As Russia rises once more, Soviet era appears to fade

July 11, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- A Soviet joke from the 1970s had Radio Moscow signing on one day, unexpectedly dropping the usual dour address to "comrades" and announcing instead: "The experiment begun in October 1917 has come to an end. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!"

Nobody said it in so many words amid the pageantry of yesterday's inauguration of Boris N. Yeltsin as Russian president. But a future historian looking for the moment when the Soviet period in Russian history came to an end may well seize upon this ceremony.

Lenin's huge profile was gone from its usual place on the curtain behind the stage at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. Not even Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev thought to quote him.

The one mention of socialism came in the already anachronistic name of Russia -- the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. But pundits expect neither the name nor the hammer and sickle on the Russian federation flag to exist a year from now.

On live national television, the two men who spoke before Mr. Yeltsin pronounced his oath of office, one layman and one clergyman, both scornfully dismissed seven decades of Communist rule as a tragedy now being left behind.

Oleg V. Basilashvili, a popular Leningrad actor, suggested that the Bolsheviks had cut off an advance toward civilization and prosperity.

The only Russian inheritance for the Communists, Mr. Basilashvili said, was the idea of the "all-powerful state that saw its citizens as without rights and without protection." That notion had existed from the time of Ivan the Terrible, he said, but it has met its demise now with the first direct election of a national leader in Russian history.

Patriarch Alexis II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, addressed Mr. Yeltsin just as patriarchs of old addressed the czars as they were crowned in the Cathedral of the Assumption a hundred yards away.

He warned the new president that he was taking responsibility for a "sick country," should not seek answers by searching for enemies and should call on the church for support.

Mr. Yeltsin, a member of the aggressively atheist Communist Party Politburo just four years ago, listened intently.

The only man who appeared ill at ease and out of place was Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the only one to address his fellow citizens as "comrades."

He suggested that the ascent of Mr. Yeltsin, whom he has bitterly opposed most of the time since 1987, was merely another logical development of the Gorbachev program of perestroika.

But what was happening dwarfed the modest original conception of perestroika, or restructuring. This was not restructuring, but the rebirth of one state and the funeral of another.

Russia, under Mr. Yeltsin's leadership, declared its state sovereignty 14 months ago. The question arose then: Can a sovereign Soviet Union coexist with a sovereign Russia that accounts for two-thirds of its territory and more than half of its population?

The obvious answer was no. Earlier this week, Mr. Gorbachev conceded defeat in his biggest battle with Mr. Yeltsin, saying that Russians could pay all their taxes to the republic, which would then finance the central government at whatever level it found necessary.

That amounted to an admission that Russia will be a sovereign state, and the union, if it survives at all, will become a kind of commonwealth.

Just as Russia and the Soviet Union cannot coexist as two sovereign states, two presidents with such overlapping responsibilities appear to be, in the words of a Russian proverb, "two bears in one den." With yesterday's inauguration, Mr. Yeltsin's official residence, like that of Mr. Gorbachev, is in the Kremlin.

But Mr. Yeltsin's stature as a popularly elected leader seemed to dwarf that of Mr. Gorbachev, chosen only by a Soviet congressional vote.

If Mr. Gorbachev, still the general secretary of the Communist Party, must draw for inspiration on the inglorious post-1917 history of Russia under his party's murderous rule, Mr. Yeltsin, the ex-Communist, can tap the whole sweep and grandeur of Russia's 1,000-year history.

He did so yesterday, effectively calling up Russian patriotism as a weapon against Soviet Communist resistance to change. But his Russian patriotism, along with the whole ceremony, was devoid of any hint of the chauvinism and imperialism that has often accompanied Russian nationalism.

Patriarch Alexis, whose church was frequently involved in the anti-Jewish campaigns of czarist Russia, read a message to Mr. Yeltsin from leaders of all faiths, and Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy sat in the front row.

"I'm sure that the shameful tradition of dividing people into right and guilty, us and others, ours and not ours, is being relegated to the past," Mr. Yeltsin said.

He said that "imperial ambitions are deeply alien" to "the course chosen by the people."

Russia's new political course, toward democracy and the market, is beginning to feel unstoppable, despite the angry and loud opposition of the party, military and KGB bosses who will suffer most from it.

Yesterday, the Soviet parliament, though now viewed as relatively conservative and out of touch, passed the latest of a series of relatively liberal economic laws.

The parliament cut taxes on business profits from 45 percent to 35 percent, approved an anti-monopoly law and set the regulations for burgeoning Soviet stock and commodity exchanges.

Those laws followed landmark bills on privatization of industry and foreign investment.

These steady steps toward a Western-style economy take place under irresistible pressure from a populace that is fed up with trying to follow a Marxist path and ready to copy the West if it means well-stocked stores.

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