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On the Barricades In a Weary Capital

A new generation of radicals confounds political labels - a letter from Moscow

ELENA KOTOVA is a member of Moscow's city council. On her office wall are framed pictures of two of her heros. One is Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The other is United States Housing Secretary Jack Kemp.There must be some mistake, a visitor first thinks. Like Ms. Kotova, Mr. Yeltsin is one of the reformers now in the vanguard of reinventing a Russia without communism. He is usually referred to as a "radical." Mr. Kemp is one of the US's most vocal conservatives. He is a man whose supply-side economics out-free-marketed even Ronald Reagan. It seems incongruous at first. Yet on second thought the odd couple that adorns Elena Kotova's office seems a fitting metaphor for a Russia in which liberals have become conservatives, conservatives have become liberals, and outsiders have become confused trying to figure out the difference. To understand this semantic turnabout is to understand a little of the ideas that will reshape the Soviet Union economically and politically. Like many reformers, Ms. Kotova's view of the world has been indelibly influenced by the failure of communism. Seventy-five years of state control of the factors of production, she tells a Western visitor, have drained Soviet economics of all rationality. The results, visible everywhere in this weary capital, are shoddy consumer goods, shortages, and bread lines. Kotova believes there is only one way to change, and it is a way Jack Kemp would be the first to understand: from the bottom up. Unleash small entrepreneurs. Give them the money and the private property to sink roots. Let them make business decisions the way thousands of black market entrepreneurs have done for years here, by responding to the demands of the market. Juxtaposed against the young reformers of Kotova's ilk are members of the still influential "old guard," former communists who have switched sides rhetorically but still hue to a go-slow, top-down approach to economic reform. As party apparatchiks, they were radically liberal from a Western point of view. But ask any Russian today and you are likely to hear them referred to as "conservatives." One reason the labels have changed is that the context of history has changed. The last time that happened was in the late 19th century, after the industrial revolution began transforming the political landscape in Europe and America. Before then, advocates of a free market and limited government intervention - political economists like John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, for example - were considered liberal. That is because they represented a reaction to centuries of absolute power by Europe's monarchs and to the theory of "divine right" that they invoked to wield it. After the industrial revolution, when the issue was no longer the divine right of monarchs but the role government should play in regulating and humanizing capitalism, people of such views suddenly found themselves on the political right. In short, liberals became conservatives. And as communist dictators became the monarchs of the 20th century, as the idea of divine right gave way to the more sophisticated notion of the Marxist dialectic, what was once radically conservative became radically liberal. Which brings us back to Elena Kotova. Kotova is a radical, all right, but she's hardly a radical Lenin would recognize. She is, in fact, the archetype of a new generation of reformers whose assault on the crumbling bastions of central planning may someday be viewed as the revolutionary equivalent of the Bolshevik's siege of the Winter Palace in 1917. Which, come to think of it, is why Jack Kemp's picture does not look so out of place on Elena Kotova's wall after all.

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