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What's changed inside Russia?

by Charlie Kimber

Ordinary people living in the Soviet Union were promised democracy and prosperity after the area fell apart between 1989 and 1991. Recent events underline how false those promises have proved.

The way Russian president Putin and the gold-braided admirals have behaved over the nuclear submarine crisis is almost exactly what you would have expected from stereotypical Stalinist officials. Russia's rulers have brushed ordinary people's feelings aside.

Their actions emphasise that the country is still run by a small group of people-businessmen, bankers, politicians and military chiefs. Some occasionally submit to election, but most don't. Even when there are votes they are outrageously slanted by the rulers' control of propaganda.

Before 1991, under Stalin's successors Brezhnev and later Gorbachev, Russia had a capitalist system like in the West, but with the state officials controlling everything.

We called it state capitalist. The central dynamic of that society was to accumulate capital, just as in Britain and the US. Workers had no say in what was produced or how production was distributed. They had no real rights and were only listened to when they fought.

Nobody should mourn the collapse of that tyranny. The end of fake socialism has made it easier to argue for real socialism. We also welcomed the rights workers won to form free trade unions and to protest.

But despite the promises by Western leaders and businessmen it was obvious that simply dismantling state control and leaving everything to the market was certain to be a disaster.

Russia in 1991 did experience political reform. But it did not go through a social revolution. Instead during the 1980s many of the bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union saw that the country was in desperate crisis and facing growing opposition from its own people.

They embraced the slogans of reform to head off the threat of increasingly bitter movements from below. Very few of those who ruled under the old system in Russia have received their just desserts.

Instead many simply ordered up a Western-style suit and made sure their particular nationalised corporation reappeared as a plc with themselves as chief executive.

The politicians who had carried out exploitation disguised as people's representatives became champions of the market and Western-style parliamentary democracy overnight. Three former members of the Soviet Union's Communist Party politbureau have been reincarnated as key 'reform' rulers in the former republics of the Soviet Union-Aluyev in Azerbaijan, Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Shevarnadze in Georgia.

Russian president Putin was a top figure in the Soviet Union's secret service, the KGB. The drive to the market has meant misery for ordinary people. Output has fallen by half since 1991-the fastest industrial collapse known outside war in world history.

The birth rate has plummeted while life expectancy for men has fallen by ten years. But a few-the key figures in industry and the state, some international businessmen and the local mafia-have made fortunes.

Both the Stalinist system and the present setup in Russia are a world away from the vision of the 1917 revolution. When workers took power they fought to implement a society free from oppression and exploitation. Women and national minorities won freedoms far surpassing anything that existed then in the 'democratic' West, and greater than in most countries today.

Ordinary people began to organise their own lives, and the collective democracy was the backdrop to an explosion of individual human potential.

However, all this took place in a backward, under-developed country which soon faced invasion and armed internal revolt. The Bolsheviks, who had given leadership to the revolution, argued that the only way to survive was to spread the revolution internationally.

But a section of the party grouped around Stalin argued for 'socialism in one country', and ruthless industrial expansion at workers' and peasants' expense to compete with the West.

Stalin's faction won out by physically liquidating almost all the leaders of the 1917 revolution, smashing the democracy of the workers' councils and seizing back the freedoms that people had gained.

By 1928, with the implementation of the first Five Year Plan, Russia had ceased to be any sort of workers' state and was under the rigid control of a brutal elite. Russia today is more evidence that capitalism does not equal democracy or accountability. The real alternative is not what existed before 1991, but the revolutionary tradition that guided workers to take control in 1917.


Article information

What Socialists Say
Sat 26 Aug 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1711
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