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Alexander N. Yakovlev was Mikhail Gorbachev's right-hand man in the Politburo during the late 1980s and the intellectual architect of glasnost and perestroika.

By Alexander N. Yakovlev
MOSCOW -- There is a crisis of democracy in Russia today as a result of the victory of the Socialist Reaction -- the counter-revolt of the nomenklatura, or bureaucratic class, against the democratization and liberalization of the last decade. Russia faces a new misfortune: While reaching out to the future we are sliding back into the past.

As Mikhail Zhvanetsky, a Russian author known for his witticisms, has put it:
"Traveling the path of evolutionary development along a downward curve, we have arrived at the point of departure" -- back to the time when fear the almighty determined everything. The sausage and vodka were cheaper back then, we seem to remember, but we forget the fear. The great question is whether we Russians, as in decades past, are once again willing to exchange our freedom for a bowl of gruel.

Democracy suffered a profound defeat in the elections for the State Duma held last December. Parliament became a one-legged, one-party body. With no alternatives available, true parliamentarism has vanished as well, for there is no democracy without opposition. And without democracy Russia will take a nose-dive.

The ruling party of the bureaucrats is celebrating victory. The national
socialists are rejoicing as well that the "bright future" is set to come back,
According to some analysts, the "rightist" liberals of the past decade have accomplished their historical mission and therefore must leave the stage. Others cite the will of the masses, as if the masses in Russia had ever decided anything at any time.

Ten years ago I wrote about the inevitability of a setback as a historical pattern and the need for democrats to prepare thoroughly for it, since revolutions and counterrevolutions can take different forms, ranging from bloody to velvety. But the euphoria of victory at the time eclipsed reason. The nomenklatura that had gone temporarily into hiding then to bide its time has now reemerged to seek restoration of its power.

The first step of the new, post-Yeltsin authority was to return to the Stalinist national anthem, which stunned me. And the country started to sing. That kind of outrage against our memory demonstrated that we are still slaves, that the regime could keep on doing what it thought fit.

Next, there came a successful operation to slowly stifle freedom of speech by taking liberal television programs off the air. The nomenklatura loudly applauded this blow against freedom of speech. The Federation Council was scuttled, and now President Vladimir Putin's representatives oversee the regional leaders elected by the people. The presidential administration, standing in for the government and violating the constitution, has gradually assumed administrative functions, including censorship. In short, the presidency has taken back the former functions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Thus there have appeared two governments -- a real one that governs and a decorative one. The new ruling party has not a single idea worthy of attention, except oaths of loyalty to the president, as well as cries: "Put things in order!" "Introduce censorship!" and other rags from the totalitarian chest.

Once again, the Bolsheviks' favorite games have begun. Secrecy is used as a method of intimidation. History textbooks are attacked for lack of "patriotic spirit." A new host of sycophants is beginning to shamelessly lick into shape a new idol in the Krelmin, which reminds me of the detestable portraits of the terrorists Lenin and Stalin staring out from all corners of the old Soviet Union. It is shameful and distressing.

Lenin and Stalin created a second political organization alongside the party of the Communists: the almighty, omnipotent, uncontrolled and criminal party of the Chekists. Stalin closely observed the struggle between them, curbing or supporting thirst for power of one group or the other. Lavrenti Beria dreamed of supreme power for the special services, but it did not come about. Yuri Andropov proved more successful, managing to create a powerful group of "sympathizers" among the members of the Central Committee. Nikolai Kryuchkov, the KGB director, botched the operation to seize power from Gorbachev, bringing the Soviet Union to collapse as a result.

Now, however, at a time when democracy has lost its vigilance as people wearied of the endless political intrigues, the special services have come to power with their concept of "guided democracy."

On its own, each action of the current presidential administration could have been counted as an unfortunate mistake of an inexperienced regime. But taken together, they represent a well-thought-out program for changing political course away from democracy.

There has been a rising wave of whitewashing the past, especially the evil deeds of Lenin and Stalin and the bloody record of the special services. The system of militarizing minds has been resuscitated under the banner of need to have a strong state, as if a state's strength is guns, not the freedom and wealth of its citizens. Didn't we already learn this lesson?

Though called stabilization, what is really taking shape is a restoration. Socialist centralism has assumed a new name: verticalism. The top nomenklatura is taking us back to the Soviet-type authoritarian regime. Today, the president of Russia already has full and uncontrolled power.

The Soviet bureaucrat who rules the country is ready to make full use of the Russian legacy. And he is doing so to the accompaniment of "loud applause" from the crowd. As Dostoevsky once remarked, Russians cannot bear their own freedom; they seek someone before whom to bend their knee.

The authoritarian mentality is a dangerous malady. Let's hope that the fear that held our society in its grip for centuries will not dominate us once again. We Russian barbarians have gotten used to rejoicing at the infinite magnanimity of the regime: We rejoice if we are not imprisoned. We bow humbly if not driven out of our home. We are delighted if money we ourselves have earned is paid to us. We are ecstatic if not given a thrashing at the police station.

We have been ordered to sing once again the anthem of the Stalinist state, and again we rejoice -- after all, it's not a funeral march. We quickly become accustomed to humiliation and violations of human rights. We are again becoming accustomed to the boorish conduct of the bureaucrats.

Such is the psychological inertia of lingering spiritual bondage.

Today the nomenklatura and the bureaucrats, which replaced the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), are the motivating force of the authoritarian trend. The nomenklatura, which came basically from the ranks of the Socialist reaction, is stubbornly seeking "legitimate authoritarianism." It has comfortably adjusted to democratic procedures. It is the instigator of the constant reactionary attacks on the freedoms that have been won.

All this is being done slowly, little by little, according to the principle of the old chastushka: "If you sink and stick to the bottom, stay there for two weeks, and then you'll get used to it." And we'll probably stick there and get used to it, for it won't be the first time.

The most dangerous thing in the situation taking shape now is that the conductor's baton directing the restorationist commotion is at the very top of power. But that is only half of the truth. The other half, and it is no less weighty, is that the parties of democratic orientation committed so many mistakes that they defeated themselves.

Only a critical evaluation by the democrats of their own activities and a sound social program can restore confidence in democracy and improve the political situation in the country. Above all, the democrats failed to create a stable social base in small business and among professionals such as doctors and teachers. They did not go far enough in resolving the problem of private property. Nothing was done to stop arbitrary rule by petty officials.

The endless splits in the democrats' ranks also played a disconcerting role. The democrats in the bodies of state power and in parliament were unwilling to see the process of democracy's degeneration into a bureaucratic dictatorship, especially in the provinces. Democratic procedures were formally in operation, but more and more they were for show while reality took the bumpy road of corruption.

By its policies, the government (central and local) forced citizens into deceit, theft and machinations. In practical terms, the regime stifled people's initiative and completely forgot its own chief function -- not to interfere with people working. Corruption -- the vice most capable of destroying the country --began to prevail in Russia. Criminality swirled over society like a snowstorm on a cold, wintry night blocking the roads to erstwhile hopes. The prestige of the democratic form of government was thus substantially undermined.

I believe in the freedom of man, despite all the zigzags of history. That gives me the right to say to my friends, the democrats: Search for the cause of the defeat in yourselves, and then your hopes will acquire soul and body and bring tangible results.

The forthcoming presidential elections of March 14 are essentially undemocratic, since they offer no alternative, even if formally there seem to be other pretenders to the post. The winner is already known in advance, and for that reason these elections are without a choice.

The change of the government on Feb. 24 -- when Putin replaced his cabinet -- came as a surprise and caused a great commotion in society. Some hope it portends change for better, others voice serious concerns about the possibility of a further "tightening of screws."

Russia is yet again plunged into uncertainty.

The bureaucratic class is not yet able to stifle democracy completely, though it can take advantage of the situation for a creeping restoration. Quietly, little by little, by tiny steps, that class is moving ever closer to its cherished goal: turning humans back into timorous rabbits in the name of patriotism and nostalgia of being "the great power of unending success."

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 3/1/04)