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Book Review: Russia Transformed

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Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope
by James H. Billington (New York: The Free Press, 1992); 202 pages; $19.95.

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibit of previously secret documents from the Soviet archives. One of them was an order sent by Lenin on August 11, 1918, to the communist leadership of the city of Penza. It instructs them to execute immediately private farmers (known as kulaks) and their families.

“Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volost’s [districts) must be suppressed without mercy. The interest of the entire revolution demands this .... We need to set an example. 1) You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take away all of their grain. 4) Execute the hostages — in accordance with yesterday's telegram. This needs to be accomplished in such a way, that people for hundreds of miles around will see, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks. Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this. Yours, Lenin. P.S. Use your toughest people for this."

A prime mover in arranging for this display of 300 documents was James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress and scholar of Russian history and culture. In August 1991, library business had brought Dr. Billington to Moscow. He witnessed the failed coup attempt and the triumph of democratic forces led by Boris Yeltsin. Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope is his account of those events and their meaning for Russia's future. Having myself been in Moscow during that time, I understand the significance that Dr. Billington assigns to those three days in August.

Three elements, Dr. Billington suggests, were of fundamental importance in foiling the military power of the coup leaders: "First and most important was the unforgettable image of Boris Yeltsin climbing on to a tank at midday [on August 19th) and defying the junta before a small group of supporters outside the [Russian] White House…. The appearance of the elected President himself had electrifying impact as it was played back into Moscow on CNN…. A second counterweight was added by the human wall of supporters outside [the White House] that had taken permanent shape by the early evening of the nineteenth…. like waves rolling outward from a central point, an alternative allegiance seemed to be radiating to the broader society. . . . Even more important than the circle of defenders was the third element in the mounting resistance to the coup: the dispatch of messengers…. The pattern was to send a uniformed soldier loyal to the Russian government along with an elected deputy of the Russian parliament … to engage in aggressive dialogue with the armored troops that had entered Moscow and appeared to be menacing the White House…. They sought to persuade the soldiers that Yeltsin’s cause was both militarily honorable and politically legal, in contrast to that of the junta.”

By August 21, the coup had failed, with several of the junta leaders fleeing Moscow to beg clemency from Mikhail Gorbachev in the Crimea. But all that awaited them was a return flight to Moscow and “rest.

The events of August 1991 resulted not only in the failure of the coup, they also set the stage for the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s nauseating defense of socialism and the Communist Party at a news conference shortly after his arrival back in the capital showed that nothing could save Russia but the complete destruction of the terrorist state created by Lenin three quarters of a century earlier. And that end came on Christmas Day 1991 with Gorbachev’s resignation as president of the U.S.S.R. and the lowering of the Soviet flag from the walls of the Kremlin.

Dr. Billington explains the process by which the euphoria of August 1991 slowly changed to despair, discouragement and apathy in 1992. Thee failure to implement any radical economic reforms, the worsening living conditions, and the ease with which the new democratic parliamentarians have fallen into the same corruption and privilege as their Soviet predecessors have created increasing disillusionment among the Russian population.

New forces have arisen in the society out of this disillusionment crude nationalists, crypto-fascists, anti-Semites, and communists who now wrap themselves in patriotic slogans and call for the return to a “great and powerful state.”

But Dr. Billington believes that a new authoritarianism need not be the path Russia follows. He sees a new spiritual awakening as people search for new moral foundations for themselves as individuals. And he quotes General Dmitry Volkoganov, author of Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, that “Russia might at last be ready simply ‘to conduct civilized reforms’ in the realization that ‘it is more useful to measure one’s own life not by the dates of leaders’ reigns, but by the days and years of one’s own accomplishments.”

At the end of his book, Dr. Billington says, “Whatever setbacks might lie on the difficult path ahead, I felt strangely certain that an altogether different Russia would be blooming in both faith and freedom by the beginning of the Third Millennium. Let us hope that he is right.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).