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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 46 New Delhi November 7, 2015

Report from Moscow

Tuesday 10 November 2015, by Sumit Chakravartty

The author, then Mainstream’s Special Correspondent and now Editor, was in Moscow from November 6 to 23, 1991 to get an idea of the objective situation in the Soviet Union just before its dismemberment. The following is the first instalment of his report that gives a vivid account of how the 74th anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7 was observed that year in Moscow, which was still the capital of the USSR.

The Soviet reality today is complex and daunting. History is unfolding beore our very eyes. The country seems to be reliving the eventful days that preceded the October Revolution of 1917. The fate of the Union remains as uncertain as ever. So does the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev still desperately trying to get a leeway in his capacity as the Soviet President. The country’s economy is in the grip of a severe crisis whose intensity shows no signs of decline. Competent observers dismiss the claim of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation President, that the economy would start looking up by autumn next year as wishful thinking.

Sitting in India one with an interest in Soviet affairs had been able to get some knowledge of the aforementioned state of affairs in the Soviet Unioin. But a bird’s eye view of the situation prevailing in Moscow on one’s visit to the Soviet capital for over a fortnight in November was as fascinating as it was overwhelming. It gave one a measure of the depth of the crisis and simultaneously brought out the positive features of allout democratisation, reflected in the free expression of views (far more than ever before) as well as the operation of the free media. It is the latter which has the potentiality of playing a vital role in resolving the crisis facing Soviet life.

Seventh of November this year was not an unusually gloomy day. This year the golden autumn and Babi Lieto (Indian summer) have been shortlived. Winter has set in fairly early but though the cold winds at times bring down the temperature below zero, that does not persist for long and the mercury has been frequently jumping up above the freezing point.

But this was the first time in the history of the country that the October Revolution anniversary was not sponsored by the state. Of course in the evening of November 6 Gorbachev presented some state awards to a group of citizens and spoke feelingly about “these days of October”, without for once being oblivious of the past in its totality, the positive and negative features, the superhuman efforts to build the country braving war, deprivation and the Nazi offensives on the one side and the inhuman repressions launched in the name of Stalin on the other. Uncharacteristi-cally, he delivered a brief speech wherein he gave sufficient indications of not having abandoned the concept of ‘socialist choice’ even if he did not use that specific phrase.

However, a large band of Communists, both hardliners of the Stalinist outlook and the reform-minded groups like the Marxist Platform, as well as Left-oriented individuals gathered at the foot of the statue of Lenin on Octyaber Square (let it be known that no statue of Lenin has been attacked as yet in Moscow) to hold a meeting, sing the Internationale and thereafter bring out a procession that culminated at the Red Square. It was done with precision and punctuality and it testified to the fact that the ideas of the October Revolution still survive the gale of the ‘market’ in today’s Moscow. In fact some of the participants frequently wiped their eyes while singing the Internationale. It was a moving sight indeed.

The previous day, on November 6, that is, just on the eve of the October Revolution anniversary, Yeltsin had issued a decree. It banned the functioning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on Russian territory. Why did he take such a step? Perhaps to prevent any show of strength on the part of the CPSU on November 7. Or, perhaps to demonstrate his strength and authority by which he thought he could break the opposition of the former CPSU bosses in industry and agriculture to his reforms. A conversation with Alexei Prigarin, a CPSU Central Committee member and a member of the Coordination Council of the Marxist Platform, failed to elicit any convincing reply.

Be that as it may, the November 7 demonstration of Communists of different hues was not sought to be obstructed by the authorities. Of course, the processionists did not carry any banner of the CPSU (although several portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were on display) but they did shout many slogans against Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yet they were permitted to proceed along the Sadovoye Koltso (Garden Ring) on which prohibitory orders had been clamped the day before. It means that the authorities (guardians of law and order) did not want to enter into any confrontation with the demonstrators. Their sole objective was to avert clashes between the defenders and opponents of the October Revolution.

The latter took out a much smaller procession from Lubyanka, that is, the pedestal of the statue of Dzerzhinsky (which was removed after the collapse of the August coup; in its place the blue-white-red tricolour of Russia has been placed on the pedestal) in front of the massive KGB building (which, Russians used to joke even in Brezhnev’s time, was the tallest building in the USSR as one could see the Siberian labour camps from the top of the mansion). It was a procession of relatives of the victims of Stalinist repression, mourning their near and dear ones devoured by the “revolution”. It terminated at the Kropotkinskaya swimming pool, which, before its conversion into a swimming pool, was the place where stood the Church of Christ the Saviour; it was destroyed by Stalin in his orgy of annihilating all the symbols of Russia’s religio-cultural heritage.

What one experienced at the Red Square will remain memorable for long. Alongwith many others one found there hardline Communists who claimed they still remained loyal CPSU members despite its dissolution. One met two of them, Vladimir Arkadievich Lizagachov and Pavel Ivanovich Yudich, both young workers from the Leonozovsky electro-mechanical factory. They spoke strongly against not only Gorbachev and Yeltsin but also Ligachev, a hardline leader who lost the battle at the Twentyeighth CPSU Congress in 1990. But they were openly supportive of the August coup leaders—the State Committee for Emergency (known in brief in Russian as the ‘Geh-Kah-Che-Peh’). When one was talking to them one found another lady, a middle-aged one, who spoke passionately about the rot that had taken place in the society since the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU (that unveiled de-Stalinisation) and the old values demolished one by one. She claimed she was not a party member but had an ideal that she inculcated from her association with the Komsomol, the young Communist League.

She asked me if there was anyone in the world like Gorbachev who had demolished the very party that he headed. Someone in the crowd replied: “Of course, he did the right thing in the circumstances. What else could he have done?” The lady frowned at him and snapped back—“I am not talking to you“—as I savoured the altercation which was illustrative of freedom of expression (in every sense of the phrase) that the Soviets had been denied for decades at a stretch.

Suddenly there appeared a couple of young men with the banner: “November 7—Day of our National Tragedy!” They were the participants in the other rally. They carried a small portrait of Czar Nicholas II that was on display. As one inquired if they were victims of Stalinist repression, the said they were actually victims of the Stalinist legacy. When this correspondent told them that for him the book by the dissident historian, Roy Medvedev, on Stalin was an eye-opener, one of the young men, bespectacled and sporting a golden beard, said: “It’s strange that Roy Medevedev is building a new Communist Party at Gorbachev’s behest. But then it’s not so strange anyway. After all, he was, they say, on the payroll of the Russian KGB for many years.”

An elderly gentleman, Anatoly Trofimovich Serov, appreciatively looked at the banner and exclaimed: “Absolutely correct! It was really the day of our national tragedy.” One was tempted to engage in a discussion with him. Did he think that Kerensky should have been allowed to proceed with the democratic revolution of February 1917? “Of course,” he replied, “that was so essential for our country.” Then what did he think about the Mensheviks? “They were definitely more correct than the Bolsheviks in those days.”

A group of young men came forward selling their paper Revolutsionnaya Rossiya (Revolutionary Russia). They said this was the organ of the Social Revolutionaries. “We are not Trotskyites, but we are close to them.”

A couple of middle-aged women, intensely dedicated, carried the red flag. When I started taking snaps they began waving the flags in excitement. And they blurted out: “They have sold the country! They have sold the party!” They said Bush was smoking his cigar and making Yeltsin do his job in the Soviet Union. One of them came upto me and asked: “Who are you?” A correspondent from India, I replied. “From India? Then you know everything about who killed Indira Gandhi and who killed Rajiv Gandhi. So you should be with us.” She was quite animated. An elderly gentleman tried to argue with them. Suddenly the two women became aggressive. I asked them: what’s the matter? They replied: “He is a dirty capitalist!” One person told me in front of the women not to waste time talking to them. The women got even more agitated. Two other middle-aged women, equally intense and dedicated, appeared on the scene and disputed their claims. Arguments and counter-arguments followed. But there was no untoward incident.

Another young man had a placard scathingly assailing Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Shevardnadze, Yakovlev. The man at one point shouted: “They (Gorbachev and company) are all fascists.” An old gentleman went upto him and patted him on the back: “Molodiets (Bravo)!”

One spotted only one drunkard in the crowd. He was abusing everyone but more particularly those carrying the banner “November 7—Day of our National Tragedy!” Someone pointed to him and whispered in my ear: “Look, the product of our socialist revolution!” The Muscovites’ sense of humour, visible even during my stay in the Soviet capital in 1974-78, has soared of late under conditions of free speech, free media and free thinking.

In the meantime both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (head of the Liberal Democratic Party, championing the cause of Russian nationalism to the point of adopting chauvinist postures, who had contested against Yeltsin for the Russian Federation President’s office and won eight per cent of the votes cast), were seen strolling on Red Square with sizeable groups of supporters and hangers-on in exercises in public relations on a holiday.

That was how the 74th anniversary of the October Revolution was marked in the Red Square this year. Absolutely unique!

(Mainstream, December 7, 1991)

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