Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 2

A New Russian de Gaulle

By Aleksandr Zhilin

The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin said that "genius is the friend of paradoxes." His words spring to mind when one traces the political biography of General Aleksandr Lebed, the commander of Russia’s 14th Army in the Transdniestr region of Moldova. For in that biography–which by all accounts is far from over–are six paradoxes which are likely to define his future as either a Russian Pinochet or a Russian DeGaulle and hence help to define the future of Russia as well.

Paradox One: When the majority of Russia’s generals are crying in public about the way in which the army is now scorned, the people have received as their hero in epaulets a man who attracts attention and support thanks to his decisiveness and unwillingness to tarnish his general’s stars in the ways that others do. Russian society has already become accustomed to the complaints of the other generals that nothing is their fault, that all the problems of the Russian army can be traced to the machinations of the CIA or the failures of Russia’s political leadership. And while these staff generals were trying to force the Russian people to love them, the phenomenon of General Lebed was born. Indeed, he became popular not so much because of the army but in spite of it. He stood out from the gray line of generals who count their high pay more than their duties. Lebed was and is different. His military decisiveness has made him politically popular.

Paradox Two. Aleksandr Lebed is now much more popular than the greatest Russian populist, Boris Yeltsin. In contrast with Generals Boris Gromov or Aleksandr Rutskoy, who have tried to insinuate themselves into the political establishment with populistic formulas, Lebed has stood aside. Nevertheless, he has been prominent in the papers virtually every day, and has attracted a following for his non-political stance. In August 1991, he was a defender of the Russian White House against the putsch, and in the summer of 1992 he acquired a still higher standing among Russians when he suppressed ethnic conflicts in Moldova’s Transdniestr region–even though democrats began calling him a "hawk" and accusing him of all kinds of immoral violations of international law.

A little later, Lebed’s image changed even among the democrats. He became the general "who had stopped the war" in a zone of ethnic conflict. As a result, his newspaper appearances shifted from the opposition press to the reformist and mainline papers. Thus he protected himself from being dismissed: his firing would be extremely unpopular and likely to call forth a protest from a variety of political groups. Yeltsin’s declaration that he will never forget the outstanding role of Lebed in warding off a war in Moldova demonstrates once again the sensitivity of Boris Yeltsin to the politics of the moment.

Paradox Three. Despite his often ferocious exterior, Lebed turns out to be the most accessible general in the Russian army today. If you will, this is the most extraordinary of the six paradoxes here. And we are talking not only about personal qualities. Although fulfilling orders and obeying the rules of the army, Lebed nevertheless constantly allowed himself to express his own views concerning the directives of the political and military authorities. After August 1991, he publicly refused to accept the medal "Defender of Free Russia," and he has distanced himself from the "rank" of savior of Boris Yeltsin by pointing out that he was only fulfilling the orders of those above him. At the same time, however, he has carefully divided his public person into two faces: the loyal army officer and the free citizen who can speak his mind even if his superiors are uncomfortable with his words.

Paradox Four. General Lebed is a complex figure, and his complexity has allowed him to combine two apparently incompatible political principles: "He who is not with us is against us" and "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." As a result, Lebed has often perceived the real qualities of people whose public face suggested something else. Thus Lebed identified Vice President Rutskoy as anything but a democrat, even when the latter was still thought to be one of the closest followers of Yeltsin. Moreover, this paradox in Lebed has kept him from being swallowed up by any of the political clans in Moscow. But however paradoxical this may seem, virtually all of them would like to claim him as a member. As a result, the reputation of General Lebed belongs to everyone and to no one at the same time. And alone among Russian politicians–including Yeltsin–he has thus remained above the fray, and as a result become ever more popular.

Paradox Five: Lebed has been able to establish a reputation as someone who is always prepared to resign, but is also and always prepared to do his duty. This paradox has its roots in the history of Russia. In this country, disturbed by the actions of the new oligarchy, the ability to act rather than to sit in a privileged chair is valued above all others. At all times, he articulates his position in terms of popular wisdom and basic principles rather than in terms of short-term gains. That too has won him many friends. He has made it clear that he would not accept promotion even to the position of defense minister if he had to sacrifice his principles. That sets him apart as well, and suggests that he cannot be manipulated.

Paradox Six: Lebed is clearly the general the Russian army has been waiting for. If you like, this is a particularly post-Soviet paradox. The Russian military clearly wants a strong hand instead of what it sees as the chaos of democracy. Approximately the same feelings are beginning to predominate in society. But at the same time, most soldiers and civilians are afraid of a "strong hand" like Zhirinovsky’s Rather they want a home-grown Pinochet, an enlightened dictator, who can carry the country along an authoritarian path to the foundations of democracy. Neither the communists nor the national patriots can do that. And the liberal intelligentsia lacks anyone of their own for this task even as they begin to talk about the savior general, a feeling fed by a certain nostalgia for White generals Kornilov, Alekseyev and even Kolchak.

But there is another possible role for a general in politics–especially in Russian politics today. That is General deGaulle, a man who did not seek power but let power seek him. More than that, the Russian constitution of today is very much like the constitution of the French Fifth Republic. All that is lacking in Russia today is a deGaulle. Lebed could be that man.

At first glance, the two would seem to have little in common. But beneath the surface there are many similarities. Lebed certainly won’t seek the presidency, but it might seek him as all other figures on the political landscape demonstrate their weaknesses and incapacities. And then, if the public demanded it, Lebed might run and win. Whether that occurs, of course, depends not only on him. The current powers that be will play a role. But even they seem to be promoting among the public the idea of a president as savior of the nation. As circumstances deteriorate with the fighting in Chechnya, economic decline, growing crime, and a political elite that is discrediting itself every day, the interests of the political elite and of Lebed may coincide. And then Lebed could become a Russian deGaulle and a Russian Pinochet at the same time, perhaps the final paradox of his career.