In Russia, a Reconnection of Thought to Reality

WILLIAM PFAFF

October 15, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The paramount change in Russia since the fall of communism is the reconnection of reality to thought and belief. In the Soviet past people lived with an ideology that described the world in a way which had nothing to do with everyday experience. A form of schiH1 was institutionalized, causing people to act in ways that contradicted the things they said and professed to believe. As a result of being denied a responsible connection to reality, people acted irresponsibly.

They were deprived of their past as well as of the right to tell the truth about the world around them. The history of their own country was denied.

The French historian Helene Carrere d'Encausse has told of lecturing to a group of former high Soviet officials who were astounded to be told that serfdom was abolished in Russia by the Czar Alexander II in 1861. Their education and formation had caused them to believe that until the October Revolution Russia had remained sunk in medieval squalor and oppression.

That has changed, and the change is of fundamental importance. The Russians have not only discovered the truth about their past and the contemporary world, but have accepted the harsh terms of accommodation to new economic realities. They have accepted the loss of all job or security guarantees -- after seven decades when basic income and social security was virtually all the state did provide.

They chose this course, aware of its burdens and risks, by voting in June 1991 to elect Boris Yeltsin president of the new Russian state. Mr. Yeltsin confirmed his authority -- his legitimacy -- by facing down the coup d'etat attempted in August 1991.

The economic changes his government has since introduced have brought very difficult times, with improvement a distant prospect. The reforms installed by Mr. Yeltsin and his advisers are extremely ambitious, possibly too ambitious -- too influenced by academic market theory in the West, and too confident about the speed of positive change.

The running conflict between Mr. Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, which is petty and personal, and has shown both ready to defy the new Russian legality, nonetheless expresses a fundamental conflict of program and perception.

The people opposed to Mr. Yeltsin's economic reforms are members of the old party and administrative class who continue to hold major posts in Russian industry and the economy. They want slower change on grounds that existing state industry maintains jobs and production that should not be sacrificed until there is something to put in their place. They also take a conservative view of how much stress the public can be expected to bear as the price of reform.

One cannot say that they are automatically wrong simply because they are tainted by their pasts as party functionaries. Virtually everyone in a leading post in the former Soviet Union was a party functionary, including Boris Yeltsin. This debate is a real one over serious issues ,and informed foreigners are as divided in their opinions as the Russian leadership.

There has been an immense -- a revolutionary -- bound forward since Mr. Yeltsin came to office, but the accomplishments are fragile. Russia's presidents now are popularly elected, giving them an independent public mandate. There is fundamental constitutional and legal reform. A Constitutional Court exists, which is attempting to establish its authority (which Mr. Gorbachev challenges, by refusing to testify in the current trial of the ex-Communist Party for usurpation of state authority).

There has been a proliferating growth of public associations and non-governmental groups concerned with public affairs. Municipal governments are in place. A real private sector exists in the economy, with real enterprises managed by people who know what they are doing. This sector is small but vigorous.

On the other hand the economy today is in terrible condition and will undoubtedly get worse in the short term. Inflation is in triple digits, approaching quadruple. Trade increasingly must be by barter. Parallel to the legitimate private sector is a criminal one dominated by profiteers and a galaxy of mafias.

Russia's frontiers and its relations with the non-Russian republics are challenged by ethnic disorder, the problem of Russian troops and Russian minorities abroad,and the rivalry with Ukraine. However, the Commonwealth of Independent States, set up among the former Soviet republics in December 1991, still functions, and has had some success in organizing peacekeeping forces, ethnic and economic arbitration among the republics, and in negotiating the division of former Soviet assets abroad.

Although he warns of the danger of a coup, Mr. Yeltsin still -- according to polls -- has a solid base of support, 16 months after coming to power. His sympathizers are divided between those who truly support him and those who give him a conditional endorsement in the hope that life will improve under his government, despite present difficulties. He apparently continues to have the confidence of the army leadership. The security services are headed by his supporters.

However, the most important development is that Russia now has legal, political and public institutions which function. Thus the debate about Russia's future no longer has to be conducted exclusively in terms of personalities and personal influence. When one considers that the reconstruction of a state of law in Russia really began only in January, that is reason for qualified optimism.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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