We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Bitter Legacy


new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

Bitter legacy
Centuries of Tsarist despotism were a dress rehearsal for the Kremlin's
system of control from above. Even the radicalism of the Bolsheviks could not
lift this burden. Stephen White explores the autocratic inheritance that a
new generation of reformers is trying to change.

The Past In his address to the historic Communist Party Conference in June 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev called for a new image of socialism'. As far as Gorbachev could see, the main obstacle to the realization of this vision was a 'command-administrative system' which had developed during the Stalin period and which had survived the 'stagnation' of the Brezhnev years. There were certainly developments during these years, such as the establishment of a system of military-style central planning and the police terror of the 1930s, that have left a very difficult legacy for a reforming leader like Gorbachev. But the roots of the Soviet Union's present difficulties go much deeper: many of them date back to the Tsarist period or even earlier, and it is this legacy, not just the excesses of the last few decades, which the reform movement in the Soviet Union must tackle.

Perhaps the central feature of the Russian political experience is the great power of the state as against the population at large. Russia, whether Tsarist or Soviet, has always been a country with weakly developed representative institutions at both the local and national levels. Gorbachev's present efforts to transfer power from the Communist Party to elected Soviets must be seen against a background very different from that of Western Europe. In the West feudalism was overcome by parliamentary institutions developed over many centuries gradually extending their control over crown and nobility. In Russia there were no institutions of an even remotely parliamentary character until 1905, when the first State Duma was convened. The Duma, Russia's first 'parliament', had no control over when it would meet or who was in the government, whose members were answerable to the Tsar alone. It had no power to change the Constitution, and no control over two-thirds of state expenditure. Although the influence of the Duma increased gradually in the years before the revolution it was still a very weak and vulnerable assembly, and it left no real parliamentary tradition upon which the Bolsheviks - or any other rulers - might build.

In Tsarist Russia the domination of the state over the citizen was almost complete. There were few civil liberties, even by the standards of the time. It is widely known that the Soviet Union has an elaborate and powerful censorship system whose very existence cannot be reported, let alone challenged. But historically considered, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Karl Baedeker's travel guide to Russia in 1914 (not 1988), for instance, warned travellers not to pack their belongings in printed paper 'to avoid any cause of suspicion', and to leave behind books of a 'political, social or historical nature'. Censorship of publications was very strict, although not always infallible: Marx's Capital, for example, was allowed into print as it was assumed to be too complicated for the ordinary worker to understand; not only this, the first two of its three volumes were printed on the works belonging to the Ministry of Transport! These, however, were isolated exceptions: in its ordinary operation the censorship system was much more repressive than that of any other major European country.

The great scope of state power also extended to the courts and to voluntary associations of all kinds. The legal system, for instance, although considerably reformed in the late Tsarist period, was less independent of government than was the case elsewhere in Europe and was particularly severe in 'political' cases, which were defined very broadly and governed by special procedures. Trade unions and strikes were banned until 1905 (in Britain, by contrast, unions had been legalized almost a century earlier), and even after this they operated under considerable restrictions. No public association of any kind could be formed without official approval. The police attended all meetings and could close them at any point if they departed from their advertised subject or appeared likely to 'incite hostility between one section of the population and another'.

The Tsarist State also controlled religious and economic life. The Russian Orthodox Church, to which the great majority adhered, was broadly speaking a 'state religion', enjoying various legal and other privileges and operating under a Holy Synod appointed by the Tsar. Those who were not members of the Orthodox Church were at a considerable disadvantage, including Jews who could live only in designated areas and who (just as today) found many educational and career opportunities denied to them. Many of the nation's resources, including oilfields, gold mines and two-thirds of the railway network, were owned by the government which intervened directly in other parts of the economy by manipulating tariff barriers, by legal controls and by the use of the State Bank. Lots of precedents, in other words, for the present system of state ownership and control.

What about the beliefs of ordinary Russians and their expectations of government? We cannot, of course, 'interview tombstones' as the historian E P Thompson has put it, but there is plenty of evidence of parallels between the Russian past and Soviet present. A lack of interest and involvement in politics was combined with a good deal of cynicism and indifference towards those official institutions that were supposed to represent the public interest.

This was partly as a result of legislation. The electoral law allowed no more than two or three per cent of citizens to take part in selecting the Duma in the years before the First World War. Even those who could vote had little knowledge of the procedures. In the 1907 Duma elections, for instance, voters brought letters, petitions, insurance policies, passports and even bad verse with them to the polls, rather than the required voting slips. The inhabitants of one village even complained: 'Why weren't we, dark and ignorant people, told for whom to vote? It is hardly surprising that there was no serious opposition when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Duma. For most people government was something remote and beyond influence. 'God is high above and the Tsar is far away', as a nineteenth-century proverb put it.

But it would be a mistake to see the traditions of old Russia as entirely negative. The local community values of collectivism and well-being have also helped shape modern Soviet life. The overwhelming majority of the population of European Russia lived in rural areas before the Revolution. Most were members of the village commune (the mir), which redistributed the land that was held in common and also administered taxes and military service. The commune was by no means the idyllic exercise in direct democracy that some romantic writers held it to be. Fights were common, as were bribery and extortion, and meetings could degenerate into prolonged drinking bouts. The mir, nonetheless, did provide a forum within which all local people could express their views (though only heads of households could vote), and the entire community took part in the making of most decisions. Social life was also based upon collective principles, with all the members of a family typically sharing the same living quarters, eating from the same common pot, and contributing their earnings to the same 'common kettle'. It is perhaps indicative that the Russian language has no word for 'privacy'.

This feeling of a shared human identity is something that still remains in Soviet life today, and it underlines the tenacity of an historical tradition extending over many centuries that the process of revolution has done relatively little to alter.

Stephen White is Reader in Politics at the University of Glasgow and author of The Bolshevik Poster. 

Awakening Society
Anton Gratz
explains how glasnost appears
to a new generation of Soviet political activists.

The Future. YURI was the most optimistic person I met in the Soviet Union. He talked quickly, trying to cram as much as possible into the short time we had together. He was enthusiastic. Not for him the complaints about the shortages in the shops and the poor quality of produce - although I'm sure he felt these things. The talk concentrated on the state of the people's movement in Leningrad, the rallies and campaigns for more democracy and ecological sanity. He and his fellow activists in dozens of independent organizations - civic groups, green movements, preservation societies (to save Leningrad's magnificent historic buildings), political clubs, cultural initiatives - plan to run candidates in the elections for the Leningrad Soviet to be held in the spring of 1989. Would such a thing be allowed? Yuri didn't know but the new law permitted so all you could do was try.

The strategy is to use every opening in official ideology to enlarge the democratic space allowed by glasnost. If the regime talks of the neglected human dimension in Soviet Marxism-Leninism this is a signal to set up courses in humanistic philosophy. When the papers start publishing articles on pollution in the Baltic it is time to call an international conference on the state of this badly polluted sea. Unlike the dissidents of the 1970s who couldn't and wouldn't have anything to do with the authorities, the new democratic movement takes Mikhail Gorbachev at his word and pushes him to say more. Tactics vary from the traditional - letter-writing campaigns in the prodigious readers' columns of the Soviet press - to the daring: public meetings and demonstrations. 'We even have our own public speaking corner every Sunday in Alexandrivski Park.' Yuri grinned and added. 'Just like Hyde Park in London.'

All across the USSR there are groups like those in Leningrad pressing for their rights and challenging the bureaucrats. According to official estimates there are now some 30,000 independent organizations in the USSR. Ten years ago even chess clubs were dominated by the Party. The distribution and politics of such groups differ dramatically. They are strongest and most nationalistic in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They are also a visible presence in the main cities - Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. But they can even be found in some of the remote industrial centres like Naberezhniye Thelny where the Nikolai Bukharin political club was founded with the help of democrats in the local Young Communist League. Perhaps the most predominant tendency is 'independent socialist' as represented by the inaugural conference of the Socialist Civic Clubs held in Moscow in August of 1987. This grouping represents a Soviet New Left and combines a staunch anti-Stalinism and the advocacy of self-management with an insistence that economic reforms provide 'firm guarantees for the preservation of the social conquests of the working people - full employment, minimum wage, pension security etc.'

There are many other tendencies in the new movement - Christian, Pacifist, Liberal and Green to name but a few. Some have limited programs such as the official rehabilitation of Stalin's victims while others push for a more ambitious restructuring. But this new democratic awakening is still a long way from being an effective popular movement. One close observer of the Moscow scene remarks on how chaotic open meetings can be for people who never experienced them before. They often degenerate into 'everyone talking at once or the arrogant dismissal of those who differ.' He went on to point out that people must learn to treat each other democratically both in and out of meetings. It is a crucial part of any libertarian political culture and one that must be painfully learned. After centuries of despotism punctuated by glimpses of democracy it is no wonder that the new activism is feeling birth pains.

Another sign that there is a significant re-thinking going on is the interest in the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He believed that a mature socialism should rest on the power and self-confidence of 'civil society' rather than a series of directives from the government. It is just possible to see the embryo of such a society in the USSR.

But the democratic movement is still quite weak and bureaucracy still very strong. As Yuri points out, 'It still takes just one phone call to kill a critical story in the press.' In many parts of the USSR the self-confidence of those in power remains unshaken and they are more than willing to use the usual methods of police harassment to discourage grassroots activists. Perhaps the best advice for the activists comes from Gramsci. 'Pessimism of the intelligence, and optimism of the will.'

Anton Gratz is a writer who lives in Avonport, Nova Scotia.

Moscow demonstration against bureaucratic sabotage of glasnost.
Photo: Tass / CAMERA PRESS

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop