Patrick Cockburn, Getting Russia Wrong:
The End of Kremlinology

Verso, Allen & Unwin, Australia 1989, pp. vii + 228 $24.95. Paper.

Jack Blake

The sweeping changes in the Soviet Union in the past few years describe a process of revolution affecting every part of society. Great revolutions are not precisely planned or arranged. Elemental forces repressed by the former regime are unleashed; there is constant flux and conflict of different interests; as problems are resolved in one area, difficulties mount in a dozen other places. In these conditions, with the violent option excluded, political leaders need the highest levels of political culture, clear perspectives and organisational skills. They have to learn much in the process of struggle.

Patrick Cockburn was Moscow correspondent for the English Financial Times from 1984 to 1988 – four years of these turbulent developments. The first part of his book provides an analysis of the whole period. Parts m to IV comprise a selection of his articles written over the four years. This structure makes for some unavoidable repetitions but these are less intrusive because of the immediacy, the life and the colour which the articles lend to the total picture of a rapidly changing society. Cockburn has travelled widely in the USSR and his articles cover a comprehensive range of subjects.

Cockburn is a perceptive observer with a realist approach uncluttered by the kind of prejudices which have led many Kremlinologists to get things wrong, most often by trying to explain change in the Soviet Union in terms of outworn Cold War stereotypes. On the historic CPSU Central Committee of October 211987 (Cockburn’s ‘The Fall of Yeltsin’) the inclusion of another aspect would make what has been termed the ‘Yeltsin affair’ more readily understandable. The sole function of this meeting was to consider, amend and endorse Gorbachev’s report which was to be presented to the gala anniversary meeting on November 2. A crucial section of that report proposed the opening of the locked doors of the Stalinist archives, the vital next stage of the revolution. Yeltsin’s intervention, charging many of the Central Committee members with sabotaging reform, could have placed that decisive next step in jeopardy. Gorbachev was right to stop Yeltsin at that point; he was wrong to join in the dismissal of Yeltsin at the Moscow Committee meeting of November 11. In the eyes of the Soviet Public this appeared a reversion to Stalinist methods.

In the year following this report of Gorbachev there was a veritable flood of revelations and analyses of the Stalinist epoch in the mass media and in journals of history and politics. This marked a new and necessary stage – revolution from below began to join that from above.

The same year (1988) was marked by the emergence of unrest in the national republics. At its 19th conference, held that year, the Communist Party adopted a broad program of political reforms, initiating the rust democratic multi-candidate parliamentary elections. In many electorates where the apparatus excluded all but one (Stalinist) candidate the electors turned out in force and voted him down. Republican and local elections early in 1989 added to the momentum of the democratising process.

The prolonged and seemingly insoluble conflicts between national republics, and between the republics and the Union centre have served a useful purpose. They have revealed that the form of the present Soviet Union is a result of the imposition of Stalin’s notorious idea of autonomisation, autonomy without sovereignty.

Neither the 1936 constitutions, nor the constitutions of 1977, is a contractual document. They contain no reference to any contractual basis for the Union of the Republics. A new constitutional treaty will have to start with a clean sheet. It will need to clearly spell out the obligations defining the mutual relations between the republics themselves, and between the republican and the Union organs.

Labels and descriptions used in Soviet polemics can be misleading for others; many of those described as Left Radicals are for a capitalist way, and some who are described as Conservatives are for a humane democratic socialist society.

The final section of Getting Russia Wrong is dated August 1989 – just one year ago. In that short time enormous changes have taken place: six East European countries have thrown off their Stalinist regimes; most of the Soviet Republics have proclaimed their sovereignty, the Cold War has ended, the Soviet Union is having to pass through a deep crisis in two fundamental sectors – the economic and the constitutional. It appears that development in the USSR is now heading towards a climax near the end of this year in these two decisive areas. Will the outcome be a common market economy and a commonwealth of sovereign states? Those interested in following these developments will find in Patrick Cockburn’s book valuable background information and analysis.