Viktor Kogan-Yasny: Taking Revenge on Gorbachev. Remembering the 1989 ‘Gorbachev-Sakharov’ Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR

posted 2 Dec 2018, 08:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Dec 2018, 08:19 ]

By Viktor Kogan-Yasny 

Viktor Kogan-Yasny is chair of the NGO Right to Life and Civic Dignity and a political adviser to the Yabloko party

Twenty-five years ago the first Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR was held. It was to be the apotheosis of Gorbachev’s perestroika and of Andrei Sakharov’s role as a public figure. At that time it had come to seem self-evident that words are deeds, that without freedom society has no future, and that fundamentally one bears responsibility for one’s own essence as a human being. It is not a matter merely of being ‘held responsible’ by public prosecutors or state security officials.

No one overthrew the Soviet nomenklatura at that time, and no one was planning to. But a number of important things were then said and accepted by everyone in a form of public consensus:

  1. Government officials cannot do just whatever they like.

  2. Everyone can participate in public life, and “taking part” is important and ought to be encouraged.

  3. The Soviet Union, at the cost of a marked decline in an influence that had been based on fear, was emerging from its provincial self-isolation.

It seemed there was no path back, that this was the historic choice of the country after 70 years of Bolshevism.

But that is not how it turned out.

Since what followed proved far more tumultuous than the predominantly chauvinistic and greedy elements of the party’s nomenklatura were ready for, very soon after the fall of the USSR the chief tendency among this political caste was the drive to survive. The nomenklatura’s revanche and the suppression of all creative social and political movements, at first little by little and then openly, became the political objective of many post-Soviet states, and above all the Russian Federation.

To care fanatically and exclusively about oneself was the essentially neo-Stalinist motto of the ruling elite in Russia back in the 1990s.

In this sense, it is quite amazing that Russian civil society has survived to this day and that it is only in a few post-Soviet countries, and not everywhere, that the ‘patriotic revanche’ from Moscow has helped crush attempts at democratic development. And only now has it reached as far as Ukraine.

The nomenklatura drew lessons from the precedents set in the Gorbachev years.

And here is another precedent we have recently seen: the change in the authorities’ rhetoric and the State Duma elections of 2011, as well as the mass peaceful protests that followed throughout the country. These protests showed there are citizens, even if only one percent of the population, ready to demand the right to a political alternative that has been stolen from them. And now Ukraine has ‘blown up’ as well.

I would think it clear to all political analysts that a ‘Ukrainian scenario’ is extremely unlikely in Russia. Everyone knows that in Russia liberal Westernizers traditionally fear revolution more than dictatorship and do not see revolution as holding the potential for positive political change.

But it is not a question of national revolution. What we are witnessing is fear amongst the elite that their own corporate system could begin to change its habits and ways of behaving if dialogue with citizens, civilian oversight of government, and the impact of a minority that is politically active become the norm. In those circumstances, the system might begin to work not just for the political elite, but for citizens, and then even the most cynical will be obliged to take steps to ensure their own positions. And that is precisely what they don’t want to do, which explains why what they are afraid of is not revolution, but a single hard-working, independent elected member of the State Duma, or a member of the Moscow City Legislative Assembly, or a member of a district council out in the sticks.

Before Gorbachev arrived on the scene the nomenklatura wanted to revive a ‘positive’ view of Stalin. At that time it didn’t work out. Now they think it is time for a revanche so that ‘everything can be put in its place.’ This means an end to fantasy; an end to all creativity. Let indifference reign, people must become ‘functional introverts’ carrying out office duties, responsible for the form, the outward appearance, of their work, but with no responsibility whatsoever for the actual results. This is neo-Stalinism and it is also the same spirit imposed to a great extent by the vulgar kind of globalisation.

And now we see the 25th anniversary of that historical Congress being “commemorated” by a revanchist aggression by the nomenklatura which is global in scale. What was done in Crimea is not simply a violation of international law, it is something in some sense more important: a demonstrative mockery of the procedure of a referendum, a signal for the crude abuse of any procedures, according to which the “will of the majority” is brazenly and without formality laid down by those who have the might of the state behind them. What is being openly and demonstratively created is a state that is based on something other than the rule of law. Twenty-five years after the attempt to seriously change course to establish the rule of law, and therefore to hold the Congress as, essentially, a huge public ‘constitutional assembly,’ which had been part of a movement throughout the post-Soviet realm, the regime in Russia has resolved to take on the role of the Bolshevik sailor Zheleznyak who dispersed the Constitutional Assembly in 1918.

From the mid-1990s the Russian oligarchic nomenklatura, making money out of political power, and yet more power out of money, made every effort to turn the Russian Federation into a version of the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. This nomenklatura, by intimidation and coercion, imposed a police state inside the country at a cost of many victims. Politics ceased to be a public, verbal and reflective process and became one based on coercion. The well-being of the country was once again equated with the well-being of the nomenklatura. The country’s prestige was equated with the prestige of the nomenklatura. Civil society, born as a necessary means to generate the right decisions and to ensure political leaders have feedback from society, became disposable ballast and an object of manipulation and coercion.

But civil society in Russia, and in other authoritarian and semi-totalitarian post-Soviet states, has survived; its sometimes weak and feeble form is not evidence of a lack of content.

In Russia, against the background of recent events, the nomenklatura has launched a brutal assault on “Westernized” political and civil society activists and groups, an assault that has a “catastrophic” emotional colouring, and rightly attracts the most bleak of associations. And furthermore the assault was landed not on the inhabitants of the glamorous ‘social superstructure’ that is used to the luxurious lifestyle of the Western rich, but on those who little by little gather knowledge and experience through work that often goes virtually unnoticed. The increasingly ‘fascistic’ nature of official decision-making and propaganda has risen markedly, while at the same time this is depicted as motivated by the ‘struggle against fascism.’

This harms people and makes impossible the implementation of projects that would advance the positive development of the country. Strategically speaking, in the long run this means the destruction of the country, but the ruling corporation pays no attention. Tactical self-preservation forces the elite to carry out the project of the ‘anti-Gorbachev revanche.’

These developments built up internally until they spilled over onto the outside. We we see an aggressive Eurasianism, mixed together with a pagan ritualistic and impersonal ‘Orthodoxy,’ elements reminiscent of the Leningrad party committee of the CPSU in the 1970s and 1980s, the views of the once famous ‘brave Soviet opponent of Gorbachev,’ Nina Andreeva, notions drawn from the ideologists of Greater Serbia and from the cheek and temerity of Kim Jong-un, along with a deal of ‘upside down Marxism’ from the devotees of the early 1990s. These latter, it should be noted, never went away but remain very successful and continue to enjoy reputations in the West while keeping their hands on whole sectors of political and financial power, promising success and amongst other things organising the ‘St. Petersburg Forum’ at which they  show themselves as ‘fighters for liberalism from inside the system opposed to reactionaries in the bureaucracy.’

So are we seeing the creation of what will be a long-lasting Eurasian dictatorship as a substitute for Soviet power, the very thing that non-Soviet Russian philosophers had feared as early as the middle of the twentieth century?

Why carry out this transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism? Why try to make everyone the same, knowing full well that it is ultimately both harmful and impossible? Why take steps to ‘isolate the country’?

It is impossible to give a precise answer from inside this political situation, while these processes are going on. Nor is it necessary. What we must do is try in so far as possible to assess the signals that have direct bearing on each one of us.

Firstly, those who establish long-term and brutal dictatorships usually have very limited motives for action (even those large scale misanthropes inclined to brutality and authoritarianism like Alexander III consider it beneath them to seek to control everything by imposing extreme restrictions on absolutely all spheres of civic life and personal initiative).

Petty control is the preserve of the bureaucratic mindset and is not the outcome of political views or of education. Yet it is precisely this that may result in a real political catastrophe.

In order to prevent any change in the political and social atmosphere, the nomenklatura and oligarchic corporation resort to methodologies that can be summarized in terms of three components. The first element is to ensure that life ‘does not seem like honey.’ A minimum of comfort, basic security (in daily life) and social stability provides a positive environment for freedom and creativity. There was always little enough of this, but the purpose is to reduce it further. So a university professor, to ensure his relative intellectual subservience and restrict his capacity for thought, has to be made to write not 20 reports a month, as before, but 100, and to deliver them in person to uneducated youngsters in a very specific department, and furthermore that he has to earn more money for his family by giving private lessons on the side.

The second component is to make everything uncertain so that life is lived in an atmosphere of suspense and fear. As a result many will indeed lose their sanity and those who are more intelligent, ‘in the process,’ may end up incoherent and neurotic, like many, many others.

The third component is to link in the public mind, in so far as is possible, one’s real, and, most importantly, potential opponents with an ill-defined external enemy, an enemy quite unable either to confirm or refute its influence on regime opponents, and an enemy that could neither ‘give them up’ nor in any sense act effectively on their behalf. In history, as is well known, there have been various ‘centres’ of such ‘evil’ - ideological, mystical, class or racial. In the second decade of the XXI century the United States suits that role. On the one hand, the USA has always had ambitions to force other countries to adopt its views, and, on the other, the country has almost no ability at present to realise such ambitions. The USA hardly features on our domestic Russian stage, and rarely comes knocking on our doors. Yet it still seems to some that, in the United States, ‘life is better.’ And in itself this is taken to be a humiliation.

In general to ‘live better’ and at the same time ‘without us,’ is considered impermissible by the imperialist and nationalist nomenklatura. This relates to ‘group’ categories, such as possible major developments in Ukraine, or electoral, organizational or creative successes of the Russian opposition. It also relates to ‘individual’ categories, for example the case of someone living in a small town or on the edge of a megapolis who, at great personal risk, decides for ethical reasons not to allow themselves to be humiliated or to pay obeisance to local bosses. As a result, they are deprived of their livelihood and practically forced to live in poverty. In these ‘individual’ cases, by the way, there is a certain ‘innovation’ nowadays in comparison with the post-Stalin Soviet period. At that time, for socialist ideological reasons, the state provided a minimum of material well-being not only to those who actively supported the regime, but also to many independent-minded people, and even to those who were the regime’s opponents (generally speaking, since, it must be noted, in specific instances there were many tragic events, about many of which we know nothing at all). Today punishment for taking a stance on public issues, in losing terms of jobs and a reduction in material well-being - along with fear of such punishment, is merely a matter of course and effectively results in civic apathy, along with all kinds of surges of ‘mass enthusiasm’ orchestrated by the authorities.

The nomenklatura and its leaders speak in the name of the ‘majority.’ It would indeed  be possible to recognise that they have ‘their own truth’ in this matter if it were not for two circumstances. Firstly, the contrast between what they say and what they actually do, namely not the realisation of the position of the majority, but the suppression of the minority in the name of the majority. And furthermore, they determine the precise degree of such suppression. The suppression of the minority is not in any sense the exercise of power by the majority. It is a permanent exercise of coercion and intimidation. It is banditism.

Secondly, serious positive transformations in politics and economics are in principle impossible unless the opinions of the minority are taken into account. Moreover, while rejecting any notion that a minority should exercise domination over the majority, it must be fully recognized that the idea of the domination of the arithmetical majority over the minority, as historical experience and the resultant political and legal theory shows, has nothing in common with democracy. Continual reference to majority views on specific issues that may require sophisticated and professional competence speaks only of the populism of those in power, and of their readiness to use ‘the crowd’ if necessary.

If we speak about democratic procedures, then the arithmetic majority in fact does decide one very important question (though it must be said not always successfully, but here there is no way out!): to which individuals should political power - executive and legislative - be entrusted. But further down the road, this political power is obliged to act in the interests of everyone, based on conscience, professionalism, and respect for each individual. Moreover, political power, on specific issues, is obliged to rely on those who have relevant expertise, and and not simply take into account views that enjoy a certain popularity at a particular time. What is more important at a trial: an accurate recollection by one person who saw the criminal face to face, or the opinions of numerous neighbours and passers-by who actually saw very little, if anything at all, and may be even relying on nothing more than rumours that it came into someone’s head to spread? What is more important for someone who is ill: what the doctor actually does to them, or what the television says about their illness? It is the same in politics. The work of adopting legislation and taking decisions demands the greatest care and responsibility, and must not be undertaken merely for the purpose of ‘showing off.’ If you do that, people really will trust you. As for the support of the majority in terms of ‘the crowd’ and support of the majority in terms of trust, these are quite different things.

Government in our country rests on coercion, on money, and on ideological absurdities. There is a complete absence of trust. And this is government’s main problem. As a result, we see ill-thought out and brutal changes in political course, with the government itself probably knowing very little about where it is heading (though the majority always ready to declare its support!) and almost always failing to lead in the direction we should be going.