THE people have little trust in their rulers, and
central authority is rapidly disintegrating. Food riots erupt in Moscow
and the provinces. Sharply rising prices for basic foodstuffs are being
regulated but with little success.
Provinces, especially in the south, are restive or
actively rebelling, while traditional enemies on southern flanks are
poised to exploit any instability to achieve their own military and
Disfranchised and dispossessed ruling classes and
the military released from duty are ready to join whatever cause or
person will restore to them at least a semblance of old power and
Criminal activity is on the rise.
Western help is welcome, while conditions attached
to it and the inevitable interference with the running of the country
and its economy by foreigners is deeply resented.
Is this the picture of the Soviet Union in the
winter of 1991-92? Well, yes, and also Russia in the spring of 1605.
Historically, the three main ingredients which led
to the so-called "Time of Troubles" in Russia at the beginning of the
17th century were as follows:
* Hunger and discontentment of the population.
* Power vacuum.
* Foreign interference.
At that time, three successive harvest failures
had led to widespread hunger, which had wiped out perhaps a third of the
However, some historians believe that there was
plenty of grain to feed everyone throughout the years of famine.
Hoarding by the rich landowners, the Church and the State, as well as
inefficient distribution and spoilage, were what led to disaster.
Whatever was done finally by the authorities was
too little and too late.
Within the power vacuum that opened after the
death of the autocratic Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) in 1584, the various
factions were using the famine and the popular discontent in their power
struggle, rather than attempting to stem it.
Today, all the above-mentioned elements are
present in varying degrees in the republics since the disintegration of
the Soviet Union.
The former communist power elite - the military
and the bureaucrats in the central ministries - have fallen under the
fiscal axe of the new rulers.
Of course, some of them will be able to integrate
themselves into the newly emerging republican and regional power
structures, but many - perhaps most of the centre-oriented bureaucrats,
the military and the former KGB -will not easily find themselves a place
in the new order.
They belong to the highly specialised class of
Muscovy courtiers whose very raison d'etre was collection of taxes from
the provinces and the maintenance of central authority.
They have four centuries of relentless selection
behind them. Their painstakingly acquired and considerable skills in
disbursing authority to the provinces, in imperial management and
advance, in communication with abroad, however warped and ideologically
distorted, are now useless.
This would have been bad enough to remind us of
the spring of 1605. However, the problem runs much deeper.
The bulk of the population in the old Soviet Union
were, in fact, State employees. They were purposefully "infantilised" by
the party rulers so that they lost all their initiative and will to
forge their own economic or political destiny.
They are much more prone to embrace ideas of
Western aid rescuing them (a Soviet version of the cargo cult mentality)
or millenarian ideas of salvation-by-demagoguery, as practiced by some
presidential candidates during the past Russian presidential election
(notably by Mr Zhirinovsky, who rose from almost complete obscurity to
secure about 6 million votes).
The hunger and the discontentment of the masses
this winter may swell this number many times.
Yet the West is dithering in its attempts to
deliver aid to the right people, and perhaps justifiably so.
As one German aid worker remarked, only 10,000 out
of 80,000 parcels sent to Russia reached the right destinations. As he
put it, as long as the insatiable stomach and tentacles of the mighty
octopus - the old army and the dispossessed but still powerful former
Communist Party elite - continue to strangle Russia, no aid will help it
out of its present trouble.
The uprising of 1605 and the civil unrest that
followed catalysed around the figure of the so-called "False Dmitry", a
defrocked monk who pretended to be the son of Ivan IV. The son had, in
fact, been killed in mysterious circumstances in 1591, but the Poles
used this false pretender to advance their own imperial and religious
The Russian nobility, and even the clergy, had
largely supported the usurper, hoping to get rid of him once their power
However, this foreign connivance and the internal
collaboration led only to further unrest, which lasted till 1613. In the
process, it gave Russia a healthy dose of xenophobia as well as
supplying it with a new and powerful impulse for empire-building.
While the danger of a new coup along the lines of
the August one is probably exaggerated (certainly, Yeltsin and his
revamped security services have been keeping a close watch on its
potential leaders since the coup), the danger is likely that the
seemingly odd coalition of forces - centralised bureaucracy, old
Communists, the military and ex-security forces, conservative Orthodox
clergy, workers' organisations and Russian nationalists - will play on
popular discontent and come up with a Zhirinovsky-like figure in its
grab for power.
With the political demise of Gorbachev, the power
vacuum has not been resolved but has instead become more acute.
Yeltsin's popularity was in part due to his
struggle with Gorbachev. Now, when he will be required to deliver the
promises he had made during and after his election, his former alibi
about the centre draining Russia of power and money will no longer be
Yet, the resources of the newly formed
Commonwealth of Independent States are already overstretched.
The Polish experience with the rise and fall of
Lech Walesa's popularity may be instructive here.
In 1605, Russians blamed Tsar Boris Godunov for
their troubles and pinned their hopes on the miraculous salvation
promised by the False Dmitry. Now they will blame Yeltsin.
GORBACHEV's political demise may actually be a
relief to him, for the jockeying for power around Yeltsin and among some
of his old comrades and colleagues reminds one of the Times of Trouble.
Their political irresponsibility is matched only by the strength of
their ambitions and their grave underestimation of the severity of the
What are the lessons we can draw from this
Well, there are some good moments in this
seemingly dreary repetition of history. The uprising of 1605 was
relatively bloodless. The masses did not have the energy or the will to
initiate another massacre.
Even the pretender was unsure enough of himself to
instigate mock court proceedings against his rival nobleman, Basil
Shuisky, whom he would have liked summarily to execute. Shuisky went on
to live another day and even to govern Russia for a brief period.
The recent decision by the Constitutional Court to
challenge Yeltsin's decree on the amalgamation of security organs may be
a good portent (though, of course, it may instead be used by Yeltsin's
opponents to further destabilise the situation).
Now that the IMF and the Deutsche Bank have
virtually taken over the running of economic reform in the former Soviet
Union, and Ukraine has become independent and deprived Russia of its
safe south-western flank, the old xenophobic fears in Russia will be
reawakened with a vengeance.
The integration of the Muslim republics into the
Commonwealth will be an economic burden for the new union, while leaving
them outside would seem to present political and even military dangers.
Of course, most of these fears may be unjustified:
Russia and its new allies will, in time, have to get used to living with
the new geo-political order.
The realistic choices for Russia and the CIS may
be not market economy or socialism, but state capitalism with some
smattering of social security administered by a huge and corrupt
bureaucracy - or a neo-fascist dictatorship
It may behoove the West to learn the lessons of
history and act decisively as a timely and impartial mediator as well as
an aid donor, lest another False Dmitry plunges the still nuclear-armed
Russia into a new Time of Troubles.