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Revolution of 1991 Shows How Russians Have Changed Since Revolution of 1917


Every nation has the government it deserves.

-- Joseph de Maistre 1811

It had been a long time in coming, but the Soviet revolution oAugust 1991 represents the coming of age of the Soviet -- and especially the Russian -- people.

It may be said that in the last two weeks, for the first time in their history, Russians determined for themselves what kind of government they would have. Certainly they had revolted before, overthrowing their czar, the secret police and their entire system in 1917.

And they have done at least that much this time -- tossing out a useless economic system to boot. But the 1991 revolution did more. On the barricades of Moscow, on the nights of Aug. 19 and 20, unlike 1917, Russians determined not only what they did not want but made it very clear what they did want.

While we in the West like to believe that they chose liberty over tyranny, and they did, they also chose a modern living standard -- cars, apartments, stylish clothes, vacations abroad.

For at least as far back as Joseph de Maistre's time, his observation certainly applied to Russians, uncharitable as it may seem. Through centuries of czarist despotism and 74 years of Communist dictatorship, Russians appeared strangely immune to the cravings for liberty elsewhere.

The Decembrists, in 1825, unsuccessfully sought constitutional government on the death of Alexander I. A series of revolutionary movements (including one called the People's Will) followed one another through the middle 1800s, ending with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. And the roots of 1917 began to grow in the 1905 revolution.

But more often than not these were actions by the intelligentsia, students or liberal politicians, sometimes acting in the name of peasants, who remained disappointingly passive, and often more in opposition to the existing order than in pursuit of a positive ideal.

Under communism, through forced collectivization, man-made famine, and their own national holocaust -- Josef V. Stalin's purges of the 1930s through early 1950s -- Russians seemed incapable or unwilling to act as a sovereign people to overthrow a ruthless dictator, so pervasive and chillingly efficient was the // system of fear.

What had changed in the revolution of 1991? For one thing, the fear was gone. Mikhail S. Gorbachev gave them that. When old-style Communists tried ineptly to seize back their power, ordinary Russians said "No!" and put their bodies on the line. That was an important difference, the sine qua non of political maturity.

But another important change had occurred. Russians had -- ever so slowly -- become politically sophisticated. They had learned what life was like elsewhere and were determined to win that life for themselves. That was the result of an enormous social transformation over the last 60 years, according to Harley Balzer, director of the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University. In that period, he points out, they had gone from two-thirds rural to three-quarters urban; less than 50 percent literate to nearly universal literacy. Since 1960 they had increased ownership of television sets from 1 million to 100 million.

The contrast with the circumstances of the two revolutions of 1917, one which brought down the czar in March and a second which brought the Bolsheviks to power in November, is chiefly that popular sophistication. (The Russians have changed their calendar since 1917, and commonly refer to the two by their old dates as the February Revolution and the October Revolution.)

Russian revolutionary theorists including Vladimir I. Lenin had created Russian socialist parties and strategies, though they were banished to Western Europe in the early 1900s. The events leading to Czar Nicholas' abdication were planned by no one, and the revolutionaries were out of the country.

The weakness and ineptness of the Nicholas' government had already damaged it beyond repair when, on March 8, crowds of people in Petrograd's streets -- for a variety of reasons including factory strikes and an international Women's Day parade -- became a demonstration that spread widely through the capital.

Two days later soldiers ordered to fire on the crowds refused, fighting erupted, and on March 15 the czar abdicated for himself and his son Alexis, thus ending the Romanov dynasty with little to take its place.

In the months that followed there emerged three centers of power. The first was a Provisional Government of limited authority made up of conservative and patriotic politicians from the the professional classes and led by Alexander F. Kerensky, a Labor Party lawyer.

The second was a Council (Soviet) of Workers' Deputies made up largely of untrained factory workers, soldiers and revolutionaries who had been released from jail after the abdication.

The third was Lenin himself, who arrived from Switzerland on April 16 with the strong belief that the bourgeoisie was too cowardly and reactionary to carry out the necessary revolution, that it could only be done by the working class and specifically "the vanguard of the working class," his own Bolsheviks.

He was ambitious, energetic and impatient, and he realized that working within the Provisional Government he would be dealing with disciplined politicians who had their own well-formed ideas and with whom he would have to form coalitions and make compromises. It would be much more effective for him to deal with the Soviets, people who were untrained in politics and receptive to the fiery argument of a persuasive and ambitious leader like himself. Thus, as the summer wore on, he developed the slogan recited until recently: "All power to the Soviets."

After a confrontation between the Soviet and the Provisional Government over the war led to defeat of the right wing of the government, the stage was set for the sudden coup of Nov. 7 which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Lenin's unshakable belief that his ideas represented the will of the working class led him to brook no opposition, and his ruthless methods resulted in a "dictatorship of the proletariat" that left no room for democratic debate.

Thus the czar's secret police were soon replaced by Lenin's Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, and the opportunity for exercise of a popular will in the creation of government was sealed until 1991.

The tests of the Soviet people's new political maturity are just beginning. Benjamin Franklin, asked what the writers of the U.S. Constitution had created, is said to have replied: "A republic, sir, if you can keep it." The temptation for the Russians to follow old habits in chasing down and punishing opponents of the revolution is but one. Outlawing unwelcome newspapers and political parties may be another. Resolving the centrifugal forces of nationalism yet another. And guiding a tired and hungry people through the painful transition to a market economy may be the hardest of all.

There are as many expert opinions as experts as to whether those tests will be met. Mr. Balzer says: "There is no reason why they have to fail."

Frank Starr, chief of The Sun's Washington bureau, is a former Moscow correspondent.

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