When, in August 1991, the world heard the news of the failure of the attempted coup d’état, millions of people across the globe rejoiced at the victory of democracy in Russia. The inhabitants of the country, however, were in a rather less euphoric frame of mind. Although the official propaganda of the Russian government spoke of universal love for President Yeltsin and unanimous support for his promised economic reforms, there developed widespread doubt about the sincerity and democratic credentials of the authorities. Events after August only reinforced people’s worst misgivings. The removal from power of Soviet president Gorbachev by the Russian government—de facto in the last days of August and then formally at the end of December—did not provoke any protests, despite the fact that the intention of former Soviet prime minister Pavlov and vice-president Yanaev to edge Gorbachev out (most probably temporarily) and take his place in August qualified as treason. No one felt sorry for Gorbachev, who in the mind of the people was associated with the failures of the previous five years, but the collapse of the president’s power automatically entailed the liquidation of the Union as well. The feudal structure of power that had arisen and consolidated itself unavoidably linked the fate of the state institutions with the future of the ruler.footnote1 If Russia was to turn into Yeltsin’s ‘domain’, then the centre had become Gorbachev’s personal property, and the triumph of the former over the latter in their personal rivalry could only be accompanied by the dissolution of the centre as such.

The collapse of the Union provoked a new wave of inter-ethnic conflicts and political and economic instability. The triumph of August was expressed in the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (cpsu) and an orgy of appropriation of party property by the new authorities and their hangers-on. Communist newspapers were closed and then allowed to reopen, but in conditions that left them vulnerable to pressure, both political and commercial. The leading representatives of the cpsu in the Congress of People’s Soviets tamely assented to these measures, only putting up a struggle when the prospect arose of their salaries being stopped forthwith. The cpsu was not the only casualty of the August events. The Russian government blatantly flouted its own promises and democratic laws. The freely elected local Soviets were deprived of power and their authority transferred to representatives of the president. By the end of the year, representative and judicial organs had largely lost the struggle to control the executive power. The Russian Federation’s Congress of Peoples Soviets (which, in any case, meets infrequently) was deprived in the autumn of the power to call cabinet ministers to account. Yeltsin himself has occupied the posts of president, prime minister and defence minister. The foundation of a ‘strong executive power’ was only the first step on the road to the reforms promised by the government, and was designed to ensure the triumph of capitalism in Russia in the shortest possible time. Periodically, the Congress has sought to retrieve powers from Yeltsin and make the government directly accountable. But the president has been able, time and time again, to call the bluff of his parliamentary critics; they have no real alternative to his programme, and many of them, as hangovers from the old order, lack political credibility.

Yeltsin’s administration, lacking coherence in policy-making and with no clear long-term goals, is travelling erratically down the wrong road. The government takes one muddle-headed and ill-considered decision after another; it is obvious to anyone who manages to read Yeltsin’s decrees that they contradict each other, the existing laws, and international norms. Indeed, Yeltsin’s arbitrary use of power has alarmed even those like Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg, who otherwise endorse the neo-liberal line. Yet this only affords a hint of the political incoherence and economic folly that characterizes the regime. The government has driven defiantly over the potholes of the crisis, doggedly sticking to its twists and turns, promising us every day that it is just on the point of taking us out onto the ‘highway of world civilization’ which, it is claimed, leads to the ‘common European home’. It is hard to credit that the powers-that-be could really believe in all this nonsense, but, judging by their actions, they have learned to deceive themselves more effectively than they have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. Many of the phrases used to justify the new programmes have been simply warmed up versions of the old perestroika and ‘five hundred days’ of transition to the free market.

Confidence in the president and his team plummeted as winter set in and the promised radical economic reforms were unveiled. The authorities reacted in reflex fashion to the people’s increasing lack of trust by reinforcing their propaganda campaign and reshuffling the higher echelons of the administration. By the beginning of the year some 60,000 former Soviet bureaucrats had lost their posts, but the new Russian ministries have been recruiting almost as fast as the old have been shedding staff. Meanwhile, the citizens of Russia were fed such a surfeit of demagogic promises and propagandist myths during the years of perestroika, and were so tired of the fleeting glimpses of political figures on television, that such measures only intensified the crisis of confidence.

Yeltsin and his entourage placed their hopes in the rapid development of the reform programme proposed by Yegor Gaidar, a former associate editor of Kommunist and department editor of Pravda, who was immediately dubbed the ‘Russian Balcerowicz’. If the ‘Balcerowicz Plan’ in Poland had, at the cost of a catastrophic drop in already low living standards and a slump in production, permitted the temporary stabilization of the national currency, guaranteed the internal convertibility of the zloty, and reinforced the position of the new class of big proprietors (who had to a significant degree emerged from among the ranks of the old party bureaucracy), then Gaidar’s plan set itself the same goals in conditions where the slump in production had already reached menacing proportions. Unlike in Poland, where the ‘Balcerowicz Plan’ initially enjoyed the support of the population, in Russia Gaidar’s proposals found no comprehension even in the government. Representatives of the military–industrial complex were unable to reach an understanding with those defending the interests of speculators, and leaders of the various bureaucratic clans could find no grounds for accord on the proposed privatization plans. These squabbles at the top soon became known to the wider public. During a trip to Siberia, Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi, leader of the People’s Party of Free Russia, openly attacked Gaidar’s government, calling him and his colleagues ‘boys in pink knickerbockers’,footnote2 an appellation repeated by all newspapers without exception. (Even though a majority of the press condemned Rutskoi, they still applied this nickname to Gaidar and his team.) The launching of the new plan in January led to very sharp price rises. Meanwhile, privatization of enterprises has destroyed economic links; instead of creating a market, the policies of Gaidar and Yeltsin have undermined its foundations.