Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 25

By Andrei Kalganov

The difference between reading tea-leaves and professional forecasting is that the former is based on transcendental considerations. But in Russia these aspects, which do not lend themselves to rational analysis, are often the determining factor in formulating what is termed the “voice of the people.” And this “voice,” contrary to all the well-grounded and oft-repeated theories of the elite, usually turns out to be nearer the truth than the predictions of the forecasters and political analysts who follow internationally accepted methods. Why is this?

I do not propose to rush straight into an answer to this question–we shall return to it. First, a few words about what to my mind, and there is inevitably a certain subjectivity here, the voice of the people signifies.


A recent Prism article bore the symbolic title “The people are silent” (see Prism, October 16, 1998, Vol. IV, Issue 20). This silence continues to this day, but its tone and degree have changed. The tension in the country is growing slowly but inexorably. This can be seen not just in the ongoing industrial action and hunger strikes, which have reached an unprecedented scale (500 teachers began a hunger strike the day this article was written), not just in the growing rash of disasters and problems which threaten to cause a genuine calamity this winter (not a day goes by without the television or radio reporting fresh warnings of cold weather and famine in this or that region of Russia), and not just in the unstable political situation when regional leaders try to escape on their own to avoid being buried by the economic crisis of the Federation (Ilyumzhinov started this in Kalmykia, everybody is wondering who will be next).

It is not just all these things. The problem is that the crisis of trust is deepening in Russia. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. Half-starved, and fed up with the ceaseless round of crisis, the majority of workers, pensioners and even young people, who are now facing mass unemployment, have lost confidence and show less and less trust in any of the current political leaders, as confirmed by almost all the opinion polls.

The silence of the people is developing from a rumble into a roar.

People have indeed lost faith. University lecturers who are paid US$70 a month, teachers who do not even get their US$50 for months on end, workers and pensioners–we are all tired and as yet do not know what to hope for, who to believe or which way to turn.

Should we go back to Stalinism or the stagnation of the Brezhnev era? Surveys show that the latter is the period people prefer, remembering it as the happiest period in our country’s history. No, most people now would not be able to cope with a return to authoritarianism, general shortages and a dictatorship of geriatrics who have lost possession of their faculties, as demonstrated by the results of the 1996 presidential elections, when a majority (albeit a small one) said “no” to Zyuganov, rejecting a return to the past. The fact that Zyuganov and company are in fact not heading for Brezhnevism but for a parody of Hungarian-style “goulash-socialism” is a matter for separate discussion.

Or should we go forward towards a bright capitalist future? But most of us are persuaded that the existing semi-feudal, semi-criminal capitalism in Russia has as much in common with liberal theories of “open society” as Stalin’s gulags have with the Marxist kingdom of freedom.

So what is the poor Russian to do?

This is a question which demands an answer. Only the person who can provide an answer–and not just a theoretically sound one but one which can genuinely be perceived as the truth by a majority of the Russian people–only this candidate and only this political force can have any hope not just of an election victory (which could go to the current favorite if no answer is forthcoming), but of success in resolving Russia’s problems in the 21st century.

What is the answer? Who will come up with it?

The greatest tragedy of the current situation is that none of the country’s political forces can hear or wants to hear the rumbling roar of the people, but continues to inhabit the virtual world of the political games of the “elite” (in essence, the nomenklatura), and continues to use the usual terminology of “Left and Right” and “Westernizer and patriot” when discussing the preferences of the public. But these games are coming to an end. The experience of the current Duma, not to mention the president, shows that none of these politicians are able or indeed willing to solve the country’s problems; they are only interested in trying to consolidate their own positions somehow or other.

Meanwhile Yeltsin’s state of health–coupled with the almost universal opinion that the current president has outlived his usefulness–make the question of a new leader very relevant today.


Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov’s position in Russian society today is encapsulated in the paradox that he is tied to a sizable but finite electorate which is slowly but surely shrinking. He is the leader almost exclusively of those for whom the main point of voting is to register a protest against the current system crisis in the country, its economy, politics and culture. There were a fair number of those–about one-third of the population, and there are still quite a number of them–about one-fifth according to the latest polls–but their votes were not enough last time, and will certainly not be enough next time, for victory in the presidential elections. As time goes by, so Russia’s citizens become more convinced that Zyuganov is not backed by a social force capable of clearly expressing the aspirations of the majority for the next ten to fifteen years, aspirations which they themselves have not yet realized, let alone expressed.

The Zyuganov mix of great power mentality, Orthodoxy and state paternalism is at best taken as the lesser of two evils by those who see their future as linked to traditional Russian industries and agriculture, those whose only aspiration is that things should be no worse than they used to be, and those who are ready to sacrifice their civil liberties for the sake of the “good Tsar” and a reasonably solicitous boss. Fortunately, as noted above, such people number no more than one-third of the population today.

Moreover, there is more and more vacillation in the Zyuganov camp: 1996 demonstrated that Gennady Zyuganov can not triumph in the presidential elections. The most he will get in 1999-2000 is a large faction in the Duma. But in Russia this does not amount to very much. It does not give access to state power and the accompanying gravy train. Nor does it allow the will of the majority of the lower classes to be expressed.

As a result, a significant part of the Popular-Patriotic Alliance (NPSR)–the pro-Zyuganov coalition–which is not directly involved in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is beginning to look around for a different respectable leader, who would combine state paternalism with realistic chances of victory. November 1998 demonstrated that the Agrarian party and many centrist “patriotic” forces are not averse to beginning a new political game independently of the KPRF. Moreover, the KPRF’s announcement that the elections to the Duma will feature a KPRF list–which will be open to nonparty members–rather than an NPSR list intensified the centrifugal tendencies in the alliance. And then a considerable amount of oil was poured onto the fire by the speaker of the State Duma, KPRF member Gennady Seleznev, when he declared his intention to run for president independently of Zyuganov. This led political analysts to forecast that the coalition would split into a Zyuganov-led KPRF block and a separate Seleznev-led NPSR block. As yet this is just speculation on the part of political scientists. But these are the first indications that the moderate opposition has sensed, as yet perhaps only vaguely, that there will be no victory with Zyuganov and the KPRF.

THERE IS NO PARTY OF POWER… YET The most unusual aspect of the current situation in Russia is the utter chaos in the so-called “party of power.” This whole clique has never been at such a loss as to whom to back. Chernomyrdin? A half-dead Yeltsin? Somebody from among the radical right “young reformers” of the Chubais-Gaidar mold?

Or perhaps they should all resign themselves (before it’s too late) to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, with whom practically all the political prostitutes in today’s Russia are hoping to get into bed?

The questions are: Who will win? Who is the person to curry favor with?

This question remains unanswered, exacerbating the commotion (which is as yet fairly low-key–it seems there is still some time left) in the upper echelons–commotion which reverberates in the press and among the court intelligentsia.

They are indeed in an unenviable position. You only have to look at Chernomyrdin’s acrobatics: First he forms a center-right coalition (and for Russians these political hieroglyphics can be read in only one way: that he had decided to patch up his differences with Chubais and Gaidar and sell his soul to the IMF); then he sucks up to Luzhkov–patriot with a pink hue…

Luzhkov is no better himself. First, all through spring and summer and the beginning of autumn, he–rather ambiguously but obviously for the benefit of the public–flirted with various social democrats (“New Socialism” and many other smaller groups frequently referred to him as their leader, and Luzhkov did not deny it), then he dropped hints about a possible coalition with Zyuganov and ranked himself among the center-left. Following this, Luzhkov did nothing to discourage General Andrei Nikolaev, former chief of Russia’s Border Guards Service, from portraying him [Luzhkov] throughout the media as a leader of the “Union of Popular power and Labor,” Nikolaev’s own party. Then suddenly, literally in the last possible month (in Russia, a political party or movement planning to participate in elections must register its charter with the Ministry of Justice no less than one year in advance). Luzhkov decided to form his own movement, surrounding himself with an impressive number of governors and other court figures.

The political mongrels keen to find a master immediately pricked up their ears: was this really the new leader?

I would not rush to confirm that. This has nothing to do with the theories of arrogant political forecasters who are now working overtime wondering what if…? What if Luzhkov joins forces with Chernomyrdin? Or with Yavlinsky? Or with…? The thing is that Luzhkov has not yet been–and in all likelihood will never be–able to rally the country’s top people (the nomenklatura), or “new” people, or most importantly those who are able to express what the people themselves are as yet unable to express, but what will really rescue us from the terrible crisis which has affected every one of us very deeply. Most Russians (as opposed to the wise political scientists and highly experienced politicians) understand full well that the impressive shop windows in Moscow are the fruit not so much of production but of a redistribution of wealth and theft, and that these resources will soon not be sufficient even for Moscow. Luzhkov’s coffers are running low.

So, if not Zyuganov or Luzhkov, then who?


In Russia there are always generals hovering among the contenders for political leadership. As yet–thankfully–their efforts have been unsuccessful. And the predictions which analysts are always repeating–that General Lebed will be successful in a country fed up with a lack of order–are looking unlikely.

Why is this?

For the same reason: there is no power or, more importantly, no truth behind the general.

Lebed–just like Luzhkov and recently Zyuganov, Chernomyrdin and innumerable others–is grazing on the same political ground where all the grass was eaten back at the beginning of the reforms and there is only mud and manure left–the ground of political “centrism.”

The inverted commas are not accidental. Essentially, the programs of the majority of presidential candidates are filled with a standard mixture of platitudes which are as meaningless as they are correct: the market, but with major social restraints; a strong state and revival of superpower might, while observing certain niceties in the field of human rights; moderate criticism of the past with compulsory praise for the achievements of our space development program and military industrial complex; a combination of the values of collective socialism and liberal individualism; et cetera, et cetera.

You can’t argue with any of that–with the exception of one thing: The more the nomenklatura leaders try to implement this program in Russia, the worse the crisis becomes. Nomenklatura bureaucratic centrism has already led to a dead end.

As regards extremism and dictatorship–no one has the power to achieve this.

So what is the poor Russian to do?

…The people are still silent. But we are totally fed up. A solution is as essential as the air we breathe. There still remains some hope in the “last valve” (we should remind our foreign readers that this was how Stolypin’s reforms were seen on the eve of the 1917 revolution) in the person of Yevgeny Primakov, but it is impossible to judge as yet whether this valve will open and to what extent its opening–if it happens at all–will release the pent-up steam of the crisis.

So who will be the next president of Russia–and when? Today there can only be one honest answer to this question among academics and experts: The vast majority of Russians in the street have not yet decided themselves, and any attempt on the part of the “elite” to decide the issue for them may lead at best to the installation in the Kremlin of another “favorite” who is unable to solve any of the problems facing Russia.

Unfortunately, the majority of politicians and political scientists in our country are unwilling to admit this.

Then again, perhaps there will be no more presidents in Russia at all?

Andrei Kalganov is a Doctor of Economics and a Senior Research Fellow at Moscow State University.