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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Autocracy as the Scourge of Russia

When Alexander Rutskoi described Yegor Gaidar and his team of young economic reformers as "boys in pink pants," the world's media jumped on the phrase because it suggested that Russia was being run by a group of flashy whizkids.

Less well known was that the Russian vice president also said these "boys" wore red shirts. What he meant was that the whizkids were using neo-Bolshevik authoritarian methods to put their economic reform program into action.

In "Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy," Jonathan Steele, who just left Moscow after six years here as bureau chief of the Guardian, argues that it is this autocratic tradition, inherited via communism from Russia's tsarist past, that has dogged even the most liberal reformers' attempts to develop a modern democratic economy and society.

"The tragedy of Russia's 'democrats' in the first two years after the collapse of communism was that they seemed unable to encourage pluralism, tolerance and the search for compromise," Steele writes.

A soberingly critical look at Russia from the birth of glasnost up to the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the book is rich in interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev and leading members of his and Yeltsin's teams.

Steele is at his best when he brings to life some of the momentous -- and some of the everyday -- events he has witnessed, including a scoop interview with Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea when the Soviet leader was being rescued from captivity as the August 1991 coup attempt fell apart.

The key failing of both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, according to Steele, is that they sought to impose revolutionary change from above, omitting to create the necessary civic institutions that define a modern democracy -- particularly an accountable legislative and legal system.

While Gorbachev can claim credit for creating the Soviet Union's first freely elected parliament, his motivation for doing so was more to outmaneuver conservatives in his Politburo than to bring an end to the one-party system, Steele argues.

"Creating an elected chamber was not designed as an anti-Communist move," he writes. "It was an anti-conservative, pro-perestroika move."

Yeltsin differed from Gorbachev in that he became a fierce anti-Communist, but both were former party heavyweights who expected obedience from subordinates, becoming tetchy when dealing with legislatures that opposed or rejected their plans. Yeltsin's inability to work with parliament was to culminate in last year's events of Oct. 3-4.

Prior to his dissolution of the legislature in September 1993 over its refusal to pass the government's budget, Yeltsin did not attend the Supreme Soviet for a year and made no attempt to cultivate a relationship with centrist factions in parliament.

"Yeltsin's contempt for the Supreme Soviet and his refusal to work with it created a political stalemate in which parliament's minority of hardliners gained the upper hand," Steele writes, laying at the president's door a hefty chunk of the blame for precipitating the crisis.

Indeed, Steele goes further than this when he argues that Yeltsin's men may have allowed parliament supporters to run riot on the night of Oct. 3 in order to justify an attack on the White House.

Steele sees Yeltsin's establishment of a new legislature and refusal to resort to dictatorship and repression as evidence of his essential commitment to democracy. The president's powers have, however, been greatly enhanced under the new constitution introduced in the wake of the October events.

That the showdown with parliament was brought to a head by a row over the budget was appropriate, as economic policy had been the major subject of conflict over the past two years. Steele argues that the problem could have been avoided with a slower program of reform by consensus.

While not denying the good intentions and many of the positive achievements of Gaidar's "shock therapy" program, Steele views it as an overtly confrontational one, designed more for political than economic ends "so that if the reforms failed there would at least be no chance of the old centralized state-owned economy continuing."

A speech drafted by Gaidar that Yeltsin delivered to the Congress prior to the introduction of shock therapy now seems naively optimistic.

"Everyone will find life harder for approximately six months," Yeltsin said. "Then prices will fall and goods begin to fill the market. By the autumn of 1992 the economy will have stabilized."

The subsequent impoverishment of large swathes of the population through the massive inflation that accompanied the freeing of prices effectively wiped out savings overnight and sowed the powerful seeds of discontent with Yeltsin's rule that remain to this day.

"Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy" by Jonathan Steele, Faber and Faber, 427 pages, ?17.50. This book will be available for purchase at Zwemmer.