Peace and Democracy in Russia

When Gorbachev came to power, over 90 percent of Soviet citizens conformed to the demands of the state without complaining. My book deals, not with them, but with three other political orientations, whom I call Dinosaurs, Termites, and Barking Dogs, showing the changing power relations among them, and exploring their contacts with foreigners – especially Western peace activists, who influenced them and even Soviet policies.

Of the 20 million Communist Party (CPSU) members, the “Dinosaurs” were about 19 million – the ones who favored militaristic Soviet authoritarianism. The remaining one million party members are the “Termites.” Rather than publicly stating their opposition to the regime, they quietly burrowed within the system, waiting for reforms. Most Termites had studied or worked abroad, or participated in transnational organizations such as Pugwash, IPPNW, the Dartmouth conferences, END, or the dialogues in Moscow with Western peaceniks. As a participant in those meetings, offstage, I was surprised to find Soviet officials actively encouraging my polite criticism of Soviet violations of human rights and democracy.

The third political wing, the Barking Dogs, consisted of only a few hundred dissidents. They lacked power, but tried to stir up political opinion by making a lot of noise. They included Andrei Sakharov, the Helsinki Group, which promoted human rights, and an independent peace group.

Barking Dogs and Termites shared the same goals – democracy and peace – so they should have been allies. Actually, they despised each other because they disagreed about how to proceed – whether from above or below. Barking Dogs believed that change could come only from below, from grassroots resistance. The Termites considered that impossible. The mutual contempt of the Termites and Barking Dogs split the progressive forces and doomed perestroika.

The Soviet population had low levels of trust, though democratization requires “social capital,” the trust that develops in civil society. Under Communism, organizations were controlled by the state, so social capital was low and censorship kept people vulnerable and ill-informed. Foreign travel was a rare privilege.

Civil society organizations are of two kinds. “Bonding” groups have members of similar interests, while “Bridging” groups are diverse. Democracy requires the latter, which fosters open-mindedness. Transnational organizations are inherently of the bridging type, and it was the high-ranking Termites who knew foreigners who contributed most.

Gorbachev had a Czech roommate during his university years – Zdenek Mlynar, who would lead the Prague Spring in 1968. As a convinced Termite, Gorbachev did not speak up for his old friend. Later, however, he wanted to create a Moscow Spring resembling Mlynar’s Prague Spring.

He took power in 1985, hoping to avoid civil war by holding the extreme right and left together while moving forward cautiously. (Today, Obama’s political approach is much the same.) The Termites – the intelligentsia inside the party – were Gorbachev’s base. His opponents were the Dinosaurs, whom he tried to keep dreaming while he created democratic socialism, initially by creating a democratic parliament.

The transnational contacts were powerful. For example, Pugwash can claim much credit for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Parliamentarians for Global Action persuaded Gorbachev to let American seismologists set up monitoring stations at nuclear test sites. IPPNW’s leader, Bernard Lown, persuaded Gorbachev to unilaterally stop nuclear testing.

Gorbachev’s foreign policy, known as “new political thinking,” was gleaned from foreign sources. It consisted of four principles: 1) common or mutual security – the notion that nations become more secure, not by weakening their opponents, but by making them more secure; 2) reasonable sufficiency – the notion that there is no need to balance the forces of East and West because, once your side has enough weapons, you don’t need more, since you can’t kill anyone twenty times; 3) non-offensive defence – the doctrine that a state should limit itself to short-range weapons, which reassure the potential enemy that it is technologically incapable of going outside its own borders and attacking them; and 4) unilateral initiatives, the suggestion that one side can break an impasse in disarmament by taking the first step independently and expecting the other side to reciprocate, rather than negotiating an agreement. Gorbachev’s Termite team actively sought these peaceable foreign ideas.

As glasnost increased, anyone could safely criticize the government. Many new people joined the Barking Dog side, calling themselves “radical democrats.” A new movement, Democratic Russia, supported Gorbachev’s rival, Yeltsin, who was gaining popularity.

The radical democrats wanted to eliminate the constitutional guarantee of the CPSU’s dominance. Gorbachev’s approach called for a new democratic constitution, which would not abolish the CPSU, but make it into only one of several political parties, in which Dinosaurs would have no role. But until then, he found it necessary to placate them.

In the winter of 1990-91, he replaced some Termite officials with Dinosaurs. This was his famous “turn to the right.” I believe it was an invisible coup. Dinosaurs had him by the throat. Nevertheless, his base, the Termites and the Soviet intelligentsia, were furious; they deserted him and joined the radical democrats, leaving him with no progressive centrist base. Soon the Dinosaurs attempted a coup against him. Though it failed, Yeltsin made a coup from the left, which succeeded. When Russia and two other republics seceded, there was no longer a Soviet Union for Gorbachev to rule.

Between 1991 and ’99, Yeltsin ruled a chaotic Russia. He was no democrat. His elections were patently fraudulent and, when the parliament opposed him, he shelled it, killing possibly 1,000 people. He virtually gave the nation’s industries away. When he left office, his approval rating was five percent. Most Russians believed that they had experienced democracy under Yeltsin and no longer wanted more. The centers of new political thinking and democracy were almost empty. Foreign travel was permitted, but transnational civil society organizations dwindled. The Cold War reappeared.

The way to make a society less vulnerable is to strengthen its civil society, especially its bridging organizations. However, those have declined in Russia. Shocked by the color revolutions, Putin began to limit civil society organizations. They must register, disclose their funding sources, expect frequent state auditing, accept no foreign money for political activities, and engage in no “extremist or unconstitutional” activities. Many NGOs have given up in despair. However, since 2009 the Russian government has been granting money to existing NGOs on a competitive basis for non-political projects.

Russians need more transnational contacts. Fortunately, technological innovations now enable us to renew and even expand them. Most Russians study English in school. I would like to set up, say, 1,000 discussion groups meeting once a month for one year. One of them might consist, for example, of four Russians in Krasnoyarsk discussing climate change, agriculture, nuclear weapons, or hip hop music with two Canadians in Regina and two in Halifax. This is legal, achievable, and fun. Why not set up a discussion on Skype every week with some Russians whose work is similar to yours, say in Irkutsk, Perm, or St. Petersburg?

Metta Spencer’s book The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy (Lexington 2010) is based on hundreds of interviews conducted between 1982 and 2010, mainly in Russia. You can read or listen to the interviews and see photos of the interviewees, as well as find links to book sellers at http://RussianPeaceAndDemocracy.com .

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