the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jan 5, 2012
This article was translated from an article appearing in the journal of the comrades of Lutte Ouvrière (in Lutte de Classe, issue 141, February 2012).
On December 4, 20 years after the Soviet Union disappeared, there were massive demonstrations denouncing the rigging of the legislative elections by Vladimir Putin. In protesting the way the Russian regime governs the country, these demonstrations also called into question all the old lies and hymns of praise about the virtues of democracy that accompanied the dismantling of the USSR 20 years ago.
At that time, those who sang the praises of bourgeois society, both inside the USSR and in the rest of the world, extolled a bright future of liberty, democracy, prosperity and economic development for the peoples of the ex-Soviet Union. It was a deception, a shameful lie—as if capitalism, a system that was leading the world to catastrophe, could bring about such things. Twenty years ago, this was obvious, and it should have been said. Instead, these lies and deceptions were pushed by the right, as well as by those on the social democratic left and, unfortunately, even by some circles of the extreme left.
Inside the USSR, a crushing majority of political leaders from the bureaucracy itself joined in the chorus praising capitalism. They enthusiastically discovered the supposed virtues of capitalism—some even claiming they would implement a “500 day program of transition to a market economy.” On the eve of the break-up of the USSR, almost all of them still belonged to the regime’s hierarchy and its only party, which called itself communist. The leaders of the bureaucracy, not the people of the Soviet Union, pushed that break-up, seeing in it their own self- interest.
To understand how that happened; why the events unleashed such jubilation in the small world of ideologues, journalists, politicians of the bourgeoisie; why, 20 years later, the same or similar people are so distressed over what they call “Soviet nostalgia” by the people of the ex-USSR; and also to measure the impact of the disappearance of the USSR on the society, we must return to the formal foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), at the end of December 1922 and to the installation of Soviet power by the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
By 1991, the USSR bore little resemblance to the power of the soviets (councils) made up of worker, soldier and peasant deputies in 1917 that had overthrown first the czar and then the bourgeoisie. The USSR of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the other successors of Stalin was in almost all respects the opposite pole of the USSR of Lenin and Trotsky. But Stalin and all his successors nonetheless owed their existence to the revolutionary and socialist origins of that distant past.
In October 1917, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party led the exploited masses of Russia to take power and began to lay the foundation of a society without exploitation of human beings by human beings, a society that would pave the way to a socialist future. But the Bolsheviks never conceived that this future could be built in one country alone, even a country as vast as Russia. On the contrary, they understood that their revolution would be short-lived if other victorious socialist revolutions did not join them, especially in the economically developed countries. This is why, after the Second International sank into its sacred union with the bourgeoisie during World War I, the Bolsheviks quickly founded a communist international, aimed at forming a world party of the revolution.
After four years of daily horrors on the battlefields, the people and the proletariat of Europe turned against those responsible for the slaughter of World War I: the possessors and their system. In Finland, Hungary and, above all, many times in Germany the proletariat tried to overthrow the power of the capitalist class and replace this power with their own. But they did not succeed anywhere other than in Russia. Everywhere, the social democratic parties came to the rescue of the possessing classes. Where the capitalist class was not able to strangle the revolution, drowning it in the blood of the workers, the great powers stepped in with military force.
In Russia, the partisans of the old order, who launched the civil war after October 1917, were supported militarily by imperialism. They did not succeed in destroying the young workers state, but they almost completely destroyed the country, which was already among the most underdeveloped in Europe. A great number of militants and revolutionary workers perished at the front, or from destitution. After years of world war and civil war, to survive from day to day became the major problem for the workers, who were physically, morally and politically exhausted. During the 1920s, the working class exercised only nominal political power. In reality, with the workers no longer having the means to control their own state apparatus, nor even the desire to do it, the growing bureaucracy found power falling into its hands. The state apparatus, as Trotsky said, was transformed in a few years, “from an instrument of the working class into an instrument of bureaucratic violence against the working class.”
This social layer, which usurped the power, had no other ambition than to profit from their positions and their privileges—privileges that were miserable in an absolute sense, but enormous within the context of the nearly general state of famine. Aspiring to everything that could reinforce their position, parasitically living off the gains of October, the bureaucrats identified with the reactionary formula of “socialism in one country,” launched by Stalin. For Stalin and his partisans, it was a way to announce to the worldwide bourgeoisie that they did not seek to spread socialism.
The companions of Lenin, who remained faithful to the ideals of October and thus to proletarian internationalism, could only fight against this negation of Bolshevism. Lenin had died in January 1924. It was left to Trotsky to lead the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist current inside the Communist Party, the Communist International and at the head of the state. For several years, the communist oppositionists fought toe to toe to save the workers state from bureaucratic degeneration. But in a situation of retreat in the revolutionary movement, inside and outside the country, they were finally defeated. The Left Opposition was eliminated politically, before being eliminated physically in the camps and prisons of the GPU (the political police) and during the Moscow trials from 1936 to 1938.
In order to reinforce the bureaucratic regime that was to lead the USSR, Stalin had several generations of militants assassinated. Those militants had accumulated a political and organizational experience during three revolutions and the first years of the Communist International that was unparalleled during the history of the workers movement.
There were terrible consequences from this annihilation. Inside the USSR, when the working class regained its strength and energy, especially when it gained great social weight with the industrialization of the 1930s, it found itself disarmed, without either militants or organizations to transmit a political, militant and organizational heritage. This breach ruptured the transmission of traditions and the gains in consciousness from one generation to the next, a rupture on a scale that was unprecedented and which weighed on the working class until the disappearance of the USSR. And it still weighs on the ex-USSR, above all when the workers had or could have had a chance to intervene in the course of political events.
In 1962, for example, when worker riots broke out in Novocherkassk after the government raised food prices by 30%, the regime of Nikita Khrushchev drowned the riot in blood. This revolt seemed to have no impact, although there were similar reactions in several other industrial cities.
A quarter of a century later, we see the weight of this rupture at a completely different level with very different consequences. During the political torment of the Gorbachev epoch, the proletariat—the social class which was both the largest and most concentrated in the urban centers of the USSR—remained essentially a spectator. And in 1990-91, when the great miner strikes broke out in Russia and Ukraine, they were led by the so-called “democratic” fraction of the bureaucracy in its fight against the central power. In the period immediately after the dissolution of the USSR, when there were workers’ struggles, they developed in isolated fashion, often with the workers’ backs forced against the wall by one of the many privatizations. These struggles developed without any organization that could have addressed the workers on the field of their own class interests. With the workers engaged in fights, a political program was indispensable, a program of struggle against the attempts to restore capitalism, as well as against the monopolization of the state-run economy by the bureaucracy and the capitalist apprentices. This revolutionary and communist program would have opened up another perspective for the workers and for society as a whole. It would have sought to provide the working class with a way to take advantage of the hate felt by the immense majority of the population towards the pillagers, the friends of Yeltsin, who were grabbing up state-owned enterprises and were responsible for the brutal impoverishment of the population. The goal of this program would have been for the workers to contest for the leadership of society and to seek to rebuild an economy rid of bureaucratic parasites and rid of the new owners of the factories, largely considered illegitimate in the workers’ milieu—and even well beyond this milieu.
Today, such a program is still just as vital. And, today, when tens of thousands of oil workers in Kazakhstan can defy those in power for months, militants are needed to defend this program. It’s just as necessary in Russia, where a fraction of the population takes to the streets to reject the regime, even if, as 20 years ago, it is predominantly members of the “middle class” who are mobilized.
The assassination of the revolutionaries who had made the October victory possible also had dramatic consequences on the international level. When the social democratic and Stalinist leaderships betrayed the rise of workers’ struggles of the 1930s, there was no longer an international of the working class movement worthy of the name—at least none which had weight and authority and reached into all the countries, as did the international represented by Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades at the beginning of the Communist International.
Stalinism gave invaluable aid to the worldwide bourgeoisie, helping it to wipe out the better part of the revolutionary movement of its epoch. This tragedy continues to weigh on the workers movement long after Stalinism, as such, disappeared.
Nonetheless, despite everything that Stalinism did for the bourgeois order (from the tragedy of the Chinese Revolution of 1927 to the capitulation to Hitler without a fight in 1933, to the smothering of the Spanish Revolution in 1936, to the restoration of the imperialist order after 1945, to the crushing of the workers movement in Eastern Europe and notably the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, etc.), the USSR remained a body that was foreign to the world of the bourgeoisie. Even in the 1970s, when the USSR was under Brezhnev and his elderly team who carried out a policy that was entirely reactionary and conservative, it remained an inspiration and a point of support for emancipation or opposition movements in many places around the globe—despite the bureaucracy and above all despite its leaders. Above all, its very existence, an anomaly in a world dominated by imperialism, constituted a sizeable proof that another social and economic organization was possible. State ownership of the means of production, economic planning and the monopoly of foreign trade allowed the USSR to sustain a high rate of development, despite Stalinism and despite the fact that the USSR was cut off from the international division of labor. The country was able to construct a powerful industry, despite the 1929 crisis and all during the collapse of the capitalist economy in the years that followed. The USSR, even of the bureaucrats, showed that society could develop on different bases than those of capitalism, thanks to the impulsion from a revolution that overthrew the power of the bourgeoisie and expropriated the capitalists.
According to the partisans of the bourgeois order, December 1991 marked the end of what was supposed to be a social nightmare that had lasted 70 years. A regime that recognized neither the market, nor private property could not last—so these apologists had been saying for all that time. So, finally, when the USSR collapsed under the blows of its own leaders, the partisans of capitalism celebrated. It was the end of the “Soviet century,” as the historian Moshe Lewin called the last century. It was a century when the October Revolution and its aftermath “shook the world,” as the revolutionary John Reed said, and shook it in long-lasting fashion.
Journalists, politicians, academics, ideologists of the bourgeoisie exulted to see “the greatest utopia of the 20th century overcome,” according to a special edition of the French newspaper, Liberation (September, 1991). Academics like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history”—nothing less! Since October 1917 had aimed to blaze a pathway to a future freed from capitalism, the disappearance of the USSR signified there was no other future except bourgeois society—so all these people said. But whether they like it or not, the reality of this bourgeois society today puts on the agenda the fight against the capitalist system, which leads humanity into the abyss.
The victory of Stalinism over the Trotskyist Opposition at the end of the 1920s was not enough to ensure stability for the regime. The newcomers to power had reason to fear that sooner or later their dominant position would be called into question by the working class. Even deprived of its party, the working class still had hundreds of thousands of workers who embodied a long experience participating in revolutionary struggles.
Another danger also threatened the regime. The old possessing classes had not given up taking their revenge. And they were encouraged and reinforced by the fact that Stalin had eliminated the revolutionary vanguard. The empirical policy of a regime that broke with Bolshevism, having no other objective than to maintain its grip on power, contributed to the growth of such dangers. Even worse, none of the individual bureaucrats gave a damn about these dangers. Their only concern was to be allowed to profit as much as possible from their position.
The bureaucrats’ privileges, unlike those of the capitalists, were not based on private ownership of the means of production, which is the justification in bourgeois society for the private appropriation of the fruits taken from the exploitation of the workers. The bureaucrats’ privileges were derived from their parasitic hold over a society transformed by the revolution after the bourgeoisie was expropriated. What the bureaucrats took from the economy, and their anti-democratic way of governing over the society, tended to empty the gains of the revolution of their meaning and to compromise them. But the bureaucrats did not seek to call into question collectivization of the means of production and of exchange, or economic planning. It was precisely on this base that they lived as parasites and from which they drew their privileges.
The power struggles inside the leading circles, just as the ever-present risk of a successful counter-revolution, created real dangers for the regime, leading it sometimes to take radical measures to assure its own survival.
To protect the social dictatorship of their caste, the regime imposed over the entire society an iron discipline, which rapidly became the dictatorship of one leader, elevated as the supreme arbiter, Stalin. The regime imposed a ferocious military discipline on the working class and on the peasants, who were either in the collective farms (known as kolkhozes) or sent to build new industrial centers. Workers could be sent to a concentration camp for being more than 10 minutes late to work. The intelligentsia was forced to applaud the personality cult around Stalin and his whims, along with the reactionary ideas imposed on the arts, culture and sciences—or else, they risked ending in a prison camp.
The repressive logic of the dictatorship led it to protect itself from its own privileged caste’s irresponsibility. The bureaucrats rapidly found themselves under the permanent threat of execution, ordered by the tyrant.
Internal crises followed growing tensions on the international scene, including the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Revolution, the rush to war and the invasion by Hitler. The victory over Nazism was made possible by the sacrifices and courage of the Soviet people, while the Stalinist leadership disorganized the Red Army. Reconstruction from the devastation of the war took place at a time when the Cold War was beginning. All these crises helped Stalin to impose his personal dictatorship over the society for more than two decades.
Things changed radically with the death of the tyrant in 1953. The bureaucrats forced those who succeeded Stalin to stop threatening their lives, and even their positions. But these changes were not for the working class or the rest of the population.
Under Brezhnev, who headed the bureaucracy after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 until Brezhnev’s death in 1982, a consensus evolved between the Kremlin and the entire layer of the privileged that anyone could go about their business as long as it didn’t compromise the established positions of any one else, or the stability of the system.
Under the cover of what Gorbachev called “Brezhnev’s stagnation,” the bureaucracy was able to increase significantly and with almost complete impunity what it took from the social body. The bureaucracy reinforced its organization into powerful clans around leaders who became almost permanent fixtures at the head of republics, ministries, customs, KGB (political police), enterprises with foreign business and banks dealing with other countries. Becoming permanent heads of veritable fiefdoms, these top bureaucrats established solid business ties with the “milieu” that proliferated in the “shadow economy,” and more generally everywhere that a team with one hand on a bit of power could gain greater and greater advantages.
As the circles of power gave carte blanche to this parasitism, which became organized on a grand scale, it exhausted what remained of the economic dynamism inherited from the revolutionary conquests of October. Under Brezhnev, unbridled pillage caused the economy’s growth to run out of steam.
In the years after Brezhnev’s death in 1982, the last of those left over from his politburo, sometimes called “the dinosaurs,” disappeared. In 1985, Gorbachev was elected Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, and then declared that he wanted to restore order to the economy, and do the same thing in the society. He called this perestroika, that is, rebuilding from the ground up. The simple announcement of such a plan led a number of bureaucrats to feel that their income was directly threatened.
At the highest spheres of power, there was a kind of silent opposition. To get around them, Gorbachev and his team made allies in the middle layers of the leading apparatus, promising them more autonomy from the “center.” For similar reasons, Khrushchev had done the same thing during the post-Stalinist “thaw.” But for Gorbachev, these measures were not sufficient. So, he turned to the intelligentsia, holding out the prospect of a little more freedom of expression—or glasnost, Gorbachev’s other key slogan. Then, the petty bourgeoisie, even the intellectuals not content to live off of spirituality, were promised “free enterprise.”
In the Soviet Union, private ownership of the means of production had been abolished. But it still legally existed with cooperative ownership (in agriculture with kolkhozes, and in some forms in housing). Suddenly a huge number of so-called cooperatives came into being. Behind this legal term were hidden the many small private enterprises.
This raised a lot of enthusiasm and whetted the appetites of many petty bourgeois who dreamed of living “like in the West,” which meant to profit freely from their money, even to be able to invest capital in the means of production like in West Europe and America. They called that “aspiring for democracy.” That also provided a wide opening for demagogic one-upmanship from some of the “younger” generation of leaders in the ruling party who had supported Gorbachev. Chief among them was Boris Yeltsin, a deputy member of the politburo and a rival of Gorbachev, who took the head of the camp that styled itself “democratic.”
While Gorbachev believed that he had won over millions of petty bourgeois with his policy of glasnost, “open debate,” “freedom of speech,” and then the creation of cooperatives, Yeltsin and his friends posed as self-proclaimed democrats and spoke of the new rule of “democracy” and “liberty,” which they boasted about installing.
The number of publications mushroomed to a level that the dissidents who had put out the underground samizdat would never have dared to dream of. Even censorship was abolished. Elections were organized with numerous candidates, a practice that had not been seen since before Stalin. Other parties than the CPSU, the party which had pretended to be communist in the days of the Soviet Union, gained the right to exist, even before the monopoly status of the CPSU could be taken out of the Constitution.
Millions of Soviet citizens passionately watched the debates in the Supreme Soviet, which were broadcast for the first time on television. People were eager to learn, from newspapers and books, things that had not been known by most of the public. They were eager to follow the “return of the names” of militants, writers and scientists, whom Stalinism had made disappear doubly: they were assassinated, and then all trace of their existence was erased from the official history, libraries etc. And demonstrations protesting against the authorities, which had once been unthinkable, drew very large crowds and multiplied to the point that they became nothing out of the ordinary.
Confronted by this upsurge increasingly directed at it, the central power no longer knew what kind of attitude to take. By letting the upsurge continue, the authorities encouraged their opponents more. But by bringing in the army to carry out a bloodbath, as in Georgia and the Baltic Republics, they reinforced nationalist sentiment in the local population and the local politicians who advocated independence. And the bureaucrats leading each of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics did everything they could to make sure that the massive pressure of the population in demonstrations reinforced their hold over their own fiefdom at the expense of the central power. The local bureaucrats were strengthened by the fact that Yeltsin, the head of Russia, the biggest republic, called on the other republics to “gain as much autonomy as possible” in order to reduce power in the hands of Gorbachev, the leader of the central bureaucracy.
The major issue, even if much of it was hidden from the eyes of the population, was the power struggle which had been going on inside the bureaucracy for decades. Ever since this parasitic social layer had usurped power along with Stalin, it sought to free itself from all control, even from its own political rulers.
When Yeltsin and his supporters at the top of the apparatus talked endlessly about “democracy,” the bureaucrats understood that they would no longer have to bow to any constraint or control over their own activities, even coming from the authority issuing from their own ranks. The promises of “liberty” from the “reformers” may have encouraged millions of petty bourgeois to dream, but those illusions would soon be severely dampened. The bureaucrats, however, didn’t dream; they acted. While the central power weakened and then became paralyzed, the bureaucrats put their hands on anything that could give them a rapid, large return.
The bureaucrats—those in charge of enterprises, government ministries, the KGB, the CP, and the administration of republics or regions—established cooperatives and then joint ventures (companies owned by Soviet and foreign capital) even before the privatization laws of 1992 and 1993 legalized this hold-up of the century. Their goal: empty the public enterprises of their assets and take the revenues of the most profitable sectors. They had no difficulty doing this, since they had the upper hand on everything they pillaged. Thus, Gazprom, the giant in the worldwide natural gas industry, was constituted into a private company by those in charge of the Soviet Ministry of Gas. Less known, but just as scandalous, was the secret smuggling of huge amounts of money into Western countries as early as 1987-1988 by high officials in foreign trade, the heads of the military-industrial complex, allied with the heads of the KGB and the departments in the central committee of the CP.
Shortly afterwards, many little banks popped up under the direction of this or that clan from a sector of the bureaucracy. Each of these cliques were eager to have its own machine for transferring wealth outside the country, without having to submit to any control.
While top officials boasted that they were “democrats,” “reformers,” or “liberals,” they increasingly appeared to be advocating a return to capitalism, that is, the foxes of the bureaucracy were in the Soviet henhouse. The USSR did not survive.
Starting in 1990, the bureaucrats who headed the republics took control over their own republics’ “exports” to the rest of the USSR in order to keep their own fiefdom’s wealth for themselves, as well as to show their opponents at the top level of the bureaucracy who was boss. As a result, trade between the different regions contracted, and production by enterprises throughout the USSR quickly slowed down. Store shelves were emptied and rationing for the population was introduced. This provoked a crisis that developed into generalized economic chaos, while the leadership of the Soviet state descended into political paralysis. More and more leaders, be they those calling themselves “democrats,” or “conservatives,” as well as Gorbachev and those around him, all declared that it was necessary to end state ownership and economic planning. In reality, these had already been ended by the bureaucracy’s plundering of the enterprises. Gorbachev came to speak of “market socialism,” in order to avoid bluntly saying: restoration of capitalism. The Soviet Union was on the verge of imploding.
At the same time there was an explosion of nationalisms and often nationalist rivalries. Throughout the country officials made proclamations about their republic’s “sovereignty” in a kind of competition between different nationalist movements.
In August 1991, some sectors of the regime’s hierarchies tried to prevent the crumbling of the state from continuing to the point of no return. They decreed a state of emergency. But this only exacerbated the political anarchy. Even in the army, the police and the KGB, there was no one to apply the orders. Three days later, those who had decreed the state of emergency either gave up or committed suicide. Yeltsin, who had been demanding for months that Gorbachev resign, finally had definitively overtaken Gorbachev. But once the country had broken up into legally independent units, Yeltsin and those around him at the head of Russia didn’t have much more control over the course of events than did Gorbachev.
Everywhere, including even where they hadn’t thought about it before, the heads of the bureaucracy hurriedly proclaimed not just sovereignty, but the independence of “their” republic... and its wealth. In the republics and regions, the heads of the bureaucracy went to work to reinforce their hold over their own fiefdoms by basing themselves on the largest ethnic group of the population, at the expense of local minorities. This led to more and more confrontations between sections of the population living side by side. In the Caucasus, Central Asia and Moldavia, trying to impose themselves on the population, the bureaucrats stirred up ethnic conflicts, playing on the resentments of the poor to turn them against other poor people.
In this climate, on the 8th of December, 1991, Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislau Shushkevich, the respective leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, decreed the dissolution of the USSR. They did it surreptitiously, without any mandate, in a hunting lodge near Minsk. The Baltic Republics had not waited for this to declare their own independence. The Republic of Georgia celebrated this decision. But others were confronted with a decision that was taken behind their backs. Kazakhstan, the Soviet republic encompassing the second largest land area, protested.
The highest spheres of the bureaucracy had dismantled the USSR in order to get rid of the central authority. They then divided up the spoils.
Two decades later, the conflicts emanating from this dismembering have not been resolved. There has been no resolution between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where a first war broke out in 1987 over the control of the small enclave of NagornoKarabakh. Nor has the conflict ended between Georgia and its own republics, Ossetia and Abkhazia, which became protectorates of Russia. Neither has the conflict ended between the Romanian-speaking Moldavia and the Russian-speaking secessionists in Transnistria where Russian troops are stationed. Neither has the conflict been settled in the Fergana Valley and the region around it that is made up of peoples pulled much earlier from three independent Soviet republics in central Asia which are now ruled by despots. Not to be forgotten is the mosaic of peoples who make up the Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation and live daily with the fear of attacks and other acts of violence by armed gangs, some of whom have ties to the state. The president of Chechnya, for example, is a religious fundamentalist gangster. The Kremlin gave him a free hand to use gangs of killers to impose order on Chechnya, which has already suffered through two devastating wars in 15 years.
There has been a regular threat of open war (between Russia and Georgia during the summer of 2008) or of gigantic pogroms against ethnic minorities (in Azerbaijan in 1990 or in Kyrgyzstan in 2010), making these last two decades a living hell for the people of these regions.
Today, the different states that came out of the Soviet Union are in different situations. But they have one thing in common: they have all suffered from the USSR’s dismemberment.
First, because their production and enterprises were brought into existence and developed within a unified and planned framework and were meant to be complementary and interdependent. Except perhaps for Russia, these separate countries could hardly constitute viable national economies all by themselves.
Second, because hundreds of different peoples and ethnic groups living in eastern Europe, Russian Siberia and Asia had been displaced and mixed inside the same huge country. According to the Soviet constitution, all these peoples were equal, at least as equal as they could be under the boot of the bureaucracy. Stalinism in this field, just as others, had carried out the height of abominations. From 1936 to 1951, the policy of terror led to the deportation of many peoples or minorities to other regions of the USSR. These included Poles, Germans of the Volga, Koreans, Baltic peoples, Karathais, Kalmuks, Chechens, Ingouchans, Balkars, Tatars and Greeks of the Crimea, Moldavians, Armenians. These peoples faced frightening conditions. “A giant, murderous transfer had poisonous consequences throughout the existence of the ex-USSR,” wrote J.-J. Marie, in the 1995 book, The Deported Peoples of the Soviet Union.
But the situation grew even worse when the administrative borders of the different republics were transformed into national boundaries. Officials at the highest levels of these new independent entities often played the majority of the population off against one or the other minority. Often, the same people who constitute a majority on one side of a border are in the minority on the other side. Officials have stirred up calls for recovering lost territory and nationalism, encouraging the hatred of neighboring peoples.
When the Kremlin negated the right of people to self-determination, it resulted in two horrific wars fought by the Russian Army against the people of the tiny republic of Chechnya seeking independence. The Kremlin, or rather certain cliques fighting for power, stirred up tensions, especially nationalist tensions, in this region where Stalin had deported many peoples. The so-called Chechen war has spread to the entire Russian side of the Caucasus.
Even in the most Western regions of the ex-USSR, the national question has continued to reappear with violence directed at people. Large Russian minorities in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today suffer discrimination and sometimes are deprived of their rights, a reversal of the situation produced by the policies of Stalin and his successors, trying to Russify the Baltic countries. The leaders of the European Union, to which these states now belong, had nothing to say. The Baltic states, having grown dependent on West European capital, especially Scandinavian capital, were among the hardest hit in Europe when the financial crisis struck in 2008. All the nationalities—wage earners in private industry, public sector workers, retired people—faced falling income and growing unemployment.
Of the 12 other former republics of the Soviet Union, those of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and to a lesser measure those of the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) saw their ancient conflicts reignited and supplemented with new ones. During the time of the USSR, the economy of these regions developed more slowly compared to that of the rest of the country (even if, compared to their neighbors in countries outside the USSR, the Soviet system allowed them to progress economically, culturally and socially). They also suffered from a vestige of the old clan relations, combined with cronyism on a grand scale and the system of cliques from the Brezhnev period. Some of the most memorable scandals concerning the diversion of state property took place in the Central Asian part of the Soviet Union.
Since the fall of the USSR, this region witnessed corruption and nepotism pushed to extremes never before seen. The clans, often based on family ties, took power, in some cases well before the fall of the Soviet Union (in Azerbaijan and even earlier in Kazakhstan, whose current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was already prime minister in 1984 and first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party in 1989). These regimes are dictatorial and generally outlaw all organized opposition. Religion often serves as the official ideology and as a means to control the population. Women have been crushed and pushed back to the Dark Ages. These regimes do not even pretend to respect a minimum of democratic decorum. No problem for the powers that control them today, whether Western or Russian. For the military, commercial and energy strategies of the Western and the Russian powers, these countries, rich in hydrocarbons or well situated for pipelines, are treated as mere pawns.
The immense majority of the people in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus live in terrible misery. Generally, they live under dictatorial regimes that are corrupt and reactionary to their bones. But the media and government officials of the supposed democratic countries don’t make this an issue. Their oil companies and other big exporters have too much at stake. The barbarism of these regimes guarantees order for the exploiters and especially for their profits.
By contrast, Western officials condemn the regime of Belarus for being what they call “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Its head, Stanislav Levchenko, tramples on all forms of opposition, imprisons competitors during elections he feels he must organize, and leads his country with an iron fist. But the West doesn’t blame him for that. In this field, he is no different than many other rulers with whom the Western governments have good relations. The real problem for these governments is that while certain parts of the economy have been privatized, the regime maintains a large public sector, within forms like those that used to exist in the USSR. For those who rule the international capitalist order, this is what is unforgivable.
When it was part of the interdependent framework of the Soviet economy, tiny Belarus’s economy had been very specialized. When the USSR disintegrated, Belarus’s economy became much more fragile than that of other ex-Soviet republics in the face of international competition. The bureaucracy at the head of Belarus saw that its only salvation was to maintain an economy that was largely state-owned. Of course, that was not a protection for the economy, especially after the crisis of 2008. During the crisis, trade with the West was reduced, and Belarus’s principal economic partner and semi-political ally, Russia, imposed draconian commercial and financial conditions. But even if the Belarus population continues to suffer under a dictatorship, it no doubt also must have the impression that until recently, it had escaped the much worse social and economic fate of the Russian and Ukrainian populations.
In Ukraine, as in Russia, the standard of living of the working classes collapsed with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The leading team in Ukraine tacked between making a rapprochement with the West, European Union and NATO and rejecting it, which led to warmer relations between Ukraine and Russia. But Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych has not gone so far as to adhere to the economic union that Russia recently constituted with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukrainian leaders who are “pro-Russian” refuse to go very far in a rapprochement with their large neighbor, despite a great deal of interdependency between their economies, because most Ukrainian bureaucrats see no benefit in it for themselves. The Ukrainian leaders have their fiefdoms and sources of enrichment for their clans in the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine, where the principal economic power of Ukraine is located (mines, heavy industry). But this is exactly what they are trying to protect, and why they don’t want agreements that could submit their enterprises, their fiefdoms and their clans to any supervision outside the Ukrainian businessmen-bureaucracy.
Ukraine flatters itself for being the co-organizer with Poland of the next European championship soccer tournament. But the renovation of its hotels, sports arenas and transportation network for this event hardly moves forward. The state treasury has been empty for years, and it doesn’t even have the means to offer either bread or games to the population. The rapacity of the bureaucrats and the successive teams of leaders, along with the effects of the 2008 crisis, have left the country on its knees. What was supposed to be the second largest soviet republic has to depend on IMF loans to balance its budget.
Russia is by far the largest republic, and, with 143 million people, it is the most populous. Economically, it is the richest republic of the ex-USSR. Certainly, it is not as bad off as Ukraine. As opposed to Ukraine, Russia has much more petroleum and even more gas, making it the largest exporter in the world. This assures it a comfortable flow of foreign currencies. Russia’s subsoil contains all the raw materials used by industry worldwide.
If it weren’t for these raw materials, Russia’s finances would be non-existent, given the great extent of the pillage of the economy, which even Russia’s leaders bemoan as unfortunate. President Medvedev observed that, since the post-Soviet collapse of Russia’s economy, the country has been “in a humiliating state of dependence” on its exports of raw materials. From 1991 to 1999, or less than a decade after the end of the Soviet period, the index of Russian production dropped by half. In all domains, including armaments—which is a paradox for a country that was the second leading military power during the post-war period—Russia has now been reduced to importing a big part of what it consumes and what its industry needs. To pay for that, it can only count on the foreign currencies that it gets from exporting petroleum and gas—which have increased seven times from 2001 to 2008—and to a lesser extent on what it brings in from its exports of minerals, precious stones and wood.
Even here Russia’s dependence is obvious. It may export a lot of wood, but it must hand it over to Scandinavian companies for production, and Russia imports wood products that have a high value added, such as wood pulp for paper. It is only one illustration, among many, of the fantastic drop in productive capacity that occurred over the 20 years since the disappearance of the USSR. In the field of agriculture, the effects of the destruction of cooperatives or state-owned structures (kolkhozes or sovkhozes) show up on store shelves. The big stores offer fewer products produced in Russia, and more imports from big Western European agricultural companies. This also is an indicator of desertification of the rural regions. The state-owned and planned economy had allowed “habitation points” to be implanted and developed, even in regions abandoned under czarism. But by 2009, nearly 10% of the 155,000 villages that had existed in Russia in 1990, no longer existed.
There is a huge gulf between reality and what the “specialists” and other “good doctors” of the market economy predicted during the 1980s. They descended onto the USSR to advise Yeltsin and his cohorts how best to replace the state-owned and planned economy, which they described as inefficient, by a system that was supposed to assure renewed growth and development.
This new system certainly allowed swindlers to get rich as quick as lightning. And it enabled Western companies to conclude enormously favorable contracts in petroleum and industry, contracts it took years for their Russian partners to free themselves from. But for all the rest, what they presented as a transition from a collectivized economy toward a supposedly market economy produced a nightmarish situation. The bureaucrats sold off state property for their own profit in a way that brought chaos difficult to imagine in all spheres of society, including at the political level.
Bureaucrats sold off enterprises at bargain basement prices to themselves and plundered them. Enterprises stopped functioning, depriving workers of their wages for months, and they stopped paying their suppliers, forcing cuts to the workers at those companies also. What Western advisors to Russian leaders called “shock therapy” was designed to empty the pockets of the population in order to fill the bureaucrats’ bank accounts in foreign countries. Prices exploded. In a few months, inflation hit 1,000% and continued to increase to 2,000%. The small savings of those who had some were reduced to nothing, throwing into poverty tens of millions of retirees, workers without wages, workers in the public or social sectors, which without subsidies stopped functioning. Then there were the “reforms,” the hypocritical name designed to legalize the transfer of as much state property as possible into the hands of bureaucrats turned businessmen. They hurriedly liquidated everything that didn’t seem profitable enough or immediately resold anything that could produce a big profit.
“Only 10% of Russia’s inhabitants profited from the collapse of the USSR and the reforms that followed,” was the title of a recent article on the first page of “One of RBK” (June 22, 2011), a Russian business journal, which commented on a study done by the Russian Academy of Sciences. These conclusions are so evident, no one in Russia questions it. Even the Western commentators and ideologues of the bourgeoisie have dropped their predictions of progress and promises of democracy, with which they once filled the media.
Twenty years ago, our tendency was part of a tiny minority which went against the current of these makers of public opinion, conformists and defenders of the established order. We said that nothing good could come for the people from the conditions that the USSR was sinking into, the race of those at the top to enrich themselves, the irresponsibility of the top leadership.
In the text concerning the USSR, dated October 27, 1990, which was submitted to the 1990 Congress of Lutte Ouvrière, we wrote, “Were workers to allow the return of capitalism in the USSR, even partially, they would not enjoy the affluence, however relative, of the West. Rather they would experience a lower standard of living, unemployment and the end of the limited social benefits they had before. The standard of living of the population of the USSR as a whole would not go up, quite the contrary. It would go back to the level of the Third World—even if shop windows were filled with Western goods unaffordable for the overwhelming majority. The ‘reserved shops’ would be open for all, but their customers would be just as exclusively selected... This would be a setback for the world proletariat...”
In March 1991, in an article of Class Struggle titled, “USSR: An Attempt at a Bourgeois Counter Revolution, Bureaucratic Zigzags—What Policy for the Working Class?” we again wrote, “The only thing that is certain is that if it leads to anything it can only be a society offering a greater possibility of accumulation and enrichment for a few and impoverishment for the majority if not the whole of the proletariat. This greater inequality could be sweetened by a small dose of ‘democracy,’ of a similar type to that offered to the poor by the big ‘democracies’ in poor countries like Brazil and India. But even this is not certain.”
For the Lutte Ouvrière congress of 1991, the text edited a few weeks before the implosion of the USSR affirmed: “A proletarian revolutionary organization in the Soviet Union should include in its program the struggle against privatization and against the restoration of capitalism. It should use the price which the masses are being made to pay in the current situation, in order to mobilize them on this issue.
Similarly, it should defend planning, both ideologically and, if possible, in practice. This is one of the few means, at the present time, of opposing, among the masses, the break-up of the Soviet Union, by showing that there are interests common to all peoples in the former Union which need to be preserved. Only the proletariat can simultaneously defend freedom and diversity and also the broadest possible federation benefitting from common planning.”
Two decades have passed and this assessment has been verified. The Soviet economy collapsed. Just after the end of the USSR, its revenue was so low that enterprises were practically reduced to bartering between themselves.
The economy may have partially revived after the Russian state stopped making payments during the crash of 1998 because its treasury had been ransacked; but the economy remains extremely weak. Russian authorities themselves admit it. Certainly, a layer of small business people has emerged alongside the mass of bureaucrats and millionaires who grew rich under the wing of the state. But this “new middle class” was ruined in 1992 to 1993 during “shock therapy,” and again in 1998, and once more in the period starting with the 2008 global financial crisis. But whatever the future holds for this “new middle class,” the general situation has in no way been stabilized.
Capital flight, which has continued for 20 years, attained new heights in 2011. According to the Russian Vice-Minister for Economic Development, “80 billion dollars in private capital was removed from the country” in 2011, or more than double the amount in 2010. And no one believes that it will return, wrote the business daily, Vedomosti (November 2, 2011), in an article entitled, “This Money Will Not Return.” For the last 20 years there has been no public or private investment in production. Nor has there been any development of the economy and reinvestment in infrastructure. Although President Medvedev launched a “modernization” of the economy and released colossal amounts of funding for a “Russian Silicon Valley” located near Moscow, nothing has been done. Public money disappears in the bottomless pockets of the regime’s privileged layers—not only because corruption attains ever greater heights, but because the well-off bureaucrats and new bourgeois have no confidence in their own system.
The Russian Academy’s statement that “90% of Russians” were losers over the last 20 years is no doubt a statistical reality. But it hides the social reality. Because the workers in the cities and the countryside had the most to lose from the collapse of the USSR under the blows of the leading caste.
The petty bourgeois who believed, or wanted to believe that this collapse would bring them happiness and material comfort and who accepted to play the role of foot soldiers for the so-called democratic camp—what did they lose, besides their savings, or perhaps some illusions in the affair? Even that remains to be seen.
But the workers lost both materially and socially, much more than anyone else, from the disappearance of the USSR.
At the material level, workers bore the shock, the full whip of the “shock therapy” of Yeltsin, Gaider, and their Western advisors. Workers, retirees, technicians, employees, teachers, nurses—they all had their wages and pensions gutted by inflation. They also had to face mass unemployment, something unknown when the Soviet Union existed. Auctioned off and dismantled, enterprises laid off or, more commonly, simply stopped paying their workforce for months. And when workers finally received their salaries or pensions, they weren’t worth anything, given the hyperinflation of 1992-1993.
With the disappearance of the USSR, tens of millions of workers were impoverished and reduced to permanent destitution in regions where there were no jobs. Millions of Moldavians, Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Ukrainians were forced to emigrate in order to survive. Often, they went to Russia, where they were treated like pariahs, fleeced by the police, and employed in the most laborious and worst paying jobs.
How could anyone be surprised that alcohol and drug addiction ravaged the population! In Central Asia, the many low-paid jobs linked to drug trafficking were often the only way to make a living. But everywhere, many searched for a way to forget the daily hell in an artificial paradise. And since public medical and social services ceased functioning—because they were no longer subsidized and were privatized and unaffordable—the state of public health took a huge leap backwards for the laboring population. Diseases like tuberculosis returned with a vengeance. Other diseases, such as AIDS, spread. Nothing was done to fight against any of these diseases. Life expectancy fell steeply to 62 years, a level that had been surpassed more than 50 years before. The world had never seen such a drop before, except in times of war.
In a situation of wide unemployment and impoverishment, the birthrate in Russia and Ukraine fell with the end of the USSR. And the population continues to shrink rapidly, reversing the long-term trend upwards. Despite the influx of millions of Russians and immigrants coming from “neighboring countries,” that is, ex-Soviet republics, the Russian Federation’s population fell from 149 million in 1991 to 143 million in 2010.
Since Gorbachev, social inequalities have exploded. They form a yawning gulf between a privileged layer (three to four million bureaucrats and bourgeois) and the rest of the population, with more than 21 million people living below the official poverty line. Unemployment officially is eight percent of the active population. But in reality, it is much higher. Many of the unemployed with tiny benefits or no benefits at all prefer to manage on their own as best they can. Certainly, except in a few places, the worst misery of the Yeltsin era has disappeared. But the worsening job situation due to the world crisis, the new attacks against public services, the increasing erosion of wages by inflation, the privatizing of social services (health and education) which now have to be paid for—all this means that even in the big cities, the misery is so rampant, the population has to struggle to survive.
Beyond the individual fate of millions of workers over the last 20 years, the fall of the USSR has collective consequences for the working class. In the time of Brezhnev or of Gorbachev, the working class not only was the largest class in the USSR; it existed throughout the country, often concentrated in giant enterprises. There were hundreds of metallurgy or chemical complexes, such as Uralmach in Sverdlovsk-Ekaterinaburg, where there were 40,000 workers. And they were found in all the large and medium-sized cities.
The privatizations and the destruction of the economy by the pillage of the bureaucrats for 20 years reduced a great deal of this industrial network. In the giant old factories, there are only a few thousand or just a few hundred jobs left. And with the end of planning, the rupture in relations between the ex-soviet republics has left the enterprises without suppliers or markets.
Of course, in Russia there are still dozens of “mono-towns” where life revolves around one large factory—towns that were constructed during the industrialization of the 1930s. During explosions of workers’ anger one or two years ago in some of these towns, the entire population was in solidarity with the workers. In a city at the center of power this could create problems for the government. Now it says that it wants to dismantle some of these cities.
This only underlines that what the privileged and the owners have gained from the disappearance of the USSR is the disorganization of the industrial base of the working class, diluting it in the population, reducing its numbers and weakening its social weight. This is in spite of the fact that new enterprises, such as auto companies, which are often owned by Western companies, have been built, creating new industrial centers, like at Kaluouga near Moscow, to take advantage of the low cost of the workforce.
But as far as the working class is concerned, the determining factor remains its combativity and its political class consciousness. In 1917 in the Russia of the czars, a tiny working class, limited to a few big centers, succeeded in bringing down the autocracy and bourgeoisie and to shake the world.
At the end of December 2011, Russia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) after 18 years of negotiations. The WTO is made up of 153 countries that represent 94% of world trade. Until it joined, Russia had been the only big country that did not belong to the WTO.
Apart from vetoes by Ukraine and Georgia, two members of the WTO that had their own bones of contention with Russia (for Ukraine it was over gas, and for Georgia, over territory), what blocked these negotiations for so long? Russia itself. More exactly, its leaders didn’t want to accept the conditions set by the WTO for granting favorable commercial relations. Russia’s exports continued to be taxed at a higher level than those of WTO member countries, and it did not receive financing for what it imported. The WTO used these unfavorable conditions as a bargaining chip against the Russian government, which refused to give up its own massive subsidies to its economy (in the industrial and agricultural sectors especially); which continued to protect its banking and insurance sectors (the Russians restricted foreign financial groups from opening branches on its territory that would not be ruled by Russian law); which protected its telecommunications industry; which taxed agricultural and industrial imports that would harm local industries that have higher production costs; and which subsidized the prices of some consumer goods (in energy, food).
In brief, Russia did not want to give up the way the economy it had inherited from the USSR continued to function, notably certain state controls over foreign trade. That may have created a handicap in Russia’s foreign dealings, but it assured income protected by the public authority for numerous sectors of the bureaucracy.
The Russian state finally ceded, but not because it had given up defending the bureaucrats’ interests. The Russian press insists that the Russian bureaucrats were able to obtain measures that can be managed, and that the power will find the way to compensate the losses to certain protected sectors. The authorities are more discreet in what they claim. In any case, the media pushes the idea that the government had no other choice but to accept these measures; that if the government wants to attract foreign investment in the most advanced sectors or even for industry, it had to accept the WTO’s conditions imposed by the global industrial and financial groups. Everyone knows that Russia is at a dead end, that the well-off practically don’t invest in the country, and have only one motto: “Take the money and run.”
Thus Russia ends up being reintegrated into the world market. But very slowly. And not by the front door, as the great partisans of capitalism promised 20 years ago. It is reluctantly admitted, as with the WTO, and only as an “emerging country,” in other words, not as bad off as some other countries, but economically weak. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that the USSR was considered one of the two super-powers. Now when a big door is opened to it, it is always the door of the Western investment banks or rather one of their subsidiaries set up in tax havens. While the pillage of the economy and the exploitation of the Russian working class serve to balloon the bank accounts of the “new rich,” they also serve American and West European financial capital.
It took less than a decade of unlimited pillage of the economy and continual weakening of the central power for the country to default on its payments in 1998. The state under the alcoholic President Yeltsin was a picture of ruin and powerlessness.
It was against this situation that some ruling Russian circles wanted to respond with Putin. A product of the KGB, Putin tried to restore the authority of the state by pushing down regional barons of the Russian bureaucracy, who behaved as independent powers. He also brought the “oligarchs” to heel, who had made fortunes controlling entire sections of the economy and profiting from the complicity of the weakened central power and the support of the big apparatuses of the bureaucracy.
Among these ruling circles who looked to Putin were the leading bodies in the various military services (ex-KGB, the army, police, etc.)—the so-called “force” ministries. They decided that they had not been well served by the scramble for control of the economic resources of the USSR. They took advantage of the situation to get their revenge on some of the social climbers who lost their connections in the government when Putin came to power. Vladimir Gusinksy, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky fled abroad or were put in prison after being cut off from the part of their fortune they not could take in their baggage—such as their oil companies. Other “oligarchs” did not have to be told twice. Aven Petr, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Potanine, Roman Abramovich, Alexander Smolensky returned to the state (for a good price) most of the enterprises that they had stolen from it. Leaving for a semi-voluntary but golden exile, they live a parasitic high life in more or less retirement in France or Great Britain.
The sweep of the broom wielded by Putin and by the men of the KGB “unprivatized” the Russian economy somewhat, starting around 2000. But it was not re-nationalized, because the enterprises that returned to the bosom of the state are today found under the personal control of very high bureaucrats.
There are private bosses in Russia, even capitalist billionaires like one finds elsewhere. But much more numerous and with much more power are the heads of public companies, which often issue some stock—they owe their positions to high functionaries close to power, if not heads of various departments.
The central power took back control of the jewels of the Russian economy, first of all the energy sector which provides foreign currency. The men of the “force” ministries were propelled into all the levels of the economic-administrative machinery of the state where decisions are made.
According to a former advisor to Yeltsin, the privileged caste is composed of three and a half million bureaucrats holding responsible positions in the “vertical power” dear to Putin: in the numerous organs of control, inspection, as prosecutors, in the hierarchy of the police, military, in the information service, customs.
When they are not at the head of a semi-public enterprise, or even really private ones, these bureaucrats serve as a protection without which no enterprise of any importance could function in the ex-USSR. Regularly denounced by the central power, corruption rots all economic and social life. According to some media, the cost of corruption represents one-third of the state budget! And this pillage of the state, the economy and the population continues to grow. According to the minister of justice, 225 elected local officials were convicted, but only two deputies to the Duma, because deputies are covered by legal immunity. In 2010, 120 investigators, 12 prosecutors, 48 advocates and three judges were convicted of corruption. As for the general of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) who controlled the public institution in charge of the internet, he was just “replaced.” He is in prison for being mixed up in trafficking stolen smart phones.
Bribes, the kind of corruption that most affects ordinary peoples’ daily life, have also increased greatly because the lower levels of the bureaucracy don’t usually have the means to directly extort money from the state or the enterprises. “Everyday Corruption—164 Billion Roubles [or $52 Billion] Were Spent on Bribes Last Year in Russia” was the big headline in RBK, (June 15, 2011).
Millions of bureaucrats, who ar