The Hour of the Demagogue

The Hour of the Demagogue

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

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

It was moderates, then, who had made themselves most vulnerable to outbidding by illiberal demagogues.  Yeltsin was comparatively immune: he was not going to be derailed by jingoistic candidates promising lower vodka prices as long as he kept control of the most potent demagogic issue of Soviet politics--anticommunism.  The Polish presidential elections had, of course, conveyed the very same message: Tyminski's victim was not Walesa but Mazowiecki.  In both cases, the politician who died by the crowd was the one who had never lived by it.(4) 

Continuity and Coups

Perhaps the most important difference between moderates and radicals concerned the future of the party and state bureaucracy.  On this issue, their timid positions of the past put the moderates on unusually weak ground.  Yakovlev, for example, was the most consistently liberal voice to which Gorbachev listened over the past six years, and yet his public statements give an inkling of how gradualist his private advice must have been.  Just last year he reproached the radicals for their obsession with breaking up the bureaucracy.  For him, it made no sense to treat the entire "stratum of management and administration as despotic because it used to be such."  After all, he said, "democracy is nothing without professional and highly qualified management."  Here Yakovlev echoed Mazowiecki (as well as Pipes on Kerensky): if things are to improve, hothead amateur politicians should stand aside; "Professionals must take over."  As a purely practical matter--and here the defeatism of the moderates shone through--reformers should see that "it is impossible to crush the apparat."

Yeltsin made clear what he thought of this argument by issuing his decree of July 20, 1991, which provided for the disbanding of Communist Party organizations in all state institutions located on the territory of the Russian Republic, including industrial enterprises.  The stated goal: "to prevent the activities of state bodies."  In fixing his name to such a document at the very moment that his negotiations with Gorbachev on the Union Treaty were bearing fruit, Yeltsin showed that he did not intend to let cooperation in one area dilute his authority as the Soviet Union's most single-minded and effective basher of bureaucrats and party hacks.  The rhetoric with which he defended his action suggested a real relish for the fight--and an awareness that it gave him political credibility that he could not afford to sacrifice.  "It's time you stopped hampering our reforms!" he told a group of hardline conservatives.  "Those in the way should go."(5)

The July 20 decree showed that Yeltsin intended to increase rather than ease his pressure on Gorbachev to implement a radical program.  By zeroing in on the party apparatus, he selected an issue on which popular sentiment was well known and Gorbachev's dithering is of long standing.  Yeltsin also showed that he could force other putative reformers to choose sides.  Gorbachev obliged by putting himself once more at the head of the reactionaries, promising them that he would veto Yeltsin's measure with his own decree.  Shevardnadze and Yakovlev, by contrast, issued a statement supporting Yeltsin: they had been maneuvered into a more radical position than they probably expected.  Yakovlev had earlier said of their new movement that it would "not be confrontational in character."  Yeltsin was making him think again.

For anticommunist demagogues, the party apparatus has been at one and the same time all-vulnerable and all-powerful--an irresistible target.  Their new foothold in government did not mean that the radicals had to work with the bureaucracy, but exactly the opposite: they had to confront it.  They believed that otherwise they would become mere figurehead rulers--enjoying "popularity without power," in the words of one Soviet commentator.  The residual influence of the apparat loomed as large as any other problem in the thinking of elected liberal leaders.  Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, hardly a radical by temperament, compared the precariousness of the democrats' position to that of Nicholas II: the last czar was unable to keep his officials from acting in a way that made czarism unbearable to his subjects.  And because he could not control the bureaucracy he was responsible for reducing the country to Bolshevism. This, says Sobchak,

is a lesson for a democrat who, upon finding himself at the head of a city, a republic, or even the country as a whole, acts in a shilly-shally manner.  The System may adroitly prod him towards adopting decisions which can lead to catastrophe.  The System can take a decision behind the back of a spineless or credulous leader.  For what it thinks about is not the people's benefit....It thinks solely about preserving its own wealth.  It is really a machine and, like any thinking machine, it is inhuman.  God, man, blood, conscience, shame--it refuses to accept all of these.  The System may provoke a bloodbath behind the back of a democrat-reformer.  He will not have the slightest chance to wash away the blood that was spilt and to prove his non-participation.6

For Soviet liberals, the certainty of being sabotaged by the old apparat made the theoretical advantages of institutional continuity irrelevant.  For them, the fact that Gorbachev did not acknowledge this simply attested to the futility of his kind of moderation.

Nowhere was this futility more evident than in his attitude toward the very institutions of the old order that posed the greatest potential threat to reform: the military and the police.  Long before August, the men who ran these institutions had made their opposition to Gorbachev's policies known: in private meetings, in strident public declarations, and in a bizarre effort in June to stage a parliamentary vote stripping him of his powers.  Yet he took no visible action of any kind against the participants in this conspiracy.  He jocularly referred to what had happened as a "coup," and even offered public excuses for its instigators.(7)

Gorbachev had, in effect, over-learned the lesson of Kerensky's mistake: keep the existing institutions of the state on your side, for what really counts is force, not popularity.  This strategy was doomed: when the chieftains of the old order turned against him at last, he had to rely on the popularity of someone else.

For his part, Yeltsin had also been wary of pushing the military too far and sought to show that he was prepared for some sort of working relationship with them: he accepted a deputy chief of the general staff as his "defense minister," named a decorated veteran of the Afghan war as his vice-presidential running mate, worked out an arrangement with the KGB for information-sharing between it and the Russian government.  To avoid yet another confrontation, Yeltsin chose not to apply his July 20 ban on party cells to the military, acknowledging that this issue would have to be addressed by the all-Union Parliament.

For Gorbachev, propitiating the generals was a strategy; for Yeltsin, at most a tactic.  Doing so might help to defuse tensions between the Russian president and the military, it offered far less effective protection against a coup than his broader strategy of cultivating mass support.  The decision of the August coup leaders not to arrest Yeltsin at the same time that they arrested Gorbachev was perhaps the ultimate tribute to what he had achieved: he had made himself too powerful to touch.  This was, of course, only the coup leaders' first mistake: they also miscalculated their ability to hold together the institutions that were nominally under their control.  When demagogic power took on institutional power in the streets of Moscow, the Soviet state disintegrated.

The result will almost certainly be a more complete rout of the old order than would have occurred if the conservatives had not acted at all.  Curiously enough, this was the precise advice they received just weeks before the coup by Gorbachev's closest supporters.  At the July session of the Central Committee, Anatoly Lukyanov, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet and a longtime leader, appealed to the body not even to think of trying to oust Gorbachev as party leader.  Were the president of the USSR to cease being the general secretary of the CPSU, Communists would be left defenseless at the hands of elected democrats across the country.  The result would be awful: a "pogrom against party organizations."(8)

Before the coup, then, the prospect of having to face down wild-eyed, Communist-hating radicals gave Gorbachev and his supporters additional arguments against hardliners who were spoiling for a fight.  When the coup came, the hardliners were defeated because Soviet democracy had acquired a popular base that Gorbachev himself had never been able--or willing--to give it.  In the end, both Gorbachev's crackdown of last winter and the hardliners' revolt of August had the same result: moderate reform could not survive without the support of radical demagogy.

The events of this year may at last put an end to one of the more illusory ideas that has crept into analysis of Soviet politics: the so-called "Pinochet model."  This was the voguish comparison between the Soviet Union and other states--Chile and South Korea among others--that had made their breakthrough to democracy by way of military rule, under which a capitalist middle class took shape and the unappeasable conflicts of the past were forgotten.  Exponents of this neo-authoritarian scenario insisted that in the Soviet Union only a military regime would be strong enough to deal with the social tensions created by rapid marketization.(9) 

Essay Types: Essay