Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Search for Martyrs

Small things often say more about the state of a society's political health than the big momentous event. When Russian television's Vesti news-program broke into funereal music on Wednesday evening after announcing the tragic death of the policeman wounded during the May Day rally, and an invisible commentator said he had died to save all, it was time for democrats to watch out. Hundreds of other Russian policemen and troops have been killed on duty in the last few years, in Tajikistan, Abkhazia, and Moldova but none has been given this treatment.


The search for martyrs is on, and it is never a pretty sight, particularly when state television is so obviously being used for propaganda. Ever since the referendum campaign began, the government's political exploitation of its monopoly control has been a disgrace. Wednesday's use of Tchaikovsky's death march was the worst so far.


Equally regrettably, other political forces were looking for their own martyrs among the wounded demonstrators. False rumors went round Moscow that some of them had died too. It was as though people wanted the wounded to die, so that this would level the score or even put the opposition in front.


The sickening use of victims was graphic proof of how far Russia's political climate has degenerated in the last six months. By European standards the clash at Gagarin Square was a relatively minor affair. In Berlin, Paris, Milan, and London over the last two decades there have been plenty of demonstrations as unruly and violent as the case we saw in Moscow last weekend. The fact that it was new for Moscow is obviously a matter of significance. Once a taboo has been broken, it can never be easily restored.


Nevertheless I am surprised how quickly Russian intellectuals, politicians, and commentators of various persuasions are already talking about civil war because of one bad incident in one Russian city.


In any society demonstrations can go wrong, either by mistake or deliberately. In neither case does it lead inevitably or automatically to further bloody conflict, let alone to civil war.


What has happened since the autumn of 1992 has been a disastrous polarization of the Russian political class, and a collapse of the fledgling culture of dialogue and debate which had been taking wing since 1989.


There is plenty of time to stop the former and restore the latter, provided some wisdom and leadership are shown.


The referendum on April 25 did not produce a "split" in society, as Ruslan Khasbulatov says. Nor did it produce a "powerful political defeat for Russia's legislative organs", as Boris Yeltsin says.


It produced some results which were predictable (like the good show for Yeltsin on the vote of confidence); some which were contradictory (like the majority calling for early presidential elections -- at least 7 million of the Russians who gave the president confidence want new elections); and some which should worry the government (the fact that in over half the regions, including most of the ancient heartland of central Russia, as well as in more than half the republics, majorities voted against the economic reforms).


Members of the government must know this, even if Russia's voters do not. In an extraordinary display of unprofessionalism, not one Russian newspaper printed a map with a breakdown of the results, nor even a list of them region by region, as any serious Western paper does after its own national elections. (If I am wrong on this, I will be delighted to apologize. ) It would be nice if Moscow's armies of commentators could occasionally leave space for some reporting.


In spite of the referendum's complex and geographically varied results, the government is choosing to behave in a "winner-takes-all" frame of mind.


In a settled society with an agreed constitutional framework, a stable political system, and a reasonably long record of consensus this makes some sense (though in Britain there is increasing doubt about it, and many people want to move towards proportional representation). In a choice of candidates for a single job, the "winner-takes all" system is the only option.


Russia is not in this category, and the referendum was not about choosing a president. It is a society which is moving from one type of socio-economic system to another, very different one. It is a country which is only just emerging from the autocracy of a single party and a single ideology. It is a nation which has lost an empire and the last remnants of its faith in a bright and imminent future in a very short space of time.


The one relatively clear result of the referendum is that a majority of voters support reform. They do not want to go back to the past. But the referendum did not give an answer on what sort of reform it should be or how fast it should go. People were not asked those questions, although, ironically, in his eve-of-poll appeal and again in his television address this Thursday, Yeltsin stole Khasbulatov's phrase and promised a "socially-orientated market economy". So did Russians actually vote for Khasbulatov's reform conception on April 25?


I jest, of course, but only in part. Russians need to learn that consensus politics is a messy, confusing, and slow-moving business, but muddle is better than blood.


Jonathan Steele is Moscow bureau chief for the Guardian, London.