Dave Osler compares a recent visit to Russia with his first in 1989.
The first time I visited Russia, it was still the core of the experiment that will go down in history as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting to transform Stalinism into something nicer instead, and frankly not making a very good fist of it.
The place was just opening up to the outside world in 1989, and I got a reasonably-priced package deal through a travel company tied to the old Communist Party of Great Britain. Also on the trip were two very prominent British Trotskyists.
Somewhere or other, I still have a photograph of a leading Workers’ Power comrade looking distinctly silly as he clambered on the gates of the Winter Palace in a mock attempt to storm it. I suspect that particular piece of play acting will be the closest he ever comes to achieving the deed.
It is difficult to bring home to younger comrades just how central the issue of Russia was to the political identity of far leftists of that period. This was particularly so for the Socialist Workers’ Party, who used the claim that Russia instantiated state capitalism as a means of differentiation between itself and everybody else.
In hindsight, the SWP analysis was less incorrect than the main alternative designation (that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”), at the time when it mattered most. Russia after the late twenties clearly was not a workers’ state of any description, degenerate or otherwise, and all of us who maintained in public that it was that stand exposed by history as seriously mistaken.
But at the same time, it was difficult to regard the place as meaningfully capitalist, either, and I always had a sneaking suspicion that dissident US Trotskyist Max Shachtman’s description of the USSR as bureaucratic collectivist rang true, at least from what I knew about it.
Yet nobody on the 1980s British left — not even the predecessor of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty — articulated that position, and Shachtman’s writings were pretty much unavailable. And being just a rank-and-file young member of a small group, I didn’t dare question the wisdom of the elders, and kept my doubts to myself.
To describe Moscow and Leningrad — as the latter city was then — in the years of perestroika and glasnost as “chaotic” would be way too kind. Even the Lenin Mausoleum was out of action. Few shops seemed to have anything to sell, and such goods as were on offer were priced without rhyme or reason. Either they were ridiculously cheap or ridiculously expensive, but nothing in between.
Worst of all for a young man trying to have a good time on holiday, there was no beer to be had anywhere. I recall complaining about this fact to Olga, the burly middle-aged Intourist guide from central casting, who had from day one striven to prevent anybody in the package tour party from enjoying themselves too much.
“Never mind,” she sighed resignedly. “Next time you come to my country, there will be plenty of beer.” And you know something? She was right.
As I can testify after a journalistic assignment last month, both Moscow and the renamed St Petersburg have reinvented themselves as recognisably modern capitalist European cities. They have a full array of pleasant bars and restaurants, and a layer of the population with the money and leisure to frequent them.
As well as a famously super-rich post-Soviet oligarchy, there is a middle class comprised of 20-25% of the population that has taken the transition to capitalism in its stride. These are the people you will see on such elegant shopping streets as Tverskaya Ulitsa and Nevsky Prospekt.
But not everyone is doing as well as they are. While I didn’t get out into the sticks, ex-pat bankers told me that many people in the industrial interior have witnessed minimal change from the Soviet period. A substantial minority have seen their income deteriorate sharply, while 15% of Russians live in poverty. Entire villages are reputedly close to economic collapse, to the point where city dwellers consider them too dangerous to visit.
As is now extensively documented, the transformation from bureaucratic collectivism to private capitalism took Russia close to collapse. The problem with the so-called “shock therapy” strategy adopted in the 1990s is that it was based on too much of the former and too little of the latter.
Many enterprises reverted to barter if they produced at all, paying workers with a proportion of the goods to be sold for food. Criminality was rife, tax wasn’t being collected, and president Yeltsin didn’t even maintain a pretence of sobriety in public.
The 2000s changed all that, thanks to a boom in oil and other commodities, and a new ruler who prevented the entire show coming off the road. Serious people — such as Carter administration Soviet specialist Zbigniew Brzezinski — have compared Putin to Italy’s prewar dictator Benito Mussolini. That is obviously overdoing it somewhat.
It is true that Putin made the trains run on time, carefully manages ostensible democracy, and presides over a system that has integrated capital and the state to a degree that Tony Cliff’s designation seems, retrospectively, completely apt.
But there are legally functioning opposition parties, even if they do not compete on a level playing field. There are dissenting newspapers, even if star reporters not infrequently end up as corpses. Most important of all from our point of view, there is the nucleus of an independent labour movement.
I’m still not sure how and why the AWL became the first group to think the unthinkable and proclaim its adherence to Shachtman’s position. But remembering the derision such ideological evolution quite predictably attracted from those still stuck in untenable orthodoxy, it was brave move. Fair play to you lot.
Where Russia is going now is difficult to read. I interviewed several billionaires, and certainly they do not lack confidence in the future of their country as an oil and gas fiefdom. So far it has proved immune from the unrest that has upset much of the Middle East, and the complacent thinking is that most people are more bothered with having bread on the table than with human rights.
But where there is social polarisation, there is at least the potential for social explosion, too. While we are not far off the centenary of 1917, I did come away with the impression that the final chapter has yet to be written. History sometimes does take a bloody long time.