Communism's last gasp

NOW begins the arduous task of reconciling the Russian nation and building a democratic state on the rubble of communism.

The prospects for success look better than at any time since the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March 1917.


Unless President Boris Yeltsin repeats previous mistakes and seeks compromises with his defeated enemies, who interpret readiness to compromise as weakness, we are unlikely ever again to see a resurgence of a militant anti-democratic opposition. The events of the past four days are probably the last outbreak of violent counterrevolution in Russia.

The weekend riots in Moscow were much bloodier than the unsuccessful putsch of August 1991, but no less desperate and futile. A small minority of die-hard communists, out of touch with reality, inspired by a vision of a revived Soviet empire and by the desire to regain their privileges, tried again and failed again to rally the masses behind them.


This time they were much better organized. Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, who fancies himself a modern-day Lenin, tried to re-enact October 1917. His tactics emulated those of Leon Trotsky in the original Bolshevik coup d'etat: Disguise the anti-democratic offensive as a defense of democracy, negotiate while seizing power and strike at the nerve centers of the state (which today include television broadcasting stations).

But October 1993 is not October 1917 and we can only marvel at the ability of the self-styled parliamentarians to delude themselves. One problem with Russia's political vocabulary -- such as "parliament" and "constitution" -- is that it parrots Western words that bear little relationship to reality.

The self-styled Parliament, actually the Supreme Soviet, is an offshoot of a body elected under President Mikhail Gorbachev, when there was a Soviet Union and a Communist Party to rule it. Neither exists today, and the membership of the Supreme Soviet, composed overwhelmingly of communists, represents a state that has passed into history. The constitution is a document from the 1970s. Amended more than 300 times, it has only historical significance.

It is absurd to talk of a coup d'etat by Boris Yeltsin because the concept presumes an "etat," a state -- a generally accepted and functioning system of government. Russia has not had such a system since autumn 1991, when the party was outlawed and the Soviet Union disintegrated into its constituent republics.

The state has to be created anew and this can be accomplished only by elections, which require the dissolution of the unrepresentative Supreme Soviet and its parent body, the Congress of People's Deputies.

The inhabitants of Moscow recognize this situation. An opinion poll conducted in Moscow two days after Mr. Yeltsin dissolved the Parliament showed that 62 percent supported the measure while 12 percent opposed it; only 6 percent acknowledged Mr. Rutskoi's claim to the presidency. If we are to judge by referendums and opinion polls, at most one-tenth of Russia's population subscribes to the ideology of Mr. Yeltsin's opponents.

An exhaustive survey conducted in 1989 and updated in 1992 under the direction of the sociologist Yuri Levada showed that a mere 4.9 percent of the people yearned for their country's lost superpower status -- and only 4.1 percent believed that it was surrounded by external enemies. The majority want, above all, democracy, better living conditions and civil rights. Nearly 45 percent believe that Russia's misfortunes are caused not by external enemies but by its own faults. Clearly, a major change has occurred in the Russian psyche.

In 1917, the masses could be rallied behind utopian visionaries of various ideological persuasions because they thought it possible attain a perfect society and believed that Russia would show humanity the way. Today, Russians no longer believe that politics, least of all violent politics, can solve human problems or that Russia leads the world in anything except crime and the consumption of alcohol.


Russians have become thoroughly depoliticized. For this reason, the slogans with which the parliamentary opposition tried to arouse the masses fell on deaf ears.

In Moscow, the die-hards succeeded in assembling mobs of a few thousand embittered communists and anti-Semites. In other cities, including St. Petersburg, they met with no response.

The failure of the anti-democratic forces was a foregone conclusion -- except for two unpredictable factors: Mr. Yeltsin's personality and the armed forces' loyalty. The president combines courage and pugnacity with a tendency to fall into apathy after winning a fight. This time, fortunately, he decided to act by meeting force with force.

Although the armed forces declared loyalty to Mr. Yeltsin, there was no assurance that they would obey orders to fire at civilians. The sympathies of most generals, almost to a man ex-members of the party, lie with Mr. Yeltsin's opponents, who promise to restore Russia's empire and return to the army its privileged status.

Some fraternization between the internal security forces and the rioters on Sunday gave cause for concern. Nevertheless, in the end the officer corps proved true to Russia's military tradition of obeying legitimate authority, and routed the armed rebels.

This is not an unmitigated good because while Mr. Yeltsin's dependence on the military might have saved him, it may compel him to conduct a more nationalistic foreign policy than he would if he were free of it.


Mr. Yeltsin, one hopes, will continue to act firmly and adhere to his program of two-tiered elections: in December for the new Parliament, in June for the presidency. Judging by what we know of Russian opinion, the likelihood is that he will win a comfortable majority, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the deputies.

Western statesmen have acquitted themselves splendidly in this crisis -- much better than in August 1991, when, uncertain how definitive the collapse of communism was, some held back support from Mr. Yeltsin. In coming months, Western governments should continue to extend unstinting support -- moral, diplomatic, economic -- to those who have just brought Russia back from the brink of disaster.

Richard Pipes, professor of history at Harvard, is author of "The Russian Revolution."