Russia at the Crossroads

November 1993: The election campaign is in full swing. There is feverish activity by political parties, electoral blocs are forming, debates, rallies and meetings are being held. A new legislative assembly is to be elected in a few weeks. The government has survived a recent coup attempt by radical extremists. Uncertainty is in the air. What will be the composition of the new assembly? What will it be able to accomplish? Will the democratic order survive in Russia?

There are many parallels with November 1917. Today, as in 1917, Russia is at a decisive turning point in its history.

In October 1917 the country was on the eve of elections to the Constituent Assembly. The economic situation was going from bad to worse, inflation was out of control, production was falling, prices rising, and large parts of the electorate were apathetic. There was no constitution, and one after another parts of the empire were declaring their sovereignty and independence.

The loyalty of the army was questionable. The Provisional Government was torn by conflicting factions, intrigues and rivalries. It had barely survived a coup attempt in July by a radical party calling itself the Bolsheviks. Virtually nothing was done against the putschists except that the newspaper Pravda was shut down for a short time.

The Bolsheviks had vowed to try again and they did, on Nov. 7. Using the Congress of Soviets as a screen of legitimacy, relying on a well-armed core of fighters, they seized the post, telegraph, and bridges in the capital; they disbanded the parliament and declared that a new government of workers and peasants was formed.

The new government also called itself provisional, and publicly stated that its main task was to secure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, which had ostensibly been sabotaged by the bourgeoisie. The prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, fled, vowing to restore order in the capital.

Most army units declared themselves neutral in the ensuing struggle between the new and the old provisional governments. The workers were apathetic and educated society uninterested. What difference did it make that leftist Social Democrats (Bolsheviks) replaced rightist Social Democrats (Mensheviks)? Fodor Shalyapin was singing in the opera that night. That was for some a far more interesting event.

Against the background of an apathetic electorate, confused military loyalties and economic chaos, the Bolsheviks seized the capital by concentrating a strike force in one place at a crucial moment. It took them four more years of bloody civil war to conquer the rest of Russia. Nobody realized then that their rule was going to last more than seven decades, and that millions were going to die in the process of constructing socialism.

For many decades the coup d'etat of November 1917 was called the Great October Socialist Revolution. The real sequence of events was distorted beyond recognition. Instead, a myth was produced that class-conscious proletarians rose under the leadership of the vanguard party for their liberation and the construction of socialism.

In the West too, especially in the 1980s, the Bolshevik coup was increasingly referred to as the October Revolution. Western scholars wrote dozens of books about the proletarian consciousness of the masses, creating legitimacy for the communist order at a time when it was living out its last decade.

It was in Russia itself, during the perestroika years, that the communist myth was torn apart and the truth about October 1917 reconstructed. The liberal press began to write about the promises the Bolsheviks never meant to fulfill, about the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly, the suppression of strikes, rigging of elections and the onset of Red Terror.

For democrats it was not a proletarian revolution but the Great October Socialist Catastrophe, that plunged Russia into chaos, terror and civil war, that destroyed Russia's parliamentary institutions, free press, private enterprise, political parties and independent judiciary. For democrats today, the Bolshevik coup was a national calamity that knocked Russia out for seven long decades from the mainstream of Western civilization.

For the communists and nationalists of all kinds who are collecting signatures at the Lenin museum today, the Bolshevik coup is a symbol of past glory. Those were the days when they shook the world. These people are driven by hatred of democrats, liberals, westernizers and of course Jews.

Russia today is at a crossroads, just as it was in November 1917. Yet despite some disturbing similarities there are fundamental differences.

The government today is much more stable than the Provisional Government was. It managed to preserve the loyalty of the army. It enjoys the support of the Western powers and it seems to have a genuine program of reforms.

Most importantly, the very experience of communist rule generated a strong desire to be a normal country again, to be a part of Europe. A broad consensus is forming among major parties and blocs that there is no alternative to private enterprise, constitutional legal order and a market economy. It seems that even among those who have been hurt by the onset of the market economy, there is little enthusiasm for a return to the kingdom of party secretaries and the KGB. The transition to a new order and a new future is well under way. It is only to be hoped that this time Russia will find its path to democracy and prosperity, a path it missed in November 1917.

On this 76th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup d'etat the time has come, let us hope, when democrats can say to the communists what Leon Trotsky said to the Social Democrats in November 1917: "Your role is played out. Your place is in the dust bin of history".

Vladimir Brovkin is a fellow at the Russian Research Center of Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.