20 years under Putin: a timeline

Only three generations after the first fork in the road in 1914-1917, Russia once again found itself at a crossroads. It was no wonder, however, that Russia, “having torn itself away from the European track,” would once again set itself against the world, as it did in the seventeenth century. But the “model of community living” proposed by the Bolsheviks (totalitarian ideology plus total control of the special services [editor’s note: secret police] plus the State Plan — that is, total state control of the economy) proved itself to be a dead end. By virtue of the richness of Russia’s natural and human resources, this model was able to be sustained for several decades, but it had no future..


Gaydar & Kurginyan

It’s another matter that the country’s fundamental modernization, already an urgent issue by 1914, was an undertaking that could not have been avoided under any circumstances, as described in the previous essay. And modernization did occur. The country became “unpeasantized” and urbanized, achieved universal literacy, earned superpower status once again, and was the first to go to outer space. Except it occurred utterly differently than the prerevolutionary reformers had imagined. It was violent, fearful and bloody; it cost the country tens of millions of lives; and, no less importantly for the future, it poisoned Russia with the spirit of class hatred and with precisely the same “phantom Napoleon complex” that followed the Crimean War. Tomes have been written about that first “poison;” the second remained in the shadows. But meanwhile, in poison took root the primary reason for the collapse of all the ideas of the “new reformers.”

From the beginning, the Gorbachev team made desperate efforts to save the USSR — at all costs, up to transforming it into a confederation, a Union of sovereign states. It was this step down from being a superpower that a powerful reactionary faction of the Soviet elite could not forgive. Gorbachev’s team on the one side, and the State Committee on the Emergency Situation (GKChP) on the other, were both doomed: the USSR could exist only as an empire, but this empire was in decay, as Herzen had already predicted. It seemed that the failure of the August coup of 1991 and the collapse of the empire should have put an end to the “phantom Napoleon complex” that prompted the reactionaries to revolt against the president.

Nothing of the sort took place. For it was here that Russian nationalism, driven underground during the USSR, swung into action, breaking free with tenfold force, as it had done a century earlier. At the cost of civil war, Russian nationalism stood ready to defend “Russia united and undivided” (by which they still meant empire, the same as in the past). Thus did the “party of revenge” enter the political scene. It relied on the rage of the “patriotic” masses who saw the collapse of empire as tantamount to losing the country they’d grown up in. Everything that they blamed on Gorbachev, they also blamed on Yeltsin: for subjecting Russia to the “Washington Obkom” [editor’s note: a term of art that likens the U.S. government to a Soviet-era regional Communist party committee]; for bringing to power “the government of treason”; and for creating a “regime of occupation.” Suddenly, from somewhere in the subconscious, came to the surface a forgotten Moscow mantra that the whole world was against Russia, that it was dreaming of how to swindle and occupy the country.

There’s no other way to explain the menacing title of the military resolution of the second All-Army Officer Assembly of 1993: “A warning to the governments of unfriendly states and contenders for global supremacy.”

“We won’t put up with those who stretch their arms toward our wealth,” declared the resolution. “We’ll break those arms. We know of your plans. All the aviation forces of the world won’t be enough to carry the corpses of your soldiers from our land.”

Do not forget that 70 percent of the Officer Corps of the Russian Army shared these views in 1992, according to military sociologists. It is difficult to understand the meaning of this provocative rhetoric if one has no knowledge of the myth that says the West survives only by robbing Russia — a myth that prevails in the consciousness of the “patriotic” masses.

An official political document, “Response of the Opposition,” from the media of the united opposition, summarizes the meaning of this myth: “Not everyone knows that the economy of the U.S. and the largest countries of the West are suffering the gravest crisis. They are now holding on by virtue of energy and raw-material resources transferred from Russia to the West at bargain prices. During the period of Yegor Gaidar’s government, Russia invested $40 billion to $45 billion into the Western economy in the form of supplies of cheap raw materials. Russia is saving the Western economy at the expense of the impoverishment of its own people.” Aleksander Prokhanov’s ultra-left newspaper Day confirmed with confidence: “The prosperity of the West will crash down momentarily without our natural resources.”

The psychological power of the myth was not at all diminished by its evident absurdity (let us remember 1914). The issue is not only that Russian oil was being sold to the West at world prices, just as it is now, but also that “the prosperity of the West” amounted to hundreds of trillions of dollars, and Russia’s contribution to it was negligible. In the early 1990s, though, the myth was a cornerstone of the ideology of the “party of revenge.”

The West had another problem at that time: it had no idea what was going on in Russia at all. The saddest thing is, it still doesn’t. This is quite clear from Andres Aslund's Moscow Times article published this past August 24th. Aslund refers to Boris Yeltsin’s speech of Oct. 28, 1991, in which the president presented the entire program of the future reforms. The Supreme Soviet approved it by an extraordinary majority — 876 to 16! Less than one month later, on November 22nd, the same Supreme Soviet changed course sharply against the reforms. Aslund mentions this, but in no way explains it. My explanation is the emergence of the “party of revenge.” Russian nationalism scored a gigantic propaganda victory, in fact taking over from the GKChP. Yeltsin and Gaidar did not present their reforms as a program for the salvation of Russia, and lost the ideological war.

The West never understood this paradox. It cannot even be compared to today’s turmoil in Iran, which only intends to build a nuclear bomb and doesn’t even have a project to build intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia was bristling with intercontinental missiles carrying thousands of warheads, and should, it seemed, have caused much more dismay. But no, it did not. That’s what Aslund saw so clearly. He even gave a title to his article: “The United States, not Gaidar, killed Yeltsin’s reforms.” Alas, the West had other, more important concerns: first the liberation of Kuwait, then the presidential elections in America, and later the transfer of nuclear weapons from the ex-Soviet republics to Russia. That is, to the country where, as we have seen, a fierce psychological war was breaking out, and the main prize was control of a superpower’s nuclear arsenal. And the “party of revenge” had the most serious of chances of winning this war.


To understand this, it is enough simply to read the speeches of those who inspired it — such as Igor Shafarevich (a member of the Academy of Sciences), Aleksander Zinoviev, Sergei Kurginyan, or John, Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga region, who would make ominous calls: “It’s time to collect payment on the bills that have piled up over the centuries.” This was done to make it clear that the West had to deal not with partners, but with raging haters who were hardly less fanatical than the Iranian mullahs. The picture is completed by adding the field commanders of the “party of revenge,” such as Col.-Gen. Albert Makashov, an open Black Hundredist (historically, a member of an armed monarchist anti-Semitic group that was active in Russia in 1905-1917), or Aleksander Barkashov, a hero of the nationalist putsch of Oct. 3, 1993, who famously declared: “We consider ourselves national socialists, or, as they say in the West, Nazis.”

The West justified its indifference with the fact that all these people were, supposedly, hopelessly marginal, and that nothing in the country depended on them. But is that so? Let us see. At the end of 1992, I had a chance to talk to Sergei Kurginyan, a leading ideologist of the “party of revenge,” and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of its prominent politicians. Amazingly enough, they both told me the same thing.

Said Kurginyan: “In March-April of the following year [1993] the national liberation movement will be in power.”

Said Zhirinovsky: “In March, Russia will have a different regime; the patriots will come to power.” The first 1993 edition of Aleksander Prokhanov’s newspaper Day opened with a New Year’s greeting from the editor-in-chief: “The year we are entering will be remembered as a year of convulsions and storms, a year of resistance and victory — a physical victory, because we have already scored a moral one.”

In the beginning of February 1993, the Day dedicated a full-page article to a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet of 1993. It started with these words: “It is suggested to work out recommendations for the revolutionary movement for now and for the nearest future, when the opposition will have to carry the burden of power in the ruined country.” The X-hour came, as my interlocutors had promised, on March 28, 1993, when the majority of the Supreme Soviet voted to impeach the president. It was the day Yegor Gaidar, as he himself admitted, spent waiting to be arrested. The day the “party of revenge” was only 72 votes short of the constitutional majority that was necessary to dispose of Yeltsin and, do not forget, to acquire control of the arsenal of a nuclear superpower. Can you imagine the outsiders being able to achieve a majority, if not a constitutional one, in the nation’s parliament?

Now, when the result has long been known, all this may appear to be merely a strange episode. But at the time … at the time it was frightening. And not only to me or to Gaidar. At that time, Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev announced publicly that “it’s the last Weimar year for Russia.” Then Valery Vyzhutovich, a well-known journalist for the Moscow News, wrote in his article, “Liberal Fright”: “The conclusion of Kozyrev, whose interview to Izvestia caused something of a stir, doesn’t strike me as sensational, although it is quite obvious to thoughtful observers that everything that is happening here is like Germany in 1933, when a faction of Democrats started to switch to the side of the nationalists.” Then a young American acedemic who has become President Obama’s Russia Adviser, Michael McFaul, left no doubt when he wrote: “Inflation is not the number one enemy facing Russia today; fascism is.”

I have spoken here of only one episode in this epic drama. To its own honor, Russian managed to emerge from this mayhem without a civil war. The achievement may have come at the cost of a heavy price that we are still paying now, but Russia emerged. It emerged all by itself, without the assistance of the West, which didn’t understand anything. And this cannot help but to inspire hope, for it means that there is still powder in Russia’s intellectual and spiritual powder horns. But the scar remains. And only God knows what needs to happen for it to be finally healed.

We have just seen that the second fork in the road of the 20th century was just as badly “equipped” for economic reform as the first one. I am quite sure that no economic reforms, no matter how necessary they may have been (and the country was doomed to starve without them) could have succeeded in the political turmoil that was tearing the country apart, when at stake was civil war to be or not to be in Russia. That is, Gaidar did everything he could as an economist, but failed completely as a politician. Again, history has proved to be more complicated than economics.