Robert Service

Robert Service

Robert Service, a noted Russian historian and political commentator, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. His research interests cover Russian history and politics in all its aspects from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Service was awarded the 2009 Duff Cooper Prize for his biography Trotsky (Harvard University Press, 2009).

The Next Russian Revolution?

Twenty years ago, Mikhail S. Gorbachevannounced the end of a huge global experiment. After seven decades, the Soviet Union would be dismantled, its 15 republics becoming independent countries, and capitalism replacing the planned Soviet economy. Lenin’s embalmed corpse was left undisturbed in the Red Square mausoleum in Moscow, but the cause for which he led the October 1917 revolution no longer held the affection of hundreds of millions of Russians and millions more around the world.

For two decades since, the Russian people have largely endured in silence the oppressive and corrupt system of power that ensued — until blatant irregularities in parliamentary elections earlier this month sent an estimated 50,000 people out in protest. These protesters have planned what is expected to be the biggest demonstration since the fall of Communism for Saturday in Moscow. Vladimir V. Putin, the once and future president, is at last facing trouble from the streets.

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Anniversaries can be painful

We’re coming up to the twentieth anniversary of the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika in the USSR. The coup never came to anything. The anti-Gorbachev plotters lacked the will to finish the job even though they had the levers of power – the army, the KGB and the media – in their hands. In fact they hastened the end of the USSR by their bungled action.

Gorbachev didn’t come out of the episode very well, and indeed he contributed to the optimism of the plotters by his own measures in the previous twelve months. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, the éminence grise behind the coup, had more than once called for martial law to be declared. Gorbachev had heard him making this demand, and yet he had kept him in post while sacking those reformers whom Kryuchkov criticised. We should therefore avoid turning the history of the episode into a story of one hero-victim and a gang of villains.

Gorbachev did many things creditable things in helping to bring the Cold War to an end, but he was also too clever for his own good and his country’s good it came to games of political intrigue. And back in 1991 he had no idea about how to pull the economy back from disaster. When he resigned his post at the end of the year, most Russians did not regret his departure.

His reputation abroad, to this day, vastly exceeds his image in the minds of his fellow citizens.

Apart from the small matter of the football, that a Spanish prosecutor has told an American diplomat that Russia is a "mafia state" has made headlines today. With and without reason. Not a single Russian newspaper, not even those that are chummy with the Kremlin, has failed to use such terminology over the past two decades. Before the fall of the USSR few Russians knew what the mafia was. Now the Sicilian name has entered all the Cyrillic lexicons – and always the core meaning is entanglement of politicians and criminals to cream off the country’s assets by whatever means are necessary.

In the old Soviet Union, public theft was possible through a corrupt political system without need for out-and-out hoodlums. Private dachas were constructed at public expense. Factory profits were siphoned off into the bank accounts of the nomenklatura. Elderly party bigwigs took their pick of foreign merchandise in special shops banned to ordinary citizens.

Continue reading Robert Service in The Guardian