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©  Pyotr Patrushev

Sydney Morning Herald

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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 political aims.

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 privileges.

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 population.

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 ambitions.

The Russian nobility, and even the clergy, had largely supported the usurper, hoping to get rid of him once their power was restored.

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 available.

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 situation.

What are the lessons we can draw from this historical comparison?

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.


 Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website,


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