Staunton, March 16 – The Soviet Union ended not with the August 1991 coup, Yevgeny Gontmakher argues, but rather when Boris Yeltsin launched his attack on the privileges of the nomenklatura by taking public transport and freely associating with the Russian man on the street, something Soviet officials had not done for decades.
Now, once again, the Moscow economist and commentator says, the Putin elite is dangerously isolating itself from the Russian people, thus setting the stage for a populist challenge against its privileges and its attitude that it has the right to all that it possesses (mk.ru/specprojects/free-theme/2017/03/15/pogubyat-li-rossiyu-privilegii-chinovnikov.html).
The privileges of the Soviet nomenklatura, Gontmakher points out, did not generate “open protests even from the small number of dissidents … But the people living under conditions of a chronic shortage of goods felt ever more negative about the party and economic hierarchy.” Some in the intelligentsia even recalled “Leninist modesty.”
“Of course,” he continues, “such a status quo when society is quietly angry about the privileges of the nomenklatura but is afraid to go into the open with protests can survive for a very long time.” There needs to be what people now call “’a black swan.’” A generation ago that was Boris Yeltsin, “who was no dissident but rather a cadre party worker.”
Because of his popularity, a commission to study privileges was created under Ella Pamfilova. After nine months of investigation, it reported its findings on July 6, 1991, and called for an end to the corrupt use by officials of their official positions. But the USSR Supreme Soviet rejected its findings.
That might have been the end of it except for one thing: Six days later, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin adopted the Declaration of the Sovereignty of Russia and proceeded to move in the directions that the Panfilova commission had called for.
Had there not been the failed August coup, Yeltsin’s fate might very well have been different. “It is possible,” Gontmakher says, “that the Soviet nomenklatura could have all the same turned the course of events and the theme of democracy and freedom as well as that of the liquidation of nomenklatura privileges could have been closed for a time.”
“But what happened, happened,” the commentator continues, and “here it is necessary to not that the charisma and popularity of Boris Nikolayevich then was built not on abstract slogans about freedom and democracy but … on his intensions to liquidate the nomenklatura and its privileges, something which was completely understood by all.”
Gontmakher says that he has engaged in this historical exegesis because “the current situation about the way of life of certain higher officials which has become the subject of public attention recently in a certain way is beginning to recall the social processes about the late-Soviet nomenklatura described above.”
One needn’t name names because “unfortunately, this is a systemic illness of the current Russian state,” he says, be it the misuse of government money for dachas, speeding official cars which drive others off the roads, medical care available only for the elite, or all the other ways the current elite behaves like the Soviet feudal nomenklatura.
If one fantasizes for a moment, Gontmakher says, one might imagine that Vladimir Putin could take advantage of this by very publicly giving up all but one or two of his houses or his special medical care and thus setting a pattern for all subordinate officials and winning him and them much support before the upcoming round of elections.
“I of course understand that my fantasies will remain only fantasies,” the Moscow commentator continues. “But if everything remains as it is now, then it is simply impossible to predict the development of Russia even out only to 2025. One only has to wait for the flight of the latest ‘black swan’” and for all the radical changes one had hoped Russia had moved beyond.