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The Morning After

The Morning After

Mini Teaser: Here are four Quarantottesco books, all Liberty on the Barricades, beards striking poses, étude revolutionnaire throbbing away.

by Author(s): Norman Stone

David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (New York: Random House, 1993), 575 pp.

John B. Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 360 pp.

Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993), 454 pp.

Andrew Nagorski, The Birth of Freedom: Shaping Lives and Societies in the New Eastern Europe (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 319 pp.

Some time in early 1988, Zbigniew Brzezinski came to London and lectured on "the spring-time of peoples." On the evidence of pamphlets and "feel," he said that communism would soon be over. There would be rebellion everywhere, and the nations would claim freedom. By his title, "Spring-time of Peoples," he was evoking 1848. In that year, the buds leafed in February, there was a revolt in Paris, and revolt followed, nearly everywhere else in Central Europe, within weeks. The old men of the old order slunk away, and for a time there was a carnival atmosphere.

Sovietskaya Estonia, for November 18, 1988, proclaimed "The Estonian people on the shores of the Baltic Sea has been cultivating the land and developing its own culture for more than five thousand years." The Estonian declaration of sovereignty, a fantastic-seeming piece of impudence was the start of a chain reaction that brought down the Soviet Union. Within a year, the Wall was down, and the world got an extra Christmas present, with the fall of Ceausescu. Then came the end of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union itself. Tiny Estonia became formally independent, and so too did Russia, under Yeltsin. Brzezinski proved quite right.

But the trouble with 1848 is that it led nowhere. The spring-time of peoples turned out to be a collection of buds that withered before they could ripen. The old order had kept the levers of power, the church, and the army. The new order fell apart. Nations, proudly declared, went for each other's throats. Urban riots developed as market economies went wrong: by June, even a stalwart radical such as Victor Hugo, seeing the rebellious proletarians, could say that "you must shoot them down, while respecting them." Worst of all, the peasants backed up the old order. They had been emancipated by the revolutionaries, but, with property or the chance of it, they lost interest in revolution. Garibaldi later complained that he could get help from every class of Italian in his fight with the Papacy and the Austrian Empire, except for the peasants. So the old order came back. But it was an old order that had been forced to learn, and was now intelligent, energetic, adaptable. Prince Felix zu Schwarzenberg, appealed to for clemency in victory, agreed, but insisted, "First a little hanging." The revolutionaries had made silly mistakes, and deserved all the contempt that the serious writers of the epoch--Flaubert and Tocqueville--poured upon them. But in the end, it was the synthesis of revolution and reaction that was interesting. The administrative techniques and the economic practices of classical liberalism were adopted by re-energized ancien regimes, and this synthesis quite soon produced Bismarck and Cavour. And there is at least the suspicion that it is 1849, rather than 1848, that now applies as presiding spirit in post-communism. I should like to hear Dr. Brzezinski lecture, now, on 1849.

Here, however, are four Quarantottesco books, all Liberty on the Barricades, beards striking poses, étude revolutionnaire throbbing away. With the exception of Anatol Lieven's book, which is vaguely elegiac, they are euphoric in tone. Of course this is entirely understandable: who could fail to cheer, in August 1991, as Uncle Ebenezer Kryutchkov was led off the stage in handcuffs, to hissing? Books on the Eastern European and Russian liberation thus have a goodies-and-baddies momentum, and make for a story with excellent characters; it is not surprising that every journalist worth his salt feels that he ought to write a book. Bliss it was to be alive, and to be CNN was heaven; but it was no bad thing either to be Messrs. Nagorski and Remnick.

Andrew Nagorski knew the old Soviet Union and wrote one of the very few good journalistic books about it--Reluctant Farewell, which contained a certain measure of old-fashioned Polish contempt for Russian brutality and sloth. Now, with The Birth of Freedom, he describes emancipated Eastern Europe, and he nods approvingly all the way. Civil society recovers, the free market works its miracles (they do seem miraculous in Poland, with her booming stock exchange), new democratic parties come into existence, and serious efforts are made to repair the ecological and other damages of the past. The book is quite valuable, in that it gives a blow-by-blow account of political life since 1989, and so deserves a shelf-life. However, there are times when I am tempted to conclude that Poles are best in misfortune, because, unlike Reluctant Farewell, this is rather a bland, smug book. It has come out too early. The very recent election, with its extraordinary neo-communist majority, makes you wonder about what is going to happen next, as does the refusal of NATO to take in Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, or the refusal of the European Community to take up free trade with them. A lot is going to depend upon what happens in Russia.

Much the same applies with the Baltic states. Anatol Lieven--part of whose family is of Baltic-German-Russian origin (he does rather overdo the elegiac note in places)--has written a valuable book, summarizing much intractable information. It is rather self-indulgent and repetitive: all authors of first books ought to be made to write them in pen and ink, because in that way, proper chapter-shape and economy of detail would be observed, as they are not always by Lieven. However, his is the important book about a surprisingly important subject, and it is worth ploughing through the excess pages about "the frog monster" of Baltic folklore to get to the center of the subject.

The three Baltic peoples were "peoples without history"--the very name "Tallinn," for Estonia's capital, means "Danish Town." At least the Lithuanians could look back on a great past: their Grand Duchy, the last pagan state in Europe, ruled a huge tract of territory between Poland and Muscovy, though even then the language of court was Byelorussian, and Lithuanian remained mainly a peasant language. Unlike the Lithuanians, the other two peoples were firmly Protestant, slightly in the manner of "Main Street." Even the Lithuanians had once experienced the Reformation, and the main mover of their new independence, Vitautas Landsbergis, was originally a Protestant.

There were surviving Latvian Catholics, in an area called Lettgallen, next to Lithuania, and in 1900 they were, like Catholics in nearly all of the mixed communities of the world, poorer than the Protestants. Latvians got a bad name for supplying more than their due share of blood-thirsty Bolsheviks and for producing enthusiastic Nazi collaborators. Even now, it makes a very bad impression for Latvian soldiers to be wearing what look extremely like SS uniforms, and brandishing a swastika-like "Fire Cross," in evocation (as with the Nazis) of their Aryan, or Indo-Germanic, as distinct from Slavic, origin. The Russian minority in Latvia is more worried, and with better grounds, than is that in Estonia.

These peoples became independent after the Bolshevik Revolution. Malcolm Muggeridge, returning from his "Winter in Moscow" in 1931 (the title of one of the few other good journalistic books about the Soviet Union), stood up in the train and cheered like mad, along with the other passengers, when they finally left Soviet territory and entered Latvia, with its bright lights and decent station buffets; then he realized that the inhabitants of Riga were just pasty-faced bourgeois counting out their money. It was unfair, however, to dismiss them as a petty-bourgeois Munchkinland. With some political turbulence, these little countries did not do a bad job in pulling themselves up by their boot-straps. Estonians today reflect, ruefully, that in those days they were better off than the Finns. Then the Hitler-Stalin night descended.

One thing that is truly astonishing about the sequel is how history lived on. Communism was about abolishing the past, except as folklore: Marx hated "the idiocy of rural life," Trotsky hated "the Russia of icons and cockroaches," and Stalin hated everything, except perhaps Hitler. It comes as a vast surprise that, throughout Eastern Europe, the historical character of peoples comes alive again. Today, the Poles' constitution and politics, as Nagorski shows, provide for the sort of chaos that caused Lloyd George to remark in 1919 that giving them independence was like handing a clock to a monkey. The Hungarians are back to having, as in the old days, a governing party tempered by back-stabbing, and the Czechs are back to their old cabinet of officials, austerely applying the rule of law. The Baltic states are also very different in character, to the extent that, as in the 1920s and 1930s, they do not easily cooperate. The Estonians deserve endless plaudits, because, in a cunning small-time way, they made the best of an extremely difficult hand. They made themselves indispensable in Moscow, being too competent at essential modern activities to be dispensed with, while being too few in number to be a serious threat. They "Finlandized" themselves, and, like the Finns, they know exactly when to stop and start as regards independence. In November 1988, the pebble of their declaration of sovereignty launched the avalanche.

Then, in 1990, it was the Lithuanians, under Landsbergis, who managed the essential next step: a challenge to Soviet force. Here they were following their own history and the example of Polish-Lithuanian revolts in the past. In January 1991, as part of the run-up to the August putsch, Soviet troops went into Lithuania, were challenged at the television station and the parliament, and, under the glare of Western (and Russian) cameras, slunk away. The Latvians bided their time, divided between these two examples--again, a reflection of their history. There is less to be said about their role, and since independence they have been clumsier and more provocative towards the Russian minority than they should have been, as the ss uniforms and swastikas demonstrate. The Estonians are turning themselves into a little Finland; the Lithuanians--again a reflection of their past--have rather fallen apart, have elected one-time senior Communists to govern them, and, underneath nationalist rhetoric, seem close to re-attaching themselves to Russia in some form or other. For their part, the Russians are becoming Russian again. It is the old Russia once more, a country of Westernizers, Old Believers going up in smoke, rival boyars manipulating mobs. The return of the repressed in Russia is not very good for democracy.

The turn towards democracy was never going to be easy, but from John Dunlop's book--on a second reading it is the most serious of those on offer here--we can see just how difficult it is going to be. Dunlop, an academic who does not have Remnick's journalistic immediacy or pace, nevertheless looks from above on a twisting and turning that makes the formation of proper democratic parties impossible. However, he also sees--as Remnick does not--that Russian nationalism, the motor behind Yeltsin, really was about something, not just about liberation from the endless tiresome inconveniences (and sometimes worse) of Soviet life. Here, after all, was an empire in which the imperialists were much poorer than the colonies; you could plausibly say that it was the Russians themselves who suffered most. Yeltsin's adoption of Russian nationalism--the liberation of Russians from their millstone colonies--would give Russia the chance to become a normal country. But, in Dunlop's account, the old Russian Adam appears again: de-centralize, and you get anarchy; centralize, and you get tyranny.
This happened also in the days of the czar's Duma. For a time, Nicholas II promoted universal suffrage, and then found that the parties themselves behaved in such a way as to make a universal-suffrage parliament unworkable. This was not a uniquely Russian experience--the same happened in Austria-Hungary and, to a large extent, in Germany. Reading Dunlop, and his catalog (rather too catalog-like) of democratic figures such as Nikolai Travkin, forming alliances with Garri Kasparov and Yuri Astanaviev, then falling out with them, is quite depressing. Besides, Dunlop foresees, at the end of his book, that the contest between Yeltsin and the (more or less) democratic parliament that had once supported him is quite serious. He cannot have been too surprised at what happened to the White House, under the guns of the revived kgb and cameras of CNN, this time operating in alliance.

Like Lieven's study, David Remnick's book Lenin's Tomb appears too early. Remnick has been the best kind of journalist. He has lived in Moscow at a very fortunate time--Gorbachev's last years, the putsch, and the rise of Yeltsin within Russia. With the language and a knowledge of the history, you can get around, and Remnick has done so with energy. His is the kind of book that I could not put down, and as a day-to-day description of the "spring-time of Russia" I do not know a better. The story of the putsch, especially, comes across very well; you cheer along with the author as those tanks rumble off back down the Leningradskoye Shosse towards their barracks, with the soldiers and the people waving ecstatically to each other. However, Dunlop sees more than Remnick; he could sense that there would be a great clash in Moscow between Yeltsin and the very same parliament that had elected him in the first place, though his book ends some time before these dramatic events in the White House.

These, really, matter rather more than the putsch of August 1991, the high-point of Remnick's long book. About it, there always was an air of farce. Remnick describes it very well indeed, often with acid humor, but I rather suspect that the present crisis is rather more serious. Yanayev, Kryutchkov, and Co. were essentially "useful idiots"--the phrase that Lenin had once applied to the gaggle of pacifists, feminists, vegetarians, anti-smoking freaks, etc. whom the West produced, early on, as Bolshevik sympathizers. Yanayev and the putschists looked fearsomely Stalinist, and of course they could be used to terrify the West as an alternative to Gorbachev. They slipped control, maybe misunderstood what Gorbachev was trying to do, and staged a farce--tanks in Moscow stopping at the traffic-lights, for instance.

1848 was also a very good time for ecstatic journalists, watching people romantically expiring in push-over victories that led nowhere. (There was a journalist who looked upon it all with unblinking cynicism, who wrote for an early edition of the New York Times, and produced the best dismissive one-liners about it all; his name was Karl Marx.) The "spring-time of peoples" in Russia is turning rapidly into an 1849, with troops on the streets, censorship of the press, a massaged election in which the now-emancipated peasants will vote a revived old order. We have also seen parts of the old Soviet Union come back into line as part of a revived Russian system. Ukraine, not long ago, came to terms, entering the ruble zone, and abandoning claims to nuclear weaponry and ships; this will, quite possibly, mean the end of her independence altogether. The Central Asian republics are still dominated by Moscow--in Tajikistan, to the extent of several score thousand dead--and events in the Caucasus tell their own story, symbolized by the return of Aliev as boss of Azerbaidjan.
Remnick sees pop music as a liberating force. I doubt this: in 1984, the proles were fobbed off with a version of it, as well as "Victory Gin," and it made them low-level hedonistic, stupid, and apolitical. When, as I suspect is now happening, the old order comes marching back in an updated, energized form, pop musicians will figure among its useful idiots. At the very moment of the bombardment of the Moscow parliament by Yeltsin's section of the Security Apparatus, Michael Jackson was in the Hotel Metropol.

Essay Types: Book Review