists and, if so, what makes it
so unique? The discussion is centered on some penetrating
questions: Do the reforms have an organic link with “the entire
course of past development”? Where and how is the critical mass of
factors compelling the authorities to launch dramatic changes
formed? Why does it so happen that the most ardent proponents of
change emerge among the “happy” members of society – the upper
class, while the mass seems to prefer the passive role of sheep?
How can one explain the unavoidable gap between the reformers’
projects and the results they gain, which are typically paid by
huge sacrifices? In what cases do those changes, which have been
initiated at the top, result in revolutions in the depths of
society?

All attempts to provide mathematically precise answers to these
questions inevitably fail. And yet it is possible to approach an
understanding of the essence of ‘reforms in Russia.’ Solovyov
probably offered the best approach – he attached special
significance to the personality of the reform leader.

Although Solovyov acknowledged objective social laws, he
indicated that the people’s willingness to ‘get moving’ does not
necessarily guarantee a forward movement. “The people waited for
someone. A chief commander,” Solovyov says. He maintains, however,
that this is not enough. Changes can be successful only if they are
steered by a great personality who has a profound understanding of
the popular consciousness and an ability to curb the energy of the
masses in certain situations, while heeding it at other times. The
leader must also have a clear understanding of the final objective
and skillfully manage the available resources. If handled by
mediocre people, any reform can easily result in catastrophe.

‘A man at the helm of power’ is one of the most intriguing
themes of russian history. How does this individual set into motion
the highly diversified social organism and what forces does he
himself obey? Why does fate protect one leader while grinding to
pieces another? Where does the realm of rational and explicable
factors end and the play of chance, be it devilish or simple luck,
begin? Who has been the most unhappy – Russia with its rulers, or
the rulers with Russia?

Marxists claim that when the need for a great personality exists
in society, life immediately offers such a personality and makes
him or her act according to what the objective laws of the
situation dictate. This wonderful hypothesis has been proven many
times in history, but does it always work?

Presently, as Russia is marking the 20th anniversary since the
launch of perestroika, it seems a relevant time to consider this
phenomenon.

THE SOVIET UNION: AN UNPREDICTABLE FINALE?

The idea that the radical reforms of the 1980s were inescapable
has become one of the indisputable truths of contemporary history.
Internal and external conditions had allegedly ripened for them.
The voguish clichй of the perestroika period that “there is no
alternative for us” initially forwarded the irreversibility of
change, but soon acquired a belligerent revolutionary character
which overwhelmed even the moderates who usually take the time, at
least, to look before leaping. A complicated combination of
objective and subjective circumstances produced the sweeping
conviction among Soviet intellectuals and politicians that
reforming the established system was not possible in principle; it
could only be dismantled and replaced by something new. This
ideological triumph was achieved due to the potent and extremely
destructive energy that arose from various corporate groups which
possessed the crushing power of social aggression. Without going
into the details of this problem, I will mention the Soviet
intelligentsia’s naive and righteous ambition which gave birth to
idealists and romantics with good intentions who later fell victim
to post-perestroika. The demand for their lofty ideas about the
nation’s future and for them personally was rather short-lived.

The only common denominator of the chaos of the minds in 1985
was the desire “to have a better life.” In the numerator, there was
a whole range of powerful emotions. No one in the Soviet Union
would have a problem explaining the meaning of a “better life.”
Problems would appear, however, whenever the tools of reaching that
goal were mentioned. The vast majority of Soviets never gave the
idea much thought and would, by virtue of custom, delegate the
right to fateful decisions to the authorities. Except for a meager
part of the huge, multi-ethnic Soviet society, few people would
think of seeking a “better life” beyond the borders of the Soviet
Union or outside the socialist system. Civil initiative did not go
farther than signaling to the upper echelons that life was dismal,
while, at the same time, giving the government carte blanche for
arranging the country’s wellbeing. Throughout Russian history, the
people sent their prayers to the powers that be: “Please, think of
something! You’re the government, aren’t you?”

The authorities heeded the call – with assistance from
intellectual servants and pressure from nascent corporate groups
who respectfully called themselves “the elite.” The aspirations of
the majority and the plans of the almost indiscernible minority
developed a dangerously huge difference of potentials. The tragic
irony was that while the majority was still debating on what it
really wanted, the minority had already realized the importance of
action. Whose interests this activity should suit was a rhetorical
question.

First, Russia was told that the previous seven decades of its
history were just an unfortunate experiment of translating a Utopia
into life. The argument was driven home to the people that the
nation “could not live like that any more” and should strive for a
capitalist paradise. But there would not be a place, of course, for
everyone in this system, they said. Only those who pass
successfully through the sieve of natural selection due to their
viability, talent and inventiveness – that is, those who can prove
that they are worthy members of society – will enjoy this paradise.
Inequality, ostensibly inherent in the very nature of things, was
actually proclaimed as the supreme law of existence and an
embodiment of justice. Ideologists refrained from arguing in favor
of humanism, morals or scruples – these values came to be regarded
as the “rudiments of a primitive communal society.”

To the public’s great surprise, this all resulted in the
collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical, governmental,
social, economic, and cultural system. That collapse opened the
floodgates, sending mostly muddy waters raging in all directions,
flooding the vast spaces of the entire Soviet Union. The slogan
“Every man for himself,” borne out of the reality of life, did not
catch unawares just a handful of people who had been smart enough
to make arrangements in advance. They built comfortable life rafts
which eventually turned into luxury yachts.

The role of international factors in this dramatic episode
should be neither overstated nor underestimated. The Soviet Union’s
isolation from the rest of the world had always been rather
conventional. Glances to the West would give reason for pride,
envy, and bitter thoughts. Common sense demanded that the Soviet
Union drop its anti-Western nihilism; it would publicly reproach
the West and then quietly copy from it. The louder the reprimand,
the more willingly it would imitate the West. Comparisons evoked
certain conclusions that eventually split the Soviet political and
intellectual elite into two camps – the renovationists and
radicals.

The renovationists believed that the so-called ‘socialism with a
human face’ would be tantamount to a capitalism cleared of all
inhumane traits. They did not see any obstacles to successfully
fusing together the civilizational achievements of both systems.
The problem was in determining which part would receive the
emphasis, but compromise solutions seemed possible. In essence, the
recipe for such a social change was an old one, which the adepts of
the convergence theory had proposed back in the 1960s.

The radicals insisted on dismantling the socialist economic base
and Communist political institutions, arguing that they were
doomed. This group had the support of certain forces at home and
abroad and already sensed victory and the spoils of war; hence,
they rejected any compromise. Proponents of ‘shock therapies’
believed that the struggle between two versions of ‘the end of
history’ – the Communist and the liberal ones – had been
predestined to end in the victory of the latter.
The loss suffered by the socialist reformers at the hands of the
triumphant capitalist revolutionaries, coupled with nationwide
humiliation, resentment and hopelessness, led many to believe that
there had been a “conspiracy against the Soviet Union” (and
Russia). This was a natural reaction of a defeated people, who were
dumbfounded by the “idiotic” and “unpredictable” finale. A loser
reluctant to acknowledge his fault always tries to rationalize it
through a search for external causes, as Max Weber would put it.
But the validity of this statement does not remove the fact that a
well-coordinated and intellectually supported tandem of
international and domestic actors was performing the subtle,
skillful and cynical work to eliminate “Carthage.”

As we look back today, it is much easier to prove that the
downfall of the colossus Soviet Union was much more predetermined
than accidental. A rather chaotic avalanche of events in the second
half of the 1980s, which theoretically could have had any other
continuation, easily fell into an unambiguous logical succession.
The biggest question is whether that “irreversible” evolution took
place in reality, or in our imperfect consciousness which is always
prone to rationalizing past events. Had the Soviet Union survived
in any form then, it would have been explained in a kind of
deferred wisdom that “there was no alternative.”

Many historians have attempted to tackle this rather
metaphysical question without any prospect of getting to the truth.
Eric Hobsbaum, for example, came up with a cautious hypothesis (and
this is the only possible status for a scenario that never came
true) about the possible development of East-West competition from
the 1960s through to the 1980s. The implication of his statements
is that the struggle between the two systems, which had taken on a
universal and Messianic dimension, permitted compromise in
superficial factors only; in essence, it was a zero-sum game. This
factor formed the backbone of the Cold War logic, which was fuelled
by fear, mistrust and the tragic experiences of the past. The
situation was further aggravated by the alternating successes of
both sides, which inspired hope of a final victory for one of the
adversaries and a feeling of revenge for the other. Revengefulness
would sometimes manifest itself in nervous asymmetric
counter-offensives. The outcome of the competition depended on
complex world policies and situations, together with their numerous
facets (regional, local, economic, military, technological,
political, diplomatic, ideological and cultural).

Hobsbaum believes that the two “marathon runners” were getting
exhausted by the beginning of the 1980s, as evidenced by crises on
both sides of the Iron Curtain. Thus, the West decided to stake its
all and won. But not because it was destined to win – the Kremlin
elders failed to produce a sober, intellectual and well-designed
response to that bluff. To continue Hobsbaum’s line of thought, the
representatives of the Soviet officialdom – partly due to
physiological reasons – could not devise a preventive analysis and
offer alternative decisions.

This leads to the great question that becomes more and more
relevant over time, namely: What did the West gain on the global
scale and in the long term? Today, the answer to this question
looks rather contentious, together with the conclusions about what
exactly Russia lost.

THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS

Turning back to the pre-perestroika period and following
Hobsbaum logic, let us suggest a hypothetical construct. Let us
imagine that the Soviet Union did possess the necessary reserves
for its survival as a geopolitical and civilizational entity. Who
could have realized them and how? This could have been accomplished
only through an order from the top. This is because revolutionary
endeavors from below in Russia had always ended in destruction
rather than in transformation.

Naturally, by the mid-1980s the situation in the country was
rather complicated, especially in the economy. The social
temperature reflecting popular discontent was growing. However,
this unpleasant symptom of an illness did not testify to the
presence of any revolutionary moods or a situation conducive to
revolution. The nation continued to live the way it had for decades
– without wars, hunger or social shocks. It enjoyed a range of
social guarantees, and everyone had developed a habit of taking
them for granted. People had faith in a good future and
governmental paternalism. They did not bother to think what the
benchmarks of popular happiness should be like.

The problems were not at all novel; the country had seen far
worse times. Despite today’s desire to find signs of a
revolutionary situation at that time, there is no doubt the people
had a huge resource of patience. The intellectuals would talk
amongst themselves in hushed whispers in the kitchens of their
apartments and occasionally read prohibited books; artists would
show their impertinence through meaningful hints; the youngsters
would revolt by blaring rock music and embarrassing haircuts. The
older generations and their children would rebuke each other, while
a handful of human rights activists would protest before the
cameras of foreign correspondents. The authorities did not let all
those things out of the traditional bounds and even encouraged tiny
doses of dissidence. They closed their eyes to the harmless sprees
of the intellectuals and artists, but nipped in the bud the
encroachment of basic values.

These were the manifestations of a sort of conventional norm of
life, not the symptoms of an imminent death. Nor did the undeniable
crisis in the Soviet economy and within Communist ideology
necessarily mean fatality. In general, any crisis is part and
parcel of the process of development and renovation, as well as a
challenge to the human mentality and will. The inability to respond
to a crisis ends in a disaster or revolution (as its variety),
although both are elements of historical evolution.
In the race for survival, the West had more luck with subjective
rather than objective circumstances. For instance, Western
countries found the right people during moments of systemic crisis
and foreign policy defaults that often looked fatal. They had a
better knowledge of the nature of crises and, more importantly,
they knew how to use to their best advantage the constructive
factors of critical situations while neutralizing the destructive
ones (graphic examples are lessons drawn from the Vietnam war,
racial upheavals, student protests and the oil crisis of the
1970s).

As a result, the West emerged from the epoch of turmoil quite
easily and showed its ability for self-renovation while avoiding
catastrophe. Its occasional crises, however, played havoc on the
Soviet Union. The Kremlin mistook wish for reality and made faulty
conclusions from its analysis of the global processes. After making
short-term gains on the market situation in the 1970s, the
Communist leadership developed a belief that the country’s mineral
wealth and stable social system would allow it to prosper; it would
continue to make material and moral dividends on the grievances of
other nations. Thus, instead of investing in the renovation of the
economy, Moscow preferred to increase spending on foreign-policy
expansionism, together with the extensive development of defense
production, all the while waiting for the third (final) stage of
the “general crisis of capitalism.” This is what triggered the
crisis of socialism in the mid-1980s.

The crisis was reflected by the deaths of Soviet leaders,
including three General Secretaries of the Communist Party’s
Central Committee, who passed away almost one after another.
 
MESSIAHS MEET THE DEMAND OF TIME

Mikhail Gorbachev’s appearance before the nation in 1985 looked
like a good sign. Soviet society, tired from its uncertainty, gave
a sigh of relief and seemed to say: “Well, here we are at last!”
The relatively young and energetic General Secretary could speak to
the people by literally looking them straight in the eye – he could
manage without reading from prepared notes. For the first time in
Soviet history, a Kremlin leader made public confessions, honestly
admitted mistakes and promised ardently to correct them. The
country was infected with his confidence and faith in success. He
excelled in skillful imitations of decisiveness and charm, and
there was not a trace of play-acting because he was driven by a
genuine desire of fairness. Enjoying the sense of impending
happiness, no one cared too much for the details of his plan of
action. For quite some time this lack of knowledge was effectively
substituted with general provisions of a “new political mentality.”
Against the background of euphoria there was only a narrow circle
of intellectuals muttering the skeptical “Let’s wait and see.”
Nobody wanted to consider the Chernobyl tragedy, for example, as a
token of disaster.

But in the second half of the 1980s, Soviet society began to
grow restive as there was little sign of any concrete actions.
Instead, the economy was declining, the disorder in the state
administration machinery was ripening, and the struggle between
reformist projects and group or personal interests was aggravating.
As a result, the mass of spectators were beginning to turn into an
active force. Radicals, conservatives and moderates, representing
the entire spectrum of ideas, interests and social sentiments,
began fighting for people’s minds, while the popularity of lofty
social ideals plummeted. Those who aired them either had to retreat
backstage or to ossify in pragmatic approaches and dealings with
their own consciousness. The specter of a major partitioning of
power, property and minds in the swing sections of the population
was haunting the Soviet land. The embittered lower walks of life
were losing faith and, not knowing whom to follow, became
convenient objects for manipulation. Social destabilization
lubricated ethnic conflicts – another highly explosive phenomenon
which threatened the Soviet Union’s very existence.

By the end of the 1980s, a manageable crisis grew over into a
structural disintegration. Different political forces, together
with the variegated intellectuals they had recruited, increased
their pressure and exploited the people’s feelings of
disorientation, naivetй, illusion and fear. They did not care to
consolidate ranks or draft a national ‘salvation army’ in the face
of an approaching catastrophe. Instead, the frantic mobilization of
all strata of society “for the last and most resolute fight” was
launched. People were lured by totally implausible promises.

The banal truth of history is that the outcome of critical
situations is predetermined to a great degree by the personality of
the person in charge. Fortunately or unfortunately, the historic
scope of this personality does not depend on his morals, virtues or
the profoundness of Hamlet’s doubts – it rests on the toughness of
his or her pragmatism, the demand for which increases as the
situation grows more and more tense.

Another postulation by historian Solovyov comes to mind in this
connection: when the chariot of reform is rushing downhill, the
reins must be in firm hands, otherwise, a crash is imminent.

The Soviet perestroika did not have either firm hands or
prophetic minds, not to mention a sense of immense historic
responsibility. What it had in excess was predatory instincts
underpinned by an ideology of selfishness. Also, there was the
sophisticated smartness of the thieves and moral breakdown; a
fanatic obsession with clinging to power and a readiness to make
others shed blood for it.

As the 1980s were coming to a close, Gorbachev was already
unable to close Pandora’s box. Instead, he was tossing about in
search for those who would do something, but the August 1991
tragicomedy glaringly showed that such people were non-existent, or
else there had been no real effort to find them.

Gorbachev had the last argument of a ruler – bloodshed, a thing
especially dangerous for Russia. Gorbachev’s greatness was proven
in 1991 when he saved his country from a civil war as a Man won a
victory over a Politician inside himself – the same way as a
Politician had won a victory over a Man inside himself in 1985
(although that latter victory was never finalized). One can bear a
grudge against Gorbachev’s failure to become a great politician at
the outset of perestroika, but he definitely deserves praise for
his actions six years later when he had rejected a fame that almost
certainly would have demanded an exorbitant price.

Meanwhile, right-wing radicals had no doubts about their
actions, and that proved to be their trump card. They signed a pact
with the young Soviet bourgeoisie in a resolve to go to the end and
stop at nothing. Their credo “I need a lot and need it quickly”
called for a new leader. It did not take long for this leader to
emerge in the limelight. Unlike Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin was more
temperamental and persistent in his worship of Power. Moreover, he
was far less scrupulous. He was an ideal personality for
implementing the historic tasks that our liberals and their Western
patrons had set for themselves. Yeltsin became the country’s new
idol – he provided clear answers to the questions “Who is to
blame?” and “What is to be done?” He symbolized a different
project, and while the people were still gauging the essence of the
situation, the mechanism of destroying Gorbachev’s socialist Union
for the sake of Yeltsin’s capitalist Russia was already set in
motion. The glittering summit of Power was worth any sacrifice,
including the Soviet Union. Frankly speaking, the Soviet Union
would have been saved had Gorbachev ceded power to his opponent.
But expecting any sort of altruism from the disciples of the Soviet
nomenklatura would mean not understanding the epoch and the milieu
they were brought up in. 

The image of “a people that got ready to move” is not quite
adequate if applied to the pre-perestroika period. As in many
instances in history, the people did not intend to go anywhere. In
any case, they did not intend to travel the particular path that
had been imposed on them, especially the path that eventually led
them to a crisis.
Rather, the people were waiting apprehensively, while the ones who
really got moving were their preachers – political and spiritual –
whose predestination or restless character traditionally keeps them
searching – usually for whatever is the enemy of good. They are
constantly ready to advise where to go and what for. The people and
their preachers have ended up in different destinations, which on
the whole are not bad, and even quite wonderful, for some of the
preachers. The reform for everyone has nicely transformed into a
reform for the select few. From the viewpoint of the law of the
jungle as described by Kipling, all of us – the victors and the
defeated, the cheaters and the cheated, the pacified and the
rancorous – have what we deserve.

“Messiahs meet the demand of the times,” said a poet. Was the
same not said about the leaders of the perestroika and
post-perestroika? Did they rise to meet the demands of their time?
If they did, what sort of time was it? If they did not, should they
be blamed?

Marxist law says that the ruler’s personality corresponds to the
moment in history that calls for him. If we accept this law, we
have to admit that the time of heroes in history and politics is
over, and the demand for great people has vanished.

Whether this will be a blessing or a tragedy for Russia in the
future is not clear yet. Let us live until then and see.

*  *  *

Twenty years is not so great a period of time for drawing a
bottom line under the events of a “big historic duration,” as
Fernand Braudel would say. At this moment in Russia’s history, we
know well what we have lost, but have a vague idea of what we have
gained. At any rate, we can take comfort in thinking that things
might have been still worse. Whatever the curses that Russians hurl
at today’s reality, at least they evaded one of the possible
scenarios that was much more ominous. The sort of future the year
1985 ushered in can be elucidated only by the future itself.