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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Local Soviet: An Idea Whose Time Expired

Some ideas are slow to die.


The neighborhood soviet, or council, is a case in point.


The dissolution in October of the Moscow soviet, or Mossoviet, was a hailed as a victory for reformers over hardliners. It took tanks to finally blast it from existence, but at last Lenin's unwieldy monster was slain.


But then the victors did the oddest thing. Having won the struggle for control of the city, Mayor Yury Luzhkov wrote a city charter that decreed May elections for new neighborhood soviets.


Under the charter, these soviets would be full legislatures in their regions, with the power to pass laws, levy taxes and control property.


Sound frightening? Luzhkov apparently thought so. With approval from President Boris Yeltsin and the City Duma, the mayor canceled those elections Friday to be replaced by weaker soviets to be elected in the autumn.


What changed his mind? Chalk it up to coming to his senses.


To understand why this happened, it is necessary to look at the how these soviets came to be. In the wake of the Bolshevik putsch of 1917, the soviet was used shrewdly by Lenin to create a power base for his outnumbered band of radicals. Punctuated by slogans such as, "All Power to the Soviets," the councils formed the base of Soviet power.


With their large numbers of deputies, the soviets were celebrated as true grassroots democratic organs. The reality, of course, was different.


Under Communist power, the soviet did little more than rubber-stamp decisions made at higher levels. But this was hardly a pointless step. It served two functions: to involve locals directly in the decisions of the state and to give the totalitarian process a veneer of legitimacy.


As a result, the 500-person Mossoviet was not unmanageable. Whether 500 or 5 million hands went up at voting time it didn't matter, since the hands went up together.


But when the first whiffs of dissent drifted into the Mossoviet halls, the structure collapsed with alarming speed.


In the year and a half from the 1992 resignation of Mayor Gavriil Popov to the dissolution of Mossoviet in October, the city's soviet went from holding nearly all the power to holding nearly none of the power.


Anyone who sat through the self-important speeches of one session of Mossoviet or of the 34 local councils that once dotted Moscow knows that Moscow is better off without them.


No foreign city in a working democracy exercises such a hands-on brand of democracy. Four thousand years ago, ancient Athens proved that such kind of democracy does not work.


The early days of soviets in free Russia showed once again that the Greeks were right. In a democracy, these soviets look more like anarchy.