BOOK REVIEWS: Russia and Belarus in the post-Soviet era

Image from Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

By VICTOR OSPREY

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Svetlana Alexievich
Text Publishing, 2016

Belarus: The Last Soviet Republic
Stewart Parker
Lulu, 2012

‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,’ Marx once said, and that could not be truer of the people of post-Soviet Russia. The people who lived under the Soviet regime, saw its collapse, went through the ‘end of history’ and now live under the autocratic Putin presidency have much to say about the Russian condition, past and present. These past generations are still very much alive and can speak to their experiences, which are in turn nightmarish and joyful, full of great hopes and even greater disappointments.

A broad cross-section of these voices is highlighted in a new book by Svetlana Alexievich, entitled Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The book consists of conversations and interviews, or, as the author puts it, ‘Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations’ that were conducted between 1991 and 2012. Everyone from architects, technicians, construction workers, veterans, and refugees to Soviet-era Kremlin insiders and former Communist Party members get to speak their mind in this remarkable collection.

Their opinions of the Soviet past are as different as they are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a definite nostalgia and longing for the past from some, yet they are mostly not blind to the brutalities and inhumanity. On the other, those who strongly opposed that bureaucratic social system and were glad to see it go dislike the political, economic and social instability that has since emerged.

What is for sure is that the oppositional, anti-bureaucratic movements that were allowed breathing space as a result of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies were struggling for a future beyond Putin-type tyrants. Many Russians hoped for socialism with a human face, imagining that they would enjoy the same living conditions as Swedish workers, or at least would live in a liberal-democratic utopia.

A construction worker interviewed on Red Square in December 1991 speaks eloquently to this sincere dream:

What did we want? Gentle socialism, humane socialism… And what did we get?… Bloodthirsty capitalism… Black marketeers and money changers have taken power… It’s not what we wanted.

The transition from ‘Communism’ to capitalism is a sore point with many Russians in this book. They largely consider it as primarily benefiting political and economic elites. The old bureaucracy went through a process of recomposition, and newly emerging ruling layers enriched themselves by selling off state assets – leading to the rise of the oligarchs that are such a familiar presence today.

One truly remarkable interview is with Vasily Petrovich, a Communist Party member since 1922. A Red Army soldier in the Civil War and the Second World War, his wife was arrested in 1937 despite her and himself being loyal Party members.

He himself was later imprisoned, spending a month in solitary confinement for the ‘crime’ of not automatically informing on his wife’s fictional disloyalty. She would later die while still imprisoned, and Petrovich would not get back his Party membership until after he had returned from WWII with three decorations and medals.

Despite all this and other immense personal suffering, he still considers himself a communist. Petrovich freely admits that for him communism is a faith and his religion. As he says:

We wanted to create Heaven on Earth. It’s a beautiful but impossible dream, man is not ready for it. He is not yet perfect enough. Well… From Pugachev to the Decembrists, down to Lenin himself, everyone dreamt of equality and brotherhood. Without the idea of fairness, it’ll be a different Russia with different people.

In response to this, his grandson jokes: ‘It’s 1937. Two Old Bolsheviks are sitting in a jail cell. One says to the other, “It looks like we’re not going to live to see communism, but surely our children will!” The other: “Yes, our poor children!”

Petrovich’s last words of the interview are – ‘I want to die a communist. That’s my final wish.’

“Abundance for the fittest”

‘Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. “Putin the Democrat” is our shortest joke,’ notes one Russian liberal. He grew up in a dissident family, who distributed samizdat (underground literature passed from reader to reader) and ‘along with them, I read Vasily Grossman… listened to Radio Liberty.’

For him, communism, not just the government which claimed to be representative of the idea but the very idea itself, was a cage, inextricably linked with the gulag and the Terror. He despairs about how half the country dreams of Stalin, with dozens of books and movies made about him which are avidly read and watched. He is also greatly disheartened by what he regards as deviant behaviour on the part of his son.

 

I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf… I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son goes to the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in the kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto

 

Despite this, he utterly detests former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the 1990s ‘capitalist revolutionaries’ who ‘ran experiments on living people like they were some kind of mad scientists…’

Far from the democratic paradise he hoped for, the former Stalinist bureaucrats who, under ‘socialism’, who once promised there was a place in the sun for everyone, now sing a different tune. ‘If we live according to Darwin’s laws, we will enjoy abundance. Abundance for the fittest.’

He is incapable of imagining a socialism that was not intrinsically authoritarian and anti-democratic to its core. Thus he sees the interest his son and his friends have in socialist ideas as nothing but a throwback to a past that history itself has wiped away – no matter how radically democratic and anti-Stalinist they and their ideas may be.

One of the last stories is of Tanya Kuleshova, a Moscow student from Belarus, and in her story one senses the author puts hope in people like her for Russia’s future. Belarus under its President, Alexander Lukashenko, is certainly authoritarian, with the liberal press often referring to him as ‘Europe’s last dictator.’

This didn’t deter Tanya however, who went out to the main square in Minsk, the capital, in late 2010 to protest against fraudulent elections with tens of thousands of others. She ended up spending a month in jail for her efforts. State repression also affected her grandfather in Stalin’s time, who kept a little notebook which detailed his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the authorities.

Though she stood up in defence of democracy, she finds that it’s not only the police and the clubs who keep the social order intact:

 

The people understand everything, but they keep quiet. In exchange, they want decent salaries… to go on a vacation to Turkey. Try talking to them about democracy and human rights – it’s like you’re speaking ancient Greek! Those who lived through Soviet times instantly start saying things like… “There’s one hundred different kinds of salami! What more freedom do we need?” Even today, many people want to go back to the Soviet Union, except with tons of salami.

She notes the hypocrisy of her schooling, where her teachers told her to read Bunin and Tolstoy, as books by those authors ‘save people.’ But as she rightly notes, ‘Why isn’t this the knowledge that’s passed down, instead of the doorknob in the rectum and the plastic bag over the head?’

She still refuses to give up the fight for a better future. As a student in Moscow, she and her friends go to protests together:

 

I like the faces of the people I see there. They remind me of the faces I saw when we went out on the square in Minsk. That day, I didn’t recognise my city or my people. They were different. Different people.

 

In the movements of protest and opposition to all the anti-social, anti-democratic, and chauvinist policies of the Russian government, most notably now to Russia’s war in Ukraine, lie the hopes for a more democratic Russia and wider aspirations for socialism and freedom, equality and fraternity.

The lives of left-wing Marxist, socialist, social-democratic and anarchist opponents of the bureaucratic Stalinist machine, and their views and opinions, receive little to no coverage in this book. This is a major oversight. One would never know from this book that there were people in Stalin’s concentration camps who went to their deaths before a firing squad as convinced socialists singing the Internationale. Nor would you learn about the Communist resistance organisation ‘Istinny Trud Lenina’ (Lenin’s True Works) based mainly among students at several Russian universities which was part of an anti-Stalinist youth opposition to the regime.

Despite this limitation, this book is a testament to the lives lived by Russian people in the last century and this one so far, allowing them to speak in their own voice. It is a thoroughly empathetic and human document.

Unhappy families

The tendencies of post-Soviet Russia identified in Alexievich’s book have a uniqueness all of their own; yet while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way as Tolstoy noted in Anna Karenina, the breakup of the Soviet ‘happy family’ of nations produced not entirely dissimilar results in other post-Soviet republics.

Ukraine, among the larger and more developed Soviet republics, found itself in the same boat as Russia, facing an escalation of poverty and inequality amid the cancerous growth of oligarchy in the 90s. Those post-Soviet governments that immediately let the market rip by tearing down all barriers to accumulation (while dismantling Soviet welfare structures) saw an impoverishment of their populations, substantial emigration, a normalisation of unemployment with its concurrent anti-social effects, and a universalisation of precarity.

Belarus managed to avoid sinking to such a state in the 90s, comparatively speaking, despite all the difficulties it faced after the self-immolation of the USSR, especially in its unstable first few years. But it was not able to escape the rising inequalities of the botched Soviet transition to capitalism, despite government policies cushioning against the blows of external market pressures alongside the slow and steady pace of privatisation under President Alexander Lukashenko.

The country seems unlikely to turn that situation around without a substantive shift in its political economy and methods of governance. Hence the relevance of a comparative study of Belarus with Russia. Stewart Parker’s book Belarus: The Last Soviet Republic provides the basis for such a study.

Despite protestations to the contrary, his book is very much an apologia for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the social system of Belarus under his leadership, at least circa 2011. The author attempts to present a balanced tone, though his politics are clear throughout, especially in some of the sources he recommends – crude Stalinist apologia like Ludo Martens book Another View of Stalin.

Besides academic articles and books, unfortunately there is not a great deal of popular history focusing on Belarus, especially of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Hence, simply for existing, this book is an important reference work, summarising and skimming over the very interesting features of Belarusian history (such as its Soviet period, experience of WWII, the proportionally larger size of partisan resistance in the country compared with other Soviet republics, post-war developments) to reach the period where the USSR collapsed and Lukashenko became President, the real substance of the book.

The Soviet regime struck deep roots in Belarus, and despite repressions in the 1930s retained considerable approval and popularity among the population in the post-war period, or at least largely consensual tolerance if not always active enthusiasm. It was only after the disaster of Chernobyl in which Belarus was directly affected, and the discovery of mass graves in 1988 believed to have been the work of the NKVD between 1937 to 1941 that shook the pro-Soviet consensus of the majority.

Belarus’ transition to capitalism proceeded cautiously and slowly as opposed to the crash-ahead catastrophic measures adopted in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Although generating greater inequalities and opportunities for corruption, the limited and slower pace of privatisations produced a considerably softer blow in Belarus among the population than, for example, Ukraine experienced. Soviet political structures, though somewhat democratised, remained in place, such as the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers.

A new constitution was adopted in 1994 which created a new post, President of the Republic, in order to bridge the gap between parliament and the Council of Ministers, which had produced deadlock and stagnation in Belarusian politics since the Declaration of Independence as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Many in Belarus hoped for a democratised and reformed USSR – it was only after the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev that independence was proclaimed. Only one member of the Belarusian parliament – Lukashenko – who, in his various jobs up to becoming a member of parliament can be regarded as a Soviet success story, advancing step by step in his career path – voted against the final dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Ironically given his reputation today, Lukashenko in the waning days of the USSR created a group within the parliament called ‘Communists for Democracy’, and favoured greater autonomy for the constituent Soviet national republics; an extremely faint and weak echo of Lenin’s aspirations as outlined in his final years, and reflected in his actions during the Georgian Affair.

Lukashenko: the Stalin of today?

After independence, Lukashenko was elected chairman of an anti-corruption committee, and it is here he gained popular support and notoriety, using his reputation as an anti-corruption campaigner to catapult himself into the Presidency as the surprise winner of the 1994 elections, in what is regarded (as opposed to later elections) as a legitimate and popular vote.

Because of his retentions of elements of the Soviet system (notably in education and healthcare) and respect for the Soviet past, while continuing to cautiously open up the economy where possible Belarus achieved a political, economic and social stability many of its Eastern European neighbours envied. It also helped that, as Parker acknowledges, ‘the military and police were, and remain, one of Lukashenko’s most loyal bases of support in the country. This comes in no small part from the respect held for him as a former serviceman.’

Lukashenko’s approach to government could be described as ‘crossing the river by touching the stones’ – that is, going ahead steadily, step by step, not taking any great leaps. A Chinese folk saying popularly associated with Deng Xiaoping’s description of his reform efforts, it is arguably more applicable to Belarus under Lukashenko than China under Deng.

However, such a system could only ever be transitory and backward looking – and however slowly it adapted to contemporary economic realities, that is precisely what it did. It has now, to all intents and purposes, run out of steam, not able to offer a future and unable to return to a past that no longer exists. While the Soviet past was once a key reference point for much of the population, younger generations are either too young to remember or never experienced it, relying on tales from parents and grandparents.

It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that the author has simply replaced Stalin with Lukashenko as his lodestar. Parker goes so far as to describe the latter’s motivations, even to this day as essentially socialist and Marxist, downplaying his socially regressive patriarchal authoritarianism and other backward views – one recent example being his initially touting home remedies to deal with COVID-19. Parker evidently considers Lukashenko’s Belarus the best regime in Eastern Europe one could hope for in contemporary conditions as compared with the rest.

While Parker praises Lukashenko for maintaining the sovereignty of Belarus, and indeed Lukashenko played the game of balancing between the EU and Russian interests while remaining more in the Russian orbit better than others (notably the likes of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine), this is now more questionable. Since 2020 we have seen Russia backing the Belarusian state in putting down large domestic protests and strikes after a highly contested election which Lukashenko ‘won’; and Lukashenko’s regime allowing Russian troops and war materials to proceed through Belarus to wage war in Ukraine, which Belarusian rail workers did their best to sabotage. Such events represent the greatest slippage in Lukashenko’s popularity and legitimacy since his inauguration as President in the 90s. The results of other contested elections never produced such a response.

The people of Belarus are in an unenviable position of trying to find an appropriate model of political transformation and economic development that can offer a future beyond simply being subsumed to either Russian hegemony or as a weak, peripheral partner within the EU bloc of states.

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