The Putsch & Brexit: History rhymes?

March 6, 2017

by Martin Odoni

If, as seems inevitable after last month, Article 50 is activated in the next few weeks and the United Kingdom starts the process of withdrawal from the European Union, it is perhaps ironic that it should happen in a year ending in -17. For the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established 100 years ago this year, after a pair of Revolutions in the old Russian Empire, and was the world’s first Communist/Socialist country (at least in its objectives). It lasted through until 1991, when it collapsed in circumstances that should sound uncannily familiar to anyone closely studying what is happening to the UK right now.

There was a lot to be said against the Soviet Union down the decades. Despite its established aim of fairness and equality, the nation proved to be an oppressive, at times expansionist, dictatorship. It was one of the most dreadful regimes on Earth during Joseph Stalin’s era as General Secretary of the Communist Party. (Not officially the Head of State, but in practise whoever held the office of General Secretary was the man – it was always a man of course – in charge.) Stalin is estimated to have taken the lives of over twenty million people during his rule. Thanks principally to him, the very name ‘Soviet Union’ tends to cause lips to curl back in disapproval.

There is another side to this however. Although there was very little freedom in the USSR, it did take relatively good care of its population, by the standards of wider Russian history. Life had been utterly miserable for the vast, vast majority of ordinary people during the centuries of the old Russian Empire. While Stalin had shown no real concern for the well-being of the man-in-the-street – and considerable paranoid concern for his own physical safety – his successor from 1953, Nikita Kruschev, made a genuine-if-modest attempt to liberalise society, and the standard of living had improved a lot between the 1950s and the 1970s. Irina Lobatcheva, author of Russia in 1990’s, recalls,

 In 1960s-1980s the Soviet society provided majority of Russians with a decent life, free of fear of unemployment, with plenty of opportunities for self-fulfillment and career advancement. Everyone had a right to a month long vacation which one could spend in recreation hotels, sanatoriums, or touring the USSR for a very affordable price. Medical care was free, as well as any education, numerous children clubs and summer camps; even day-care centres cost next to nothing. Simple life, overall confidence in the future, guaranteed pension. The ideological load had almost waned after the death of Stalin: the state security had little effect on our lives compared to its influence in 1930s-1950s, when harsh competition with the rest of the world demanded from the new socialist state extraordinary repressive measures.

NB: Apologies for the poor syntax and punctuation of the above excerpt. The published translation into English of Russia in 1990s was not compiled very well, and it has to be said that the book sometimes reads a little like the output of a website subjected to Google Translate. I considered making corrections but ultimately decided against it as it would be dishonest.

One can certainly question whether Stalin’s repressive measures were really as necessary as Lobatcheva implies, but her points about the standard of living in the USSR, at least compared with what preceded it and what succeeded it, are accurate and frequently overlooked in the West. Life may not have had much in the way of civil liberty in the Soviet Union, but it had been no freer or less brutal under the Tsars of the Russian Empire, and at least under the Communist Party, levels of starvation and destitution hugely declined for the first time in centuries.

Kruschev introduced a major stabilising influence on day-to-day life in 1961 when he imposed indefinite price controls on essential goods; the same number of rubles that could buy a loaf of bread in 1961 could still buy an equivalent loaf in 1986. This had an unfortunate effect in the wider economic picture, as the costs of manufacture were rising constantly, and to keep manufacturers and farmers funded, the Government was forced to keep printing more and more money, causing international inflation of the ruble.

After Kruschev was effectively overthrown by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1964, he was replaced by his Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, a comparative doctrinaire hardliner who lacked imagination or energy. Brezhnev had positioned himself to take over by blaming Kruschev’s policies for the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Once in office, Brezhnev spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in Government doing very little to change them. Meanwhile, he restored repressive powers to the state police force, the KGB (‘Chekhists’), that Kruschev had taken away from them, and restarted the Stalinist practise of imprisoning political and cultural dissidents.

In the 1980s the ailing Soviet economy began to break down. One key cause of this was intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan, between the communist Government in Kabul and Islamist guerrillas, beginning in 1979. It proved to be a calamitous ten-year mistake that ultimately took a terrible toll on Soviet resources without ever achieving a victory to which to point. The sluggish economy was crippled by the burden of trying to support a failing and unending war-effort. Necessary production capacity that should have been used for consumption goods was instead allocated to manufacturing military supplies. At home therefore, industries that had advanced over a century’s-worth between 1929 and 1945 were stagnating once again, and producing fewer and fewer goods, as the ongoing price-controls slowly transformed currency inflation into a production deficit.

To add to the terrible burdens on the Soviet economy, in 1986, the entire population of Pripyat in Ukraine had to be evacuated permanently as a result of reactor unit 4 at the local nuclear power station, Chernobyl, exploding, condemning the region to literally thousands of years ahead of inhospitable radiation poisoning. The phenomenal resources needed to prevent the spread of the radioactive fall-out, to rehouse over 30,000 people, and to adjust to the enormous loss to the electrical power supply on the Soviet Union’s western frontier, were perhaps a final tipping point.

Brezhnev was long dead by this time; he had died in 1982 at the age of 75, and had been replaced by a former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. At 67 when coming to office, Andropov was another old man rather stuck in his ways. His main policy platform was a necessary but largely ineffectual campaign to end political corruption within the Communist Party. It did not help the stability or conviction of the Soviet economy that he died a little over a year after taking over. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even older (72 years old) than Andropov, and was already in dire health when he became General Secretary in March 1984. He too died after just over a year in office.

In 1985, a young (by Soviet Union standards anyway) new General Secretary was elected, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first leader of the USSR to be born after the Revolutions of 1917. At 54, he was not such a hardline stick-in-the-mud as his predecessors, and while he remained a dedicated communist, he recognised the urgent need for reform. He embarked on two side-by-side programs of reforms. The first, going by the name of Perestroika, very roughly translating as ‘restructuring’, was a campaign to reform the economy, including loosening the state controls over industry and the markets. The second, going by the name of Glasnost, very roughly translating as ‘open-ness’ or ‘transparency’, was a campaign to reform the country politically.

Glasnost allowed far greater freedom of expression, making it easier for people to speak out about the hardships they were increasingly facing, and making it easier, in turn, for the Government to identify failings that needed correcting. But it also made it a lot easier for fundamentally different ideas about the way the country should be governed to proliferate. (The USSR had, to this point, been a one-party state, but Gorbachev legalised the formation of political parties other than the communists.) One idea that became popular among pro-reform groups was that life in the West was much better than life in the USSR. TV and photo images began to appear in Russian media in the mid-to-late 1980s of the glossier side of life in the USA. Spectacular technology, colourful, glamorous ‘showbiz’ lifestyles.

Of course, there was no mention of the uglier side of Western life, including the tendency not to take much care of the poorest, or the horrendous poverty and misery of, say, being black in Ronald Reagan’s America. Naturally, Western life looked superior when the focus was on the rich and privileged in the richest, most privileged country.

Therefore, growing numbers of Russian people around the turn of the 1990s, fed up of waiting hours in queues just to buy bread, began to get the idea that the way the USA operated was the way the USSR should do things too. So the reformers began to push for, not a reformed communist economy, but a full-scale free market economy.

This was not what Gorbachev wanted. Despite his reforms, he remained a communist, and was deeply suspicious of what might happen if state controls of the economy were loosened to the degree found in the USA. But growing public unrest, and pressure from a reformer faction within the Communist Party itself, gradually dragged him into changing the market more severely than he had intended.

Gorbachev’s reform programs were not helped by the fact that he had no coherent plan in place, and he was largely improvising. That he recognised the need for reform had made him the best option for General Secretary, but that really just showed what a collection of dinosaurs the other options had been. Knowing something needed to change was a step up from his colleagues, but knowing how to do it was another matter. With no clear framework for reform, his every policy decision could lead to problems, and they frequently did.

Furthermore, the reformer faction had gained a figurehead in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, who was developing a popular reputation as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure after taking the unprecedented step late in 1987 of resigning from the Politburo. Gorbachev had responded to this by firing him from his secondary role as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, while the Communist Party started smearing Yeltsin in the media. All of this just seemed to increase Yeltsin’s popularity, while motivating him to seek revenge on Gorbachev. Over the next several years, Yeltsin piled pressure on Gorbachev to increase the scope and pace of reforms.

In 1990, Gorbachev created new fundamental reforms to the political system. As part of a reorganisation that ended the permanent link between the Communist Party from the Executive branch of Government, a new office was established of ‘President of the USSR’, to which Gorbachev was elected in March. At a secondary level, the Russian Republic was given a Presidential office of its own. Yeltsin, to Gorbachev’s despair, was elected to the role in May. If Gorbachev was worried, conservative Marxists within the Communist Party were horrified. They had spent the last four years or so becoming increasingly alarmed by the amount of authority the party had surrendered due to the reform programs. Yeltsin, their ideological nemesis, was now in a position of real power within the largest federal Republic in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev had appointed Gennadi Yenayev, Chairman of the nation’s Trade Unions Council, to become the Soviet Union’s first (and only, it would transpire) vice-President. He was a known conservative who opposed the reform programs. If Gorbachev expected gratitude from the hardliners for making such an appointment, he was soon to be disillusioned. For in the summer of 1991, Yenayev led a group of the hardliners in Moscow in a poorly-planned attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, and to restore pre-Perestroika communism.

The coup, or ‘Putsch’ as it was called, failed, due to its dependence on support from the military, which in the event refused to open fire on the civilian population of Russia. Opportunistically, Boris Yeltsin spotted the chance to shine by very publicly heading up civilian resistance to the coup. In one major moment of showmanship, he actually climbed onto a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and addressed a crowd of resisters from there.

In truth, opposition to the Putsch among the population was not nearly as large as the Western media likes to portray it; with growing political chaos, including the collapse of the so-called ‘Eastern Bloc’, and ever-worsening shortages of goods in the shops, Gorbachev’s popularity had rapidly eroded. So while there was a disapproving recognition that what the plotters were doing was anti-democratic, there was no great wish to defend the Soviet President. But still, the opposition proved just strong enough, and once it was clear that the military would not support Yenayev, the ‘Putsch’ quickly collapsed, and the conspirators surrendered.

In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin got enormous praise and adulation, both at home and in the West, for rescuing Gorbachev and for thwarting the hardliners. Seeing the opening to complete his revenge on Gorbachev, Yeltsin used the hype, in effect, to seize control.

Knowing that the coup had effectively severed his relationship with the Communist Party, Gorbachev felt compelled to resign as General Secretary. Yeltsin then shut down the party by ordering nationalisation of all its assets and suspending all of its activities inside Russian boundaries. At the same time, most of the different Republics of the Soviet Union began declaring independence, rendering the Soviet Presidency a powerless role. All its authority was devolved to the Heads of State of the individual Republics, including Russia itself. As Yeltsin was President of Russia, and Russia was the largest of the Soviet Republics, this made him more powerful than Gorbachev.

From there, Gorbachev had no option but to terminate the Soviet Union completely. On Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned the office of President of the Soviet Union, and the USSR had been formally dissolved.

The USA and its allies had always hated and feared communism, and so were delighted to see the USSR break up. The hope in the West was that, under Yeltsin, Russia would go further than Gorbachev had so far dared, and try to create a full free market economy. To this end, the USA despatched groups of right-wing economists to Moscow to advise Yeltsin on how to transition to full capitalism. Their advice was to remove state operations within the market entirely, including remove all price controls set by the Government. All businesses were to become completely privately run.

The problem was, the price controls that the Soviet Government had imposed since the early-60’s had kept people’s money safe. As mentioned before, the price of a loaf of bread in 1989 was the same as it had been in 1962. The price of all manufacturing goods had been subsidised by the Government, so prices in the shops did not have to go up. At the end of 1991, all these price controls were removed, and all state interference in the market was ended, including the subsidies for manufacturers. Manufacturers and retailers were now free to set their own prices for all of their goods.

Frankly, almost anyone could have predicted what was to happen next, yet somehow the very people who were supposed to be the experts were completely unprepared for it. The manufacturers of goods were no longer being subsidised by the Government, and no longer being regulated by the Government either. They were given freedom, therefore, to put prices up. So they put prices up. A long way up. And so the shops had to put their prices up as well to make an honest profit. It meant that the Russian currency, the ruble, became almost worthless within weeks. People’s life savings were used up in weeks as desperation led them to pay massively inflated prices for the most basic items.

Prices had quadrupled before the end of the first week, and they just kept ballooning up and up and up. This was partly due to the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision of Viktor Geraschenko, chairman of the Russian Central Bank, to try to offset the sudden price-jump by increasing the size of the money supply, which simply led the ruble to inflate even faster.

Within a year, Russia was in chaos. Vast numbers of people were struggling to afford food, it had become so expensive. Entire industries were teetering on the brink of shutdown as markets were unable to sell goods to a population whose income was no longer adequate to afford them. By August, industrial productivity across Russia had declined by worse than forty percent. Many people resorted to selling their most prized possessions just to get the extra money they needed to buy bread.

Tiny numbers of entrepreneurs who happened to be in the right place at the start of the 1990s were now able to hog all the consumption goods, and with the markets cornered, they could hold the population to ransom. Wealth was absorbed by these tiny handsful of people, while millions of others went hungry. The hoarders would eventually become known derisively as ‘The Oligarchs‘.

The privatisation of state assets led to the development of a voucher system so that the public could own shares in former public property. But because of the desperation of hunger, many people ended up desperately selling off their vouchers in exchange for the money they needed to buy food. The vouchers were almost invariably sold to the Oligarchs, cementing their grip and control over the new Russia.

While the Oligarchs counted their ever-growing stockpiles of money and assets, the state had become so weakened as the 1990s wore on that before long it was largely powerless even to enforce the law. Business in Russia had leapt from one extreme to the other. Gone were the days of excessive state-intervention, to be replaced with a kind of ‘frontier law’, rather like the Old West; if a businessman had trouble with a strong competitor on the market, the solution was literally to hire a bounty hunter and have the competitor blown away. It was almost possible to measure how successful a businessman in Russia was by the number of bodyguards he needed surrounding him.

The courts in Russia became largely useless. Officials within Government were open to bribery as they were desperate for money themselves, which meant that any Russian with a genuine grievance could not expect help from the law unless they were rich enough to buy a court’s time. And even then, if the defendant was richer, the case would almost certainly be dismissed. With most of the old ‘Soviet’ councils disbanded, every local state office was now basically operating as a front for the Russian Mafia, including the courts. Crime and disorder were everywhere. The majority of people across Russia were living in horrendous poverty, of a kind hard to imagine in the UK or the USA, and many had to turn to crime themselves just to avoid outright starvation.

While all this was going on, the political instability of the previous decade proved to be ongoing. Indeed, there was a near civil war between different branches of the Government. Yeltsin was still President, but the Russian Parliament (‘Supreme Soviet’), dominated by former members of the Communist Party (leaders were Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov), wanted him impeached over his handling of both the economy and the new constitution of the Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin issued a controversial Presidential decree, Decree Number 1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. He did have the authority to do this under the constitution, but he was also compelled under the same laws to call a Presidential election to happen within three months of the dissolution, which he refused to do. Therefore, the Soviet refused to stand down. In October 1993, the two factions started firing at each other.

On 2nd October, tens of thousands of civilians gathered outside the Parliament building – the Russian ‘White House’ as it is known – to protest as Yeltsin’s military forces approached. After a lengthy stand-off, the military opened fire. A prolonged and convoluted skirmish across central Moscow continued through the 3rd and 4th of October, at the end of which, the official number of civilians killed was one hundred and forty-nine. The real death-toll, we will probably never know, but from eyewitness accounts, it seems likely to have been well in excess of a thousand. Thousands more were injured, thousands of others were arrested and/or tortured.

In the next few days, the Russian media tried to spin events as the military ‘heroically’ rescuing the country from ‘Marxist thugs’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bandits’ and ‘gangs of assassins’, all roused into armed insurrection by the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin himself delivered a very cynical address on television while the insurgency was going on, calling the protesters ‘mercenary troops’. In reality, only a tiny proportion of ‘mercenaries’ were armed at all, and a great many of them were older generation Muscovites peacefully protesting against the effects of the Government’s ‘Shock Therapy’ economic reform program.

The whole bloody chapter demonstrated that Yeltsin was as capable of deceit, ruthlessness and authoritarianism as any Soviet leader or Tsar had been before him. The end of communism in Russia was not the end of brutality or oppression in Russia. Communism was clearly not in itself the reason for the decades of tyranny after all, and ending it was not bringing about the promised social liberty. Society was not freer; what oppressed people was now crime and poverty rather than harsh policing. Even the markets were not freer; markets had merely exchanged domination by the Soviets for domination by the Oligarchs

None of this was what people had expected at all when they had struggled for an end to the grip of communism two years earlier. Many were left wondering why on Earth they had sided with the reformers back in the early-1990s at all. For sure, times had often been hard under communism, but at least back then, more often than not, they had enough to eat, the money in their pockets was not completely useless, and crime and disorder were largely kept under control. Now the Russian people were living in a kind of purgatory. It was only a return to state authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin that brought an end to it.

The scary thing is – and I realise this may not seem obvious at first glance but stay with me – I see worrying parallels between what happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and what is starting in Britain now.

See the USSR and the European Union.

See the Russian reformers and the Leave EU campaigners.

See Mikhail Gorbachev and David Cameron.

See Boris Yeltsin and Nigel Farage.

Farage is to Brexit what Yeltsin was to the end of the USSR.

Nigel Farage is the Boris Yeltsin of modern Britain. Seriously.

I am quite serious about the parallels; –

The USSR was a stagnant, bureaucratic mess. The Union arguably was beneficial to its members, but at the same time, it did a lot of harm to them in certain ways. The EU is sometimes weighed down by its own bureaucracy. It is often stagnant because of the constant squabbles amongst its members. And while sharing a common market and many laws with the EU does its member-populations a lot of good, its treatment of some countries such as Greece shows it also does harm in a lot of ways.

The Soviet reformers promised the Russian people the moon around the turn-of-the-1990s. They promised far greater freedom, unlimited prosperity, happy lives-of-plenty for everybody. The Leave EU campaigners have promised the people of the UK the moon. They have promised far greater freedom, an end to bureaucratic inconvenience, more prosperity, less money taken from British pockets to go to Brussels; happy lives-of-plenty for everybody.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader who saw a need for reform, promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the peoples of the USSR, a revival of the economy and of industry. But once he was in power, he had no coherent plan in place to bring it all about, and so largely resorted to improvising, reacting, blundering, and making it up as he went along. His programs attempted to find a middle ground between all-out reform and staying-the-course, and the compromise fell flat. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms were rejected by the Russian people, who chose all-out departure from communism. David Cameron was a British leader who was rather forced into trying to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU. He promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the British people and their neighbours on the continent, and negotiated amendments to the treaty with the European Union. His program attempted to find a middle ground between leaving the Union altogether and allowing the relationship to remain unchanged, and the compromise fell flat. His deal was rejected by the British people who chose all-out departure from the EU.

Boris Yeltsin was a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in Soviet politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life. Nigel Farage is (sadly) a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in British politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life.

Gorbachev had no coherent plan for reform before the death of the USSR, and neither did Yeltsin after it. The UK Independence Party had no coherent plan in place for what to do after leaving the EU, and it has become painfully clear in the months since the Referendum that the Conservative Party lack one either. Gorbachev and Yeltsin despised each other, despite having much common political ground. Cameron and Farage despise each other, despite both being right wingers.

Furthermore, if you look at the Oligarchs, and if you then picture what most of the key figures in the Leave campaign would like to become i.e. stinking-super-rich while the rest of the people are ground into abject poverty, and there is little distinction to be found. (There seems little doubt that Farage’s own wish when seeking to leave the EU has been to make it easier to exploit workers, and to get richer quicker.)

With the majority of Britons who expressed a preference voting to leave the EU, they have done to themselves what the Russians did when they fought to end communism. The British have cut their own lifeline, under the delusion that disconnecting it will make them ‘freer’.

But a baby does not become free and independent when the umbilical is cut. The baby requires a fully-working pair of lungs in order to breathe without the help of its mother, and even then will need the mother’s care for years and years to come. The UK, with its almost total butchery of key industries since the 1980s, has removed its own lungs, and, in the shape of its largely-parasitical Financial Services Industry, transplanted a couple of balloons in their place. It is only with the umbilical cord of Globalisation that such an industry can keep Britain breathing in and out. This is one of the reasons why leaving the EU, at least before we revive critical industries that Margaret Thatcher discarded, is foolish.

Now, I need to stress that what happened to Russia will not necessarily happen to Britain, but it is something that needs to be guarded against; many EU regulations that quarter-informed Britons endlessly moan about present an obstacle to ‘Oligarchism’ (for want of a better word), and these regulations are going to be repealed in the UK when ‘Brexit’ goes ahead. Perhaps the parallel that makes a British repetition of early-90s Russia likelier than it should be is that far too many Leave supporters assume, just like the Russian reformers before them, that the changeover will work simply by default. It will not. It can be made to work for the betterment of the country, but it must be made to work, it cannot be left simply to work itself. The process will be too easy for opportunists to subvert that way.

So too many are not guarding against a repetition of what happened in Russia, and there are some hawkish people out there who, for reasons of pure greed, actually want a repetition. They have been allowed to control much too much of the public discussion to this point, partly because, as I say, there is no plan in place for leading the country in an alternative direction. Just like there was no plan in place in the former Soviet Union.

Destitution, political chaos, economic turmoil, war, mass-deprivation. Yes, these can be avoided, but more of the UK population need to work to avoid them. At present, too many are either assuming that leaving the EU will solve everything by itself, or sulking about the referendum result and looking for ways to derail the process rather than to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. How effective was Yenayev’s attempt to simply ‘undo’ all the changes in 1991, rather than to influence their outcome?

The reformers v the hardliners.

The Leavers v the Remainers.

As Mark Twain is (wrongly) credited as saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

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One Response to “The Putsch & Brexit: History rhymes?”

  1. Sophia.George 💋 Says:

    Beautifully worded. The parallels are uncanny. This blog needs full publicity!


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