Putting Russia's October Revolution to Rest

By Harley Balzer. Harley Balzer is associate professor of government and director of the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University . | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 1993 | Go to article overview

Putting Russia's October Revolution to Rest


Harley Balzer. Harley Balzer is associate professor of government and director of the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE result of Alexander Rutskoi's call for a "second October Revolution" in Russia was finally to bury the corpse of the first one. Soviet Communism is finished in Russia, at least for the short term. The most likely result of the events of Oct. 3-4 will be to strengthen the prospects for democracy in the Russian Federation.

Boris Yeltsin provoked the crisis by dissolving Russia's parliament. Did Mr. Yeltsin have to act when he did? Perhaps not. His advisers were divided. Why did he act when he did? As always, a combination of factors led to his decision. The general context for his action was a growing awareness that under the holdover legislature it would be impossible to adopt a new constitution. A more immediate problem was the budget, which, in the version approved by the parliament, amounted to 25 percent of GNP. An insulting speech by Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov may have had some effect, but the materials for the dissolution of parliament were prepared before the latest string of insults. The results of elections in Poland may also have had an impact, suggesting that to wait might favor those who advocate a slower transition.

In the face-off at the Russian parliament building there were few rules, but there was at least one: Avoid civil war. Mr. Rutskoi violated this rule when he called for an armed attack on the City Hall and a Russian TV station. The character of that attack made it obvious that the former vice president and his ally, Mr. Khasbulatov, were supported by groups that had prepared specific plans for such an assault.

Rutskoi and Khasbulatov got their timing wrong. Their attempt to seize power in the name of communism was too late to preserve the old power structure. And it was too early to capitalize on the inevitable unemployment that will eventually accompany market reforms. Ironically, the parliament's ability to delay and soften the effects of shock therapy deprived it of a potential army of supporters.

It matters little whether Rutskoi's call for an armed insurrection was a momentary lapse or the articulation of his true nature. The result was a tragic loss of life and scenes that will leave a deep scar on Russia's political psyche. The challenge for Russia's leaders is to heal the wounds while introducing a system of normal partisan politics.

Russia's future will depend on much more than the personality of a single individual. Yet, perhaps inevitably, many commentators focus on Mr. Yeltsin. Some suggest that he is an "instinctive autocrat," though how anyone in the US could know his basic instincts is an intriguing question. The same critics note that this is the second time Yeltsin has suspended Pravda. But they ignore the question of why it was necessary to suspend the same paper twice. It seems that Yeltsin's instinctive autocracy lacks the killer instinct.

The contrast in the two sides' behaviors on Oct. 3 could not have been more stark. While a patchwork coalition of communists, fascists, monarchists, anarchists, and street toughs was marching to seize power, and while snipers were shooting at the heads of bystanders, Yeltsin's top advisers were more constructively engaged. His chief of staff was at the Danilev Monastery seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis. Some of his advisers were at work on plans for the Dec. 12 election, grappling with questions of proportional representation, campaign finance, and party registration. Other Yeltsin aides were drafting a new civil code and laws on business partnerships and corporations for the new parliament to consider. Are these the actions of an autocrat?

Yeltsin is not a saint, despite some of the iconography that appeared after August 1991.

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