Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 16

The impending conflict between “left-wing” and “progressive” patriots in Russia

By Aleksandr Tsipko

The founding congress of Russia’s new "Movement in Support of the Armed Forces, Defense Industry and Military Science" was held in Moscow on 20 September. It brought together more than forty organizations with regional branches in almost all the regions of Russia and provided a stark demonstration of the growing dissatisfaction of servicemen and defense-industry workers with Boris Yeltsin both as commander-in-chief and as president. Above all, it provided evidence of the existence of a profound crisis in the Popular-Patriotic Union, Russia’s main opposition movement led by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The congress’ two keynote speakers — retired Gen. Lev Rokhlin, and former defense minister Igor Rodionov — and military delegates who came to the congress from their posts on active duty, all painted a harrowing picture of the decline and collapse of the army. The federal budget is allocating only one-tenth of the money necessary for defense conversion. Adequate funding is not being provided for the modernization and security of Russia’s nuclear stockpiles. By 2005, a significant portion of Russia’s present nuclear arsenal will be obsolete. Reforming the army is impossible on the money which the government has assigned for the purpose (3 percent of the federal budget). Some 100,000 officers and their families are without housing and have no prospects for acquiring it in the near future. If the proposed cuts in military manpower are implemented, the number of those without housing will double since officers will be discharged into the reserves without housing. Soldiers are starving. There are humiliating delays in the payment of wages; frequently, even colonels on active duty scrape a living by working at night unloading railroad cars. If there were a battle alert in air force units, only 20 percent of the aircraft would be in a fit state to take off. And so on.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing extraordinary in Rokhlin’s initiatives. In any normal country, a general would be bound to appear who would speak plainly and give voice to the pain and suffering of those who still understand the concept of an officer’s honor. In fact, it is strange that such a man did not emerge several years ago.

Rokhlin’s uncompromising approach reflects not so much his own character as of the mood of the millions of Russian people whose lives are tied up with the defense sector. Hence his statement that, "As long as Yeltsin is in power, Russia will be destroyed and perish." The Yeltsin team made a foolish mistake when, without even trying to enter into dialogue with the general, it rushed to dub him the next leader of the "irreconcilable opposition."

An analysis of Rokhlin’s speech at his movement’s founding congress provides no basis for accusations that the general adopted an irreconcilable stance toward existing economic and political realities. Rokhlin was certainly more tolerant than Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. For example, Rokhlin insisted that the tricolor flag, emblem of the post-Communist Yeltsin regime, should hang over the congress, and he put a firm stop to the attempts of activists from Stanislav Terekhov’s Union of Officers to replace the tricolor with the red Soviet flag. Rokhlin’s actions contrasted with the efforts of Zyuganov and the Communist parliamentary faction he leads to block the adoption of the tricolor as the national flag on the grounds that, during the Second World War against Germany, the "Vlasovite traitors" fought under that flag. By his actions, therefore, Rokhlin distanced himself from the Communist Party’s slogans. And it was certainly not by chance that Rokhlin ended his speech with a call to build a "democratic Russia." Zyuganov takes care not use such terms: when he speaks of democracy, it is only in a negative sense. There was no hint of Soviet or Communist revanche in Rokhlin’s speech; he spoke of genuine people’s power, most likely in the social-democratic sense of the word. Contrasting his own "progressive" patriotism with other, presumably "non-progressive," forms of patriotism. Rokhlin spoke strongly against the nationalist tint of Russian patriotism and great-power statism [gosudarstvennichestvo].

Rokhlin often speaks of the need to unite all the patriotic forces, but his campaign may have precisely the opposite impact. The most likely effect of Rokhlin’s new movement is that it will split the Popular-Patriotic Union that Zyuganov set up into two warring camps: a "left wing" and a "progressive patriotic" wing.

In fact, Rokhlin has adopted precisely the positions that Zyuganov should have adopted a long time ago if he wanted to give the Russian opposition movement a more constructive character. But it is Zyuganov’s tragedy as a politician that he has been unable, for both objective and subjective reasons, to shed the red-white patriotism in which his Communist Party is steeped. Zyuganov is trying instinctively to preserve his own electoral base, and is doomed to drag behind him the unbearable burden of his red "train." This is the reason for his Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the red flags, the flirting with Stalin and the defense of the ideals and goals of Lenin’s October Revolution.

Zyuganov cannot possibly believe that either the Civil War unleashed by the Bolsheviks or Stalin’s collectivization made the Russian people happy, nor can he believe that Marxist-Leninist doctrine has all the answers. Were he to give voice to his skepticism about such things, however, orthodox Communists in his party would strip him of his post as leader both of the Communist Party and as leader of the "irreconcilable" opposition.

It is this, in the author’s opinion, that explains Rokhlin’s success in creating, in little over two months, a movement that boasts regional branches in almost all Russia’s regions. Rokhlin’s feat testifies not only to the discontent of those in the armed services and defense industry, but also to the existence of a profound crisis in the ranks of Zyuganov’s Popular-Patriotic Union. The constructive political and spiritual opposition to Yeltsin’s regime is trying to distance itself from red, Communist revanche. Many people who, for various reasons, remain in opposition to Yeltsin’s regime, fully understand that the fundamentalist Communists are doomed to extinction and are playing a negative, not a constructive, role. The revanchist claims put forward by the orthodox Communists are merely strengthening popular support for the radical reformers and fostering the illusion that only decisive, accelerated reforms can make the democratic transformations irreversible.

If Yeltsin’s team had had any strategic sense, therefore, it would in the author’s opinion not have pushed Rokhlin and his movement into the embrace of Zyuganov and the irreconcilable opposition. Rokhlin himself is unlikely to be elected president in the next elections, due in 2000. But he and his movement do undermine the position of other figures, such as Aleksandr Lebed, in the army and the defense industry. At the founding congress of Rokhlin’s movement, speakers who dared to say anything nice about Gen. Lebed found themselves whistled down.

And finally, if Rokhlin’s movement holds firm to the course of "progressive patriotism," that is, the course of social and political realism, it will, by virtue of its very existence, push Zyuganov’s Communist Party toward the center of the political spectrum and facilitate the process of the party’s social-democratization.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Dr. A. S. Tsipko is a political philosopher and senior research fellow at the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.


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