Russia's new perestroika?

Andrei Piontkovsky
29 April 2009

Commentators in Russia and abroad are wondering if there is any hope of a Medvedev liberalisation, de-Putinisation, a thaw and perestroika.  If this were true, it would lead to people being allowed to criticize the authorities on television, to political prisoners being released and to murders in which the special services were involved being investigated. If we really are to going to understand the current Russian regime and try to work out what it is going to do next, we need to recall the history of the evolution of the Soviet nomenklatura.

Every day we are amazed, or actually no longer surprised, by the re-emergence of features from our Soviet past.  We are today ruled by that same, immortal Soviet nomenklatura.  It has become younger over the last 20 years and seriously shaken up its personnel (primarily by means of an enormous intake from the KGB/FSB).  It has also acquired a colossal amount of property.  In Soviet terminology,we would say that today's Central Committee members, secretaries of regional committees and KGB Generals (whatever their titles may be now) have become multi-millionaires in dollar terms.  Modern ‘politburo members' have become multi-billionaires.

So is this "new class" going to consider liberalising the regime? In its almost hundred-year history, the Soviet-Russian nomenklatura has twice announced a thaw from the top. The first time was in 1953, after the death of Stalin, and the second in 1985, after the collective death of the former politburo.  In both cases this enabled millions to take a real step towards freedom. The first thaw literally brought freedom to hundreds of thousands of people, who were released from the camps.

But these were secondary, side effects of the thaw/perestroika.  Each time the elite was primarily concerned to address its own problems.  The 1953-56 thaw proclaimed the first Magna Carta, as it were, for the nomenklatura barons.  They blackened Stalin's reputation, perhaps even killing him first, released political prisoners, cautiously opened the country's borders and introduced minimal freedoms.  Thus they consolidated their right to life, ensuring at the same time that no new dictator could dispatch them to the camps. The newspaper Pravda noted smugly at the time that the prevailing atmosphere was one of "consideration towards the party cadres".

"Consideration" included such modest bourgeois charms as the closed distribution centres for food and goods accessible only to members of the party's Central, or regional, Committee), a deerskin cap, a state dacha, an annual holiday at a Sochi sanatorium belonging to the Central, or regional, Committee.  The most audacious also allowed themselves a little pilfering. These gentle pleasures lasted for 30 years until the young Komsomol-KGB members came of age.  They had a clear idea of Western standards of elite consumption, and demanded much more than "consideration". They became the driving force of perestroika and the triumphant Thermidor of the Communist nomenklatura.

Whatever the personal aspirations of the father of perestroika may have been (and he would probably not be able to articulate them clearly today), objectively speaking it was the beginning of a gigantic operation to convert the absolute collective political power of the nomenklatura into the enormous personal financial power of its individual representatives. The final stage of the operation (which we have seen recently) was their regaining of absolute political power.

The current generation of the ruling nomenklatura owns enormous amounts of property.  So it does not, cannot, have the remotest incentive to liberalise.  On the contrary, it has far greater reason than its historical predecessors to fear even the slightest increase in freedom of information. Because journalists, parliament and, finally, the courts would then immediately start investigating the origin, scale and structure of their wealth.

As they fight over the rapidly diminishing financial spoils, the various clans of today's kleptocracy may have different views on tactics for maintaining their control over society.  However, the Kremlin "liberals" and "siloviki" (security services or military personnel) are united in their fear of the Russian people, whom they robbed together.   They will never allow freedom of information or real democracy.

Medvedev's recent "liberal gestures (the interview with Novaya Gazeta, the meeting with human rights advocates) all bear the hallmarks of a propaganda operation. He was, however, extremely frank in his interview with NTV on 19 April. "I believe that during the crisis, we must concentrate on finding solutions to existing economic problems, rather than making political reforms of any kind".

As for the release of Svetlana Bakhmina, who was imprisoned on false charges, my first reaction is to be glad her prolonged sufferings are at an end.   But the last thing I want to do is thank her tormentors for this, whatever camp they belong to,  "liberal" or "siloviki".  Their behaviour towards Bakhmina during the last year has been particularly disgusting.

Initially Medvedev was not allowed to pardon her, which demonstrated where he really belonged in the Kremlin hierarchy. He swallowed this obediently.  Prolonged attempts were evidently made to break this woman, who had recently given birth, and force her to give the evidence they required for Khodorkovsky's second trial. They made her write in her statement that "she regretted her crimes and was now on the path of active repentance".

In the end, even the stupidest sadists in the Russian political leadership realised that this performance was reminiscent of the Stalin show trials of the 1930s and could well have a reverse effect, with negative consequences for them.

So unwillingly the executioners let their victim go. Optimists can call this Medvedev's perestroika, if they like.


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