Staunton, May 27 – On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the MBK news agency asked five commentators for their reactions to five different speeches to that assembly. It asked London-based Vladimir Pastukhov for his reflections on the remarks of historian Yury Afanasyev. They are especially instructive.
Pastukhov says that in thinking about the events of 1989, one is caught between trying to recall what they appeared to be at the time and what they mean now. “Today,” he says, “I understand what I did not understand then, but on the other hand, then I felt what I do not feel today” (mbk-news.appspot.com/sences/vladimir-pastuxov-proekt-1989/).
The 1989 Congress, he argues, “was Gorbachev’s chief political project, the quintessence of his political course,” naturally with all its positive and negative features. “As often happens, it was planned as an instrument for the smooth and controlled transition of the system into a different orbit but became a catalyst of revolution which knocked it out of orbit.”
What was revolutionary, Pastukhov suggests, “was not so much the conception of the congress itself but rather the way in which it was transformed into a permanent television political talk show.” The entire country was transfixed and one had to be extremely naïve to assume that this could be controlled of any serious length of time.
The congress allowed for the emergence of “its own stars,” people whom few had expected to assume that role. One of the brightest was Yury Afanasyev who with a historian’s sense described the way in which the opposition to the regime had emerged, an opposition that included opposition to the population as well.
Afanasyev made two key points in his speech. On the one hand, he insisted that the basis of the powers that be at that time was “an ‘aggressive-submissive’ majority.” It is reasonably clear that he was speaking about the same thing that Vladislav Surkov was when he talked about “’the deep people’” earlier this year.
And on the other, Afanasyev spoke directly to Gorbachev and said that he would either have to listen to this “’aggressive-submissive’ majority’” or manipulate it. At the time, most thought he would manipulate it, but now it is clear that he and others listened to it – and that helps to explain the course of Russian history since that time.
In his speech, Afanasyev thus situated the liberal opposition as being less opposed to the powers that be than to the “’aggressive-submissive’” majority. And once the opposition realized it could not come to power with the help of the majority, it set as its goal coming to power “in spite of that majority.”
That wasn’t inevitable as the liberal opposition did have a victory, in 1991. “The loser in 1991 was rather this aggressive-submissive majority.” But because the liberal opposition came to power without a base in the majority, it “very quickly degenerated into a semi-totalitarian and semi-mafia post-communist elite.”
Today, Pastukhov argues, “the situation is repeating itself. Again with the aggressive-submissive majority and again with ‘the 300 liberal Spartans,’ who thin how first they can become the powers and then with its help the majority.” One need not have much of an imagination to see how this will work out in the same way as 30 years ago.
Breaking out of this vicious circle of Russian history, the commentator says, will occur “only when the liberal minority learns to search points of connection with Afanasyev’s ‘aggressive-submissive majority,’” and learns how to make compromises with it rather than continues to talk about using power to transform it.
“The Facebook war, which has broken out around the elections in a single isolated district of Moscow, shows that we are still infinitely far from achieving this.”
The 1989 Congress did not leave any direct heirs in Russian political history, Pastukhov says. The minority at the congress became “the alternative majority” which remarkably quickly turned the clock back from what appeared to have been achieved in 1991 and has continued to do so because it has the support of the “’aggressive-submissive’” majority.
The only progress that has occurred, Pastukhov suggests, is that Russians now have this experience to reflect upon, an experience which they did not have in 1989 and thus which should tell them the direction they should proceed to avoid recapitulating yet again what happened 30 years ago.