Revolutionary Passage from Soviet to Post-Soviet Russia, 1985-2000

Televisionary Revolution

Marc Garcelon, Revolutionary Passage from Soviet to Post-Soviet Russia, 1985-2000 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

The revolutionary passage of Russia, 1985-2000, was not like other revolutions: there was no exploited class; there were no exploited nations in the empire;1 there was no fighting for economic redistribution, and the ruling class had no economic privileges2 and did not use armed force to defend its position. Probably the passage was not revolutionary at all, but rather counterrevolutionary.

What were the driving forces of this passage, and what determined its outcome? For Marc Garcelon, the struggle for democracy is the core issue, internally as the abolition of party rule and externally as the independence of the former Soviet republics. He explains the course of events by the interaction among 1) activists in the democratic movement, 2) the leadership core of the principal democratic organization of 1989-91, Democratic Russia or DemRossiia, 3) Yeltsin and his counter-elite, and 4) the legislature, Soviets, congresses, and from 1994 the Duma. DemRossiia brought Yeltsin to power in Russia in 1990 and supported dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and shock therapy from 1992 on, but was then abandoned by Yeltsin, who turned to economic and political elites for sup­port in his pr­tracted struggle with the legislature. DemRossiia lost influence after the aborted coup of 19 August 1991 and disappeared after the coup of 21 September 1993, when Yeltsin disbanded the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of Peoples Deputies to the applause of western observers and acquired dictatorial powers until the new, weakened parliament -– the state Duma and the Federation Council -– convened in January 1994.

Not only property, but also government was being privati­zed, as legal and administrative institutions were replaced by perso­nal ties between powerful individuals. Garcelon describes this as a process of feudalization, in which chance plays a big role. His exposition is, regrettably, weighted down with jargon — “As agents located in net­works negotiate fields, and the latter undergo morphologi­cal variation over time, agency appears as an ongoing process of trajectory adjustment of habitus to institu­tional arrays in fields along paths through time” (21) — with matching diagrams. The gen­eral introduc­tion is not easy reading. Nor are the following chapters, where these favo­rite terms recur on every 3-4 pages.

Chapter 1 describes political developments during perestroika and the roots of the emerging demo­cratic movement in earlier dissident and human rights activism. Chapter 2 analyzes how the various democratic move­ments won majorities in the Moscow and Leningrad city Soviets in March 1990 and brought Yeltsin to power in the Russian Congress of Peoples Deputies, thus creating the system of dual power of Yelt­sin and Gorbachev in 1990-91, when the DemRossiia reached its zenith. Following the “Old Guard” coup of 19 Au­gust 1991 against Gorbachev (not a coup in constitutional terms, but the replacement of one member of a collective leadership), the DemRossiia leadership supported Yeltsin’s ascent to power, but failed to establish itself as a political party. From 1991 to 1993 (Chapter 4), conflict arose between the democratic movement and the Yeltsin counter-elite (which was comprised of “reformers with an apparat background and academic economists enamored of monetarist economic theory” [100]), and between factions of the democratic movement over fundamental questions of shock ther­apy, privatization, independence of former union republics, and the division of power between legislature and president. The final chapter 5 describes political and economic developments in the Yeltsin years from 1993 to his sudden resignation on 31 December 1999 and the first decree of Putin on the same day granting Yeltsin and “the family” immunity.

Thus Garcelon’s book is first of all a history of DemRossiia in the decisive years 1989-93, and as such it is detailed and well documented by written sources and interviews with key eye-witnesses. But the author’s perspective is too narrow to provide a coherent picture and thus an understanding of the 1985-2000 upheaval as a whole. Garcelon misses the fact that the prevailing public discourse in Russia around 1990 was not about democracy but about economic growth. The principal revolutionary vision was “a normal life,” meaning economic abundance as depicted on western television it had been in the Soviet Union for many years. Said Gorbachev in March 1986: “In short, comrades, acceleration (uskorenie) of our economic and social development is the key to all our problems, short-term and long-term, economic and social, political and ideological, domestic and foreign.”3

, the anti-alcohol campaign, glasnost’ and demokratizatsiia were all mostly means towards this governing end.

Why did the democratic movement succeed in the first place? Garcelon mentions the relative failure of the Soviet economy and the deteriorating geopolitical position of the USSR as important facilitating factors. Both these conditions were impressed upon the Soviet public by transnational demonstration effects (13, 71), from western television to events in Afghanistan, Central Europe, the Baltic republics, and the Caucasus. And both demoralized the CPSU, which “explicitly linked the legitimacy of its domination to the realization of consumerist expectation” (75). Party members actively took part in the democratic movement and in the private economic activities.

An element of material class struggle is added to the explanation, as Garcelon convincingly demonstrates that the democratic movement was largely a rebellion of spetsialisti with a higher education, headed by prominent academicians including Andrei Sakharov and Gavriil Popov, who was elected mayor of Moscow in June 1991. According to survey data compiled by Garcelon, 80% of DemRossiia activists in 1992 had a higher education as compared to 28% of the Russian population at large. The specialists probably suffered most from the pervasive hypocrisy of Soviet society and had the most to gain from freedom of speech and democracy. Although they enjoyed high esteem and some material well-being, wage differentials were much smaller than in western countries,4 and they considered themselves underprivileged as compared to their counterparts in the west. Thus, the specialist rebellion was a quest for more inequality, which soon materialized, but contrary to expectations it became a “self-liquidation” of the specialists (232), whose income declined and sometimes disappeared.

A further important reason for the temporary success of the democratic movement should be added, namely that neither Gorba­chev nor the Emergency Committee of 19 August 1991 resorted to military violence. “But had the coup leaders… ordered the killing of unarmed demonstrators, the White House [the building of the Russian Supreme Soviet] could have been quickly stormed” (162). What Gorbachev and the “Old Guard” coup-leaders had not done, Yeltsin himself did in October 1993, when he ordered the shelling of the White House. According to police reports, 189 people were killed.5 Gorbachev’s lack of “belligerence” is mentioned by Garcelon but not given proper emphasis. Among Soviet leaders Gorbachev was the last, but he was the first to leave office voluntarily (186). History will hopefully give him the credit that he deserves, as a humanist who never deserted his vision of socialism and democracy, whose commitment to uskorenie and economic growth did not override concern for human life, who was not corrupted by power or military force, and who became one of the great heroes of defeat.

However, the transition was not without casualties, as mortality increased sharply. Garcelon mentions this only in passing (222), but it deserves some elaboration. On the cautious assumption that mortality rates increased from 11 per thousand before 1990 to 14 per thousand after 1990, a rough estimate (not factoring in minor effects of changing age-structure) gives an excess mortality of 0.5 million per year or 8 million during the period from 1990 to present, solely in Russia.6 This approaches the victimization levels of Stalin’s collectivization and terror in the whole of the Soviet Union.

Why then was the democratic movement finally defeated? The main reason given by Garcelon is that DemRossiia did not transform itself “into a democratic political party in favor of an economic revolution from above” (226). Here, not only form of government (democracy) is mentioned, but also content (economic reform, growth, distribution, etc.). The latter is not sufficiently emphasized by Garcelon. Democracy is not always a primary objective; it is often viewed more as a means towards national liberation and above all economic growth.7 Failure to establish a democratic party and internal divisions in the movement are also mentioned by Reddaway and Glinski.8 The visions of Garcelon, of Reddaway & Glinski, and of a group of eighteen prominent Russian and American economists9 look very much like Gorbachev’s reform policies. These were well suited to an agenda of social-democratic economic reform, but were derailed by a combination of (a) ideologically driven mass enthusiasm for economic growth through radical system-change and (b) calculating economic and political interests in west and east.

The democratic movement was captured by gifted, intelligent and energetic people, often industrial managers and party and komsomol leaders, who had been attracted to these avenues of self-assertion, success and influence available in Soviet society. They started their entrepreneurial economic activities in the years of perestroika and were well prepared and well connected to exploit the new opportunities of shock therapy and privatization after 1992.

Garcelon castigates the “economistic thinking of Yeltsin advisors mesmerized by neoliberal theory, itself blind to the political side of economic equations,” and adds:

Indeed the generic, “totalistic” aspects of neoliberal theory help explain its powerful attraction to both former party-state officials and specialists disillusioned with communist ideology. In effect, one totalistic theory displaced another, without forcing a deeper revision of habitus among those who championed it. (227)

However, Yeltsin and his team were not alone in being mesmerized by western material abundance. Everybody was, not least because of transnational televised demonstration effects. Garcelon underestimates the mood of economic optimism of 1989-91.10 The various plans for transforming Russia in “500 days” were taken seriously by everybody, including the IMF and the western experts, and even Gorbachev, who negotiated a compromise Union-wide 500-Day Plan with Yeltsin during the summer of 1990. Gorbachev finally abandoned the plan in November (102, 130). Warning of the upcoming shock therapy, Yeltsin declared in October 1991 that “conditions will grow worse for everybody for six months or so.”11 They did, but not exactly for everybody.

The Soviet planned economy did not collapse, and the Soviet Union did not disintegrate. Both were deliberately and actively dismantled with eyes wide open, and DemRossiia leaders endorsed it all. The awakening to material reality became rude.

Social and economic reality is mentioned by Garcelon, but without a systematic account, of which several are available ranging from laudatory to condemnatory. Garcelon is inclined to the realistic—i.e. very pessimistic-side,12 although he repeats some of the usual undocumented generalizations about the Soviet economy. He dismisses the planned economy as “a sort of ideological fiction” (11), and speaks of “the shoddy social services inherited from Soviet times” (222). This needs a more explicit formulation as well as documentation, but apparently anything goes concerning the Soviet Union. Thus The Economist recently described present-day Russia as “starting to regain the ground lost under communism.”13 At least Garcelon gives a graph (208) of Russian real GDP 1987-95, and it effectively shows that the ground was lost after 1991 as a direct consequence of radical economic reform.

Now we can see the outcome of Russia’s (counter)revolutionary passage: social and economic misery for large parts of the population; exorbitant inequality (class society was reconstructed very, very fast); privatized government without legitimacy or vision for the future; more freedom of speech and less hypocrisy despite Putin’s media control, but also cultural decline. We, the people, have not gained supremacy: “After all, national politics in Russia is today only weakly constrained by a democratic disposition in political life” (233).

Reviewed by Hans Aage
Department of Social Sciences
Roskilde University, Denmark


1. Izvestiia, 28 October 1991, p 1.

2. For an overview, see H. Aage, “The Triumph of Capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe and Its Western Apologetics.” Socialism and Democracy 19, 2 (July 2005): 3-36.

3. The Economist, 26 November 2005, p 33.

4. This is an expanded version of a review that first appeared in Against the Current, Jan./Feb., 2006.

5. Judgment given on June 22, 1955, Protocol of Criminal Case 124/53 in District Court, Jerusalem.

6. Ralph Schoenman, The Hidden History of Zionism (Vallejo, CA: Veritas Press), 50.

7. Cited in Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1983), 49.

8. Quoted in Schoenman, Hidden History, 31.

9. Quoted in Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, eds., Wrestling with Zion (New York: Grove Press, 2003),  28.

10. Quoted in Schoenman, Hidden History, 34.

11. Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, l968), 41.

12. Woody Doane, “Rethinking Whiteness Studies,” in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, ed. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (New York: Routledge, 2003), 17.

13. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967).

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