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Accounts of the Russian Transition

Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin by Padma Desai; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xv + 383, Rs 595.


Accounts of the Russian


Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin

by Padma Desai; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xv + 383, Rs 595.


he break-up of the Soviet Union and the Russian transition to capitalism are arguably the most dramatic events of contemporary history that reshaped the international political system. The process of globalisation, the force of economic restructuring and the attempt to create a unipolar hegemony received impetus from this systemic change. It is thus important to study the Russian reform process to understand the working and making of contemporary international politics.

There are several positions, ranging from Keynesian, neoliberal, social democratic, left, etc, on why and how the reforms in Russia proceeded and on the role of structures, institutions, external forces and personalities that molded these reforms. Most books on the Russian reforms conform to one of these positions, while critiquing others. The first strength of Padma Desai’s book is that it discusses the reforms from a range of these positions. The second strength is that this book deals with the entire gamut of issues that are linked with the reform – the economy, political changes, democracy, social fallouts, demography, and foreign policy. The third strength is that it views contemporary Russian politics from different posi tions, which bring out the multiple views that exist, as also some American ones, exposing the reader to a choice of perceptions.

This entirety is made possible by Desai’s method, which is a series of interviews done over several years, with key people engaged in the process of reforms. A book based entirely on interviews is generally associated with journalists, but what makes this a serious book as well as primary source for scholars is the variety and type of people interviewed. For example, while journalists, in a book like this, might interview Anatoly Chubais, former mini ster of privatisation and first deputy prime minister in the Yeltsin government, or Yegor Gaider, another key reformer from the Russian side, and engage with Strobe Talbott who was Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, they would probably leave out astute academic figures like Sergei Rogov or Nadori Simonia who are known mainly to Russia followers. Besides these, Desai records the voices of key economists, politicians and writers, making this a record of the times. Desai adds an interview of Yeltsin, done by Lyudmilla Telen, that completes the picture. The choice of interviews and the kind of questions asked reveals Desai’s deep knowledge of the intricacies of Russian politics and the problems of Russian economics.

The truth about reform comes out with Yeltsin’s own words: “What was needed was a kamikaze crew that would step into the line of fire and forge ahead, however strong the general discontent might be. I had to pick a team that would go up in flames but remain in history” (p 79). For Yeltsin it was demolition job rather than reform. All Soviet institutions, whether they had positive outcomes on people or negative, had to be razed to the ground. The outcome did not matter, as Sergei Rogov shows in his interviews as he talks of how the reforms had a deep and long-lasting negative impact on the Russian people and on Russia. The demographic crisis today is a consequence of the reform experience: “People have responded by retreating into their personal worlds” (p 210).

The project of demolition led by the Yeltsin team was perfectly coordinated and supported by the US, and Strobe Talbott makes that clear when he states: “He [Yeltsin] also had strong and consistent commitment to certain principles and objectives that were in the interest of the United States” (p 172). Yeltsin’s policies, as Talbott tells, “yielded huge and lasting benefits to the United States, which we can talk about” (p 172). On the other hand, these policies had a grave impact on the people of Russia, as shown by Anatoly Vishnevsky, Rogov and others who talk of the impoverishment, the rising inequalities, the marginali sation and exclusion of groups of people, and the creation of the oligarchs. How little these mattered to policymakers who seemed little aware or accountable for their consequences is clearly evident from the inter views of Talbott, Yegor Gaider and Chubais.

Record of the Times

The myopic vision of the reformers at the helm of affairs becomes clear in these interviews. Boris Nemstov, former prime minister says: “Unfortunately, Gaider, Chubais, and I thought that all we had to do was to stabilise the currency, fight inflation, and privatise companies and the doors would open. The public would understand and support us. Our biggest mistake was to our inability to talk to the people” (p 142). The outcome is explained by Nadori Simonia as “a horrific deterioration, a destruction of Russian industry, and the impoverishment of the masses”. The reformers did not take people into confidence; they focused on markets without thinking about people. In the early period of the reform between 1990 and 1994, overall 22 per cent more deaths occurred than in the preceding years. A generation was lost as the interview with Vishnevsky reveals. The reform process and the reformers were thus as autho ritarian as the Soviet system they sought to demolish. The same people that forced reform before forcing democratic institutions now blame Putin for authoritarianism!

The interviews done by Desai with Oleg Vyugin and Sergei Dubinin, both of whom held key positions in the economy during the Russian transition, are especially useful, even though at times they appear to justify their policy positions. Desai’s interrogation brings out the picture on the role of the banks and the stabilisation of the Russian economy. They frankly acknowledge theflight of capital, the pro blems that occurred when the Russian markets opened to foreign capital and role played by the International Monetary Fund.

There is much focus and discussion on personalities in this book that makes the entire period come alive. Even though sometimes one would have liked to see more facts at times, since structures and institutions had collapsed, it was opinion

Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007 and personalities that dominated. Putin is discussed by most of the interviewees and generally viewed as a nationalist, a pragmatist, with the tendency to force his decisions with muscle rather than discussion. Simonia however has an unusual take on the Putin period, which he compares with the Leninist state during the period of the New Economic Policy. This might be a questionable analogy, because even if one agrees with Nemtsov who says that “Putin has frozen economic reforms”, others argue that he is committed to them. Further, Lenin froze nationalisation, allowed private initiative in agriculture and moved towards state capitalism, without allowing any democratic reform. Simonia and others are more accurate when they argue that the Russian path cannot follow or replicate the US model. It has its own cultural and historical specificities.

The interviews in this book show the wide divergence of opinion between the Russians and western policymakers. This is especially marked on the foreign policy front, where Talbott dismisses the idea of multipolarity as a “pretty stupid proposition” (p 180). Russian scholars not only endorse it as part of Russian “national interest” but also believe that the international system is likely to move in that direction.

The book is an everlasting source of evidence for a crucial period of Russian history. It provides key evidence from the makers of contemporary Russian history and from some of its best analysts and scholars. Some might argue that a book like this has little analysis from the author and they might choose to read the long introduction as the conclusion since there is none. However, that is not the purpose of the book. The analysis which is sometimes profound and sometimes facile comes from the views of those who were involved in the process of this change itself. And if their analysis is facile, it shows that makers of history can have limited or biased perceptions. Why else is history and politics imperfect and why else does Russia continue to be a puzzle to so many? This book is a collection of opinions, views, narratives, interpretations and accounts of the Russian transition and reform. It is valuable as a primary source and any future analysis of this period can and must rely on this book. Padma Desai has done a great service for Russian scholars and for all those interested in international politics by recor ding and faithfully re producing these valuable interviews. Another of her “must read” books!



Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007

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