Vienna, October 5 – Sixteen years ago this week, then-President Boris Yeltsin “defeated the Front of National Salvation” based in the Supreme Soviet militarily and politically, Moscow commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky argues, but the Front defeated Yeltsin “ideologically and in terms of propaganda,” thereby killing off Russia’s second attempt at democracy.
“Happily,” he continues, “the Supreme Soviet lost,” but it was “happily above all for [that body] itself.” It could not have taken power, and there would have been chaos and disintegration: only those in the power structures around Yeltsin might have been able to hold things together if they had acted at the time (echo.msk.ru/blog/radzihovski/624546-echo/).
But as the drama played out in Moscow and before the world, Radzikhovsky points out with obvious regret at the nature of his country, “the ‘remainder of Russia’ just like in February 1917, October 1917, and August 1991 only looked on with wonder at the Capital waiting to see what fate would decide [for them] – ‘marrying me without me,’” in the words of the poet.
In fact, the Moscow commentator points out, “something similar was even then breaking out in the borderlands of the [former] USSR.” There was “a civil war in Tajikistan, coups in Georgia and a war in Abkhazia. A war in Transdniestria. Turnovers in Azerbaijan. Here then was the picture of 1992-93.” And what did Russia have? Chechnya.
And so, “to the happiness of the country and – above all – to that of the Supreme Soviet and of Rutskoy/Khasbulatov/Makashov and Co. personally, Yeltsin somehow held off this disaster … and involuntarily saved their skins,” Radzikhovsky argues. But only at an enormous and unexpected cost.
What happened next, he argues, is “more interesting. Yeltsin defeated the Front of National Salvation politically [but] the Front defeated Yeltsin ideologically and in propaganda terms” so that its ideas at least in a softened form came to define Yeltsin’s behavior, thus killing off this attempt democracy in Russia and opening the way for a new wave of authoritarianism.
“The victory achieved by force did not increase Yeltsin’s authority,” Radzikhovsky points out. His use of force “hung over him. He paid for reforms, now he had to pay also for the ‘firing upon the parliament’” even though or even particularly because there was relatively little sympathy for those he had attacked in this way.
Unlike the old saying that only the vanquished are judged, the Moscow commentator writes, in this case, only the victor found himself in the dock of public opinion and convicted of his actions. And consequently, the attitudes which had motivated the Supreme Soviet came to be the attitudes of the country.
What ideas were these? Radzikhovsky asks rhetorically. “Hatred of Yeltsin. Hatred of ‘the anti-people reforms.’ … Hatred of the West and the United States.” As far as love was concerned, there was only “love for Stalin as the highest and most concentrated and conserved incarnation of all these hatreds.”
(Unlike many of the commentators on this anniversary, Radzikhovsky carefully points out that at the level of general policy, Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet shared a great deal in common: they both had supported the demise of the Soviet Union. But each wanted to be in charge, and that was enough for the conflict.)
For many Russians, he says, “the idea of being ‘against Yeltsin and the democrats’ was more acceptable and popular than the idea of being ‘against Yeltsin and the democrats but for the peoples’ deputies from the [Russian] White House.’” The Russian media ultimately adapted to that fact, absorbing the attitudes of Yeltsin’s opponents, except for extreme anti-Semitism.
“Of course,” Radzikhovsky acknowledges, “every journalist sang this aria in his own way” with some openly denouncing the West while others maintained silence “about this.” But the overall message was clear. As “the people asked, the journalists gave, and the people asked for still more.” In this way, the ideological foundation of the last decade was built.
Radzikhovsky argues that October 1993 represented a turning point in Russian history almost as large as that of 1917. “Russia had two attempts of direct popular democracy,” he writes, “February-October 1917, and 1990 through October 1993.” Both times, “this was a kind of democracy without self-discipline,” and the country well apart.
To prevent that, democracy had to be “frozen out.” The big difference is that “Yeltsin unlike the Bolsheviks did not introduce a dictatorship.” But if he did not do that, “a semi-authoritarian Constitution was adopted, and the slow freezing of politics began.” Initially, the result was a “semi-authoritarian system,” and later a far more authoritarian one.
But regardless of what Yeltsin wanted, “the semi-authoritarian political form” he adopted quickly required “a corresponding ideological content,” a content that was increasingly “anti-liberal, anti-Western, anti-reformist, and nationalistic,” an ideology in which “there was no positive content, only hatred to ‘liberals’ and ‘Americans.’”
Radzikhovsky says he puts these words in quotation marks because in their Russian use now, they do not have anything to do with liberals or “even more’ with Americans in reality. But “that is not important,” he argues, because “people live in a world of their own imagingings” and not in a world of reality.
Thus, without wanting it to happen or recognizing it as it was taking place, Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet leadership “found one another. A happy marriage: the two little players came together. The softened ideology of the Front was fated to become sooner or later the ideology of the defense of the state” – as long as the state became “semi-authoritarian.”
Yeltsin, “in this struggle with his opponents, began perhaps unwillingly to build a semi-authoritarian state. And his opponents gave to this system the traditional ideology, moss-coverd imperial-Soviet nationalism.” Together, Radzikhovsky concludes, these Russian versions of the Montagues and the Capulets gave birth to the bureaucratic authoritarianism of today.