Post-Communist Russia: “a Walpurgis Night in which all cats are gray”

I don’t know nearly as much about the years following the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union as I would like to. I know the basics: that Yeltsin won against Gorbachev and instituted free market reforms, and I know that most state industries came under the control of former Communist Party members, and it’s quite obvious that some sort of alliance between the secret police and organized crime formed. But in the most recent issue of Dissent, Schlomo Avineri lays out the three stages of post-communism in the kind of neat formulation that’s either stolen from academics or is bound to be stolen by academics (like me!) The article is here. Some choice quotes from the first few pages:

The Soviet Union had no Lech Walesas or Vaclav Havels. No former dissidents or prisoners became ministers or presidents in Moscow, in contrast to Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague. Instead, there was an internal bureaucratic shift in the Kremlin. “Reformers” defeated “hard-liners.” The Baltic countries and also—up to a point—Georgia were different, however, because in them dissidents did take office. In Moscow, it was a new cadre of bureaucrats that oversaw reforms. […]

[….] Being anticommunist did not automatically mean being a democrat. The victorious anticommunist camps of 1989 were made up of democrats and liberals, social democrats and conservatives, nationalists and religious fundamentalists, anti-Russian chauvinists and—yes, frankly—semi-fascists and anti-Semites who sought to expiate (somewhat) their sordid pasts by posing as freedom lovers. […]

[…]Enthusiasm for rapid marketization obscured the impact of reforms on social strata that would suffer from the abolition of some of the safety nets provided by communism: retirees, workers in rust-belt, Soviet-style industries, provincial residents. Not everyone was a winner in the postcommunist paradise.

Finally, there are no shortcuts to democracy. It does not emerge overnight, automatically, and it is not enough to have an elite committed to democracy and markets. After all, democracy in countries such as Britain and France took centuries, and the United States needed a civil war to abolish slavery and another century to enfranchise fully its black population. The political histories of Germany, Italy, and Spain show how complex, tortuous, and sometimes murderous the transformation toward democracy can be.





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