November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

News Weekly, November 19, 2016


by Mikhail Gorbachev (Translated by Arch Tait)

Polity Press, Cambridge
Hardcover: 400 pages
Price: AUD$39.95


Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


Those with an interest in Russian politics often pondered, before the fall of the Soviet Empire, whether the foreign policy of a remade Russia would be substantially under a regime different from that of the Soviet era. Now, with the Russian air force daily raining death on Syria and so-called “irregulars” poised like the sword of Damocles over Ukraine, one would have to say that the foreign and military policy of the new Russia is a continuation of that of the old Soviet Union.

The relationship between the West and Russia is as bad as, if not worse than, during the dark days of the Cold War. However, when it comes to current military adventures, Mikhail Gorbachev is reluctant to find fault with the new Russian leadership, whether it be in the Caucasus, Ukraine or actions in other hotspots.

The leitmotiv of Russian external policy is an eternal paranoia induced by the fact that Russia does not have naturally defensible borders. Russia has hundreds of miles of rolling steppes which a determined enemy cavalry, whether the Tartars or the Wehrmacht, can roll up like a carpet.

Russia is eternally either at war, or preparing for war. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, soldiers are better paid than teachers. Perhaps that is how it should be.

Gorbachev is not a conservative or a liberal; he describes himself as a left-social democrat. One of his best friends and political allies was Willie Brandt, the West German Mayor of Berlin and leader of the Socialist International. Gorbachev lent his support to founding an effective social democratic party in Russia. His efforts had limited success.

Gorbachev comments: “Russian society has no longstanding tradition of people organising themselves, of forming associations to resolve problems at all levels, from the grassroots to the national. The first shoots of that do appear,  but attempts are immediately made to try to crush them. Even in the most favourable conditions, it is a slow process”

The lack of a tradition of civic involvement can be explained by the fact that under the rule of communism, the state had a monopoly on power. Under the czars, peasants who showed signs of initiative felt the end of the knout. Any institution opposing the state, or even acting independently of it, was seen as a threat, to be crushed immediately.

This deficiency in civil society, whether under the czars or the communists, meant that the ground had not been prepared for democracy. The traditional voluntary associations of free citizens, for whatever purpose or no purpose, did not exist in Russia, as they had done for centuries in the West. Under Putin, local and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including religious groups, have been harassed and eliminated.

The Russian Orthodox Church does at times oppose the Government on issues of conscience, but it sees itself as the protector of the Believers, not as a political organisation. It has a great deal of experience in surviving repression. Gorbachev is not a Believer; he is an atheist.

Gorbachev did not intend to bring down the Evil Empire, he writes; he wanted to revive Russian society and politics. He intended to do this by the process of Perestroika, or political reform, using Glasnost, or transparency and free speech, as a tool to ensure the proper functioning of state power and the legal system. Gorbachev says that Perestroika was only in its formative stages when he left power.

The effect of totalitarianism, he says, was a bitter legacy standing in the way of reforming Russia, a barrier that Perestroika must overcome. It is no secret that the Red Army did not collapse; rather the economy could no longer support the military budget, which directly and indirectly accounted for 70 per cent of GDP.

Soviet factories could make the world’s best Main Battle Tanks, but not frilly bras or blue jeans.

The end of the Soviet Union in part resulted from economic collapse and institutionalised corruption. Gorbachev quotes a report from the Russia Academy of Sciences: “A bacchanalia of disregard for the law and unprecedented destabilisation of the economy, bringing about chaos, had led to a sharp rise in corruption and effectively an abdication of power to corrupt officials and the mafia.”

The supposed remedy was the notorious “shock therapy” as touted by economists linked to Milton Friedman. This was meant rapidly to transform the Russian economy, based on state socialism, to a free enterprise economy almost overnight.

But it overlooked the fact that Russia, apart from the late czarist period and the New Economic Policy (NEP) promoted by Nikolai Bukharin in the 1920s, had no foundations of business experience on which to draw.

The net result was that Boris Yeltsin and his cronies, through various means, turned key sectors of the economy into oligopolies. The oligarchs became immensely rich while the modest savings of retirees and ordinary wage earners were shredded by runaway inflation.

It is doubtful that the Soviet Union would have survived even with the enthusiastic and successful prosecution of Perestroika and Glasnost.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev has lived to an extraordinarily great age for a Russian leader. He is now in his 80s. He is clearly a man of great courage and insight. Boris Yeltsin was said to have required a pickle and a shot of vodka to get him out of bed in the morning. Gorbachev continued to participate in the political process long after he left government, particularly through the Gorbachev Foundation.

The New Russia will repay careful reading by anyone with more than a passing interest in Russia and its past and future. The book is surprisingly comprehensive and well documented.

Jeffry Babb studied Russian history, politics and literature under Professor Patrick O’Brien at UWA.

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