Is Reform in Russia Dead?

One of Russia’s radical reofrms during the Gorbachev years was Yuri Afanasyev, an historian and outspoken crusader for exposing the truth about the Stalinist era. In 1988 he was elected to the executive councile of the Memorial Society, which had grown from a grassroots movement to buil a monument honoring the victimes of Stalin’s terror into a nationwide organization advocating radical de-Stalinization of the Soviet system. In 1989, he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. He presently serves as Rector of the Moscow State Histsorical Archive Institute and is an astute observer of Russian life.

In an article whose thesis is clearly laid out in the title “Russian Reform Is Dead,” Afanasyev asserts that “now it is clear that there will be no reforms, not even bad ones.” He argues that President Boris Yeltsin “has become merely decorative.” His essay concludes with this statement: “Now is not the first time reforms have been halted not only by the evil intentions of those in power but by three social forces that predominate in Russia. In production, the driving force is the military-industrial complex … The second force is the collective peasantry, debased and used to a parasitic lifestyle, thievery and shoddy work … The third force is the bureaucracy, 20 million almost totally corrupt clerks … All three forces are aligned against the market economy and democracy … The state still reigns supreme, and the people of Russia still have not shown the political will to take a more direct road to democracy” (Source: Foreign Affairs, March-April 1994, pp. 21-26).

The Road to Change in Russia Will Be a Rocky One

The political paralysis which Afanasyev identifies is matched by a continuing economic crisis which shows little sign of abating. In 1993, there was a 12% drop in GDP (gross domestic production) in Russia, a 16.3% drop in industrial production, and an 880.8% increase in consumer prices between December 1992 and December 1993. In February 1993, the rouble exchange rate was 576 per dollar; on year later, in February 1994, the exchange rate was 1585 roubles per dollar (Source: The Economist, February 26, 1994, p. 114).

Yet despite discouraging political and economic signs, some analysts are still hopeful. Blair A. Ruble, Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, made this observation: “In the end, the pessimists remain convinced that the democratic and market experiments now taking place in Russia are doomed to failure because they have never succeeded in the past … But the very volatility of the current moment suggests that other outcomes are, indeed, possible …. A newly empowered, educated, and informed population has consistently pursued a revolution that is, in fact, unprecedented in the Russian experience. The present is precisely that historic moment when all can be changed …. this is a time, in short, when history need not repeat itself: (Source: “Russia’s and America’s Intertwined Fates,” Demokratizatslya, Winter 1993/1994, p. 32).

Russian Humor Eases the Pain

This debate between optimists and pessimists, who seem to be in the majority, has spawned a joke in Russia which I have been told many times by my Russian friends. What’s the difference between a pessimist and an optimist in Russia? A pessimist is someone who says “Things are terrible and are so bad that our crisis can’t get any worse!” An optimist is someone who says, “Oh yes it can!” Even in the difficulties of the post-Communist transition, Russians find ways of joking about their predicament in order to survive the harsh realities in which they find themselves.

The Crisis in Both the East and the West

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s Nobel Prize-winning author and contemporary prophet, has vividly described his country’s plight with these words: “Having lived through these 70 lethal years inside Communism’s iron shell, we are crawling out, though barely alive. A new age has clearly bgu, both for Russia and the whole world. Russia lies utterly ravaged and poisoned; its people are in a state of unprecedented humiliation, and are on the brink of perishing physically, perhaps even biologically.

But Solzhenitsyn’s analysis does not stop with Russia’s crisis. He continues: “Alas, at a time of an unprecedented rise in the material benefits of civilization and the ever-improving standards of living, the West, too, has been undergoing an erosion and obscuring of high moral and ethical ideals. The spiritual axis of life has grown dim … Yes, world culture today is of course in crisis, a crisis of great severity …. [There is] an unyielding and long-sustained attempt to undermine, ridicule, and uproot all moral precepts. There is no God, there is no truth, the universe is chaotic, all is relative …” (Source: “The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked the Century,” The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1993, p. 3).

Solzhenitsyn’s observations once again remind me that events in Eastern Europe and Russia can serve as parables for the West. The price being paid by the victims of Marxism-Leninism is the same price that will be paid by others who commit themselves to an ideology grounded in the belief that man is the measure of all things and tha tthere is no higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth.

As Solzhenitsyn noted in his famous Harvard Commencement Address in 1978, “We have placed too much hope in politics and social reform, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West.”