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  • Russia's Emerging Political Parties
  • Michael McFaul (bio)

In the wake of last August's failed coup attempt, the Soviet Union—as a government, an economy, and an idea—collapsed. The total failure of the putsch demonstrated how rotten and decayed the Soviet regime, once the most pervasive, powerful, and authoritarian in the world, had become. The state that the coup leaders were trying to seize bore little resemblance to the one in which they had spent their careers. Gorbachev's reforms and the subsequent rise of new political and social structures independent of Communist Party (CPSU) control had gutted the old Soviet order. By the summer of 1991, only the husk of the ancien régime remained; after the August putsch, even that disintegrated.

The sudden and unanticipated implosion of the Soviet system has created a colossal political vacuum. Whether this vacuum will be filled by a market economy and multiparty democracy remains uncertain. While democracy and the market have served as effective ideologies of opposition in the fight against communism, these concepts are foreign and their institutional supports remain weak. Political associations aspiring to destroy the old state and social order have proliferated for several years, but they are only now confronting the task of defining and building a new democratic polity. Moreover, this process of creating a new political system is unfolding within the context of acute social and economic dislocation. Unlike other countries that have undergone transitions to democracy, the lands that once comprised the Soviet Union are undertaking not only political reform (from dictatorship to democracy), but also economic transformation (from state socialism to market capitalism) and decolonization all at the same time. [End Page 25]

A key role in attempting to carry through this threefold transition will be played by the democratic forces of the Russian Republic, whose courageous resistance doomed the August putsch to failure. Though often neglected by Western accounts that concentrate on Gorbachev's program of reform from above, the process of democratization from below has been underway in Russia for several years now. Examining the development of this nascent democratic revolution can help us to make a more accurate appraisal of the prospects for transforming democracy from an ideology of opposition into an institutionalized system of rule in postcommunist Russia.

Sparks from Below

Informal political associations began to emerge in Russia in the spring of 1987, after longstanding criminal sanctions against "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" were relaxed. Taking their cue from Gorbachev's call for more open political discussion, young leaders of the establishment intelligentsia—academicians, journalists, and low-ranking Communist functionaries—formed political discussion groups, including Club Perestroika, Obshchina (Commune), and the Federation of Socialist Social Clubs (FSOK). Their biweekly discussions addressed issues like bureaucratic reform, the relationship between centralized planning and the market, the role of the church in a socialist society, and Soviet relations with the West.

These activities acquired a new focus during the months preceding the Nineteenth Conference of the CPSU in June 1988. With Gorbachev's encouragement and logistical support from some of the more liberal Komsomol and Communist Party district branches, these informal associations began weekly discussions about the theses proposed for adoption at the upcoming conference. They also expressed their support for liberal delegates like Yuri Afanasyev, Gavriil Popov, and Boris Yeltsin. In addition, the neformal'nye (informals) sought to influence the course of events at the conference by convening public demonstrations like the weekly meetings at Moscow's Pushkin Square that Obshchina and Grazhdanskoye Dostoinstvo (Civil Dignity) organized during May and June 1988. Soon thereafter several clubs combined to form the Moscow People's Front, modeled on the Estonian People's Front, to coordinate informal activities.

At this stage, the people's fronts in Moscow and elsewhere were not yet critical of the basic principles of Gorbachev's perestroika. At its first organizational meeting, the Moscow People's Front passed a highly contested resolution espousing democratic socialism. While old revolutionary slogans such as "All Power to the Soviets" and "Land for the Peasants" were resurrected as an obvious affront to the nomenklatura, the 1989 Moscow People's Front Charter still affirmed "respect for ideals [End Page 26] of peace, free...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 25-40
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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