Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Putting Russia's October Revolution to Rest

THE result of Alexander Rutskoi's call for a ``second October Revolution'' in Russia was finally to bury the corpse of the first one. Soviet Communism is finished in Russia, at least for the short term. The most likely result of the events of Oct. 3-4 will be to strengthen the prospects for democracy in the Russian Federation.

Boris Yeltsin provoked the crisis by dissolving Russia's parliament. Did Mr. Yeltsin have to act when he did? Perhaps not. His advisers were divided. Why did he act when he did? As always, a combination of factors led to his decision. The general context for his action was a growing awareness that under the holdover legislature it would be impossible to adopt a new constitution. A more immediate problem was the budget, which, in the version approved by the parliament, amounted to 25 percent of GNP. An insulting speech by Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov may have had some effect, but the materials for the dissolution of parliament were prepared before the latest string of insults. The results of elections in Poland may also have had an impact, suggesting that to wait might favor those who advocate a slower transition.

About these ads

In the face-off at the Russian parliament building there were few rules, but there was at least one: Avoid civil war. Mr. Rutskoi violated this rule when he called for an armed attack on the City Hall and a Russian TV station. The character of that attack made it obvious that the former vice president and his ally, Mr. Khasbulatov, were supported by groups that had prepared specific plans for such an assault.

Rutskoi and Khasbulatov got their timing wrong. Their attempt to seize power in the name of communism was too late to preserve the old power structure. And it was too early to capitalize on the inevitable unemployment that will eventually accompany market reforms. Ironically, the parliament's ability to delay and soften the effects of shock therapy deprived it of a potential army of supporters.

It matters little whether Rutskoi's call for an armed insurrection was a momentary lapse or the articulation of his true nature. The result was a tragic loss of life and scenes that will leave a deep scar on Russia's political psyche. The challenge for Russia's leaders is to heal the wounds while introducing a system of normal partisan politics.

Russia's future will depend on much more than the personality of a single individual. Yet, perhaps inevitably, many commentators focus on Mr. Yeltsin. Some suggest that he is an ``instinctive autocrat,'' though how anyone in the US could know his basic instincts is an intriguing question. The same critics note that this is the second time Yeltsin has suspended Pravda. But they ignore the question of why it was necessary to suspend the same paper twice. It seems that Yeltsin's instinctive autocracy lacks the killer instinct.

The contrast in the two sides' behaviors on Oct. 3 could not have been more stark. While a patchwork coalition of communists, fascists, monarchists, anarchists, and street toughs was marching to seize power, and while snipers were shooting at the heads of bystanders, Yeltsin's top advisers were more constructively engaged. His chief of staff was at the Danilev Monastery seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis. Some of his advisers were at work on plans for the Dec. 12 election, grappling with questions of proportional representation, campaign finance, and party registration. Other Yeltsin aides were drafting a new civil code and laws on business partnerships and corporations for the new parliament to consider. Are these the actions of an autocrat?

Yeltsin is not a saint, despite some of the iconography that appeared after August 1991. He drinks. He holds grudges. And he has made political mistakes, most notably by insisting that he should somehow remain above the normal political struggles. The real test for Yeltsin now will be his willingness to do what he has thus far eschewed: create a political party. This will make him a politician just like all the others. It is time.

IT is always tempting to dwell upon the Gogolesque aspects of Russian reality. One feature of Russian life certain to be a factor in the elections is the growing influence of crime, organized and otherwise. The problem is serious but should be kept in perspective. There is no single mafia in Russia, but there are many criminal groups with often competing interests. As Italy's experience suggests, the criminals will have as much political influence as the population tolerates.

About these ads

In a recent discussion with Moscow psychologist Leonid Gozman, I asked how Russia's situation differs from the calls for ``law and order'' that periodically appear in American political discourse. He replied that the Russian priority might be ``order and law.'' Yeltsin seems to be paying attention to both.

Another key indicator is the behavior of politicians in Russia's diverse regions. This will be confusing to follow, given the range of economic, social, and ethnic conditions. Many have taken a wait-and-see attitude and will now quickly seek to prove that they always supported the president while simultaneously attempting to extract the maximum price for that support.

The military's role in Russia will continue to be that of a consulting cottage industry. The military intervened in the crisis reluctantly and in a measured manner, consciously opting for tactics that would minimize loss of life. They are not likely to treat this episode as an invitation to use tanks to settle questions of political and economic policy in the future.

The direction of future Russian military influence on politics depends on the West. Russia remains a large nation with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. According to Russian diplomats and soldiers, a commensurate place in international councils can go a long way toward drawing them into the international system. Excluding them, in an attempt to take advantage of Russia's temporary economic and political weaknesses, will breed the nativist reaction we fear. For their part, Russian diplomats and soldiers must behave responsibly in places such as Trans-Dniester.

In August 1991, many people believed that sweeping away the Communists would bring an economic nirvana. Now almost everyone understands that the path to a market will be long and painful; and that the alternatives are even worse. Few are in the mood to celebrate their reenlistment in the transition.

We should not sell the Russians short. In April they voted to continue on the path of economic reform. Everyone would prefer that the path be ``kindler and gentler.'' But most understand that the legacy of 70 years cannot be erased without paying a price. Russians will be willing to pay that price if their leaders establish a democratic political system, make the policies clear, and show as much compassion as the International Monetary Fund permits. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.