Putin, Rasputin and Kerensky

On Sunday May 7, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as President of Russia with all the pomp and ceremony of a tsar. Nothing was missing: twenty-one gun salute, goose-stepping soldiers with uniforms that seemed to have been borrowed from a Hollywood musical, and even the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Such empty show and tasteless pomp is very typical of the so- called New Russians--a class of upstarts and usurpers who are anxious to ape what they imagine to be the splendours of the western bourgeoisie. To students of history this will be quite familiar. The Thermidorian counter-revolutionaries in France also tried to ape the life style old aristocrats after they had sent the Jacobins to the guillotine.

On Sunday May 7, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as President of Russia with all the pomp and ceremony of a tsar. Nothing was missing: twenty-one gun salute, goose-stepping soldiers with uniforms that seemed to have been borrowed from a Hollywood musical, and even the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Such empty show and tasteless pomp is very typical of the so-called New Russians--a class of upstarts and usurpers who are anxious to ape what they imagine to be the splendours of the western bourgeoisie. To students of history this will be quite familiar. The Thermidorian counter-revolutionaries in France also tried to ape the life style old aristocrats after they had sent the Jacobins to the guillotine.

In the last ten years, Russia has experienced a counter-revolution in every sense of the word. This is not just a question of the destruction of the nationalised planned economy. It is a question of the destruction of science and culture. Everywhere we see the rise of superstition, mysticism and the poisonous opium of religion. Not for nothing was Putin accompanied at his inaugural ceremony by the Holy Russian Patriarch, dressed in white robes straight out of some medieval icon. Nothing better expresses the general social and intellectual regression that flows directly from capitalist restoration. At least Yeltsin preferred his spirits directly from a bottle!

Reason becomes Unreason said Hegel. When a world is turned upside down, when people can no longer see any sense or meaning to their lives, then religion and superstition flourish. They look for some mystical explanation for the chaos that engulfs them, or, if no explanation is forthcoming, at least some crumb of consolation. No wonder that the bookstalls are full of cheap works on the occult and miracles. For nothing short of a miracle will be required to pull Russia out of the unholy mess that capitalism has plunged it into. And when people look for miracles, they also tend to seek out miracle-workers. Enter Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin was persuaded to step down in favour of Putin, in exchange for immunity from corruption charges and a more than comfortable retirement. In the words of the Godfather, he made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Putin's "party" Yedinstvo (Unity) was hastily put together last Autumn with the aid of large sums of money provided by a section of the Oligarchy--powerful bankers and monopolists--who feared the possibility of a CPRF victory. It seems that the man behind this initiative was Boris Berezovsky, one of the most powerful of these magnates. Berezovsky, who was previously one of the main figures in the Kremlin clique around Yeltsin's daughter, had a lot to lose. With the aid of his millions and the loud support of the kept press, a massive campaign was launched to present Putin as the Saviour of the Nation. A key element in this equation was the war in Chechnya.

The contrast between the sharp-suited, energetic and (relatively) coherent newcomer and the bumbling old alcoholic he replaces could hardly be greater. For the time being, moreover, Putin enjoys the luxury of being an unknown quantity. The mass media--now firmly in the hands of the Oligarchy--is engaged in a deafening campaign to boost the personal image of the new President. He is shown practising martial arts in the gym--and always flooring a bigger opponent, or reviewing the troops in battle-dress at the front. He is like a caricature of himself--a mixture of Bonaparte, Stalin and Beria. Poker-faced, short of stature and sparse of words, he likes to project an image of a man of action.

In his speech the new President was as sweet as a razor. Speaking quietly but firmly, Putin laid heavy stress on the need for a strong state. He reminded the public of the need to respect Russia's traditions (he did not specify which ones) and to honour the memory of the founders of the Russian state (he did not say who). However, it seems that the only portrait in his study is of Peter the Great. He is for order. However, when we come to examine his actions, they do not add up to much, except the war in Chechnya--and that may yet end badly.

The changes introduced by Putin have mainly a cosmetic character. After Yeltsin's resignation his family was partly purged, but Boris Berezovsky is still at the centre of power. Putin's First Deputy Prime Minister, Kasyanov, the man in charge of running the Federal Government. is generally regarded as a tool of Berezovsky. His economics adviser, Andrei Illiaronov, is an ultra-liberal.

As an ex-KGB bureaucrat, Putin's idea of a strong state is fairly clear. In the very short time he has been in office, there has been a stepping up of the brutal war in Chechnya, increased pressure by the secret police (now renamed the FSB) on left wing and dissident organisations, and even a clumsy attempt to muzzle what little remains of the "free press".

Nevertheless, the change from Yeltsin to Putin is not just a change of government. It is a reflection of profound changes within the regime itself. After almost a decade of so-called market reform, Russian capitalism remains a weak and sickly plant. No real stabilisation has been achieved, either on the economical. Social or political plane. The constant upheavals at the top, the infighting between different cliques and "clans" are a reflection of this self-evident fact. The political regime is more similar to a third world country than an established bourgeois state. It is characterised by corruption and constant instability, an explosive mixture that calls to mind the degenerate court camarilla of the Rasputin regime that preceded the February Revolution. Not for nothing do some bourgeois strategists liken Putin to Kerensky!

The comparison between Putin and Kerensky was made by Stratfor in January. It is worth quoting the relevant extracts in full:

"Now, Putin's real test begins. Getting the oligarchs to give up their vast wealth, particularly the wealth that is sequestered overseas, is critical to Russia's future. Will the oligarchs be willing to cut a deal in return for pardons? Putin is himself in a difficult spot, cleaner than most certainly involved to some extent in the process that eviscerated Russia's economy. That is why he is trying to devise a scheme that will save the Russian economy without triggering a vicious backlash from the oligarchs and the Russian Mafia. The formula: return most of what was stolen, keep enough to ensure a very comfortable life style, get a pardon.

"This was an insider's solution to the problem, engineered by the quintessential insider, Vladimir Putin. If this doesn't work, the only other solution is to act without giving the oligarchs room for retreat: massive expropriations amidst a terror campaign. But Putin is in no position to do that. He is too compromised by the system.

"With Yeltsin's resignation, Putin has painted the outlines of rectification within the system. He has declared himself to be Kerensky, the revolutionary who didn't want to go too far. Kerensky failed and Lenin came from nowhere, the revolutionary who had no limits. The situation in Russia is, in our view, on the knife's edge. Putin is trying to contain the situation as well as possible. We are not optimistic.

"However, Putin now holds out the carrot. If he shows that he can also wield a stick, he may just save what little is left of the post-Communist reforms. If not, Russia will enter a revolutionary situation."

What Stratfor means is that Putin is striving to maintain the corrupt rule of the oligarchy, while simultaneously attempting to introduce reforms that will guarantee a more efficient functioning of the capitalist system, above all more productive investment--the life and death question for Russia. But since Putin is the creature of the oligarchy, and since no devil has ever voluntarily cut off its own claws, he will inevitably fail and be brought down.

This goes to the heart of the matter. The central question for Russia is: how to mobilise the necessary resources to halt the decline and commence the rebuilding of Russia's shattered productive base, superstructure and military potential? To plead with the oligarchs to invest in Russia is a waste of time. Only a direct showdown with the parasites will provide a solution. This is something Putin cannot be expected to undertake. The pessimism of the strategists of capital is clear from every line.

Yet there is something missing from this historical parallel. In 1917 there was a Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. That was the main reason why the movement in the direction of proletarian revolution was so quick. The problem is that no such party exists today. If there existed a Communist Party worthy of the name, a party on the lines of the Bolshevik party of 1917, the problem could be very swiftly resolved. In the absence of the subjective factor, all kinds of peculiar variants are possible. That is why the process in Russia is taking such a slow and convulsive character.

Mood of the masses

The key to the whole situation is the role of the working class. For the time being Putin seems to enjoy absolute control. The workers have their heads down. The main factor that conditions the mood of Russian society at present is undoubtedly the war in Chechnya. But the situation of the economy is also a powerful factor in shaping the psychology of the masses.

After ten years of market reforms, the mood of the mass of the population--not only the workers--has turned against capitalism. Two years ago, after the economic collapse of August 1998, the situation in Russia was grim indeed. The high hopes of the market reformers were dashed. The extreme unpopularity of capitalism was partially reflected in a big increase in support for the CPRF. But the pro-capitalist policies of Zyuganov and the CPRF leaders rapidly led to disenchantment. The strikes and demonstrations that shook the government in the first half of 1998 have given way to a sullen acquiescence. After Putin's electoral victory the mood of the left is sceptical and despondent. Attendance on the May Day demonstrations was well down on last year: in Moscow, from about 100,000 to 15,000 or so.

The mood of the Russian workers is not difficult to understand. They have repeatedly shown that they are willing to fight, but lack the necessary leadership. All along, the so-called Communist Party (CPRF) has confined its activities to parliamentarianism of the worst sort. Its deputies are much more interested in maintaining their careers, salaries and privileges than in fighting for the working class. The CPRF leaders have done everything possible to prevent a serious struggle, and has even done several deals with Putin in the Duma, for example, to carve up the committees in the Duma. Putin actually supported the CPRF in its bid to get the Speaker of the Duma, etc. In return, the CPRF backs Putin on the Chechen war, which it is in favour of. This conduct has led to widespread disillusionment and a sharp fall in support for the CPRF, although Zyuganov still managed to get 32 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

Given the class collaborationist policies of Zyuganov, the initiative once again passed to the right wing, There were a number of objective factors that undoubtedly assisted Putin's success. First, the economic situation has improved somewhat over the last twelve months. The economy has partially stabilised as a result of two factors: the effects of devaluation and the steep rise in prices of oil and other raw materials.

The government has, of course, trumpeted success. The GDP, it is claimed, has grown by three percent last year--the first growth for ten years--and industry is said to have grown by as much as eight percent. These claims are clearly exaggerated and are regarded with scepticism by many observers. Such growth that has taken place will have been concentrated in just a few sectors. It is far too early to speak of a general recovery. Nevertheless, some improvement has taken place: wage arrears have been reduced, and some industries (mainly those linked to oil and raw materials) have experienced growth. In the first two months, it is claimed that the GDP increased by 5.5 percent and industrial production went up by 10-11 percent. According to the official estimates, real wages, which fell again last year, increased 10 percent in January and February. Although this figure certainly overstates the real situation, it is likely that there has been some improvement. Wages are at least being paid more regularly and arrears are being reduced. Wage debts decreased by 2 billion dollars over a six month period (to January). Real wages by last Autumn began to increase for the first time in three years.

Even if we accept the official figures on the economy, this by no means compensates for the catastrophic fall of the last ten years. In the best case, it might take Russia somewhere close to the situation at the time of the 1998 crisis. Moreover, the benefits of the 1998 devaluation are wearing off. Food imports in December 1999 were up 48 percent compared to the same period in 1998. The crisis of Russian agriculture means that the country is no longer able to feed itself. Temporarily Russia is enjoying a trade surplus of 2.5 billion dollars a month. But, on the one hand, money is still flowing out of Russia. On the other hand, it is faced with huge debt repayments. Before his election Putin made a series of demagogic promises (20 percent pensions increases etc.) on the other hand, the war in Chechnya must be paid for.

The bulk of Russian industry, deprived of investment and spare parts, remains in a deep slump and, even if wage arrears have been reduced, the majority of the population still live in dire poverty. The economic recovery has made virtually no difference to them. And in any case, it has an extremely weak and unstable character, and can be snuffed out by a new fall in commodity prices that will be the inevitable consequence of any major economic slowdown in the West. One can say that the tripling of oil prices saved the regime, but, by the same token, a further collapse of oil prices will plunge it into a new and convulsive crisis.

Nevertheless, the relative economic improvement is undoubtedly a factor in the attitude of many workers who have adopted a "wait-and-see" mentality. The worker is always a realist. If nobody offers any alternative, and things are not too bad, why not wait to see if anything comes of all the promises? Putin is a new man. Maybe something will come of it. However, this attitude is very superficial and temporary. In fact, most people are sceptical in relation to all politicians and their promises. That is one of the main reasons behind the present lull in the class struggle in Russia. However, there is a difference between the kind of social peace born of contentment, and the kind of uneasy and reluctant truce which is merely the calm before the storm.

So far, Putin has tried to be all things to all men. His policies are shrouded in a calculatedly nebulous ambiguity. This has been one of the key elements in his success. Here is something for everybody! A few hints to the reformers, a few hints to the Stalinists, a nod and a wink to the nationalists, and so on and so forth. The trouble is that all these are merely so many promissory notes that sooner or later must be cashed in.

And Putin has not taken very long to emerge in his true colours. He has announced a programme of tax-cutting and slashing of state expenditure on social subsidies, including public transport and housing. This is meant as a gesture to the IMF at a time when Russia has to pay off a huge foreign debt. Since Putin and the generals are determined to continue the war in Chechnya, the burden will be put on the shoulders of the working class. This will lay the basis for a new explosion of the class struggle in Russia in the coming period.

Before the election the CPRF in the Duma timidly opposed some of the cuts, doubtless with one eye on the polls. But now they have established a modus vivendi with Putin. How long this lasts is another matter. Once a mass movement develops, the pressure will be on Zyuganov to distance himself from the Kremlin. But at the moment it seems that Putin has a sufficient parliamentary base to push through unpopular measures.

As a first indication of this we have the attempt to introduce a new draft labour law (Kzot) which represents a real counter-revolution on the factory floor, reproducing many of the retrograde features that have become all too familiar to workers in the West in recent years. Labour flexibility, restrictions on trade union activity and strikes, casualisation and so on. So far the unions have been slow to react. The union leaders in Russia are no different to their counterparts in the West. But the new draft law represents a heavy blow against the unions, and therefore against the base on which the union bureaucracy leans for its power and privileges. It is therefore not entirely ruled out that the FNPR may yet take action. But to judge from past experience, the initiative for action must come from below.

The CPRF

The interpretation of the present situation as "proof" that the Russian workers will never fight because of some allegedly innate fatalism lacks any semblance of scientific or rational basis. The Russian workers have repeatedly shown their willingness to fight--provided some leadership is given. Two years ago, there was a big movement of the miners, teachers and other layers, culminating in the impressive workers' picket on the Gorbaty Most in Moscow. There were strikes and occupations like that of the Vyborg Paper Mill and in Yasnogorsk, which included workers' occupations of factories. In a number of areas there was a movement to establish soviets--workers' committees--which began to take over the running of towns such as Anzhero-Suzhdensk. But in the absence of a proper leadership and co-ordination, most of these movements ended in defeat. Then the struggle moved onto the political plane, where it was reflected in a big increase in support for the CPRF. However, the disgraceful conduct of the CPRF leadership led to disillusionment and a swift collapse of support. The Party's membership has fallen sharply, and at the election in December, although it maintained and very slightly increased its vote, it lost some seats and was heavily defeated by Putin's "Unity" Party that came from nowhere to win the election.

The position of the parties was as follows:

  • 1) CPRF: 25 percent
  • 2) Yedinstvo (Putin): 24 percent
  • 3) Otechestvo (Luzhkov, Primakov): 14.5 percent
  • 4) Yabloko (Yavlinsky): 5.5 percent
  • 5) LDP (Zhirinovsky): 5 percent
  • 6) RKRP: 2.6 percent

The CPRF's vote is normally strong in the so-called Red Belt of central Russia, part of the Caucasus, Southern Siberia and Kuzbass, and also a number of smaller republics like Tataristan and Dagistan. Nevertheless, it was noticeable that the CPRF vote actually went down in the areas where the Party was traditionally strongest. The main reason was the shameful conduct of many of the CPRF regional governors which disappointed and disgusted many CP voters in these areas. In addition, the CPRF, despite its huge apparatus and resources, hardly waged any campaign. All in all, the surprising thing was how well the Party's vote held up. Interestingly, the vote for Zyuganov in the Presidential elections was higher than the vote which the party got in the December elections. In Moscow, Zyuganov received his highest vote ever--more than 20 percent.

The reason is not hard to see. It certainly was not that Zyuganov is more popular than his party; the exact opposite is the case! The reason is that all those who wished to vote against Putin rallied to the main "opposition" party candidate and voted for Zyuganov. Under the circumstances, 32 percent was a good result, but, in fact, Zyuganov got more than that, since the result was obviously rigged. This fact alone serves to show just how fragile Putin's position really is. If the CPRF got such a result even now, what will be the position when the crisis begins to undermine Putin's support?

The RKRP (Communist Workers' Party) got a disappointing result. In the previous elections it almost cleared the critical barrier of 5 percent, beyond which it would have got parliamentary representation. This time its vote was well down. In part this was due to competition from Anpilov's split-off, which did very badly (only 0.66 percent) but succeeded in splitting the vote that would otherwise have gone to the RKRP. The other parties' results were insignificant.

If there was disappointment in the ranks of these parties before the election, there is now widespread demoralisation, which is already being expressed in crises and splits. The membership of the CPRF, which is overwhelmingly made up of old people, has slumped from over half a million eight years ago to less than 100,000 and falling. There are signs of a split involving the Speaker in the Duma, Selyeznyev--a right winger. At a different level, the Stalinists of the Leninist-Stalinist platform are attempting to organise, with limited success. The RKRP, as we have already commented, is split into many factions and has lost a lot of ground. However, the vote for the CPRF and Zyuganov shows that this party, in spite of everything, has big reserves of support in the population. It has two big advantages: a big apparatus with a national presence, and the name of the Communist Party. As the crisis develops it can pick up support merely on the basis that there is no alternative.

Russia and the West

Prior to the elections, the West was seriously alarmed at the prospect of the CPRF coming to power. Not that they are unduly worried about Zyuganov, but such a development would encourage the working class and strengthen those tendencies opposed to market economics. Therefore, the West has quietly been helping Putin by partially relaxing the financial pressure on Moscow. The IMF, which earlier refused to bail out Russia (after August 1998), is now offering one billion dollars to aid in "restructuring"--this, despite the fact that the West knows that billions of dollars of aid has already ended up in the bank accounts of Russian officials and oligarchs.

Despite all the appearances, it will not be easy to establish genuine stabilisation in Russia on a capitalist basis. The present recovery, as we have seen, has a purely conjunctural and unstable character. The unsound character of the economy is reflected in the huge state debt. This is a central problem for the market reformers--including Putin. The economists frequently call for a packet of measures to finish off the reform. What is meant by this? Already the bulk of the economy has been privatised in one way or another. All vestiges of the old Soviet planned economy have been liquidated. Yet if one asks the question whether Russian capitalism is already functioning on normal lines, the answer must be emphatically in the negative.

Capitalism is not merely private ownership of the means of production. It involves a process of accumulation of capital which in turn propels the development of the means of production. The private capitalist extracts surplus value from the workers, but does not do this in order to pocket the profits, but to re-invest them in further production, and therefore further surplus value. It is this element that is lacking in Russia. Recently, the Americans published an astonishing figure, showing that in the last ten years, the staggering figure of 500 billion dollars has been taken out of Russia and salted away in the vaults of German and Swiss banks. If this money had been invested in productive activity (which would be the normal mode of capitalist accumulation), the whole situation of Russia would be entirely different. But this chronic haemorrhage of capital continues, while the bulk of Russian industry is dying of anaemia. Even the Americans have characterised this as "the biggest social plunder in history". There can be no better proof of the reactionary and parasitic character of Russian capitalism.

No society can continue to exist on these lines. The present situation is completely untenable. Without the necessary productive investments a gigantic country like Russia cannot exist. This is not merely an economic question. It has very fundamental strategic and military implications.

True, Russia's public finances have improved, again mainly as a result of the high price of oil. But a large slice of this money has been spent on the war in Chechnya. The West, while quietly backing Putin (for fear of worse to come), is not prepared to write off Russia's debts. The IMF has decided that Russia must pay "only" eleven billion dollars of the total of over 17 billion in the next three years. But such gestures do not solve the central problem of the huge sums that Russia will have to pay in the next few years. Whether Russia is able to pay its debts and keep on good terms with the IMF depends on a number of factors--none of them under the direct control of Moscow. The first is the price of oil and other raw materials. The second is the outcome of the war in Chechnya. The third is the attitude of her foreign creditors (e.g. the negotiations with the Paris Club).

The language of Putin is already different to that of Yeltsin. His continuous emphasis on the need for a strong Russia and strong state, his insistence on pursuing the war in Chechnya to the bitter end, have caused raised eyebrows in the West. But, for the lack of a better alternative, at least for the time being, the West has preferred to turn a blind eye. As long as Russia does not turn its back on "the market", it is necessary to back the winning horse. So far, the West has been muted in its criticism of the Chechen war. But the war itself is part of a larger picture of the struggle for the domination of the Caucasus with its huge oil and mineral resources that directly pits Russia against the USA (and its main agent in the region, Turkey).

It is clear to all that relations between Russia and America will continue to deteriorate on a world scale. At certain stage this can have serious consequences for the West's willingness to continue funding a Russia that persists in spending huge sums on rearmament and wars in the Caucasus. This in turn can have serious consequence for Russia's flirtation with "market economics".

The Kosovo war was a turning point for Russia (see The New World Disorder) because it cruelly revealed the extent to which Russia has fallen behind the USA in purely military terms. How could it be otherwise? Ten years of economic collapse has meant the destruction of a large part of Russia's industrial and technological base. Without the necessary productive investment, Russia cannot maintain its powerful military machine. And it is now threatened by the rise of American global power as never before. The greed and arrogance of US imperialism is reflected, not only by advancing NATO up to the borders of Russia, not only by the cruel bombing of Iraq and Yugoslavia, but also by its constant manoeuvring in the Caucasus--a vital area from Russia's point of view.

America is playing a dirty game in the Caucasus which is condemning millions of people to war and misery. Their experts have decided that the Caucasus will be the Saudi Arabia of the next century. They would very much like to get their hands on the oil and other natural resources the area has in abundance. But there is a problem. Russia holds the Northern Caucasus and has important points of support in all the other states. The Americans would like to build a pipeline for oil that would by-pass Russia altogether and pass through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. This would effectively cut Russia out of the picture, while simultaneously compensating the US's ally Turkey for the loss of Iraqi oil. Such a plan means war of necessity.

It is true that the war in Chechnya has a number of causes, not all of them related to global and strategic considerations. Nevertheless, the desire of the Russian military elite to send a signal to Washington--thus far, and no further!--was certainly one of the elements in the situation. The struggle for control of the Caucasus and Central Asia will play a prominent role in determining relations between Russia and America in the next decade or so.

The Russian army's rapid advance through Chechnya has brought it right up to the border of Georgia where Moscow is already pulling all the strings to secure the downfall of the pro-American Shevardnadze (see The New World Disorder). It would be naïve to imagine that these questions are not connected in the most intimate way.

Chechnya

There is little doubt that the series of bloody bomb atrocities in Moscow and other Russian cities last Autumn were the work of elements inside the regime or the State Security forces themselves, or any other combination of the same elements. The slaughter of innocent working class Russians caused a wave of fury that was cleverly manipulated by the media and the government to whip up war fever. This is not the first time in Russian history that a regime in crisis attempted to save itself through a "victorious little war".

With the aid of the mass media, Putin has used the Chechen question demagogically to whip up nationalist sentiment. In the short run this has worked, since the war has been "successful". The Russian army has taken Grozny and the other cities. But the brutal use of indiscriminate air and artillery bombardment, and the clumsy and heavy-handed treatment of the population, has played into the hands of the rebels, who are engaged in a guerrilla war that can go on for a long time and is claiming an increasing number of Russian victims. It is far from certain that Putin will be able to do a deal with the "moderate" Chechen leaders, or, even if they do, that this will resolve matters. Thus, at a certain stage, the public perception of the war can turn into its opposite.

An absolutely criminal role in all this has been played by Zyuganov and the other CPRF leaders. They enthusiastically back the war, and only "criticise" Putin for not bringing Chechnya directly under Presidential rule as "an unalienable part of Russia". In all its propaganda, the CPRF strives to be more nationalist than the nationalists, treading underfoot all that Lenin ever wrote on the national question and specifically Great Russian chauvinism. In fact, the CPRF leaders have absolutely nothing in common with the ideas, programme, methods and traditions of Marxism-Leninism and the Bolshevik Party.

The future of the war is now the key question in Russian politics. It is already giving rise to differences even within the regime which bring to mind the old Chinese proverb: a man who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount! There have been contradictory noises coming out of Moscow recently. It seems that the majority of the Oligarchy would like to see a speedy end to the war. Having served its purpose--namely, to ensure the election of a Business-friendly President--it now presents more problems than advantages. It complicates life and business and makes for bad relations with the Americans and foreign investors. Furthermore, all the signs are that it is now entering a more problematical phase, with continual guerrilla strikes and increased Russian casualties. Is it not time to call a halt?

This (not unreasonable) analysis lies behind the persistent rumours of an imminent peace deal between Putin and the "moderate" Chechen faction of Aslan Maskhadov. But so far at least there is no sign of such a deal materialising. This is not very surprising, for two reasons. Firstly, even if Maskhadov were prepared to put his name to a deal with the Russians (which would be like putting his name on his own death-warrant), there is absolutely no guarantee that he could persuade the other clans and factions to recognise it. Secondly, the Russian generals are implacably hostile to any deal that does not spell out unconditional victory. They are still smarting under the effect of what they regard as the treachery of Alexander Lebed, who signed the last deal with the Chechens that led to de facto "independence". They are now hell-bent on pursuing the war to the bitter end. And it is hard to see how anyone in Moscow can stop them.

Nevertheless, the war in Chechnya is not going so well from the Russian point of view. True, the first phase went well, in the sense that the towns of Chechnya were conquered with apparent ease and few Russian casualties. The Russian commanders merely copied the cynical brutality of NATO in the Kosovo conflict, using artillery and planes to bomb hell out of an area before moving in troops.

After a long period of humiliation and decline, many ordinary Russians welcomed the sight of the Russian army winning victories. The terrible cost to the Chechen civilians has been mostly hidden from public view. The Russian army is presented as an army of liberators. But as the conflict drags on, the attitude of the public can easily change. From an economic point of view, the war is swallowing up much-needed resources. From a human point of view, the number of Russian casualties is growing. The brutal treatment of the population means that the Chechen rebels will get a steady supply of new recruits. They are receiving supplies of arms and money from Saudi Arabia, and are supported by mercenaries from Afghanistan. The terrain is ideal for guerrilla warfare. This can go on for a long time and even spread to neighbouring republics. Recently a Russian column was ambushed in Ingushetia and took heavy casualties. The situation has worsened with the oncome of Spring. During the Winter months the wooded foothills were bare, and any movement on the ground was visible from the air. Now the trees provide easy cover for the rebels who move with impunity across hills and borders to stage ambushes and disappear.

Napoleon long ago explained the importance of morale in war. During the Second World War, the Red Army fought like tigers because the soldiers felt that they were fighting for a just cause. The poorly trained and badly equipped Russian conscripts who fight in Chechnya have only the vaguest notion of why they are there. They are not inspired by the belief that they are fighting for a just cause. The reports of those western journalists who have managed to get close to the front line provide a disheartening picture of Russian soldiers with holes in their boots and drunken officers.

Worst of all, there is plenty of evidence of poor co-ordination and even the most criminal inter-departmental rivalry, particularly between those forces commanded by the Ministry of Defence and the MVD. I was told of the following incident. Crack parachute troops from Pskov were dropped on a hill held by trained and well-armed mercenaries led by a fanatic from Jordan called Khattab. The Russian troops were immediately surrounded and wiped out over the course of three days. Less than one kilometre away, there was a division of MVD troops. Yet no attempt was made to go to the assistance of the beleaguered paratroops. As a result, 84 of them were killed. One source, a retired officer with combat experience in Afghanistan who also participated in the first Chechen campaign, expressed his shock and disgust at this unprecedented state of affairs. He stated that in Afghanistan, if Soviet troops were under attack, help would immediately be sent. It was unthinkable that they should be abandoned to their fate.

This is a reflection of the effects of ten years of capitalist reaction, not just in society, but in the armed forces themselves. This is not the Red Army of 1918-20, or even the Red Army of 1941-45. It is the product of the bourgeois counter-revolution and the monstrous reactionary and corrupt regime that it spawned. Throughout history, as Trotsky explains, the army is always the faithful mirror of society. Within the army all the contradictions of society are mirrored with exceptional sharpness. So it is here. These are no isolated incidents. Russian convoys are continually being ambushed in Chechnya, and no help is forthcoming. The effect on the morale of the Russian soldiers of this kind of thing can only be imagined. Later on, when the true situation at the front becomes known, support for the war can swiftly turn into its opposite.

The National Question

The bourgeoisie cannot solve the national question. On the contrary, it has enormously exacerbated it. After the death of Lenin the Soviet Union suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration, but nevertheless important elements of the soviet system remained in being. This was only a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism, but it was infinitely preferable to the present monstrosity. Thus, under the old regime, Chechen clan leaders had the opportunity to advance themselves in the "Communist" Party. That people like Khasbulatov were Communists in name only needs no special emphasis. They merely used the cloak of the CPSU to cover their power and privileges. But at least they paid lip service to socialism and internationalism and the link to the USSR benefited all the peoples. Under the nationalised planned economy, real resources were transferred to the Caucasus and Central Asia and the people lived in peace and relative prosperity.

Now all that has been destroyed. The collapse of the planned economy and the shattering of the USSR into its constituent parts has produced a nightmare for all the peoples--Russians as well as Chechens. The old "ideology" was only a pretence which in the end nobody believed in. But what has replaced it is a thousand times worse. What is Putin's ideology? Insofar as he has one it can be simply stated: Great Russian nationalism--that same ideology which Lenin described as that of the scoundrel, bureaucrat and bully who specialises in the oppression of small nations.

Putin swaggers about, surrounded by the trappings of imperial power, the filth of tsarism, the Russian flag, the Russian Orthodox Church. But how can a Chechen accept this? In the old days, it was clear that the talk of internationalism and the brotherhood of the peoples of the USSR contained a lot of hypocrisy and that the Russian bureaucracy still ruled the roost. But at least Russian domination was kept within certain limits, and the other peoples could subscribe to the ideal of the Soviet Union. But now? By thus blatantly espousing the cause of RUSSIAN chauvinism and the RUSSIAN state, Putin is rudely challenging the national aspirations of all other peoples. By such means the only way to succeed is by brute force--as in Chechnya. Along this path lies only war, bloodshed and chaos.

"Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad". Putin's first decree after assuming office was to order the division of Russia into seven administrative units, in place of the present 84 districts, of which no fewer than 21 are made up of ethnic minorities! The logic behind this move becomes somewhat clearer if we bear in mind that there are seven military regions in Russia. Putin, the creature of the KGB, likes to reduce everything to the administrative convenience of the bureaucracy. The idea of military-style centralised control seems to him the perfect ideal. But between the theory and the practice there lies a gulf.

It is instructive to compare Putin's approach to that of Yeltsin. The latter was the product of a different school--that of the old-style Soviet apparatchik. Under the planned economy, it was always possible to buy the loyalty of local leaders by diverting money and resources to the republics via Gosplan. But under the market economy this is no longer possible. Yeltsin had to accept the rise of powerful local governors (with powerful business interests behind them). Despite all the rhetoric and the image of the tough leader ("I'm the Boss"), in practice, Yelstin let them do much as they liked as long as they formally paid homage to Moscow. But Putin comes from a different school. In reality, this formerly obscure KGB bureaucrat understands very little about the realities of state power. He lacks the elementary "feel" of his predecessor who, though not particularly profound or even educated, had come up through the Party and early on learned the art of Realpolitik. In place of Yeltsin's cautious pragmatism, Putin immediately introduces a sweeping plan of administrative reform. The result is not difficult to foresee.

The pragmatic and unprincipled Yeltsin never had much time for theories. Insofar as it is possible to attribute to Putin a coherent idea, this must be the idea of centralisation and a "strong state". The two notions are in his mind mixed up with the simple expedient of force as the magic solution for any problem. However, the idea that Russia can be held together by brute force, by the FSB (KGB) alone, is a serious misunderstanding. Contrary to the myths of Western propaganda, the USSR was never controlled by the KGB. The KGB was merely the executive arm of the Bureaucracy. In the old days, the Soviet Union was held together by the CPSU, the Party of the Bureaucracy. But the CPSU no longer exists. True, the FSB is currently operating like an (armed) state within a state. But there are limits to how far this can go.

The Media Most Incident

Putin's overestimation of the power of the FSB was shown by the recent raid on Media Most--the media empire controlled by the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. The exact reasons behind the raid are not quite clear. Various interpretations are possible. But there is no doubt about the scale of the operation which was dramatic. Media Most's office was raided by no fewer than three different police forces, armed with automatic weapons and with their faces covered by Balaclava helmets.

The first and most obvious reason for the raid was the fact that Media Most is the most "independent" amidst a servile gang of television and newspaper outfits. It is also known to be deeply in debt. Another reason is possible, namely that this is an attempt by Berezovsky to get control of the media empire of a business rival. Berezovsky is known to have close relations with Putin and has even bragged that he put Putin where he is. There is a third possible explanation. The newspaper Segodnya is part of the Media Most group. It recently carried an article about corruption which exposed the fact that Yuri Zaostrovstev, the Deputy General of the FSB, and the man in charge of its Anti-Economic Crimes Department, is himself corrupt and owns several firms. The paper promised further information, but then we had the Media Most raid, which was supervised by--Yuri Zaostrovstev!

This little incident casts a lot of light on the type of regime that exists at the heart of the Russian state, and the FSB in particular. It is a regime that is rotten and corrupt to the core. In fact, a Rasputin regime. The Russian bourgeoisie is organically corrupt, reactionary and parasitic, and it is building a state in its own image. Putin is only the front man for this state and the corrupt oligarchy that stands behind it. From such a tree only rotten fruit can be expected. The basic problem is that no socio-economic regime can endure for long unless it develops the means of production. There is absolutely no sign that the nascent Russian bourgeoisie is remotely interested in doing this. Its sole guiding principle is to achieve self-enrichment while avoiding the painful necessity of getting involved in anything productive.

In order to cover up the shameful plunder of the Russian state and people, it is necessary to gain control of the state and in particular the organs of state security. The latter turn out to be just as corrupt as the bourgeoisie itself. And no light whatsoever must be allowed to penetrate the shady operations of the mafia-bourgeoisie and its agents. The attack on Media Most was clearly a clumsy attempt to frighten what little is left of an "independent" or half-critical press into submission. The activities of the new Rasputin regime must not be brought under public scrutiny.

Putin is the representative of the oligarchy, in fact more so than Yeltsin. The latter played off one oligarch against another in order to keep control in his own hands. But Putin seems to be identified with one particular gang of oligarchs--that group associated with Boris Berezovsky. If it is true that he has permitted Berezovsky to move against his rival Gusinsky (with the idea of swallowing up his property) this marks a new departure.

Putin's regime may be characterised as a weak regime of bourgeois Bonapartism. He stands for capitalism and a strong state. Actually, the two goals may be mutually exclusive. He is simultaneously the creature of the oligarchy and also the candidate of the security apparatus and, partly the military. There is a contradiction implicit in this. Namely, it is not possible for Russia to become strong or for the army to rebuild its base while Russian industry is starved of investment and the Russian state is systematically looted. Temporarily, a crisis has been staved off by the lucky accident of high oil prices and the benefits of devaluation. But when this changes, the Russian economy will be plunged into a deep crisis which must in turn provoke a crisis of the regime.

In the years leading up to 1917, the Rasputin regime engaged in an orgy of corruption in which a handful of magnates enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian state, people and army. The soldiers at the front fought the German army with holes in their boots and no ammunition. Western observers marvelled at the seemingly infinite patience of the Russian soldier. But in the end the patience of the masses always has its limits.

Today the Russian working class is a thousand times stronger than in 1917. Moreover, it has an entirely different mentality to that of the backward and illiterate mass of peasants. It can compare the present catastrophe to the achievements of the planned economy in the past. The idea of capitalism, of private ownership of the means of production, the market and so on, have very shallow roots--or, more correctly, no roots at all as far as the great majority is concerned. They correctly see privatisation as a massive theft which has benefited only a handful of wealthy parasites, while inflicting misery on the millions. For the masses, capitalism has no legitimacy. This idea will grow and acquire an active and conscious form, especially in the event of the inevitable crisis in the West, which will hit Russia hard.

Capitalism and the Military

On the eleventh of January Putin stated: "Our country was a powerful strong state and this is not possible if we do not have strong armed forces." The appointment of Putin, who met with the approval of the General staff, also marked a shift on the military front. Under Yeltsin, Russia lacked a military doctrine. Whereas during the Cold War the enemy was clear, and the defensive system of the Soviet Union was designed to meet the threat from the West, for the last ten years this threat was (foolishly) treated as non-existent.

The shift in thinking in Russian military circles was shown in a draft document issued by General Headquarters last October and submitted to the Security Council, in which it is stated that Russia's security is threatened by the West, which wants to create a single-pole world, expand NATO eastward and carry out military operations without UN Security Council approval--all perfectly true, of course. But the Russian Security Council, fearing to name the West as an enemy, dodged the issue. As Alexander Galts points out, this creates a contradiction:

"The policy document says that Russia's national interests are threatened by Western countries, and yet it also points out the 'critically low level of combat-readiness in the Russian armed forces'. As Viktor Yesin, head of military reform on the Security Council said, 'no matter how much Russia's economy improves, Russia will never be able to counter an organisation like NATO with conventional weapons'." (The Russian Journal May 15, 2000)

These are extraordinary words! Thirty years ago, the military might of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would have been more than enough to defeat the forces of NATO in terms of conventional warfare, which was why the West had to rely for defence on nuclear weapons. Now, after a decade of capitalist economics, Russia's defence capabilities have been so weakened that the roles have been reversed! Russia's only line of defence against NATO aggression is nuclear weapons! The problems faced by the Russian army in Chechnya is in glaring contrast with the high-tech Blitzkrieg launched by the Americans against Yugoslavia. The contrast is a painful one for Russia's military Establishment, which is demanding more investment to plug the gap. "A worn-out capital base, obsolete technology and poverty are all problems too serious to solve without taking reforms to their conclusions," writes Otto Latsis in The Russia Journal (May 15-20, 2000)

What an incredible indictment of capitalism! The Soviet army defeated Hitler single-handed and marched to Berlin in the most spectacular military campaign in history. It was the finest fighting force in the world, admired and feared by the Americans and every other army in the world. Yet now it is reduced to a pathetic condition, reminiscent of the tsarist army in the First World War. Yet how could it be otherwise? A Rasputin regime has its mirror-reflection in every aspect of social life, including the army. So it was then, so it is now.

Of course, not all of Russia's military might has disappeared. Despite everything, it still remains a formidable force, especially in nuclear terms. This fact is well-known in the West, and Putin lost no time reminding them of it. The document on Russia's military doctrine mentioned earlier also spells this out. The new doctrine no longer gives the "negative guarantees" under which Russia pledges not to launch a nuclear strike first. Instead the document states:

"Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of attack on itself or its allies using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in the event of large-scale aggression using conventional weapons in situations critical for its national security." (ibid.)

However, since the only powers in a position to launch a such a full-scale attack on Russia are the West or China, it is clear that the enemy under consideration is the West. For their part, the Americans are pressing Russia to accept nuclear disarmament. Naturally! The proceedings around the START-111 and ABM treaties have an unusually piquant flavour in such a context. All disarmament negotiations always combine an element of high farce with a large dose of diplomatic cynicism, but never more than now. All parties (except for China, India, Pakistan and IsraelÉ.) solemnly swear to renounce the use of nuclear weapons and destroy their stockpiles. Only don't look for a date when this wonder will be accomplished! There is no deadline. No firm commitment. In short, no nothing, except a pious wish that all such dreadful weapons should really not existÉIt reminds one of Saint Augustine's celebrated prayer: "Lord, make me chaste. But not yet!"

Of course, there is really no question of Russia or America disarming. The contradictions between the two are too great, the future too uncertain. They smile at each other across the negotiating table--and continue spending huge sums on weapons of mass destruction. Only in this race Russia is now far behind. In order to catch up, serious measures will be necessary. This is yet another element in the equation of Russia's future, and not necessarily the least important one.

Capitalism has seriously undermined Russia's ability to defend itself. For the degenerate clique of "reformers" who act as the agents of US imperialism and are willing to sell their grandmother, let alone Russia's national interests, for a fistful of dollars, there is no problem. But for others there is a very big problem indeed. This partly explains the constant struggles within the regime itself. Since Kosovo the military wing has been asserting itself. Alexander Golts reports:

"The [military] doctrine calls on the state to preserve and renew military potential and on industry to increase defence capacity--ideas that hark back to the Soviet days of mobilising all resources for confrontation with half the world.

"The doctrine also announces the creation of a single military system--bringing all military groupings under one umbrella--but contains no specific provisions on how to do this. What no doubt happened was that General Headquarters wanted to take control of everything itself and other ministries resisted."

And the author concludes: "The contradictions in the doctrine will only bring grist to the mill of those opposed to reform."

That is the crux of the matter. The general staff is pressing to rebuild Russia's shattered defence system. That involves centralising and planning "ideas that hark back to the Soviet days" and which inevitably clash with the policies of the reformers, who, it must be said in passing, are anxious to preserve good relations with America and the West, which General Headquarters regard as the Enemy. This contradiction will also grow more acute in the next period, posing a large question mark over the viability of "reform" in general.

If the proletariat does not take power, a Bonapartist solution of one sort or another is inevitable. At a certain stage when Putin fails, he will be swept aside. If the working class had an adequate leadership, workers' power would be on the order of the day. Even in the absence of such a leadership, it is possible that we could see something like the February Revolution.

However, if the proletariat does not take power, all kinds of developments are possible, either bourgeois Bonapartism, or, under certain conditions some variant of proletarian Bonapartism where the military would nationalise and centralise the economy, leaning on the working class for support. Something like that occurred in Syria, Burma, Ethiopia and Afghanistan in the past. Such a perspective would be the possible outcome of a deep slump in the West. The argument that the military caste in Russia has no tradition of coups is too superficial. It is true that in the Soviet Union the army was held in check by the Bureaucracy through the mechanism of the CPSU. But that no longer exists. The old system has collapsed, but nothing substantial has replaced it. The whole situation is characterised by chronic instability, including in the state institutions. The present Russian state is far more similar to the state of a third world country than that of the Soviet Union. And it will behave in a similar way.

Either way, it is the task of the Marxists to fight for an independent proletarian policy, for workers' power, for a soviet democracy as the only real solution.

Back to Lenin!

For Marxists the decisive question is whether a given socio-economic system develops the means of production. In Russia this is no longer a theoretical question. We have had ten years of experience which enables us to draw the following conclusion: Capitalism in Russia has completely failed to develop the productive forces. Productivity--the real key to economic progress--is now half what it was ten years ago. Around 500 billion dollars have been sent abroad. Foreign investors are expected to inject just one billion dollars into Russia this year--a miserable amount, and down from 2.2 billion last year. From this source no real recovery is possible. Stratfor (31/ 11/ 99) concludes: "After years of decline, Russia's flirtation with capitalism has now reached a critical juncture. The experiment with Western-style capitalism has collapsed. And the invention of Russia's peculiar (?) and wild (?) brand of capitalism has ended in outrageous scandal and popular discontent. A decade worth of foreign aid and investment has left Russia a pauper nation."

And again: "The economy is in such critical condition that a return to some form of centralised planning presents itself as the only viable option."

Given the depth of the crisis. Putin's "solution" is no solution at all. To base oneself on the oligarchy that has sucked Russia dry for ten years is to rule out any real solution. Nor is it possible to advance on the basis of bureaucratic rule. To mobilise the resources of Russia for any purpose through the mechanism of the Bureaucracy is a nightmare. The vast bureaucratic machine is so corrupt that the only thing it is at all efficient at is stealing and bribe-taking. This was made clear to the West when the IMF revealed that most of the credits extended to Russia in the past decade had simply disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials (and not minor ones, either!)

Ironically, after ten years of "market reform" the Russian bureaucracy is more in evidence than ever before. As a matter of fact, the Bureaucracy in Russia is now 1.7 times bigger than it was in the Soviet Union, which had a population 100 million more than the Russian Federation today. Yeltsin did not disband the Bureaucracy or even confront it, but basically bought it off. Even in 1993, when he was compelled to use armed force against the White House, he managed to get the backing (or neutrality) of two-thirds of the Duma, and only had to liquidate one-third.

Thus, Russia now has the worst of all worlds: the chaos and anarchy of capitalism, and the corruption and inefficiency of the old state apparatus which still survives basically intact. The proletariat will therefore be faced with a dual task: the expropriation of the capitalists and the liquidation of the monstrous bureaucratic state apparatus which continues to waste huge resources.

The first step must therefore be a merciless war on corruption and bureaucracy. The programme for such a struggle--the only programme that can work--was spelt out by Lenin in 1917 in The State and revolution, and incorporated in the Party Programme of 1919. It is the programme of workers' democracy based on the soviets.

The proletariat must inscribe on its banner not only the expropriation of the oligarchy (without which nothing can be done), but also a return to Lenin's programme, based on the famous four points:

  • 1) Election of all officials with the right of recall.
  • 2) No official to receive a wage higher than that of a skilled worker.
  • 3) No standing army but the armed people.
  • 4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state must be performed on a rotative basis by the people.

Despite the widespread ruination caused by ten years of market economics, Russia today is not the backward illiterate country of 1917. It is a powerful and potentially prosperous nation of 150 million educated people, in a huge subcontinent with vast resources. On the basis of a nationalised planned economy, with workers' administration and control, colossal advances would be possible in a relatively short space of time. A victorious socialist revolution in Russia would therefore not repeat the experience of the backward and isolated workers' state but instead provide the staring point for the world socialist revolution.

Alan Woods
London May 25th, 2000

Footnote on Belarus

In Belarus there has been hardly any change in the past ten years. Very little has been privatised. Belarus has therefore avoided the economic catastrophe that Russia has experienced. Rates of growth have been high:

  • 1996: 3 percent
  • 1997: 17 percent
  • 1998: 11 percent
  • 1999: 10 percent

As a result, while Russia (and still more the Ukraine) has regressed, the economy of Belarus has recovered the level of ten years ago. True, inflation has been high and recently there has been some decline in living standards, but nothing like the horrendous collapse in Russia and other ex-Soviet Republics.