Russia: From Revolution to Counter-revolution - Part Nine

The collapse of Stalinism

Plans for capitalist restoration

"Apathy, indifference, thieving... have become mass phenomena, with at the same time aggressive envy towards high earners. There have appeared signs of a sort of physical degeneration of a sizeable part of our population, through drunkenness and idleness. Finally, there is a lack of belief in the officially announced objectives and purposes, in the very possibility of a more rational economic and social organisation of life. Clearly all this cannot be swiftly overcome—years, maybe generations, will be needed." (N. Shmelev, Novy mir, No. 6, 1987.)

"You can make fish soup out of an aquarium, but can you make an aquarium out of fish soup?" (Lech Walesa)

When Gorbachov's reforms seized up, there was a lurch into deeper crisis. In the same way, Tsarism for generations swung from repression to concession and back again. But a return to the untrammelled repression of the Stalin era was ruled out. The enormous power of the working class made that impossible. The bureaucracy was compelled to tread warily, for fear of provoking an explosion. However, the options before the bureaucracy were extremely limited. The impasse of the bureaucracy created widespread disillusionment in the working class. By the late 1980s, powerful illusions in the market arose among certain layers, especially of the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia, but also even sections of the working class. But the bureaucracy was still divided.

The Ligachev wing wanted to keep the old structures intact, and fiercely resisted the agrarian reforms which were intended to undermine the collective farms and promote private farming. The internal antagonisms grew more intense as the crisis deepened. In April 1989 Gorbachov carried through a purge of the Old Guard, when the central committee approved the "retirement" of 74 of its full members and 24 of its candidate members. In the following month, the new supreme representative body came into being: 2,250-member Congress of Peoples' Deputies. It had been elected under new "democratic" procedures that allowed greater participation, with two-thirds of the Congress being filled by direct popular election. This body partly superseded the former USSR Supreme Soviet. The Congress elected a 542-member Supreme Soviet which was to meet twice a year. The Communist Party was guaranteed a large part of the Congress, thus safeguarding the vested interests of the bureaucracy. Each union Republic also adopted a constitution and state structure modelled on the central administration. By these means, Gorbachov hoped that he would obtain the necessary backing in his struggle with the Stalinist old guard who were resisting his policies. Soon deep splits in the bureaucracy re-surfaced in the new styled parliament.

At this stage Gorbachov still had not made up his mind to go over to capitalism. As late as the 7th November 1989, in an interview from the Lenin Mausoleum during the celebrations of the anniversary of the Revolution, Gorbachov called for a return to the "Leninist ideals of 1917". However, the situation was slipping out of his hands. Soon after, Gorbachov admitted that "we have temporarily lost control of some levers of economic management". The old system was collapsing, but nothing was being put in its place. Such a situation could not last. A sudden switch to a market system, he warned, would produce "riots in the streets" and the government's downfall. All kinds of half measures were being tried as the regime twisted and turned. On the 13th November 1989, Gorbachov's leading adviser, Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Abalkin presented his plans for a transition. He wanted the USSR to adopt a "mixed economy", with some state enterprises transferred to other forms of "socialist ownership" (although not into private hands, as Abel Aganbegyan suggested).

The economy was sinking deeper into crisis. Gosplan, the central state planning agency, was warning that due to the collapse of central planning, production could slump between 30-70 per cent. At the same time, in the time-honoured manner, Gorbachov tried to put the blame on his predecessors. The Central Committee in December 1988 announced the removal of the names of Brezhnev and Chernenko from street signs, plaques and monuments. Brezhnev's works were to be removed from public libraries. Rehabilitation of dead victims continued to take place. Izvestia reported that the Supreme Court had dropped all posthumous charges against Trotsky's son Sergei, who had been murdered in 1937. But the question of Trotsky's rehabilitation remained taboo. On the other hand Bukharin enjoyed a certain vogue, since his theories could be used as a convenient justification for a pro-capitalist policy.

But none of this had any relevance to the real situation, which was becoming worse all the time. The economic crisis was deepening. Nikolai Ryzhkov, the prime minister, delivered what the Washington Post (8/6/1989) called "the bleakest official account yet of the Soviet Union's economic plight". He reported that the USSR was running a budget deficit of around 6.2 per cent of GDP, with expenditures set to outstrip revenues by Rbs62,000 millions in 1988-89. The budget deficit had increased since 1985, primarily because of declining oil revenues; the anti-alcohol campaign which had cost the state Rbs40,000 million in lost tax revenue, and a series of major disasters. The military intervention in Afghanistan had also cost around Rbs5,000 million a year. Total foreign debt amounted to Rbs34,000 million. He proposed to cut subsidies to loss making enterprises and cut defence spending. A commission was established to investigate the privileges of the nomenklatura—thus, the nomenklatura was to investigate itself!

The workers' patience was exhausted. In July 1989, a wave of industrial unrest gripped the USSR, centred on the coalfields of the Donbass and Kuzbass. 12,000 stopped work at Mezhdurechensk and took control of the town. They demanded better living conditions, higher wages, increased holidays, better working conditions, etc. They also demanded complete economic independence for their mines so that the profits could be invested locally. This kind of demand was confused, reflecting in part the frustrations of the provinces at the lack of attention from Moscow and the chronic lack of investment.

The government was forced to step in to prevent the strikes spreading. In the Kuzbass more than 100,000 miners were involved. The strike committees demanded the immediate abolition of privileges for officials, direct negotiations with central government and a new constitution. As the Kuzbass went back the Donbass came out, with similar demands. The movement affected pits at Vorkuta in the far north, Rostov-on-Don in the south-west, and Dnepropetrovsk and Chervonograd in the Ukraine. The estimated number on strike was 300,000. This was the nightmare scenario of the rulers of Russia. Gorbachov said the strikes were "the worst ordeal to befall our country in all the four years of perestroika", but added that they showed the need to eliminate "all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles along the road to reform". The strikers agreed to return after concessions were made.

It is an undeniable fact that the consciousness of the Russian masses was thrown back a long way by the long nightmare of totalitarian rule. Even among the miners, particularly their leaders, there were some illusions in capitalism. They had not yet enjoyed the pleasures of a market economy and some of them thought that it would enable them to sell their coal on world markets. Such illusions were mixed up in a peculiar way with ideas of workers' control of the mines.

Despite this, the move towards capitalism did not come as a result of pressure from the population. More than 40 per cent of respondents to an opinion poll held at this time said that they would prefer a return to more centralised economic management and only 25 per cent wanted a market-orientated system. The voices in the bureaucracy in favour of a capitalist solution became ever louder and more insistent, especially among the economists. This trend gathered ground throughout 1989 and in the first half of 1990. The government of the Russian Federation under Yeltsin was clearly dominated by the pro-bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy. This wing came forward with a programme of complete capitalist restoration. Stanislav Shatalin and Grigory Yavlinsky drafted the so-called 500 day programme for the transition to a market economy, which proposed large-scale privatisation within 100 days, plus price liberalisation and the slashing of subsidies.

Shatalin told a Party meeting earlier that year which was reported in Pravda: "It is not a question now of saving socialism, communism or any other -ism, it is a question of saving our country, our people." At the same time, Nikolai Ryzhkov, chairman of USSR council of ministers and Leonid Abalkin, the deputy prime minister, were drawing up an alternative plan, less ambitious, but aimed at the same thing. Gorbachov asked Aganbegyan to decide, and he came down in favour of the 500-day plan. They called for financial stabilisation, an end to budget deficits, a market infrastructure, and the legalisation of private property.

However, Ryzhkov won approval from USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies for his programme intended to achieve economic recovery by 1995. But by March 1990, this plan was judged inadequate given the continuing economic disintegration of the country. On the 11th March the council of ministers instructed Abalkin to prepare a draft by 1st May to achieve a more rapid move to a market economy. However, by late April the Presidential and Federation Councils had returned Abalkin's draft for further work. It was clear that Gorbachov and his ministers had backed away from shock therapy for the economy for fear of strikes and unrest.

On the 6th March the Supreme Soviet adopted the Article 34 on property ownership. Abalkin said it would create the necessary conditions for Russia's transfer to a "planned market economy". The law allowed citizens the right to own and inherit property, mineral resources, equipment, money, shares and water. The official news agency TASS pointed out that the term "private property" had been avoided because the phrase "has great emotive force" in the USSR, where people associated it with exploitation. Within the Supreme Soviet there was a stormy session on the second reading of the bill. But on the 1st July, the law came into effect with 350 in favour, three against, and 11 abstentions. But this was still in the realm of calculated ambiguity intended to unite all the factions of the bureaucracy.

On the next day, the central government published a statement that land was the property of the people living on it, and that every citizen had a right to a plot. However, much to the surprise of the pro-capitalist "reformers", the rural population showed no interest whatsoever in becoming transformed into private owners of small plots of land.

Reform of pricing was another central plank of the transition, but fearing a popular explosion, the government wanted a "stage by stage introduction of market methods..." In anticipation of these reforms, it was proposed to treble bread prices on the 1st July 1990, and compensate for this with pension and wage rises. The attempted compromise satisfied nobody. Both "radicals" and "conservatives" denounced the plan in the Supreme Soviet as "ill-conceived". They demanded a more coherent plan by the 1st September. The "radicals" pushed through the Supreme Soviet a vote to ask Gorbachov to issue decrees from July to establish joint-stock companies, stock exchange, and denationalise state enterprises.

On the 14th June, the Supreme Soviet rejected the proposal to treble bread prices. Panic buying forced Gorbachov to appeal for calm on television. At every stage the rulers of the Kremlin looked anxiously over their shoulder to watch for signs of an explosion. On the same day the Supreme Soviet passed the country's first corporate taxation law. New laws on enterprises were passed allowing them to set their own prices, and establishing a mechanism to declare bankruptcy. In this way, the legal foundations for capitalism were being laid. But it is not enough to put a law on the statute book. It is necessary to possess the force to put the law into practice. On the 11th July, tens of thousands of miners went on strike.

The rise of Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin, who was removed from the Politburo of the Communist Party in 1988, now emerged as a key figure in the move towards capitalist restoration. On the 29th May he was elected as chairman of Russian Supreme Soviet, making him de facto president of Russian Federation. Gorbachov was quoted as saying he was "somewhat worried" by Yeltsin's promotion. Up to this point Yeltsin manoeuvred to strengthen his position. Consequently, under his command, the Russian Congress adopted a Declaration on the Sovereignty of Russia, further reinforcing his authority and power. He repeatedly clashed with Gorbachov, finally calling for his resignation publically on television.

The Congress of Peoples' Deputies approved the creation of the post of president of USSR. Two days later Gorbachov was elected to the post. Congress also voted to amend the 1977 USSR constitution to abolish the CPSU's guaranteed monopoly of power. In July 1990, coinciding with the CPSU Congress, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party, following the lead of ex-foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. On the very next day, the "reformist" mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, Gavriil Popov and Anatoly Sobchak, also resigned. In the previous six months 130,000 had left the CPSU—10,000 in Moscow in July alone.

At the 28th Congress of CPSU in July, Gorbachov spoke of the end of the "Stalinist model of socialism". He admitted that "decades of the domination of the administrative command system have alienated the working class from property and authority..." This was an astounding confession of bankruptcy. But instead of posing a clear Leninist alternative, Gorbachov, as usual, confined himself to generalities and ambiguities. "Genuine democracy" was being established. The overcentralised Soviet state was in the process of being converted into a genuine union of "self determination and voluntary association of peoples". But he still insisted that his plans for a market did not signify a reversal to capitalism: "This means that by moving towards a market we are not swerving from the road to socialism, but are advancing towards a fuller realisation of society's potential."

The pro-bourgeois wing was beginning to get organised. Three hundred deputies established an independent group within the Congress dedicated to accelerating perestroika and "to countering the pressure put on parliament by conservative forces". Its leadership comprised Yeltsin, Sakharov, Afanasiev, and Palm. They represented the openly counter-revolutionary wing of the bureaucracy. Popov and Sobchak were also representative of this layer. At its head stood Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic.

According to Shatalin: "An assessment of the economic situation in the USSR compelled the country's leadership, first and foremost the President Mikhail Gorbachov, to admit the necessity for an immediate transition to a market economy, a reappraisal of views on state intervention in the sphere of market relations and the socio-economic sphere as a whole ... Although even here fundamental differences still remain." (A.G. Aganbegyan, editor, Perestroika Annual, Vol. 3, p. 162.)

These lines show that the contradictions had not been removed. A fierce struggle between the different wings of the bureaucracy was raging. On the 4th September 1990, the USSR Supreme Soviet once again delayed the introduction of the market economy by attempting to get a compromise over rival plans—the more radical plan of Shatalin and the commission set up by Gorbachov and Yeltsin, and the more cautious one of Prime Minister Ryzhkov. As always, the main worry was the reaction of the working class. Ryzhkov warned that Shatalin's plan would produce social unrest. The Supreme Soviet finally announced its preference for Shatalin. However, a compromise was again drawn up by Aganbegyan (mainly taken from Shatalin's plan) and presented to USSR Supreme Soviet committees on the 12th September 1990. Thus, the main wing of the bureaucracy was still dragging its feet. Then in a surprise move on the 11th September, without waiting for the USSR Supreme Soviet, the government of the Russian Federation adopted Shatalin's plan for the Republic's economy to be implemented on the 1st October (though it was later postponed until the 1st November). They also passed a vote of no confidence in Ryzhkov's government, thus opening up a clash with the central authority. However, the programme stalled, and both reformist ministers resigned.

Eventually, on the 19th October 1990, the USSR Supreme Soviet approved a plan for a market economy. According to The Guardian (20/10/90) the mood was "sombre and desperate". It was a compromise programme "short on detail". During the month of October Gorbachov issued decrees on the liberalisation of wholesale prices and the rouble commercial exchange rate (a step towards a convertible rouble). In November, the government set the official exchange rate at $1:1.80 roubles (six years later it was $1:5,000); foreign ownership of enterprises (the right of foreign capitalists to set up in USSR, and buy shares and property). On the 13th November Yeltsin announced that Shatalin's plan was being held in abeyance. "It was impossible to proceed with the Shatalin plan without co-ordinating it with the central government." This was an entirely new departure. In effect, the representatives of the pro-bourgeois wing were using their control of the government of the Russian Federation to engineer a confrontation with the Kremlin.

The imperialists could hardly believe their luck. They seized the opportunity with both hands. By the end of the year, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a summit was held between the presidents of the Soviet Union and the USA. At the press conference, President Bush stated he was "prepared to encourage the Soviet Union in every way" in that country's search for "greater engagement with the international market economy". In other words, the representatives of world imperialism were throwing all their weight behind the nascent bourgeoisie in Russia. Gorbachov gave the state of the nation speech in an atmosphere of crisis. The food crisis worsened. In December the Congress of Peoples' Deputies granted Gorbachov more powers. The New Union Treaty was creating a new focus for tension between the different wings of the bureaucracy. Shevardnadze, now firmly in the camp of capitalist counter-revolution, resigned warning of the "onset of dictatorship". Gorbachov, while paying lipservice to "socialist planning", had embraced the concept of the market as a way out, although he continually vacillated, reacting now to one pressure, now to another, like a dead leaf blown by every wind.

Perestroika and glasnost had served only to open up a Pandora's box. The explosion of strikes threatened to bring the whole bureaucratic order crashing down. Gorbachov was facing removal, as happened to Khrushchev earlier. Completely disorientated, he appeared to be facing in all directions at once. The crisis of the regime took place, as we have seen, against a background of growing unrest in the Republics. In Georgia, open war had broken out over the question of Abkhazia. The open split in the ruling elite unleashed pent-up centrifugal tendencies that had accumulated in the Soviet Union for decades. In 1991 the authority of the centre was collapsing. Republics and even cities decreed their own prices. Barter between Republics, regions and enterprises took the place of planning. A document of the Russian Republic graphically describes the situation:

"The economy approaches the borderline beyond which one can speak not of economic crisis but catastrophe. The sharp fall in output that is occurring in most state enterprises is accompanied by growing inflationary processes. Management is concerned not with production, but with how to find the means to pay the wages demanded by its employees and how to supply them with food and consumer goods to spend these wages on. These problems, as well as those of material-technical supply, are increasingly being resolved by the archaic method of barter... but this cannot ensure the needed supplies, so economic links are disrupted and production is halted. The degree of uncontrollability of the economy has reached catastrophic dimensions. The planning institutions are demoralised by the uncertainties of their situation today and particularly tomorrow. Information from the grass roots is lacking. All-union, republican and regional orders contradict one another, which adds to social-political tensions." (Quoted in Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 416.)

There was still strong opposition to privatisation in the Supreme Soviet. However the "reformers" became increasingly bolder and clearly anti-socialist. Gorbachov tried to hold things together by balancing between the rival wings. This disastrous policy only led to increased tensions within the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats were only interested in maintaining their privileges, position and income. The crisis had effectively undermined their position. The question was: how to do it? The representatives of the old Stalinist wing were alarmed and increasingly desperate. The flashpoint was the move to break up the USSR with the signing of the Union Treaty. In the build up to the meeting of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, the representatives of the old nomenklatura began to exert pressure on the government.

In December, the KGB's chief, General Vladimir Kryuchkov, made a statement on TV that the country was in the grip of "extremist radical groups... supported morally and politically from abroad". With no plan and no clear idea of where he was going, Gorbachov had effectively lost control. His decision to preside over the break up of the Soviet Union through the Union Treaty was creating widespread resentment in the bureaucracy, and especially in the military caste. In essence, the Treaty would leave the centre with only residual powers over foreign policy and defence. The crisis in the USSR had already unleashed extreme separatist and nationalist tendencies. They had already lost Eastern Europe. Where would it end? In early 1990, the decision had been taken to end the constitutional monopoly of power of the Communist Party. The demoralised Party was further weakened by Gorbachov's tinkering. In July the CPSU adopted a new draft programme, replacing Marxism-Leninism with Social Democratic principles. Elections in the Baltics and Georgia propelled them towards independence. There were huge pro-independence rallies in Lithuania, and further strikes in the coalfields. In spite of all the talk of "reform", in the first half of 1991 GNP fell by 10 per cent over the previous year.

Gorbachov was warned by Lieutenant-Colonel Viktor Alksnis, leader of the Soyuz ("Union") group of deputies about the dangers of the Union Treaty. The negotiations over the new Treaty dragged on into 1991. It was due to be signed by Gorbachov in August. Alksnis threatened a vote of no confidence in Gorbachov "if there is no turnaround" by the start of the Congress. He came out for the suspension of all political parties, dissolution of all parliaments and a state of emergency.

What conditioned the whole situation was the absence of an independent movement of the Russian proletariat. True there were many strikes. But, given the enormous confusion and the lack of any alternatives, the workers did not fight as an independent force. This was the determining element in the whole equation. In the absence of a mass independent movement of the workers, the whole struggle was fought out between rival wings of the bureaucracy. The conflict could only be resolved in open struggle. Since the opposing wings were evenly balanced, a Bonapartist solution was the only one possible. Thus the blind alley of perestroika led directly to the attempted coup of August 1991.

The 1991 attempted coup

"The party of Order proved ... that it knew neither how to rule nor to serve; neither how to live nor how to die; neither how to suffer the republic nor how to overthrow it; neither how uphold the Constitution nor how to throw it overboard; neither how to co-operate with the President nor how to deal with him." Karl Marx. (MESW, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by Marx, Vol. 1, p. 462.)

On the morning of the 19th August 1991 tanks appeared on the streets of Moscow and other cities. This attempted coup d'état was led by Vice-President Gennady Yanayev (a supporter of Ligachov's Stalinist faction), the prime minister Valentin Pavlov and the minister of defence Yazov. The coup leaders announced on the radio that it was staged "due to Mikhail Gorbachov's inability to perform his duties for health reasons", and a state of emergency was being introduced to overcome "the profound crisis, political, ethnic and civil strife, chaos and anarchy that threatens the lives and security of the Soviet Union's citizens". In fact, Gorbachov had been placed under house arrest in the Crimea after refusing to relinquish the presidency.

The coup was not unexpected. The Soviet Union had been buzzing with rumours for months. George Bush even telephoned to say he had heard rumours of an imminent military take-over. As early as December 1990, the Soyuz group of parliamentary deputies had pressed for military action against the break-away Republics, to be followed by the declaration of a state of emergency across the country. The attempted coup represented a desperate gamble by a section of the bureaucracy to stop Gorbachov from signing the Union Treaty. The Treaty, which was due to be ratified on the 20th August, was the result of long negotiations, begun initially in response to demands from the Baltic states, Georgia and Moldavia, to leave the Union. The plotters were terrified of further power passing to the Republics, especially the Russian Republic under Yeltsin. Yanayev and the old guard were attempting to prevent the break-up of the Soviet Union and re-establish the power of the military caste. However, the coup proved to be an abortive attempt from beginning to end.

Boris Yeltsin, who was in the presidential building of the Russian Republic (the so-called White House) took advantage of the situation to rally all "democratic" forces against the hardliners. Within a few days the coup d'état had collapsed. This coup, however, was not defeated on the streets as was later claimed by some. The mass of workers were indifferent. Yeltsin's call for a general strike fell on deaf ears. According to The Guardian's Moscow reporter (22/8/91): "Most people were too apathetic, cynical or just plain frightened of the consequences to obey Mr Yeltsin's strike call." The five years of perestroika ended up in a mess of empty shops, queues, shortages, spiralling inflation, chaos and the threat of hunger. This resulted in a collapse of support for Gorbachov (down to a 14 per cent approval rating) and a growing rejection of the whole pack of "reformist" politicians.

The bureaucracy was split. One section wanted to maintain the status quo, or even go back to repression, as under Brezhnev. The other wing, representing the nascent bourgeois, wanted to go down the capitalist road. However, the mass of workers saw no fundamental difference between the hardliners and the pro-capitalist counter-revolutionaries around Yeltsin. His call for a general strike against the August coup was publicly backed by Margaret Thatcher who appealed to the Russian workers to support it. As it turned out, it was a total flop. Reuter's correspondent issued the following estimation: "Yeltsin's appeal for strikes was meeting with a patchy response. In the Soviet Union's biggest coalfield, the Kuzbass, whose miners had previously shown themselves willing to use their industrial clout as a political weapon against the Kremlin, only about half the workers downed tools. In Vorkuta coalfield of Siberia, only five of the mines were to respond positively to Yeltsin." (The Guardian, 22/8/91.)

So only half the coalminers took action. The oil workers, a decisive section to whom Yeltsin specifically appealed to, decided not to strike. The same was true of the gas workers. There was little or no response in Moscow. A few limited strikes in Leningrad. Five enterprises in Yeltsin's home town of Sverdlovsk went on strike. But nothing in the Baltics, the Caucasus or Central Asia. When the then president of the Ukrainian parliament, Leonid Kravchuk, took an ambiguous stand in relation to the coup, the Reuters' correspondent noted that "Mr Kravchuk was reflecting opinion on the streets of Kiev, where Ukrainian journalists reported that many people expressed support for the coup". (The Guardian, 20/8/91.)

A similar story was recounted by Morgan Stanley bank, which carried the following eyewitness report in its Review (17/9/91): "Moscow is a power vacuum. It isn't that the centre doesn't hold. It just isn't there. That's one side of it. The other is that there is no popular revolution. A rotten power clique encountered very little democratic resistance, and yet the coup, its edifice and the apparatus of power collapsed." And further on: "Indeed, popular resistance to the coup was minimal for most of the first few days... I was struck in Moscow by the lack of popular revolt." In other words, the majority of workers did not raise a finger to resist the coup. And this is for the very good reason that they did not trust Yeltsin any more than Yanayev or, for that matter, Gorbachov.

A Russian observer writing for the same journal spoke of a conversation on a Moscow bus on the 19th August: "One middle-aged man said loudly that he was glad of the restoration of order. No one either supported or objected. Gloom and fear, and maybe equanimity and resignation hung over the people." Such examples could be multiplied at will, and graphically show the mood at the time of the coup.

This view was reinforced by the report from the same source which wrote that "it seems that most of the public would have silently accepted the rule of the junta if the coup had been successful... Demagogic as it was, its promise of a quick economic amelioration could have given the junta a good chance. The feelings of frustration, desperation and cynicism over the state of the economy are so widespread that any rulers who look capable of achieving any progress [i.e. towards capitalism] could not expect to find popular support. I am not at all sure that the broad masses of the population understood and accept the idea that there is no alternative to marketisation and shock therapy."

The mood of the people was summed up by the BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith:

"The role of the Soviet people was also under scrutiny that afternoon: those who came to the parliament or demonstrated on the streets had made their own decisive choice in favour of democracy. But there were, in truth, not that many of them: fifty thousand people from a city of ten million is not an overwhelming percentage. Many more may have opposed the coup in their hearts, but they did little or nothing to put that emotion to practical effect. Strikes did occur sporadically, but most enterprises kept going and there were enough transport workers willing to work to keep the buses and the metro in action. At this stage of the coup, Yeltsin was facing not only the Kremlin's tanks, but also the apathy of large sections of the population.

"Even more challenging was the sentiment expressed by a considerable number of ordinary soviets that the coup leaders should be given a chance, that they could hardly do worse than the previous lot in power, and that they might at least bring back law and order. Especially attractive to many people were the plotters' promises of ending the rise in crime, the spiralling ethnic conflicts which were dogging the country, and the attempts of independence-minded republics to break up the Union." (Martin Sixsmith, Moscow Coup, p. 37.)

Those who had rallied to the Yeltsin camp, according to The Sunday Times (25/8/91) report, "were the people who had experienced first-hand the benefits of perestroika, who looked beyond the promise of cheaper bread and higher wages and were not about to go back easily to being treated as sheep". This stratum were composed mainly of millions of qualified people, students, engineers, speculators and black marketeers who sensed in the movement towards the market economy the possibility of gaining power, wealth and positions. They made up the intellectual "reformers", distrusted by the great majority of Soviet workers.

This stratum's hostility towards the Stalinist bureaucracy had nothing to do with "democracy", far less a defence of workers' interests, and everything to do with the thirst for their own political power. For the working class "democracy" is not an abstract question. If it does not serve to lead to increased living standards and social advancement, "democracy" becomes an empty legalistic concept for the mass of the population. Does that mean that Marxists are indifferent to the struggle to defend democratic rights? Far from it. But workers are obliged to defend democratic rights with their own independent methods, completely independent of the "democratic" bourgeoisie.

Decades of monstrous totalitarian Stalinism had had the effect of throwing consciousness back, in a way which could not have been anticipated. The physical extermination of the Old Bolsheviks succeeded in cutting the umbilical chord connecting the new generation with the traditions of the Revolution. The very successes of the planned economy brought about a drastic change in the composition of the proletariat. Large numbers of former peasants emigrated to the towns and cities where they were absorbed by the growth of industry. In general, this has meant an enormous strengthening of the working class. However, the consciousness of the new generation of Soviet workers was not the same as the generation of 1917. Their perception of the Revolution and socialism and communism was coloured by the experience of life under Stalinist rule.

The psychology of the Russian masses at this time is not difficult to understand: "communism" has failed. Capitalism is even worse. Gorbachov, Yeltsin, all make promises, but the situation of the masses becomes ever more desperate. Where is the alternative? Under such conditions, the daily struggle for survival dominated the minds of the masses. Politics becomes a dirty word. Corruption, lies and outright gangsterism on all sides reduces the workers, temporarily, to despair.

Could the coup have succeeded?

To those who argued the coup had no social base and would therefore not have succeeded, we can point to those layers of the population who were sick of the chaos of katastroika and yearned to go back to the "good old days". More importantly, it had a base in a far wider layer who, without supporting the coup, were repelled by the pro-capitalist policies of Yeltsin and therefore remained passive throughout. The passivity of the great majority of the working class would have been sufficient to ensure the success of the coup if it had been carried out with sufficient decision.

This was admitted in an article by Francis Fukuyama, a prominent strategist of capital, and consultant of the Rand Corporation in Washington, in The Independent on Sunday (25/8/91):

"Despite divided loyalties in the army and police, the coup plotters could have succeeded in the short term had they been more competent and determined, as was the Deng regime in Tiananmen Square. They had sufficient numbers of loyal KGB and interior troops to arrest or kill Yeltsin, shut down the press and enforce a curfew. But the plotters were afflicted with a lack of belief in themselves and their cause."

The outcome of revolution and counter-revolution is never a foregone conclusion. In both cases the result is decided by a struggle of living forces in which the subjective factor—the quality of leadership—plays an important, and frequently decisive, role. You can have the most favourable objective conditions, the widest social base, but if you do not act with absolute determination and audacity, you will go down to defeat. The coup in Moscow was not defeated by the lack of a social base, but because of the pathetic failure of the coup leaders to deal with the opposition in a ruthless and implacable manner. Suffice to contrast their conduct with that of Jaruzelski in Poland in 1981, who arrested all the leaders of the opposition in the middle of the night before launching his coup.

Former dissident Roy Medvedev makes this very comparison:

"Jaruzelski was far more efficient than they were when he cracked down in Poland. He cut off communications and arrested 200 people. Actually, he didn't even arrest them, he just put them in isolation. Here, though, they didn't even arrest Yeltsin."

In particular, the failure to arrest Yeltsin left a focal point for the opposition and exposed the plot in the eyes of key sections of the army, police and KGB chiefs as a botched operation. From an initial position of waiting in the sidelines, these sections finally decided to distance themselves from the coup leaders. These leaders, in turn, found themselves suspended in mid-air. The coup collapsed, not because of a mass movement of the workers—there was none—but because it was a botched and premature attempt, which did not succeed in attracting the support of decisive sections within the state apparatus itself. It was not overthrown in struggle. It simply collapsed from its own internal contradictions and weaknesses. "So why did it not succeed?" asked Martin McCauley. "Astonishingly, it was poorly planned and executed." (M. McCauley, The Soviet Union 1917-1991, p. 368.)

This was the opinion of all the serious strategists of capital.

"Preliminary assessments by intelligence analysts in Britain and America suggested the coup was hastily organised by a small group of people who fatally misjudged the mood of the organisations they controlled. There is no evidence of any pre-coup rehearsals by any security forces." (The Sunday Times, 25/8/91.)

And further The Sunday Times states:

"In the early part of last week there were no signs of any significant mobilisation. 'This was not a revolution that failed because of people power' said one Western intelligence source. 'There were fewer people on the streets than the plotters might have expected. It failed because they did not put enough troops on the ground or use them effectively'."

The fact that the coup attempt was the result of a panic reaction of top bureaucrats to the Union Treaty, explains the complete lack of seriousness and decisive action. The leader of Gorbachov's group in the Kremlin, Valentin Karayev, later described how they began to react, once they realised that the coup leaders were failing to act: "By the 20th it was clear to all that nothing had happened. There were no arrests, nothing." (The Wall Street Journal, 29/8/91.) The paper made the following observation:

"But details now emerging indicate that the collapse of the putsch actually owes much to the putschists themselves, some of whom got cold feet early on.

"One, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, started backsliding within hours of the Monday morning announcement of the take-over. A second, defence minister Yazov, had early doubts which he later acted upon. Mr Yanayev himself admitted the seizure of power was illegal within hours of deposing Mr Gorbachov." The article concluded: "The coup destroyed itself." (The Wall Street Journal, 29/8/91.)

When Gorbachov returned to Moscow on the 22nd August, after the collapse of the coup, everything had changed. Hitherto, he had managed to maintain himself by balancing precariously between the opposing factions of the bureaucracy. Now his power had gone. Gorbachov was ignominiously forced to resign as general secretary of the CPSU. Then the Central Committee voluntarily dissolved. Within a few days he was forced to outlaw ("suspend") the "Communist" Party. Its property, publications and assets were confiscated by Yeltsin's Republic, which issued a decree banning the CPSU. The Komsomol "voluntarily" disbanded itself. There was no resistance.

The old CPSU was a gigantic network for patronage and an arm of the state. Only through the Party was it possible to "get on". The Party was responsible for the appointment of 600,000 key jobs and a further one million reserve jobs in the state and industry. Membership of the Party was thus a necessary path to a successful career. In the early days of the Soviet Union, access to prominent positions in the state was still open to talented children of working class families. This was a major difference with the West. But as time went on, this was increasingly less the case. The best jobs were reserved for the children of bureaucrats. This itself was a symptom of the senile decay of Stalinism, a kind of arteriosclerosis.

At the top stood the Soviet elite, increasingly divorced from the reality of the life of the working class in society. After repeated purges, the content of old Communist Party had been completely transformed to the point where it had nothing in common with the Bolshevik Party except the name. It was really not a party at all, but an organ of the state composed of 19 million members, among whom were undoubtedly a layer of honest workers but in the main consisted of an army of opportunists, thieves, stooges and careerists of all kinds. This had nothing in common with the party of Lenin and Trotsky, which had been destroyed in the Purges. The process of transforming the party into a bureaucratic tool had begun after Lenin's death, as Edward Crankshaw points out:

"Immediately after Lenin's death this process was accelerated. In the process of building up his own position and packing the Party with people who could be relied upon to support him, Stalin, as First Secretary and very much at grips with Trotsky, proclaimed the so-called Lenin Levy. This was in effect a mass enrolment of new members designed to swamp Stalin's opponents. Thus at the 12th Party Congress in 1923 membership stood at 386,000; a year later, at the 13th Congress, it had risen to 735,881. By 1929, with Stalin supreme and preparing to liquidate his senior colleagues, this figure had doubled: there were 1,551,288 Party members.

"The next development was a most astonishing change in the composition of the membership. Between 1930 and 1934 the Party ceased to be a workers' organisation. In 1930 actual workers formed nearly 49 per cent of the membership; in 1934 this proportion, as reflected in the Party Congress, had dropped to 9.3 per cent. Hand in hand with this went the virtual monopolising of the Party by the rising boss class. Thus in 1923 only 23 per cent of all the factory directors in the Soviet Union were Party members. By 1936 the figure was close on 100 per cent. And so it went on, until in the year of the German invasion of Russia there were nearly three million Party members, most of them engaged in administration of one kind and another." (Edward Crankshaw, op. cit., pp. 63-4.)

And the author correctly concludes:

"When we reflect that the old Party had been almost wiped out by Stalin during the purge years of the middle thirties, the Party functionaries all down the line were used regularly and deliberately as scapegoats for the mistakes and excesses of the higher leadership, it is clear that the postwar Party was very different from the body through which Stalin climbed to supremacy and had not the faintest resemblance to the original Party of Lenin." (Ibid., p. 64, my emphasis.)

These elements were held together not by conviction or ideology, but by the Party's link to the state feed-bag. Once this link was destroyed, it disintegrated overnight. As the political arm of the bureaucracy, it was shattered by these events. Whole swathes of "Communists" deserted the Party for openly bourgeois or nationalist groupings, as rats swarm off a sinking ship.

A ferocious ideological offensive was unleashed against the October Revolution and the planned economy. Within a month Yeltsin had banned all political activity within workplaces, a measure aimed deliberately at the Communist Party. The Yeltsinites raided the CP headquarters, seized its documents and incriminated the Party in the attempted coup. Pravda was suspended and its staff replaced. Once the coup had failed, the KGB issued a statement: "Members of the KGB had nothing to do with the illegal acts of that group of adventurers." This subservient act failed to save it. The feared organ of repression was taken over by Yeltsin and purged. The Supreme Soviet rubber stamped Gorbachov's dismissal of the entire government.

The whole balance of forces was radically altered by these events. The power rivalry between Yeltsin, the president of Russia and Gorbachov the president of the Soviet Union was over. In the struggle for power Gorbachov was marginalised. The imperialists piled on the pressure for the break up of the USSR and the move towards capitalism. It meant the collapse of Stalinism and the coming to power of a pro-bourgeois government under Yeltsin determined to push through capitalist restoration as rapidly as possible. The collapse of the coup led to an enormous strengthening of the openly pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy. Every evening on Russian television a telephone number was displayed for anyone wishing to inform on neighbours or workmates who supported the coup. The official TV and radio was taken out of the hands of the CP. Pravda eventually reappeared, but it was no longer the organ of the (disbanded) Central Committee. This unleashed a deluge of propaganda against the Stalinists. The mayor of Moscow, Popov, collected all the Communist statutes into Gorky Park and declared them all historic relics.

Seizing the opportunity, one republic after another declared their independence. The Baltics, Armenia and Georgia had already done so, but they were joined before the end of August by the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldovia, Azerbaijan, then Uzbekistan and Kirgahizia. The disintegration of the Union left Gorbachov with little say or power. He had opened the door to capitalist restoration, and was now brushed aside by the powers he had conjured up. Given the collapse of the coup, the initiative fell to Yeltsin and those in favour of a rapid move to capitalist restoration. The Supreme Soviet soon granted Yeltsin extraordinary powers to rule by decree. It appeared that the road to capitalism was now complete.

The following month, the Supreme Soviet ratified the decision to change the name of Leningrad to its pre-revolutionary name of St Petersburg, as approved by referendum in June. Sverdlovsk became Yekaterinburg, its original name. In December, at the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was symbolically replaced by the old Russian flag. These were moves were undertaken to eradicate the heritage of October. So far had the pendulum of history swung back that the old barbarism of the Tsarist regime was now being presented in the most favourable light. The counter-revolution manifested itself in the reappearance of Tsarist insignia, the proliferation of fascist groups, the idea of "Mother Russia", and the restoration of the Orthodox Church, the official religion of the Tsarist state.

But did the aftermath of the coup represent a decisive change in the situation? According to Popov, writing in Izvestia, 22nd August 1992, Yeltsin "completely rejected the idea of turning the victory over the putschists into a wholesale purge of the former system..." Martin Sixsmith comments: "In many places the transfer of responsibility from the Party structures to the elected state bodies did not give power to the democrats, but handed it back to the Communists in a different guise." (M. Sixsmith, Moscow Coup, p. 170.) This is what the imperialists feared. It was undoubtedly a step towards capitalist restoration, but it was not decisive enough. Given the surge towards counter-revolution, Yeltsin could have assumed dictatorial powers immediately after the failure of the coup. But he left it too late. He dithered. "Between August 1991 and early 1992, Mr Yeltsin could have dismissed parliament without loud complaint," complains The Economist, (23/1/93). This failure to act decisively allowed parliament—representing the old military-industrial complex—to recover and challenge Yeltsin. This opened up a further period of intense rivalry between the two wings of the bureaucracy. Later, Yeltsin was forced to legalise the Communist Party, which within two years, was challenging him for power.

The disintegration of the USSR created new problems for the "independent" states. What relationship would they now have? Before they could answer, Yeltsin announced that those Republics that bordered Russia could be subjected to redrawn borders, as there were large Russian populations within these Republics that had to be protected by the Russian state. He now turned against the idea of independence because of the economic implications and the restive minorities within the borders of Russia. In December 1991, under Yeltsin's initiative, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and by the end of the month eight more Republics had joined.

Gorbachov was left with nothing. He resigned as president. Silently, ignominiously, this accidental element left the stage of history by the back door, having played out his role as the stalking horse of capitalist restoration. In the presidential elections that were held four years later, the people of Russia passed a crushing and well merited verdict on this individual. Of vastly greater import was the fact that after seven decades of the most titanic exertions and the most remarkable transformation in history, the USSR had disappeared.

Abolition of price controls

Yeltsin's earlier stand against the privileges of the bureaucracy gained him a lot of popularity with ordinary people, especially in Moscow. This enabled him to get elected as president of the Russian Republic in June 1991. The new head of the Russian state remarked how he felt strange in the White House. But he significantly pointed out that the majority of the old bureaucrats were prepared to serve him: "Here the leader of the opposition would be taking charge of the enormous Soviet Russian bureaucracy... Many stayed; a few left." (B. Yeltsin, The View from the Kremlin, p.19, my emphasis.) Trotsky had already predicted that, in the event of a capitalist counter-revolution, far fewer officials would have to be purged from the state than in the case of a political revolution of the proletariat. Using his new-found power, Yeltsin acted ruthlessly to consolidate his coup d'état.

Under the pressure of imperialism, Yeltsin urged faster privatisation, agrarian reform and tighter monetary and credit policies. He gave his full backing to the group of "radical young reformers", in other words, staunch capitalist restorationists, around Yegor Gaidar, who was made minister of finance. Anatoly Chubais was put in charge of privatisation. Gaidar was the consummate representative of that wing of the former Stalinists which leaned on imperialism. This pro-bourgeois government entered into negotiations with the IMF and announced massive cuts in the state budget. As expected, the IMF and World Bank insolently treated the former Soviet Union as if it were a third world client to whom they could dictate, as a master to his servant.

On the 2nd January 1992, the government abolished the state control of prices which resulted in many goods rising between threefold and 30-fold. In practice, prices actually rose in the region of 300-350 per cent. Fares on the Moscow metro rose from 15 kopecks to 50 kopecks. The other ten members of the CIS were compelled, to their alarm, to follow suit and increase their prices, since Russians would otherwise simply buy up goods at controlled prices from neighbouring republics. In March, the price of bread, milk and other staples were increased. The reaction was intense. Mass demonstrations now took place outside the White House, the Russian Supreme Soviet building against these massive price rises. To contain the mood of protest, the government was forced to increase the minimum wage by 100 per cent and also raise pensions. These "free market" policies solved nothing, and simply deepened the crisis. Food supplies reached a critical level, with no more than 20-40 days of stocks left.

Yeltsin was under intense pressure from the Western imperialist powers to push ahead with his counter-revolutionary "reform" programme. But the deep contradictions within the bureaucracy had not been eliminated. He faced continual sabotage by the Russian parliament, which represented the interests of the managers of industry and the bureaucracy. Ruslan Khasbulatov, Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet and Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi stepped up their attacks on Yeltsin's economic policies, and the nascent bourgeois he represented. Khasbulatov warned that 90 per cent of the population were living in unsatisfactory conditions, and that Russia was experiencing "pauperisation and lumpenisation" of its people. Rutskoi at a meeting of "patriotic groups" numbering 1,000 delegates, said Yeltsin's policy was "economic genocide".

The Yeltsin wing stood for a rapid movement in the direction of capitalism. This wing represented the interests of the nascent Russian bourgeoisie—the spivs, black marketeers, Mafia, speculators and assorted scum—which had risen to the surface on the basis of the move towards capitalism. They were also the agents of imperialism, who did not mind sacrificing the interests of Russia in order to feather their own nests. The other wing broadly represented the interests of the old nomenklatura, the bureaucrats whose power, privileges and income depended upon their control of the large-scale nationalised enterprises and collective farms. The latter was, in turn, subdivided into different factions, reflecting the different layers of the bureaucracy, and constituted an extremely large and heterogeneous social grouping.

The conflict revolved around the interests of the nascent capitalist elements and black marketeers who wanted a rapid introduction of laissez-faire or uncontrolled capitalism, and parliament on the other hand, which represented the old bureaucracy of state managers and the military-industrial complex that had previously ruled Russia through the "Communist" Party. Some of these were also pro-capitalist, but would have preferred a gradual movement in the direction of capitalism where they would became the new ruling class, while others preferred to go back to the old system. But they were all concerned about the social consequences of a rapid move to capitalism. If Yeltsin's plans for privatising large-scale industry were carried out to the end it would mean unemployment, not of five million, but of at least 25 million, and perhaps twice that. That is a finished recipe for a revolution, or total chaos.

The old guard waged a bitter struggle against Yeltsin and his government. As The Economist (20/6/92) commented: "After six months of economic 'shock-therapy,' Russia's industrial managers have found their political voice. Alarmed at the speed and direction of the Russian government's economic reforms under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia's industrial managers are demanding a greater say in how the country is run." A new anti-Yeltsin alliance between the ex-Stalinists and nationalists was formed in the parliament called Russian Unity.

The worst of all worlds

The government now embarked upon a programme of mass privatisation with the issue of privatisation vouchers. It was hoped that 25 per cent of state industries would be sold by the end of 1992. Land would also be privatised. Nevertheless, the pressure of the military-industrial complex forced concessions from the government in the form of increased subsidies. Extra funds were given to agricultural production, food subsidies, and housing for the armed forces. Against the opposition of Yeltsin and Gaidar, the Russian parliament voted Rbs200,000 billion worth of credits to industry. The money supply was effectively out of control and inflation was turning into hyper-inflation.

In April 1992, the struggle was so intense that Yeltsin was forced to beat a partial retreat. The attempt to effect a swift transition to the "market" and "sound economics" foundered. The Congress of Peoples' Deputies demanded Gaidar's head. As a result, Yeltsin was forced to dismiss Gaidar as finance minister, but still kept him on as one of his deputies. Yeltsin also announced there would be a softening of the "reforms" and extra credits to cash-starved industries. The Congress pushed harder and demanded higher social provision. Strikes by teachers and hospital workers over wages led to further concessions from the government.

Gaidar had justified the increasing budget deficit "no matter how dangerous for the economy" because of growing social tension. Izvestia (20/7/92) reported that despite the falls in production, there were grounds for "restrained optimism" because a "wholesale slump" had been avoided! Payment of salaries and pensions was then Rbs221,600 million in arrears. The newspaper concluded that the "process of establishing the basis for a market economy looked hopeful". The only progress was that by the end of the year some 30,000 small enterprises and shops were auctioned off. However the decisive sections of the economy remained in state hands.

Yeltsin's appeal to the West for aid and investment did not have the desired result. The aid given by them was pathetically low: $6 billion to help stabilise the rouble and a loan of $24 billion from the IMF. Yet according to Western financial experts, the amount of funding to give Yeltsin's reform programme a chance of succeeding would amount to between $76 billion and $167 billion each year for about 15 years. And this figure did not include either the money for supporting rouble convertibility (estimated at $7-10 billion) or the increased cost of cleaning up the environment, itself a pressing task. The amount needed to finance capitalist restoration would total less than 1 per cent of the combined gross domestic product of Europe, the USA and Japan for a period of five to ten years. That was proportionally less than the amount given to Western Europe by the USA under Marshall aid for a much longer period. By contrast, the West had remained reluctant to commit these huge sums of money. The capitalists had no confidence in the outcome of the attempt to reimpose a market economy in Russia or Eastern Europe. Western investors were not prepared to risk their capital, despite the low wages of the skilled Russian workforce. They have understood that the restoration of capitalism is fraught with difficulties, that social upheavals are on the order of the day, and that the whole process can go into reverse. That is why Yeltsin tried to frighten the West into parting with some money with the spectre of a "New October Revolution". For their part, the Western governments took Yeltsin's warnings very seriously, which explained their anxious support for this drink-sodden and ailing "reformer".

Russia ended up with the worst of all worlds—all the disadvantages of bureaucratic bungling and mismanagement, and all the disadvantages of corrupt gangster capitalism. Thousands of enterprises were continuing to churn out huge quantities of shoddy useless goods which nobody wanted. These were either stockpiled, or given away to the workers, instead of wages. Other enterprises were idle, starved of raw materials and resources, where workers turned up, did no work, and only received promises of wages. The result was a colossal rise in wage arrears and inter-enterprise debt.

This continuing conflict between the different wings of the bureaucracy is not at all a trivial affair, but represents a profound antagonism. This was shown by the armed storming of parliament in October 1993. That incident showed the impossibility of a "cold" transition to capitalism in Russia. However, once again, the key element in the equation was the passivity of the masses. While a certain layer of the workers did participate in the defence of parliament (this was subsequently admitted even by the Yeltsinites), the overwhelming majority played no role.

Throughout 1992 the open struggle between Yeltsin and parliament assumed an increasingly bitter character. Both wings of the bureaucracy appealed demagogically to the masses for support. "Russia's managers have also joined forces with workers to slow down the pace of reform," reported The Economist (20/6/92). "With the economy in turmoil, both managers and workers at state-owned enterprises feel threatened by the prospect of still more change." Under this pressure the government was forced to promise an extra Rbs200 billion ($2.4 billion) of cheap credit for industry, plus Rbs120 billion for the oil business. It also had to postpone the rise in energy prices. According to the same article, "Mr Yeltsin's government has not abandoned reform, it just slid a few steps back".

In this period, an intense power struggle centred on the proposed new constitution. Deputies were incensed by Yeltsin's increasing reliance on government by decree. The conflict increasingly revolved around the parameters of executive and legislative authority. But this was merely a reflection of the struggle of underlying material interests. Yeltsin had been hamstrung by the old constitution introduced in 1991. If he was to follow the dictates of Western imperialism, he would need to dispense with the parliament and assume far greater presidential Bonapartist powers.

In 1992 there was intense tooing and froing of drafts and redrafts of revised constitutions, each side attempting to jockey for supremacy. After the four-day extraordinary session of the Russian parliament Yeltsin faced humiliating defeat. The hardliners and their centrist allies in the congress voted to reduce still further the president's powers, overruling his attempt to introduce rule by decree, sacking his representatives in the provinces, and demanding the formation of a new government of "national accord". Yeltsin hoped to finally break this deadlock through a referendum on his proposals which he scheduled for April 1993. His idea was to use the referendum as a vote of confidence—for or against Yeltsin. This was the method of the plebiscite—the classical method of Bonapartist politicians bidding for absolute power.

Imperialist pressure

Yeltsin was held up in the West as the great saviour of democracy—the man who stood on a tank to defend the rights of parliament. Now this self-same parliament turned into his most deadly enemy. Those who stood against him were not political parties, but a coalition of rival groups and interests. Yeltsin had only two alternatives—either win over the decisive sections of the Congress, or else dispense with parliament itself. This the Congress could not tolerate. It was a fight to the death. The different factions in parliament could all agree on one thing: Yeltsin must be stopped. The managers wanted to halt the reform programme. The regional bureaucrats, who ran their Republics like feudal barons, wanted more autonomy and a weak centre, not a dictator. The military caste wanted to recover its lost prestige and privileged positions, and bitterly resented the break up of the Soviet Union, the loss of Eastern Europe, and the humiliating dependence upon US imperialism on the world stage in general. The struggle between Yeltsin and the Congress was a graphic illustration of the unbearable contradictions in society.

The struggle came to a head in December, when Congress forced the resignation of arch-reformer Gaidar as prime minister. Yeltsin manoeuvred to gain time, replacing Gaidar with Chernomyrdin while preparing a counter-stroke. An uneasy compromise was arrived at, whereby Yeltsin accepted the loss of his chief henchman, while Congress accepted holding a referendum in the spring. An agreement is only a piece of paper reflecting the balance of forces at a given moment. The aim of the referendum was, in theory, to work out a new constitution. The one in operation, left over from the Gorbachov period, had already been amended 300 times and was full of contradictions. In practice nobody paid a bit of attention to the constitution. What mattered was the relative strength of the contending forces. And that could only be measured in struggle, not in constitutional committees, though the latter can be—and were—used as weapons in the struggle.

Immediately upon concluding the December deal, both sides commenced manoeuvring. Yeltsin decided to make a bid for absolute power, based upon rule by decree. In March 1993, Yeltsin drafted a decree on emergency rule but the constitutional court declared it unconstitutional. Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Russian parliament, set out to undermine Yeltsin, eliminating his powers one by one, and leaving him as a paper president, to be cast aside when the opportunity presented itself. By the end of the March Congress, Yeltsin only escaped impeachment by a paltry 72 votes, out of 1,003. Yeltsin walked out of the Congress, but only a few deputies followed him. He now put all his efforts into securing a majority in the April referendum and holding new elections in October. The Congress voted to go ahead with the referendum, but added two questions of its own, "for or against Yeltsin's economic reforms", and also, "for or against elections for parliament and the presidency". In addition they laid down the norm that the referendum must get over 50 per cent of the total eligible to vote for it to be valid. Yeltsin managed to get the Constitutional Court to over rule this latter condition on his questions.

In a blatant attempt to bolster Yeltsin's position Clinton agreed to a US-Russian summit where he announced a $1.6 billion US aid package, and pressed the G7 to announce a further package ten days later. In April 1993, $42 billion assistance was agreed by the G7 powers. On this basis, Yeltsin promised workers and pensioners increased allowances and an increase in the minimum wage as a bribe before the referendum. In the end, 64 per cent turned out to vote. It was announced that 58 per cent supported the president and nearly 53 per cent had backed his economic programme. There were widespread reports that Yeltsin had rigged the referendum vote which gave him a narrow majority. Rutskoi immediately dismissed the result: "There are 105 million eligible voters," he said. "Somewhere around 32 million supported the president and his course. So between 71 and 72 million were either against or did not go to the referendum... There can be no talk of popular support."

Yeltsin then attempted to use his victory to change the constitution, neuter the Congress, and increase his presidential powers. After a bitter struggle the draft constitution was approved by the Constitutional Conference. Yeltsin lost no time in moving against his opponents. But this was no easy task. In May, he was humiliated when the trial of the August 1991 plotters collapsed. Matters were coming to a head.

In September 1993, after some hesitation, Yeltsin took the plunge and suspended parliament by decree, calling for elections to a new state Duma in December. He had concentrated power in his hands. Like all dictatorial rulers, he promised future elections under a constitution drawn up by himself. He acted as judge, jury, and executioner. Immediately Rutskoi denounced the decree as an "overt coup", and the Congress voted to impeach Yeltsin, remove him and confirm Rutskoi as president. This was tantamount to a declaration of civil war. Khasbulatov, the parliamentary speaker, appealed to all military and security chiefs to disobey all the "criminal" decrees and orders of Yeltsin.

The Western imperialists rushed to Yeltsin's defence. Clinton declared that Yeltsin's actions were "ultimately consistent with the democratic and reform course that [Yeltsin] chartered". The imperialists were of course not concerned with "democracy" but only with their material and strategic interests. They were not concerned with the illegal dismissal of parliament. This was in sharp contrast to their howls of protest when "democracy" was flouted in the attempted coup two years earlier in August 1991. But then it was a question of the interests of the nascent capitalists being crushed or threatened. It is always their class interests that dictate their home and foreign policy. Imagine the international outrage that would have broken out if the so-called hardliners had behaved in this fashion! The West provided the backing that Yeltsin needed. The time had come to forcibly deal with the Congress. In an open act of defiance, Gaidar was reappointed deputy prime minister and minister of the economy. The stage was set for a showdown. There was no going back.

However, Yeltsin's grip on the armed forces was very tenuous. A great part of the officer caste was openly hostile to Yeltsin's regime, humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the grovelling before the West. Many soldiers had not been paid wages for months, and there were reports from the Pacific region that soldiers faced starvation. 80,000 officers had been discharged from the army in the previous year without jobs or homes to go to. Only 14 per cent of conscripts had responded to call up papers. General Pavel Grachev, the minister of defence, was originally ambivalent towards Yeltsin, but threatened by dismissal by parliament, he sided with Yeltsin.

Opposition to Yeltsin also came from the regions. When on the 18th September he met members of the Federal Council and asked them to supplant the Congress until the new elections, 148 out of 176 regional leaders refused to support the proposal. Even the St Petersburg city council condemned Yeltsin's decree after rejecting an appeal from the city's mayor, Sobchak, a Yeltsinite. Yeltsin even failed to gain the support of the regions for a new constitution with a two-tier chamber, where the regions would form the upper house. They insisted, instead, on the current constitution. His proposals were seen as a trap which would effectively clip their powers and concentrate greater power in the hands of the presidency. They were promoting their own interests which at this stage conflicted with Yeltsin.

The storming of the White House

It was clear that the deadlock between the president and parliament could not last for long. The open split in the state raised the possibility of the disintegration of Russia itself. For many months, both Yeltsin and his opponents in parliament had been struggling for power. As Yeltsin commented in his memoirs: "The goal I have set before the government is to make reform irreversible." (Yeltsin, op. cit., p. 146.) But that still remained a goal. In order to make it a reality, he must first remove the obstacle of the Congress. Plans were laid. He intended to occupy the White House on a Sunday when the building was empty and simply announce its dissolution. This element of surprise was foiled when news of the attack filtered through to the Congress. They took immediate steps to blockade themselves in the building, thus beginning the siege of the White House.

Even after the Yeltsin decree of 21st September 1993, the outcome of the struggle over the fate of parliament was not decided. Both sides appealed to the masses. Khasbulatov and Rutskoi even appealed for strikes. However, as every worker knows, to organise a strike it is not enough to issue an appeal. For two weeks the deputies just sat in the White House, waiting for the masses to come to their aid. If, instead, they had sent representatives to the factories to rouse the workers, explaining concretely the meaning of Yeltsin's programme and posing an alternative—even in a caricature Stalinist form—they would have got a response. But they were incapable of explaining the attack on workers' rights posed by Yeltsin, limiting themselves to appeals to "defend the constitution".

The fact that Rutskoi and Khasbulatov failed to repudiate the presence of fascist groups among the defenders of parliament, which was deliberately highlighted by the Western media, is a further indication of their tactical and political bankruptcy. This played into Yeltsin's hands, enabling him to present the movement as a "communist-fascist" uprising. In a situation of such a critical character, energetic and determined action is essential. However, the leaders of Congress showed themselves unprepared. They hesitated, displayed passivity, waited in the White House with no evident plan of action, until Yeltsin cut off the electricity, water and heat. Unused to basing themselves on the masses, they were incapable of appealing to the working class, despite the existence of widespread discontent against Yeltsin. This is no accident. Both sides were terrified that an armed confrontation would spark off the intervention of the masses, with unpredictable consequences.

The prevailing mood in the masses was "a plague on both your houses", although that was beginning to change towards the end, with a section of the most active workers participating in the demonstrations outside the White House. This was one of the reasons which forced Yeltsin to make an armed assault on the parliament. An indication of the hopelessly degenerate and corrupt nature of the bureaucracy was the fact that many of the deputies accepted Yeltsin's bribe to leave the White House, in exchange for severance pay and being allowed to keep their government apartments! In the end only about 100 of the "hardliners" remained.

Despite the inactivity of parliament, it is clear its support was beginning to increase—on the 3rd and 4th of October, tens of thousands of demonstrators broke through police lines to reach the White House. It is probable that Rutskoi and Khasbulatov mistook this for a movement of the masses, and decided to "go for broke". As would-be insurrectionists, they made every mistake in the book. Having foreseen nothing and prepared nothing, they reacted passively to Yeltsin's initial aggression, but finally panicked, and attempted to seize power without any plan or perspective. We then had the pathetic spectacle of Rutskoi's frantic telephone calls, after the assault had begun, appealing for the support and intervention of Western ambassadors—like appealing to Satan against Beelzebub! The ambassadors of the imperialist powers, reflecting the policies of their governments, backed Yeltsin to the hilt.

Instead of organising a mass movement to overthrow Yeltsin, Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, in effect, attempted to stage a putsch, basing themselves on a minority. Even so, the weakness of Yeltsin's position was shown by the fact that the rebels came close to succeeding. In the absence of a movement of the masses, the army becomes the key element in the equation at such moments. Yeltsin's position remained extremely shaky up to the last minute. After the fall of Congress it emerged that the army chiefs only decided to intervene to save Yeltsin at the very last moment. Yeltsin was in a state of panic. When the president called for troops to storm the parliament building, they remained passive.

The seriousness of the position was confirmed by Yeltsin himself. "To put it mildly," he recalled in his memoirs, "the picture was dismal. The army, numbering two and a half million people, could not produce even a thousand soldiers; not even one regiment could be found to come to Moscow and defend the city." (B. Yeltsin, op. cit., p. 276.) When he entered the meeting at the defence ministry, he recorded:

"Overall, I must say the generals' expressions were grim, and many had lowered their heads. They obviously understood the awkwardness of the situation: the lawful government hung by a thread but the army couldn't defend it—some soldiers were picking potatoes and others didn't feel like fighting." (Ibid., p. 277.)

Yeltsin also confirmed in his memoirs the difficulty of getting his elite troops to take control of the White House. He was forced to plead personally with its officers:

"Deciding to take the bull by the horns, I barked, 'Are you prepared to fulfil the president's order?' In reply there was only silence, a terrible, inexplicable silence coming from such an elite presidential military unit. I waited for a minute and no one uttered a word. I finally growled, 'Then I'll put it another way: are you refusing to obey the president's order?' Again the response was silence. I cast my eyes over all of them—they were strong, strapping, and handsome fellows. Without saying good-bye, I turned on my heels and strode toward the door, telling Barsukov and Zaitsev, Alpha's commander, that the order must be obeyed. Subsequently, both Alpha and Vympel (the elite troops) refused to take part in the operation." (Ibid., p. 12.)

This clearly shows the slender support Yeltsin had. The Congress leaders had important points of support in the armed forces, through the Union of Officers. Yet they failed to conduct agitation among junior officers—let alone the ordinary soldiers. They addressed their appeals to the army tops. Most of the generals stayed on the fence till the last moment, waiting to see who would win. Yeltsin could count on the support of only a small minority of hand-picked units. Even the support of these, as has been shown, was not firm. Yet, in the absence of mass participation, the action of a minority of the army and KGB was sufficient to tip the balance in Yeltsin's favour.

Even at the decisive moment, only a small number of "loyal" troops participated in the crushing of parliament. The Daily Express (7/10/93) reported that: "Military chiefs were reluctant to obey orders to shoot at the parliament. The assault force was eventually cobbled together from the army, the interior ministry and sections of the KGB and police." According to a report of bourgeois economist Alec Nove, only eight officers could be found to lead the assault, for a large amount of money, payable in dollars. Of these, two months later, two had already been killed and the other six were in hiding.

It is only natural that in his memoirs Yeltsin should try to portray himself as an energetic chief in complete command of the situation. But the truth was very different. As rebel forces seized the television centre, Yeltsin appeared to be paralysed. In the decisive moments of the attempted putsch, when the fate of this regime, and all Russia, was in the balance, Yeltsin disappeared. Western press reports describe him as in a state of panic, and probably drunk, shouting incoherently at his staff. Hardly the picture of a brilliant conspirator who succeeded in cornering his enemies by a far-sighted stratagem! For all his bluster and bravado, Yeltsin was always no more than an upstart and a political adventurer. Although equipped with a certain animal cunning, and capable at times of a degree of audacity (often intimately connected with the need to save his own skin), he is devoid of any real understanding or perspective.

Eventually the White House was taken and the leaders of the October coup, Khasbulatov, Rutskoi, Makashov and Achalov, were arrested. It appeared that the deadlock between the two mutually antagonistic forces—the nascent Mafia bourgeoisie represented by Yeltsin and the old nomenklatura represented by parliament—had been resolved by the former. The process of capitalist restoration had been given a new powerful stimulus. But even then the victory of the Yeltsinites had still failed to provide a definitive solution. To Yeltsin's dismay, the defeat of parliament was not of a decisive nature. Within a matter of few months, the struggle broke out again with the election of the Duma. A further blow came when both the August 1991 coup plotters and the leaders of the October 1993 parliamentary rebellion were amnestied without trial by parliament in February 1994. In a wry comment, Yeltsin says: "Now they have all been released, they write poetry, they take part in demonstrations, and they are elected to the state Duma, the new parliament. Their cells in Lefortovo Prison have now been occupied by other people, thereby proving that the power of democracy is, alas, unstable." (Yeltsin, op. cit., p. 102.)

This did not prevent this great "democrat" from immediately banning opposition newspapers, suspending local councils, and outlawing opposition parties. This despite the fact that he already had complete control of the TV and radio. He also sacked regional governors and local councillors and suspended the Constitutional Court. There was not the slightest pretence at "democracy". Yeltsin hoped to move further down the road of a Bonapartist dictatorship, with a pseudo-parliamentary facade. The Duma elections would simply provide him with a parliamentary fig-leaf. But, in the words of Robert Burns, "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley".

The precarious position of Yeltsin was revealed by the elections of December 1993 which followed the crushing of parliament. His victory over parliament was supposed to have settled accounts. It was for this reason that the imperialist powers fell over themselves to support him. The Second International also added its voice to the chorus of support for Yeltsin, while making the obligatory nod in the direction of "democracy". Yeltsin regarded the new elections as a formality. His side-kick, Gaidar was already organising the victory celebrations. He aimed to get a decisive victory for the reformist parties in order to push through a rapid move towards capitalism. However, the reformist camp turned out to be hopelessly split and impotent—Gaidar, Yavlinsky, Sobchak, Popov, Shakhrai, all put themselves forward in different parties and blocs, each vociferously denouncing the others.

In the event, the reformers' victory celebration turned into a wake. They suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Communist Party and its Agrarian allies, together with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists. This despite the fact that practically the whole of the media was in Yeltsin's hands. In fact, Yeltsin's position was even worse than before. He was probably tempted to try to disperse parliament but realised that it would be impossible to get the forces to do this. Even in October 1993, as we have seen, he barely managed to get the army's support. This time, Yeltsin would almost certainly fail. In the 1993 elections, no less than 63 per cent of the army voted for the nationalist Zhirinovsky. Almost three quarters of the troops in the strategic missile forces voted for him, as did 93 per cent of the pupils of the Russian Military Academy. This indicated that Yeltsin's base in the army had declined drastically.

The imperialists were convinced that, after the crushing of the White House, the movement towards capitalism would be plain sailing. They deluded themselves that a capitalist Russia would be weak and divided, and easily dominated by the West. Now all these plans were in ruins. In any case, the idea that a capitalist Russia would be a semi-colony was always a piece of crass stupidity. If the movement towards capitalism in Russia were to be completed, it would not end in a weak, semi-colonial regime, but in an aggressive and powerful imperialism, with a sizeable industrial base and a mighty army. Such a perspective must deprive the Western leaders of a considerable amount of sleep.

The Western media played up Zhirinovsky's result. He got 23 per cent of the vote, but deliberately played down the result of the Communist party and the Agrarians with a combined vote of over 20 per cent. Nevertheless, the tone of the leader-writers was one of alarm and despair. The imperialists, in common with the millions of racketeers, black marketeers and assorted riffraff which forms the class basis of Yeltsin's support, look with indifference at the terrible human cost of "reform". Their only concern is their own interests.

The West's changing moods

From the beginning, the attitude of the international strategists of capital has been characterised by wildly swinging moods—shifting from euphoria to black pessimism and back again, like a manic depressive, or a drunken man who easily passes from boundless elation to maudlin tearfulness. These gyrations faithfully reflect the contradictory movement in the direction of capitalism in Russia, which has suffered many setbacks, and is still not over.

The pessimism of the Western bourgeoisie was reflected in numerous editorials at the time. Thus, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard University economist and adviser to Russian ministers, wrote in the Financial Times (8-9/1/94): "It looks as if it's pretty far down the road towards the end for the reformers. The return of the old guard is not inevitable still, but it now seems the most likely outcome." Another article in the same paper showed the complete demoralisation of the Russian reformers: "At the same time, a range of decisions taken by President Boris Yeltsin and Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister, point to their acceptance of the need for a centrist economic course in which industries—including military plants—will be heavily subsidised and a strong push made to form a tight economic union with former Soviet republics under Russia's leadership. Reformers say such a course would destroy any hope of a financial stabilisation because of those republics' need for cheap credits and subsidised energy."

And again: "To drop reforms before they have been properly tried, or even introduced, they argue, could mean to lose everything. But now they fear it has not worked. They are privately preparing an exit from the political stage."

"Alarm bells began ringing in Washington and other Western capitals (yesterday) over the increasingly clouded future of President Yeltsin's reform programme..." wailed The Guardian (22/1/94). First Yegor Gaidar, the chief architect of the programme, and then Boris Fyodorov, the reformist finance minister were forced to resign. This meant there were no longer any leading 'reformers' left in the Cabinet. It was then that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced the end of "market romanticism".

Fear of a social explosion in Russia provoked sharp internal divisions even among the imperialists. It was not an accident that US Vice-President Gore, who visited Russia after the election, publicly warned against pressing on with reform too fast. Even Robert Dole, the Republican leader of the Senate, and later presidential candidate, commented that: "We've put a lot of pressure through the World Bank and the IMF on Russia to move immediately to a market economy. Of course, the result has been chaos and a lot of inflation."

Nevertheless, the dominant wing of the imperialists have decided to continue to press on with the same medicine. The organ of British finance capital, the Financial Times, in its editorial of the 7th January 1994, demanded "More shock, more therapy". "It has been obvious since the failed coup in August 1991 that reform in Russia would enjoy but a short window of opportunity. If the opportunity was let slip, the collapsed Soviet Union was likely to turn into a simulacrum of the former Yugoslavia, but in order of magnitude bigger. Mr Zhirinovsky's electoral success demonstrates that this danger is not a theoretical one." And the solution of the Financial Times: "If voters are calling for a return to the past, there is no remedy to offer. If they are calling for a better future, fast reform is the only remedy... They want more food. They want an end to corruption. They want secure jobs. They want a currency they can trust. None of these things is achievable without reform."

The Financial Times, after the December 1993 election, published an editorial entitled "No Turning Back For Russia", demanding that the reform programme be maintained, irrespective of the social costs. But a few weeks later, it had to admit that the reformers had suffered a serious defeat: "It is still possible a reform course will again be taken. But the reformers say it is more likely that reform will fall victim to popular discontent, conservative pressure and their own inability to unite." (Financial Times, 8-9/1/94.)

The strategists of capital knew that Yeltsin's regime represents a weak variety of Bonapartism. Their man in Moscow, sick and partially demoralised at that time, was absent from Moscow for long spells, even in decisive moments. These absences were not due to colds (the official reason) but to despair, only partially alleviated by habitual drunkenness. Yeltsin had already suffered two heart attacks, and was to suffer a third. Yet the West continued to cling to this old and sick man (it was frequently stated that he was already older than the average life span of a Russian male, which is now only 57) with a serious drink problem and a weak heart. This fact in itself shows the very fragile and unstable nature of the situation, from the standpoint of imperialism. The relationship calls to mind the well-known lines of Hillaire Belloc:

"And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse."

The pessimistic outlook of the international bourgeois in relation to Russia was expressed by John Lloyd in the Financial Times on the 22nd March 1994:

"As disheartening as any other fact for Russian ministers is the obvious truth that, after more than two years of official reformism there is little to show in the way of domestic success or foreign confidence. No Western companies of size have made very large commitments to Russia. Trade has shrunk to levels where most countries can discount it as negligible: foreign bankers do not believe that Russia will pay back any real debt in the next five years; and the rouble is driving steadily down to the 2,000 to the dollar level." Now it is more than Rbs5,000 to the American dollar.

That is the frank assessment of an intelligent Western commentator. It hardly expresses much confidence in the future prospect for capitalism in Russia. Lenin thought that the opening of Russia to the penetration of cheap foreign imports and investment would act as a stimulus for the developing Russian capitalists. But, as Lenin liked to say, "the truth is always concrete". Under these specific conditions, the abolition of the state monopoly of foreign trade has, paradoxically, led to a collapse of trade and a massive outflow of capital. In any case, even if normal trading relations could be established with the West, Russia would immediately come up against the limitations of the market in the period of the organic crisis of capitalism.

Western monopolies would be interested in certain parts of the economy—mainly raw materials, oil and gas. Paper, pulp, steel and aluminium also present tempting targets. They would like to exploit and rob Russia. Here are huge opportunities to obtain surplus value and super-profits, but it remains a risky proposition.

Russia finds itself isolated and shut out, despite all the nice words. Certain Eastern Europe countries are invited to join the European Union, but not Russia. Western imports of food and consumer goods are ruining Russian industry and agriculture. "Free trade" is all one way. This situation cannot continue indefinitely. The underlying friction was shown on the 23rd February 1996, when the Russian minister of finance proposed raising tariffs on imports by an average of 20 per cent. The USA, EU and the World Trade Organisation all immediately threatened retaliation if such measures were undertaken.

While paying lip service to the need to integrate the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe into the world economy, teaching them the blessings of "free trade", in practice the Western economies are busy erecting trade barriers to keep out cheap imports from the East. The trade gap between the EU and Eastern Europe is huge and growing. In reality, the EU is exploiting Eastern Europe for its own benefit. "This is breeding rancour in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest over limited market access in Western Europe," commented The Guardian (1/1/94), "and exposing as hollow, in their view, Western preaching about the virtues of market economies."

Once more on the national question

Despite the crimes of Stalinism, the Soviet Union made great strides forward in dealing with the national question. Lenin pointed out that, in the last analysis, the national question is a question of bread. On the basis of the development of the productive forces and the movement forward of society, the national question receded. Within the borders of the USSR were 15 republics, with 100 nationalities and 400 ethnic groups. Sixty million people lived in republics other than those of their ethnic origin. The linking together of the economies of the Republics made sense, and was in the interests of all the peoples. By contrast, the break-up of the Union, and the crazy attempt to sever the natural economic ties between the Republics, has had catastrophic results.

The old regime rested upon the premise of Greater Russian chauvinism; today the pro-bourgeois government sees the interests of minorities and small nations as so much small change. The old bureaucracy, particularly the increasingly restive military caste, is pressing for an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. As we predicted, Russia has moved to reassert its control over all the former Republics of the Soviet Union. The right of self-determination is shown not to be worth the paper it is printed on.

The break-up of the USSR was not in the interests of any of the peoples. From an economic point of view it was a calamity. All the economies of these Republics were closely integrated with that of the Soviet Union. The newly independent states are therefore heavily dependent on trade with Russia. At the time of the collapse of the USSR, Russia's exports to, and imports from, the other Republics were estimated to be approximately 30 per cent of its output. However, the inter-Republican trade of the Ukraine was equal to 60 per cent of its output, whereas that of Armenia was no less than 110 per cent. By way of comparison, Britain's trade with the rest of the EU was about 22 per cent of its output. The Republics do not possess sufficient hard currency to be able to trade extensively on the world market, and any attempt to do so would have a catastrophic effect on the economies of all of them.

By using its economic muscle, Russia can easily dominate the other states. Already it has compelled many of them to join the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States. Where economic pressure was insufficient, Russia has used military force to destabilise various Republics, notably Georgia and Moldovia. A bourgeois commentator very nicely describes the tactics whereby Moscow advances its interests in the Near Abroad as they call the former republics of the USSR:

"As if by magic, secessionist movements have sprung up in many former Soviet Republics, all better equipped than the government they were opposing. A brief period of civil warfare ensues, before Russia intervenes to 'separate' the warring parties and impose a peace which, invariably, involves the stationing of Russian forces. Furthermore, most of the warfare starts and stops exactly when Moscow wants it to. The Abkhaz rebellion in Georgia, for instance, fell strangely silent the moment Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze signed a peace treaty that virtually conceded his country's independence."

By these means, Moscow forces various Republics into humiliating "defence treaties". Russian intervention in the Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia enabled Russia in March 1994 to sign a deal resurrecting Russian military bases on Georgian soil. The same was done in Moldovia in July 1992, and again in North Ossetia in November of that year. It was from here that Russia launched its second invasion of Chechnya in December 1994. The whole of the Caucasus is now back under Russian control, Moldova voted against reuniting with Rumania, and is completely subservient to Moscow, as is Central Asia. Belarus has opted to enter a close relationship with Russia, which amounts to a fusion. This was ratified in a referendum where 82.4 per cent of voters came out in favour of economic union in May 1995. Also around three quarters of those voting supported making Russian the official state language and bringing back Soviet-era national insignia.

In effect, only the Ukraine and the Baltic States maintain some kind of independence. But the present situation is extremely fragile and cannot last. Even in the Baltics, the painful experience of capitalism is having an effect. This was shown when the fiercely independent people of Lithuania voted out the nationalist government of Landsbergis, and elected the former Communist Party, which, among other things, stands for closer links with Russia. The fact that the CP leaders continued to press on with the "Reform", doing the dirty work of capitalism meant that this was thrown away. But it shows that in the Baltic states also, the workers are seeking a class alternative. In Latvia also, the leftwing Democratic Party did well in elections, as well as anti-Russian Peoples' Movement for Latvia, which will further inflame Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority. This makes up a third of the population, but strict citizenship laws mean many are denied a vote.

Ukrainian independence

The Ukraine is the only republic which might have the strength to resist Russian pressure, with 52 million people, a GDP the size of Belgium and the third largest army in Europe. But the Ukraine, also, will be unable to resist Russia's embraces. The Ukrainian economy is in a worse mess than Russia's. So much so that a large part of the population, especially in the East, wants to join with Russia. That is the case, not only in Crimea, which subsequently voted in a pro-Russian government, but with the all important Donbass coalminers.

The Ukraine has practically achieved independence, but is still tied to Russia by economic factors, and a significant Russian minority (21 per cent) within its borders. Without access to Russian markets and raw materials (oil, minerals, etc.) the economy would collapse. The cutting off of energy by Russia had disastrous effects on the Ukraine, which if it had continued would have doomed the country. Even if it succeeds in establishing some minor markets in the West, this could not compensate for the loss of the Russian market. On the other hand, without the resources of the Ukraine, the Russian economy would also be in difficulties. The Ukraine was the bread basket and industrial locomotive of the former Soviet Union, occupying a position far more important than the Baltic States or the Caucasus.

The strength of the Ukrainian armed forces is also relative. No fewer than 80 per cent of its officers are Russians. Furthermore, the Ukraine is entirely dependent on Russia for oil and natural gas and is deeply in debt to its neighbour, a fact they were reminded of when Moscow interrupted the supplies causing disruption to both industry and private consumers. If supplies of gas were cut off altogether, one-third of Ukrainian industry would be shut down. In practice, Ukraine cannot stand alone against Russia. Probably, it will have to come to an arrangement, along the lines of Belarus. It was no accident that within a week of the 1991 attempted coup, Yeltsin announced the possible revision of the borders of the Russian Republic. And if Ukraine cannot maintain itself, still less will the tiny Baltic States be able to. The West may grumble and utter veiled threats, but in reality it is powerless to do anything about it.

The move towards capitalism in the Ukraine has been extremely slow. The majority of the economy remains in the state sector. Although the West gave $5 billion, President Kuchma appears to be dragging his feet in face of large-scale opposition from the bureaucracy, who are intent on holding onto their power. The currency has experienced massive devaluation, with hyper-inflation and the flight of capital of between $10 billion and $12 billion since independence. As the Financial Times (30/8/95) commented: "Four years after independence, Europe's second largest country after Russia has yet to stabilise the economy, let alone see the benefits of reform. After a good start, the economic overhaul faces mounting opposition from the powerful industrialists and bureaucrats who depend on the patronage of the state." The pressures will increase for a return to the "good old days" and closer links with Russia.

In an attempt to appease the military caste, Yeltsin has raised the issue of protecting the 25 million Russian-speakers who live outside the borders of the Russian Federation. If this was not sufficiently clear, it was spelled out by Valery Galeyko, leader of the Russian-speaking association of Pavlodar in Kazakhstan: "We need dual citizenship to restore the destroyed Soviet Union," he told the Financial Times (20/12/93).

Already most of the former Republics have come back into Russia's orbit. As The Economist (18/9/93) pointed out: "Six CIS members have been forced into signing defence treaties with Russia. Five have volunteered to transfer sovereignty to Russia in the hope of reviving their economies through reintegration with it. Non-members are asking to join the CIS, bringing them into Russia's clumsy embrace. Of the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union, only three on the Baltic—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are managing to make a clean break."

This agreement goes further than a free trade zone. It means, in effect, that these Republics have "ceded monetary sovereignty to Russia, rebuilding the rouble zone shattered last year". In fact, Belarus has unified its monetary system with Russia's. Thus, everywhere, Russia is reasserting itself in its old spheres of influence.

Despite talk of "compromise", Yeltsin opposed the entry of Eastern European states into NATO, demanded the right to deploy more tanks along Russia's southern borders and threatened to break the agreement on conventional disarmament in Europe. In addition, he offered Russia as the "guarantor for peace" in the Former Soviet Union. "The moment has come," announced Yeltsin in March 1993, "when the respective international organs should grant Russia special powers as the guarantor of peace and stability on the territory of the former Soviet Union." (Izvestia, 4/3/93.) All this is a reflection of the rising power of the Russian military. Despite the acute financial crisis, defence spending in Russia virtually doubled in 1993, as a percentage of GDP, from 4 per cent in 1992 to 7.5 per cent.

In the event of the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia, we would see the rise of a ferocious imperialist power. Russia cannot be democratic and capitalist at the same time. A military dictatorship in Russia would inevitably embark on an aggressive policy of expansion, on the lines of Tsarism in the past. Apart from the Ukraine, which could also end up under the domination of a military dictatorship, the "independence" of the former states of the CIS would be largely fictitious. Inevitably they would fall under the control of Russian imperialism, by one means or another. Under capitalism, the Republics would not be able to resist the pull of the powerful Russian economy, which could draw them inexorably into its orbit. In any case, in all likelihood, a coup in Moscow would be followed by a coup in Kiev.

A deal would probably be arrived at to form a kind of condominium of Slav states, Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, which would jointly dominate a reconstituted Union. Already the Ukraine and Belarus have entered into an agreement with Russia to set up a customs union. The other republics have all followed suit. The granting of a greater measure of autonomy to the Ukrainians would be a small price to pay. It would be an uneasy compromise, but could hold for a time. A federation of genuinely democratic workers' states is the only viable solution for the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Before the war, Trotsky understood the problem of Ukrainian unity, and the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a state of their own. Stalin united the Ukraine bureaucratically, under the boot of the Moscow bureaucracy. What was lacking was democracy and genuine autonomy for the Ukrainian people. That is why Trotsky put forward the slogan of an independent Soviet Socialist Ukraine as a step towards the genuine unification of all the peoples of the USSR on the basis of workers' democracy. That is the real way forward.

Chechnya's struggle

The Caucasus is a vital area for Russia for both economic and strategic reasons. The Chechen ruling clique under the late General Dudayev took advantage of the general confusion following the break-up of the USSR in 1991 to seize control and declare independence. It was clear from the beginning that Moscow would never allow this. As soon as he was able, using the pretext of a threat to the unity of Russia, Yeltsin ordered the invasion of the Chechen republic to topple the "gangster regime" of President Dudayev. Without doubt, the Dudayev regime was heavily involved in drug trafficking and illegal arms deals, as well as having links with the Mafia in Russia. But that never affected Yeltsin's outlook in the past.

He has been forced to get tough with Russia's 21 internal republics which have moved towards independence since the collapse of the USSR. It was also intended as a warning to other ethnic republics to fall back into line or face the consequences. Although the ethnic republics make up less than 20 per cent of the population of the Russian Federation, they control over 50 per cent of the territory. "Consequently," reports The Economist, "the disintegration of Russia could lead to a succession of Bosnias. More likely, it would upset Russia's generals—some of whom have said that, in their eyes, upholding the integrity of the country is their main duty."

However, the Russians got more than they bargained for in Chechnya. After all, the Chechens were fighting a defensive war on their own territory, whereas the Russian soldiers were fighting a war they did not believe in. They felt like a foreign army of occupation and were treated as such. Given the demoralisation of the Russian army and the ferocious resistance of the Chechens, Yeltsin found himself bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war. Marxists are in favour of the right of self-determination of the Chechens, with autonomy within a socialist democratic united Russian federation. That means that we support the Chechen people, but not the reactionary ruling Chechen clique.

The humiliation of the Russian army in Chechnya is a striking indication of the degree of chaos and demoralisation that grips the armed forces. An article in The Sunday Times (14/4/96.) painted an astounding picture of an army in a state of virtual disintegration, with the troops on the verge of mutiny:

"The desperation of Russian parents and their sons to avoid the draft is matched only by the determination of the recruitment centres to fulfil their quotas. They need to deliver 200,000 men by the end of June... Kovtun estimated that some 60 per cent of the potential recruits she sees suffer from chronic illnesses, many of them psychological and nervous disorders, that make them unfit for military service. 'The worst thing is that many of the parents of ill boys then refuse to have their sons treated,' said Kovtun."

Clearly, former General Alexander Lebed, who was brought into the government by Yeltsin, thought he would get a political advantage from pulling the army out of Chechnya, and he was not wrong. An opinion poll published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (16/1/97) claimed that 80 per cent of the population supported the peace deal, and that Lebed was the most popular of Russia's politicians (58 per cent as against only 23 per cent for Yeltsin.) But it is equally clear that this was not the position of either Yeltsin or the general staff. Probably this manoeuvre was the spark which provoked the movement to get rid of this ex-general.

At the moment of writing, Yeltsin has withdrawn the Russian army from Chechnya and is attempting to arrive at some sort of compromise. This withdrawal was the result of the feebleness of the Russian military effort in Chechnya, and the stubborn resistance of the Chechens. But there is no question of Moscow allowing genuine independence for Chechnya, either under a capitalist or Stalinist regime. They might arrive at some kind of an uneasy autonomy, but Moscow cannot accept outright independence since this would act as a magnet for all the other peoples of the Caucasus who would then demand the same terms. In view of the enormous economic and strategic importance of the region for Russia, the generals could never allow this to happen. This means that conflict is inevitable in the future, and Russian public opinion can easily be manipulated by provoking an incident in which Russian nationals are attacked. This method will be used not only in Chechnya but in other Republics if Moscow decides it to be necessary.

Central Asia presents a different case. Of all the peoples of the former Tsarist empire, they gained the most from the October Revolution. In place of feudal backwardness came industry, communications, universities and the equality of women. Illiteracy was largely abolished, but in place of Asiatic barbarism came Stalinist barbarism. Nevertheless, even in a caricature of a workers' state the peoples of Central Asia made colossal advances, not only in comparison to the past, but also when compared to the "independent" Asian capitalist regimes to the South. However, national oppression remained. Under Stalinism, all decisions were taken at the top by the Great Russian elite in Moscow.

Terrible consequences flowed from the irresponsible application of bureaucratic planning in Central Asia. The rape of resources of Central Asia, the drying up of the Aral sea, the disaster of cotton monoculture in Uzbekistan and the general degradation of the environment through the indiscriminate use of pesticides, etc. is an appalling heritage of Stalinism. The Russian bureaucracy ruled through the medium of their Central Asian satraps, if anything, more venal and degenerate than their masters in Moscow. The restoration of capitalism would be an unmitigated disaster for these Asian peoples, turning them into semi-colonies of Russian imperialism, vying for control with the lesser imperialisms of the area: Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and India.

The emergence of nationalist elements was inevitable given the history of the last seventy years. The bureaucratic attempt to suppress religion by force was bound to fail. Now there is the re-emergence of pro-Islamic elements in Central Asia, but that is not the dominant trend. Whereas the Poles and Czechs compare their living standards to that of Germany, the Uzbeks and Tadjiks compare their situation to that of the masses in Iran, Pakistan and India, to the disadvantage of capitalism. One only has to compare modern Tashkent, with its industry, high level of education and women who study and walk freely in the streets, to the barbarism that has been unleashed on Kabul, or Karachi for that matter, to see the difference.

The movement towards capitalism in the former Soviet Union invests the national question with explosive dimensions which threatens to plunge the whole area into bloody chaos. The full horror of the situation was brought out in the following report:

"Nearly 9m people have moved within or between the 12 countries of the former Soviet Union's Commonwealth of Independent States since 1989 in what a report published today described as 'the largest, most complex, and potentially most destabilising' population movements in any region since the second world war. One in 30 of the total CIS population has been affected by this mostly involuntary and continuing migration, the report says. In the five Central Asian republics one in 12 inhabitants has moved since 1989.

"...About 3m people have fled seven conflicts in CIS countries since 1988, when Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The latest conflict, in the breakaway region of Chechnya, has displaced about 500,000 people. The break-up of the Soviet Union into 15 separate states left between 54m and 64m people—a fifth of the total CIS population—outside their 'home' territories. More than 3m of these people have 'returned,' mostly to Russia. Between 1936 and 1952, Stalin deported more than 3m people, including entire populations. Among them were Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and Meskhetians from Georgia." (Financial Times, 23/5/96.)

Both Stalinism and capitalism entirely failed to solve the national question in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Only by guaranteeing equal rights to all the peoples could a lasting fraternal union be established. But this is impossible under Stalinism or capitalism. Only a return to workers' democracy offers a way out for the working class and the oppressed nationalities. Such a regime would return to Lenin's policy of national emancipation and fraternal relations between the peoples, with all rights for the national minorities. It was this policy that prevented the break-up of Russia after the October Revolution, but cynically betrayed by Stalin. It is the task of the workers of Russia to re-establish the genuine ideas of socialist internationalism as the only solution to their problems. Only a return to the genuine principles of Leninism can point the way to a just and lasting solution on the basis of a free union of the peoples within a socialist federation.