Russia Sobers Up a Year After Freedom Binge


One year after risking his life for Russia’s freedom, Alexander I. Nezhny, a strapping, brooding epitome of the Muscovite intellectual with a gift for the chisel-sharp, incisive phrase, has every right to be disillusioned.

In mid-August, 1991, Nezhny, a free-lance writer on religious affairs, broke off an interview with an Orthodox priest in Kiev, Ukraine, scrounged a train ticket and returned in haste to Moscow. He rushed to the headquarters of the Russian government on the east bank of the Moscow River.

Transforming himself into one of the 20,000 or so human shields for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and for constitutional rule, the bespectacled author didn’t quit the gleaming marble edifice until the reactionary cabal that tried to seize power in the Soviet Union had collapsed and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev was freed from captivity in the Crimea.

“When I walked home that night, I bought a bunch of flowers to give my mother as a celebration gift, for the celebration of a genuine holiday,” the gray-haired, green-eyed Nezhny, 51, now recalls, his voice laden with nostalgia. “Little did I guess how short-lived my euphoria would be. The hangover was quick in coming, and I am not sure I would go and defend the White House (the seat of Russia’s government) now.”

One year after those drama-filled days that made the world catch its breath and doomed the Soviet Union and the Communist Party that built it, what is arresting is how little, at first glance, the big picture seems to have changed.


Moscow is again feverishly assessing the likelihood of a coup while the president (this time Yeltsin) has headed south for a seaside vacation.

Disgruntled rumbles are coming from generals; the pro-Western foreign minister (this time Andrei V. Kozyrev) is under fire for supposedly selling out the national interest; the economy is a wreck; the “military-industrial complex” is marshaling its forces; citizens are fed up, and the chiefs of the Defense Ministry and State Security, to hear the foreign minister tell it, are plotting.

To the inhabitants of newly democratic Russia, a lot of today’s news is distressingly like the old. “We’ve gotten used to hearing daily death tolls from ethnic violence on the TV, just like weather forecasts,” Nezhny says sorrowfully.

What is now painfully clear is that if those tense August days last summer when the streets of Moscow were filled with tanks--and Russians defying them--were sufficient to bring down the old order, the year that followed wasn’t enough time to forge a new one.

“Economic reforms haven’t really even begun” is the damning verdict of Mikhail Berger of Izvestia, probably the country’s most respected journalistic specialist on economic matters.

Konstantin M. Truevtsev, coordinator of The Living Ring, a group of veterans who helped mount the guard at the White House last August, observes: “Society is in a state of discord and mutual hatred. Should someone try storming the White House again, there might be anywhere between 7,000 and 70,000 defenders, but it is hard to predict how staunch they would be this time.”

In a country where symbols matter, it is worth noting that although the flag that now waves over the Kremlin may no longer be the Soviet banner, giant red stars made of rubies from the Urals still glitter atop its spires, and V. I. Lenin lies undisturbed in his air-conditioned mausoleum.

Beyond Moscow’s outer Ring Road, the Communist elite has shown a remarkable, chameleonlike gift to adapt and is even demonstrably on the rise.

“The democrats all sit here in Moscow, but back in Lipetsk, the bosses are still in place,” a woman in her late 40s from that city south of Moscow said with a sigh as she took in the sights on Red Square last week.

And, ironically, the predicament of last August’s victors--Russia’s democratic leaders--is going to get worse, not better, just after they celebrate, with marching bands and rock music, the anniversary of their victory on the barricades. For in September, a number of economic and political bills, so to speak, come due.

First, Yeltsin has repeatedly promised his compatriots that the first glimmers of an economic upturn will be apparent this autumn.

With consumer prices up something like 100 times since last summer and a simultaneous collapse of industrial production--down at least 13% in the first half of this year as compared with the same period in 1991--those promises now seem recklessly optimistic.

In the first six months of post-Soviet Russia’s existence, nearly half of the people earned less than the official subsistence level of $13.30 monthly for workers and $10.60 for retirees. Gorbachev, now a private citizen, believes such pauperization has brought his people to the exploding point.

“I am afraid the country will boil up if these problems are not convincingly dealt with in the next few weeks,” he said in a recent newspaper interview. “I fear the most dangerous moment will come when the political process is hijacked by the most dangerous political forces, seeking to bring us into the past or, at the very least, to establish a regime that would differ little from what we used to have.”

As for Nezhny, who must support a wife, three young children and an 83-year-old mother with his writing, one year has been enough “to slash our life savings to nothing by inflation.”

“People now talk about nothing but money,” he laments. “They are worried about their future, and not without good reason.”

One particularly painful pressure point is agriculture, still mostly under the thumb of the same local lords who ran Soviet collective farms (and whose chosen leader, Vasily Starodubtsev, was a member of the State Emergency Committee that tried to depose Gorbachev).

The news from rural areas is not good. The harvest, forecast at around 93 million tons, is nothing like a record low--it should actually be about 5 million tons above last year’s miserable performance--but it will yield 15 million tons less than the average over the past decade and a half.

Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a blistering critic of Acting Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar’s “so-called reforms,” says so few state credits have been made available to encourage individual farming that of the mere 150,000 private-farm households now registered across Russia, just 3,000 are able to grow more than they consume themselves.

Igor E. Malashenko, a former Gorbachev spokesman who is now deputy director of the Ostankino television network, sees two other looming crises. The first is mass unemployment as a side effect of the market. “People will return from their summer vacations only to find their jobs disappearing fast, with no one ready to help them survive,” Malashenko says.

What is more, he says, “Russia’s Parliament will reconvene and its leaders will resume their power struggles against the government.”

Allies on the August barricades, the politicians loosely known here as the demokraty --the democrats--started having a falling-out as soon as they no longer had Communist hard-liners as a common cause to oppose and they, not Soviet leaders, were responsible for matters of state.

“One can say today that the government of Russia has not deregulated prices (of fuel) or stabilized finances,” complains one embittered economist, Larisa Piyasheva. “They tell us now they’ll be conducting privatization . . . but this program is not a program of privatization in the proper sense of the word. A transition to full-fledged private property is not envisaged, just as a transition to free prices was not envisaged previously. That’s why this program is just as ridiculous, just as compromise-ridden and double-faced as everything that was attempted in this country before.”

Lately, free marketeers and radical demokraty among Yeltsin’s allies are especially shocked by what they see as the president’s willingness to accommodate the very segment of society seen as the driving force behind last year’s putsch--the military-industrial complex.

A coterie of factory directors and managerial barons, led by Arkady Volsky, an urbane former Central Committee apparatchik and economics adviser to the late Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, is pressing the government to slam the brakes on its reform campaign, claiming that continuing Gaidar policies could drive as many as 80% of Russia’s factories into bankruptcy.

“The policy of the reformist government is on the verge of collapse,” Volsky, 60, who heads a group called Civic Union, declared recently. “Any attempt to arrive at a market economy in one fell swoop is utopia.”

Yeltsin is obviously listening, because he has added three Soviet-style “industrialists” who have Volsky’s public backing to the Gaidar Cabinet.

That the Civic Union can be a political force at all is a testament to the magnanimity of the victors of August. There was no murder of former Communist leaders here, as occurred in Romania, or ruthless political purges, as was the case in former East Germany. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Communist movers and shakers--"not to mention sitters and takers,” as one Western diplomat quips--still hold key jobs; they are clamoring for an overhaul in tactics or even the firing en masse of the Gaidar government.

Horrified that such things are now conceivable, Yeltsin’s former electoral power base, the Democratic Russia Movement, splintered last month in the face of what its radical members denounced as the “obvious rightist opposition to the course of radical democratic transformation and an ever-increasing departure from that course by President Yeltsin.”

For Yuri P. Izyumov, chief editor of the Glasnost weekly, which bills itself as Russia’s only overtly Communist publication, the next step is predictable: “a quiet takeover by the pragmatic businessmen, represented by Volsky and his party,” and “tough rule” by Yeltsin.

The nostalgic Marxist-Leninist journalist is admittedly out of today’s political mainstream. But another Moscow journalist, Maxim Sokolov of the resolutely capitalist Kommersant newspaper, sizes up Yeltsin’s most recent proposals as nothing less than an attempt to re-create an undemocratic system of “party power"--this time without the Communist Party.

The linchpin of Yeltsin’s alleged master plan is a brain trust called the Security Council (Gorbachev also had one) to which the entire Russian executive branch was subordinated by a Yeltsin order of July 7.

For some who put their lives on the line for democracy one year ago, Yeltsin’s decree is nothing less than a “quiet putsch” designed to short-circuit, in an unconstitutional manner, the checks and balances that are supposed to exist between the executive and Parliament, where former party barons admittedly still have great power.

The battles that an entire year of post-putsch politics have failed to resolve--as well as new ones that have erupted, such as the struggle between the pro-Gaidar and pro-Volsky factions--should come to a head in late September. That’s when the next session of the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies, an institution Yeltsin wants to do away with, is scheduled to convene.

But is there a threat to Yeltsin? Kozyrev, the foreign minister, recently charged that an anti-Yeltsin coalition of former Communists and Russian nationalists is forming, and the nationalists, in fact, have become more noisily apparent than ever.

Some liberal heroes of August, 1991--including Oleg G. Rumyantsev, author of a new Russian constitution, and presidential adviser Sergei B. Stankevich--have even embraced a few of the nationalists’ arguments on foreign policy.

Although public opinion sampling is notoriously suspect here, the results of one survey last month were shocking: Of 1,500 Russians surveyed, only 24% said they now fully trust Yeltsin, while 28% voiced confidence in another hero of August, 1991: Rutskoi, who has shown himself since to be much more conservative.

But unlike last August, when the core of Communist power was obviously threatened by Gorbachev’s blueprint for a new Soviet federation and tried to fight back, no force now existing in Russian society cuts across all state and public institutions the way the party used to do.

Moscow Bureau reporters Sergei Loiko and Victor K. Grebenshikov contributed to this story.