The Hour of the Demagogue

As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,.

Issue: Fall 1991

As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,...and what we need here is not pale, unemotional theories, but fiery, new ideas.

--Nikolai Berdyaev,

The Russian Gironde" (1906)

The attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev obliges us to take a new and closer look at the dynamics of the anticommunist revolution.  From the moment that the old Soviet Empire began to shake in 1989, participants and observers alike saw the principal threat to democracy in political extremism.  These countries had, after all, only the thinnest constitutional traditions, and the tough policies needed to get postcommunist economies working right were bound to be an excruciating test.  Amid political confusion and social tension, the enemies of democracy--whether unprincipled rabble-rousers or generals in tanks--were expected to find their opening.  By contrast, politicians guided by a spirit of conciliation and compromise were sure to lose out.

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