It is an ingrained American habit to interpret Russian politics as a battle between good and evil, and the Communists were the bad guys. When KGB agents hustled Alexander Solzhenitsyn aboard a westbound jet in 1974 or Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank to face down the putsch in 1991, that simple framework sufficed.
In the muddle of post-Soviet Russia, allegiances are more complex. But as President Yeltsin squared off a week ago against the balky Russian Congress of People's Deputies, some American observers seemed determined to squeeze a new reality into old molds.
Hence the eminent historian Richard Pipes, in the New York Times (and reprinted in The Evening Sun Wednesday): "Led by an ambitious adventurer, Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the unrepresentative body called the Congress of People's Deputies, it [the Communist nomenklatura] is trying to gain by parliamentary maneuvering what it failed to acquire by military power in August, 1991. . . . It is the president who has been democratically elected while the Congress is a largely self-appointed body dating to the Soviet Union."
A Washington Post editorial declared: "Certainly [Yeltsin's] ally-turned-antagonist, speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, has not shown he has outgrown his past as a party bureaucrat."
These pronouncements have the virtue of clarity. Unfortunately, they are wrong.
Far from being "self-appointed," the Russian Congress was elected in March, 1990, in a historic popular vote, judged by Western observers to be generally fair except in some rural outposts where local bosses ran unopposed. Far from being a "party bureaucrat" -- as Mr. Yeltsin was party boss in Sverdlovsk for a decade -- Ruslan Khasbulatov previously was a market-oriented think-tank economist.
In 1989, when the Soviet Congress was elected, one-third of the seats were reserved for appointments from Communist-dominated "public organizations," permitting Mikhail Gorbachev and many others to avoid running for office. But a year later, during elections to parliaments in the Russian Federation and the other Soviet republics, there were no such set-aside seats. Everyone had to run.
It was true that a large majority of those elected were Communist Party members -- most notably Mr. Yeltsin, who won 72 percent of the vote in Sverdlovsk, trouncing no fewer than 11 opponents. But party membership characterized most reformers as well as most reactionaries. Most people with career ambitions joined the party as a matter of course.
What seemed far more remarkable at the time of the 1990 election was the victory of democratic insurgents such as former political prisoner Sergei Kovalyov and newspaper editor Vladislav Starkov over entrenched party hacks. Less well known among the reformist winners was an economist who had labored for many years in obscurity in Moscow's Plekhanov Institute -- Ruslan Khasbulatov.
I had met Mr. Khasbulatov a year before his election, when we were the two guests on a live half-hour segment of the nightly TV show "Good Evening Moscow." I talked about working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow; the urbane, composed Mr. Khasbulatov spoke candidly of the shortcomings of central economic planning and the virtues of the market.
An ethnic Chechen, Mr. Khasbulatov's family had been caught up in Stalin's murderous deportation of the entire Chechen nationality to Kazakhstan for alleged collaboration with the Germans. He had pursued a successful academic career studying Western market economies, in particular Canada's.
For some time after the election, both the Russian Congress and Mr. Khasbulatov were viewed as relatively progressive and reformist in orientation. In December 1990, over the vociferous objections of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Congress voted to restore the right to private ownership of land. On the fateful morning of Aug. 19, 1991, Mr. Khasbulatov joined Mr. Yeltsin in denouncing the illegal seizure of power by the hardliners and remained at his side for three days.
Since the collapse of the coup and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russians have experienced an effective halving of their already modest living standards. Naturally, many are bewildered and angry. Some remember fondly the long lines and low prices of a few years ago.
As elected politicians, many Russian deputies echo and exploit this anger and nostalgia. They have no monopoly on the universal parliamentary tendency to bend with the prevailing wind; witness the U.S. congressmen who, having demanded military budget cuts and deficit reduction, now bitterly protest plans to close bases in their districts. Imagine the reaction in Congress in 1995 if the Clinton administration's economic program were to cut real family income by 50 percent.
It is true that Mr. Khasbulatov has left his academic roots behind and proved an especially unprincipled and unpredictable politician. It is true that many deputies who campaigned as "democrats" have revealed themselves to be anything but. It is also true that the Russian old-boy network of factory directors and collective farm chairmen and provincial party bosses is taking political advantage of the current economic chaos. This is a hazardous moment in the slow process of remaking Russia.
But the opposition is diverse, and the tag of Communist revanchist by no means applies to all. An outspoken opponent of Mr. Yeltsin is the fiercely anti-Communist Viktor Aksyuchits, a former dissident, editor of a samizdat journal and co-founder of a Christian Democratic party. He represents a nationalist opposition with no use for the former Communist agenda.
Our high-contrast picture of Russian politics needs to allow for more grays. When free-market evangelist Yegor Gaidar was ousted in December and replaced as prime minister by gas-industry manager Viktor Chernomyrdin, some Western observers predicted the death of economic reform. But Mr. Gaidar was economics editor of Pravda before he became such a radical, and Mr. Chernomyrdin has turned out to be more pragmatist than apparatchik. Reform has continued apace.
More than an ideological struggle, the standoff of Mr. Yeltsin (recent public approval rating, 22 percent) and Mr. Khasbulatov (recent approval rating, 5 percent) is something more universal: a power struggle. The sterile obstructionism of the Congress reflects not the threatened return of Communism, but a parliament's constitutional unwillingness to go along with hard and unpopular decisions.
Scott Shane, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, was The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991.