Back in the U.S.S.R.? After 20 Years, Many Russians Wish They Were

Sergei Veretelny was shot and wounded when he stepped forward unarmed 20 years ago to help stop a column of armored vehicles in central Moscow, one of the few casualties of the last, failed attempt to preserve the Soviet Union.

It was a moment when Russians, largely cowed and passive subjects of Soviet rule for 74 years, massed in the streets to support the future president, Boris Yeltsin, demanding democratic change.

The writer Vasily Aksyonov captured the enthusiasm of many at the time when he called the 60-hour standoff “probably the most glorious nights in the history of Russian civilization.”

But almost 15 years later, the man who now rules Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, called the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Recent opinion polls as the anniversary approaches this Saturday come closer to the view of Mr. Putin than of Mr. Aksyonov. Few people said they viewed the events of 1991 as a victory for democracy.

“At that time in Russia, behind the iron curtain, we had only heard of democracy,” said Mr. Veretelny, 54, who was at the time supporting himself as a driver. “We really believed the magical, beautiful word democracy. But a lot of things turned out not exactly the way we expected. We began to ask ourselves what we spilled our blood for.”

In the decade that followed, chaotic social and economic changes and lurching attempts at reform gave democracy a bad name. Many people welcomed the stability Mr. Putin brought, even at the cost of some democratic freedoms.

Mr. Veretelny is just one voice among 140 million Russians, and while his disillusionment is widely shared, many people appear to accept Mr. Putin’s limits on political competition, civil society and the news media. An election that is set for early next year is unlikely to change the course of the country.

Mr. Veretelny was speaking a week before the anniversary at the home of Lyubov Komar, the mother of a young verteran of the Russian war in Afghanistan, Dmitry Komar, who was one of three men killed during the final night.

Mr. Veretelny was wounded when he tried to retrieve the body of Mr. Komar, which he said hung on an armored vehicle as it roared forward and back trying to dislodge a trolleybus that had been moved to block its path.

“I saw the guy hanging off the armored car,” he said. “I put out my hands to help and I was hit in the shoulder. I thought someone would come take the body off, but it drove back and forth until the body fell on the asphalt.”

The armored cars and tanks pulled back soon afterwards, marking the end of a coup that had attempted to hold back the tide of change. On Dec. 25, then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev stepped down, bringing a formal end to the Soviet Union.

Since then, Mr. Veretelny has worked as an electrician, a police inspector and now as a small businessman on the fringes of Russia’s economy. Until recently, his wife, Svetlana, had a high-paying job as manager of a business and she said the couple lives comfortably.

Mrs. Komar, who works as a helper at a health club, still builds her life around the memory of her son and she echoes the view of Mr. Veretelny, saying, “If my son could have seen where the country was going he wouldn’t have been at the barricades.”

Sitting surrounded in her apartment by photographs that trace his growth from a boy to a soldier, she said she had given up on the political process.

“I haven’t been to vote for 10 years,” she said. “They’ll do fine without me. They choose whoever they want, so why vote?”

Like many Russians, she grew to despise Mr. Yeltsin for what she saw as his weak leadership, and is now part of a large majority of the Russian people in supporting Mr. Putin. But what she would really like, she said, is to turn back the clock.

“I felt more comfortable in the U.S.S.R.,” she said. “You always had a piece of bread. You always had work. Yes, sure, you can go overseas now, but you have to have money for that and you have to go into debt. Now, if you don’t have money you can’t do anything.”

A recent poll by the Levada Center, a respected polling agency, found that 20 percent of Russians share her wish for a return of the Soviet Union, a number that has bobbed up and down between 16 percent and 27 percent over the past eight years.

Among these, not surprisingly, was Mr. Gorbachev, who had tried to reform and preserve the U.S.S.R. but was thwarted by the coup and then by Mr. Yeltsin and the momentum of events.

“Some say over and over that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable,” he told a news conference Wednesday. “But I keep saying that the Soviet Union could have been preserved.”

Addressing journalists, he said: “You criticize Gorbachev: weak, Jell-O, more or less in those terms. But what if that Jell-O wasn’t in that position at that time, who the hell knows what might have happened to us.”

According to the polling agency, those who wish to return to the Soviet past were mostly members of the vestiges of the Communist party, elderly people and people who live in small towns and villages.

The poll was conducted in person over five days in July with 1,600 people, with a margin of error of 3.4 percent.

Other responses suggested that Russians do want democracy, but democracy of a particular sort, with a powerful central government, something closer to what the country has today than some, like Mr. Veretelny, had envisioned. More than half the respondents, 53 percent, said they placed a higher value on “order” than on human rights.

“We had so much hope, so much faith, so much inspiration for the future,” said Mr. Veretelny’s wife, Svetlana. “There was such a feeling of freedom and hope. We were all so happy seeing change ahead.”

But now, according to the polling agency, only 10 percent of respondents view those days as a victory for democracy. It said the number of people who called the events a tragedy had grown to 39 percent, from 25 percent at the last anniversary 10 years ago.

“It is what it is,” said Mr. Veretelny, who has slipped from hope into passivity. “We just have to figure that this is what we ended up with.”

August 14,1947 Sixty-four years of slavish independence


There was not one but two national liberation struggles. Their aims and interests were diametrically opposed. One was led by the local elites and the other was that of the workers, peasants and youth. The first wanted to keep the system intact and the other’s inspiration was a revolutionary transformation of the system of the imperialists

Sixty-four years after the bloody partition in 1947 the plight of about a quarter of the human race that inhabits this South Asian subcontinent is excruciating and awful. More than 40 percent of the world’s poverty torments this tragic land. While the ruling elites continue to multiply their billions, the rest of the population is in a dire state of existence. The condition of the masses has continuously been in a downward spiral and now life has become a living hell for the working classes. Living conditions today are even worse than under the British colonial rule for the vast majority of the population. In these six and a half decades the ruling classes of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and other states of the region have failed to solve any single problem of society. The agrarian revolution is far from accomplished, parliamentary democracy is a farce and a deception. It is a democracy of the rich by the rich and for the rich. Instead of creating unified nation states, national and ethnic strife rages on with centrifugal forces tearing society apart. The Indian ruling elite boasts of a secular constitution and yet India has more religious riots and killings than perhaps any other country of the world. Pakistan, a country that was supposed to protect the rights of a certain religious community, today is being pillaged by the very same religious ideologies. The social and physical infrastructure is crumbling and the access to basic needs like water, electricity, health and education for the ordinary people is in a despicable state. The masses are bewildered and in anguish at this pathetic notion of independence.

This so-called independence and very hasty withdrawal of the British Raj was achieved through a conscious compromise and a negotiated agreement between the imperialists and the local Hindu and Muslim elites who were trained and propped up by the Raj. They manipulated the mass revolt by bringing religion into politics, in connivance with their imperial masters. It was to produce a cleavage in the national liberation movement that was rapidly moving onto the path of class struggle. The callous attitude of Gandhi and other leaders of the local elite to the assassination of Bhagat Singh in 1931 is a glaring proof of this treachery. With the red storm raging in China and throughout Asia, the imperialists were terrified of a national liberation that would have very quickly moved on to social and economic liberation. They were extremely fearsome of the class struggle that would overthrow capitalism and put an end to imperialist exploitation and extortion.

The mouthpiece of the British ruling class, the London Times, wrote in its editorial of January 29, 1928, “There is no real connection between these two unrests, labour and the congress opposition. But their very existence and coexistence, explains and fully justifies the attention, which Lord Irwin gave to the labour problems.”

There was not one but two national liberation struggles. Their aims and interests were diametrically opposed. One was led by the local elites and the other was that of the workers, peasants and youth. The first wanted to keep the system intact and the other’s inspiration was a revolutionary transformation of the system of the imperialists. The proletarian struggle was derailed by its traditional leadership at the helm of the Communist Party of India in the early 1940s. Their criminal blunder of capitulating to the British in the name of the anti-fascist war and supporting the imperialists was due to their slavish submission to the dictates of Moscow that prioritised its own national interests to those of proletarian internationalism. In this act, they handed over the movement on a platter to the bourgeois nationalists.

But such was the momentum of the movement that these bourgeois leaders could not control the raging struggle and ultimately tried to divide it on religious and ethnic lines. Despite this reactionary policy imposed on the national liberation struggle, there was the historic revolt of the sailors in the British Indian Navy in February 1946. It not only shook the British imperial military establishment in British India but gave rise to a militant strike wave of the workers in textile, railways and other sectors from Karachi to Madras, paralysing the whole subcontinent. The imperial Raj was shaken and the commander in chief of the British Indian Army General Claude Auchinleck sent a wire to Whitehall in London saying that if they were not given freedom in three days they will take it themselves. The Raj was stunned. The native bourgeois leaders again intervened to save the British by acting as scabs and strike-breakers.

The new reformist Labour government of Clement Attlee, which had come to power after defeating the Conservatives led by Churchill, were terrified of the bloodshed and massacres that would result in the wake of a partition. They sent the Cabinet Mission in March 1946 that convinced Jinnah against partition and settle for a confederation. But Nehru provoked Jinnah at the behest of Churchill, who manipulated him through Edwina Mountbatten and wrecked the deal.

As the elitist leaders in India and Pakistan were celebrating this moth-eaten independence, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were being slaughtered, especially in Punjab and Bengal in this ethnic frenzy. More than two million lives perished in this madness. Much more have been the victims of poverty, starvation, misery and disease ever since. They lost their lives long before their time. They were the victims of another economic genocide, which is going on unabated. The imperialists dictate every policy. The ruling elites, acting as their comprador agents, have their share of the plunder. In their extreme suffering, the toiling masses are being asked to celebrate this independence, the independence of the elite to repress and plunder, where the masses suffer and toil. The rulers celebrate their vulgar luxury; the masses have only their woes and misery to curse.

Ustad Daman expressed the plight of the ordinary people after partition in his famous verse:

“The freedoms that devastated us alike,

The redness of our eyes betrays, that wept we too have alike.”

The genuine independence of the masses can only be achieved through a socialist revolution. It was treacherously crushed in 1946. Conditions are intolerable for the masses in both India and Pakistan. The differences are superficial and secondary. Capitalist exploitation and the problems of the masses are the same. A mass upheaval can erupt instantaneously. Today if there is a revolutionary victory in any country of the subcontinent, like the Arab revolution; it will spread throughout the region. Victorious socialist revolutions do not only transform the state and society, they change the course of history and the divisions of geography.