Magazines: Ragged Russia


Four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nations that used to be the Soviet Union and its satellites have become as unpredictable as any in the world. Who would've suspected that the West would cheer as President Boris Yeltsin crushed his rebellious parliament?

Russia and the nations of Eastern Europe have become places where anything is possible. Consider: The Constitutional Democrats ("Kadets") have been revived as a Russian political party, 75 years after their last appearance as weak-willed social democrats who were crushed by the Bolsheviks in the 1917 Revolution. Writing in the August Chronicles, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Wayne Allensworth says the Kadets and their allies in the Christian Democratic Party see themselves as "traditionalists who fear, among other things, the secular Westernizing of Russia by the youthful cosmopolites of Yeltsin's 'team' and the concomitant loss of what remains of Russia's national identity." The Kadets, says Allensworth, see themselves as part of the conservative "white" opposition to Yeltsin, in contrast to the "red" communists or the "brown" fascists.

The once-mighty Russian military, observes the August 28 Economist, is in serious disarray. Ships don't go on training exercises for lack of fuel, and one colonel complains that he can't schedule training exercises because there aren't any light bulbs at his base, except for the one that he takes home each night to make sure that it isn't stolen. The amount Russia spent on defense procurement fell by 32 percent in 1991 and an additional 68 percent in 1992. The Soviet Union bought 3,200 tanks in 1988; Russia acquired 20 tanks in 1992.

Moreover, Soviet youth are rebelling against conscription. In the first part of 1993, 95 percent of the young men who were given draft notices in the Moscow military district dodged the draft. Russian authorities prosecuted 11 percent of these draft dodgers and convicted 0.18 percent of those prosecuted. On May 19, the Russian parliament passed a law that allowed 84 percent of the 1.8 million men previously required to serve to avoid enlistment and an additional 8 percent to serve in the successors to the KGB rather than the armed forces. In 1993 the Russian military will have 185,000 new conscripts—and will discharge 580,000 draftees whose terms have expired.

As a result, observes Charles Dick of Britain's Conflict Studies Centre, except for the strategic rocket forces (which guard Russia's nuclear arsenal) and a few elite regiments, the Russian "armed forces are no threat to any organization more combat-ready" than the Girl Scouts.

Socialist realism has collapsed, says Andrew Solomon in the July 18 New York Times Magazine. Russian youth don't even pretend to adore Lenin and Stalin any more, Solomon says; instead, it's now possible, at least for some, to live lives as wild as those in New York's East Village or the hip parts of San Francisco. Drug use is increasing; while hashish is still expensive, there are plenty of potent psychedelic mushrooms to be found in the forests around St. Petersburg. Not only do the Russians now have "rave" concerts, there are even Russians who make their livings as Marilyn Monroe impersonators.

The ideals of communism, says Solomon, have been replaced by "a system of values whereby everyone has an eye only on his own progress." Russia is, in his opinion, a "country now run on the chance alignments and misalignments of hundreds of thousands of different, singular, individual agendas."

These "individual agendas" are not limited to private life. As Bogdan Szajowski, a political scientist at the University of Exeter in England, observes in the August World Today, communism was an intellectual superglue; it not only bound the individual to the state, it forced ethnic groups to live together that would normally have sought independence. The collapse of communism not only led to the breakup of the Soviet Union but could also lead to the breakup of Russia.

Szajowski estimates that, as of mid-1993, there were 204 ethnic conflicts within the borders of the Russian Federation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has far less clout in these border areas than did his predecessors. Regional administrators formerly appointed by Moscow are now elected, and they are more loyal to the voters than to the central government. These administrators, predicts Szajowski, could turn into warlords heading their own republics, and Russia could devolve into a league of nations as powerless (and as meaningless) as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Most Sovietologists did not predict today's world, with the Soviet Union disintegrated into hundreds of tiny shards. In a thoughtful piece in the Spring National Interest, Peter Rutland, a Wesleyan University professor of government, reports that he decided to study the errors of Sovietology by reading the 87 U.S. dissertations written between 1976 and 1987 on the domestic politics of the Soviet Union. After digesting this unappetizing feast of words, Rutland found that the graduate students, like established Sovietologists, accepted one of five possible scenarios for the Soviet Union's future.

About 60 percent thought that Soviet communism would become more liberal but that communism would still prevail. Another 25 percent thought that the Soviet Union would be seized by reactionaries, or that it would collapse in a languorous manner similar to that of the Ottoman Empire, which took nearly a century to expire. The correct answer, that the Soviet Union would collapse after the failure of reforms, says Rutland, was given by "virtually no one." Only Zbiegniew Brzezinski, Martin Malia, London Times columnist Bernard Levin, and the writers in an anthology edited by Alexander Shtromas and Morton Kaplan correctly predicted how the Soviet Union would die.

Rutland identifies two reason for the failure of Sovietology. First, accurate information about life under the rule of Brezhnev or Andropov was very hard to obtain. Much of the time, scholars could use only the information available to them in the United States, including Pravda and biographies of Politburo members. In the late 1970s, for example, several dissertations were written on material generated by Ohio State's Soviet Elite Perceptions project, which used CIA grants to conduct an exhaustive content analysis of Politburo speeches. Given the lack of interviews and other raw data, says Rutland, it's easy to see why much Sovietology was "nonsense on stilts."

But Sovietology also suffered from "disciplinary groupthink." Scholars on the left and right falsely assumed that a "Soviet system" existed that was free of factions or partisanship. Soviet observers assumed that perestroika, for example, was simply a modification of the exiting order, not a symptom that communism was on its deathbed. Since they were obsessed with the battles in the Politburo, Rutland observes, most Sovietologists missed many of the reasons why communism became unstable as power gradually slipped away from Moscow to the republics. Thus Sovietology failed to predict change, he says, "not because of a lack of sound methodology or a sinister political conspiracy to distort reality, but because of a failure of imagination."

Given the way that groupthink dominates the study of Slavic nations, it's worth questioning the current conventional wisdom that Russia should be bailed out with billions in Western aid. In asking whether Russia should be preserved, argues Steven Rosefielde in the summer Orbis, we're misunderstanding history and asking the wrong questions about how our money should be used.

Rosefielde, an economist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, notes that Western planners cite two historical examples when they propose billions for Russia: the Marshall Plan of the 1940s and the punitive measures imposed on the losers of World War I that ultimately led to fascist and national-socialist states. But these lessons from history aren't the right ones, says Rosefielde, because the Cold War wasn't really a war; NATO forces don't march in Red Square, and it is beyond the ability of the West to impose a stable democracy in unconquered Russia. There is no Douglas MacArthur to act as President Clinton's proconsul in Moscow.

Since the West did not triumph militarily in the Cold War, says Rosefielde, it has "to proceed by indirect means, cajoling and bribing the Commonwealth [of Independent States] to institute democratic rule and market capitalism." But the bribes of foreign aid aren't helping the people, he argues. Rather, they're going to Communist-trained bureaucrats who prefer "catastroika" and "kleptostroika" to capitalism and democracy. Instead of capitalism, these wealth-seeking bureaucrats prefer to mire entrepreneurs in red tape and pointless rules, leaving Russia and the other pieces of the former Soviet Union with an economic system that consists of "a degenerate form of state socialism in which the nomenklatura capitalizes on its political power, and muddles through without the benefit of planning or markets. Its performance characteristics appear to be far worse than the system it has replaced, and certainly will not provide the international security benefits advocates of a CIS Marshall Plan suppose." Rosefielde is too pessimistic. Certainly aid that works to dismantle the nuclear arsenal of the Russians, Ukranians, and Kazakhs is money well spent. Western strategists should worry about any conflict in Eastern Europe that might result in a nuclear confrontation.

But the continuing turmoil in Russia's military, observes Gabriel Schoenfeld in the September Post-Soviet Politics, means that Russia's military strength will be weak for a decade. Currently Russia owes its armed forces 2 trillion rubles in promised funding, and until it gets its finances in order, the new Russian volunteer army will not be a threat to the West. In a decade, Schoenfeld predicts, Russia's military will be a reorganized, all volunteer force that will be far smaller than the Red Army. Yet while such a force might be able to defend Russia's interests on its frontiers, it's hardly likely that such a force will threaten Western or Central Europe. The case for American forces in Europe—or for NATO's continuing existence—is quite shaky.

Continued reductions in Russian government spending will do more to aid that nation than any Western subsidy. In the long run, Russian entrepreneurs will do more to help their nation than any GS-15 bureaucrat in the Agency for International Development or the National Endowment for Democracy.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.