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Sean Speer: The post-Soviet struggle for Russia’s soul is far from over

Commentary

About five years ago, I came into possession of dozens of issues of National Review magazine dating back to the early 1960s.

The collection has since traveled with me through three or four moves including one cross-border relocation. The magazines are heavy and expensive to transport but I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. They serve as a journalistic museum of the history of the modern conservative movement and the broader history of the modern world.

I find them a particularly useful reference for the period from roughly 1985 to 1995 which on one hand is not quite history and therefore has yet to be subjected to extensive historical analysis and on the other hand is not part of my own political experience and awareness. It’s a bit of a black box for my understanding of contemporary politics across the globe.

Yet this approximate 10-year period was in hindsight a historical linchpin for so much of modern politics in Canada and elsewhere. The end of the Cold War and the formative geopolitical choices made in its aftermath, the Persian Gulf War and its lasting consequences for the Middle East, the rise of globalization and the neoliberalism of the Clinton Administration which laid the intellectual groundwork for China’s accession into the World Trade Organization, the failures of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord and their constitutional and political fallout, the emergence of the Reform Party and the splintering of the Canadian Right, and on and on and on.

It’s not hyperbole to say that roughly 35 years later, we’re living in the world that this short decade wrought. My National Review collection can help to contextualize and better understand the modern outgrowths of these historical moments through the lens of the magazine and its stable of brilliant thinkers and writers.

This week I found myself flipping through an issue from September 1991 with the cover headline, “Vladimir Ilyich Who?: Reflections on the Russian Revolution.” It includes articles and essays from an extraordinary group of contributors including Bill Buckley, Robert Conquest, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, on the so-called “August Revolution” in the Soviet Union.

Younger readers will be forgiven for not being familiar with this historical episode. It refers to a mid-August 1991 attempt by communist hard-liners to wrestle control of the Soviet state from the then-president and general secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup leaders consisted of top military and civilian officials who formed what became known as the State Committee on the State of Emergency. The catalyst for their attempt was opposition to Gorbachev’s market reforms, the loss of Eastern European states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and his efforts to build new relationships in the West.

A truncated version of the story consists of Gorbachev being held in house arrest at his vacation villa in Crimea, followed by a declaration of a state of emergency by coup leader Gennady Yanayev, and plans to similarly arrest Russian president Boris Yeltsin as part of an overall effort to halt the Gorbachev-Yeltsin vision of economic and political reform. Within a few days, however, the coup (which has been described by historian Dan Stone as the “last gasp of those who were astonished at and felt betrayed by the precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe”) was over and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was instead hastened. That followed a mere four months later.

The contributors to National Review’s September 23, 1991 issue could already see the writing on the wall. The issue’s lead editorial anticipated the forthcoming unipolar world in which there was “no doubt the United States is the only superpower” and that we would in effect be living in “an American world.”

The magazine’s editors recognized that it would be a “somewhat chaotic world.” Freedom, as they put it, “is a kind of chaotic thing.” It would be up to statesmen therefore to establish the conditions for global peace, security, and prosperity. Their tone, in the other words, was triumphalist but also clear-eyed.

An article by Leon Aron, then a scholar at the Heritage Foundation and today a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, similarly speculated about a post-communist Soviet Union that faced real challenges including internal violence, economic disruption, and even possible nuclear threats, but ultimately bought into the idea that Yeltsin could lead the country through “a very complicated transition to democracy and a market economy.”

An essay by then-Reader’s Digest contributor, David Satter, conveyed a similar assessment of what might come next. As he put it: “The country could descend into chaos; it could even fall victim to another coup. But whatever happens it will not return to ‘Gorbachevism,’ the attempt to free consciousness while preserving the society’s totalitarian institutions intact.”

The question of course was: what came next?

A beautiful piece of writing by Solzhenitsyn observed that the Soviet story was one in which the country had “forfeited the entire twentieth century” due to a combination of bad ideas, policies, and leadership. Yet he was circumspect about the prospects of the post-August revolution. He warned of the risk of “repeat[ing] the chaos” of 1917 and made the case that “democracy must be built from the bottom up, gradually, patiently, and in a way designed to last rather than being proclaimed thunderously from above in its full-fledged form.”

Solzhenitsyn’s admonition regrettably went unheeded in the immediate aftermath of the August revolution in 1991. His prescience about the challenges of post-communist democratization was notable. As he wrote at the time: “From a flourishing condition we have been hurled back to a state of semi-barbarity, and we are sitting amid the wreckage.”

In hindsight, it seems clear that it was out of this wreckage that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s worldview took shape. His personal lesson from the August revolution was ultimately about power and strength. One gets the sense that this formative experience (when Putin himself was about the same age relative to the current distance from these events) permanently influenced his conception of politics and the world. The intellectual basis of his recent invasion of Ukraine finds a big part of its foundation in this brief yet transformational episode.

Let me wrap up with the issue’s essay by Buckley. Although it reflected some of the same cautions about the instability and risks that might follow, it was a bit more triumphant. After all, he had founded the magazine more than 35 years earlier in large part as a reaction to Soviet communism and its threat to economic, political, and religious freedom. He could be forgiven therefore for concluding with something of a personal reflection:

“… every month, every year, the writers in National Review did what they could to press hope, and to maintain the moral perspective. We are justly proud that one of our readers became the leader of the Free World, who exercised the critical voice in the critical deliberations of the Eighties.

And, on bended knee, we give thanks to Providence for the transfiguration of Russia, thanks from those of us who lived to see it, and thanks to those, departed, who helped us to understand why it was right to struggle to sustain the cause of Western civilization.”

Recent weeks have served to remind us that this struggle is far from over. These lessons of history can help to guide us through the darkness of the present chaos. But it’s ultimately up to us to press hope and maintain the moral perspective.

Malcolm G. Bird: Reflections on a protest movement

Commentary

Let us step back, take a deep breath, and think about the events that have transpired in Canada over the last six weeks. We have seen a grassroots political movement form, ostensibly against mandated vaccine requirements, but quickly morphing into a wider movement questioning the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the intrusion of the state into the daily lives of Canadians, and, more generally, the critical issues of freedom, choice, and the exercise of power in a democracy.

Regardless of one’s views on the truckers’ message, or their messaging, they have garnered considerable support amongst a substantial minority of the Canadian population. This truckers’ group—broadly speaking since it was far from a coherent body—blocked bridges and border crossings, and occupied downtown Ottawa for over three weeks. Their libertarian-inspired views and concerns with state-over reach have now entered the political sphere—where it belongs—via the Conservative Party, as its current leadership turmoil illustrates. The blockades of key infrastructure are gone, and the occupation of Ottawa is over.

And nobody died. There were no serious injuries or physical violence. There was no rampant lawlessness, no rioting, no looting, and there were very few arrests. Ottawa residents were inconvenienced as were others related to the obstruction of transit conduits, but it was all orderly and peaceful. This is nothing short of a miracle. This is due to the discipline and organization of the protesters themselves and, most critically, to the professionalism and restraint demonstrated by the on-the-ground police forces—they are to be lauded. The final efforts to clear Ottawa of protesters were methodical with very few violent confrontations.

The occupation of Ottawa and the blocking of key infrastructure had to come to an end as it is unreasonable for a group to dictate to an elected government its policy; an indefinite occupation of downtown Ottawa was also not viable, and it had to come to an end. Which it did. If this is what an “insurrection” looks like in Canada, we are doing well. Such a fact illustrates the ability of Canada’s public institutions to mitigate and manage conflicts between groups and to resolve such differences in a peaceful manner.

Such success of the state apparatus compensates for a total failure of leadership, as responsibility for these events ultimately lies with the polarization and hypocrisy of our politics. The government largely tolerated railway and pipeline blockades in 2020 and continues to ignore lawlessness in other parts of the country, including an organized attack on construction equipment in northern British Columbia. At one point Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined a protest movement on Parliament Hill. The government has been intolerant of dissenting views, and instead of engaging with such perspectives, has denigrated both dissenters and their messages. If we wish to lecture other nations, such as China, to engage with peaceful protests, we must not fail to do the same here. Much of this could have been avoided had the prime minister walked to Parliament Hill and listened to these people and their concerns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated divisions within our society, particularly along class and occupational lines. For those of us with white-collar, work-from-home jobs, often ensconced in the public sector, the pandemic has been tolerable, and sometimes even enjoyable. Business can often be conducted while in pajamas and slippers. For others, especially working-class individuals in the service sector, it has been more difficult. Those who have kept their jobs have stayed in their usual workplace and taken on personal and health risks in doing so. Moreover, most of the lockdown-related job losses occurred amongst working Canadians. The working-class dynamic of this protest, and the intolerance shown to it, is evidence of these cleavages and, at the same time, have exacerbated these divisions.

Mainstream Canadian media has consistently denigrated these protesters and taken considerable pains to highlight radical, fringe elements, which are not representative of the movement as a whole. Media coverage of it, very generally, has differed considerably from the reporting afforded to past protest movements. The government’s blocking of their funding, and the media’s publication of leaked donor lists, obtained illegally, further illustrates the divergent treatment towards various protest groups. Ultimately, the truckers were tired of being told what to do and how to think by a relatively privileged, urban, educated group of elites who, while ostensibly preaching tolerance, are wholly intolerant of views that differ from their own. This movement, and the government’s response to it, illustrates how well, or not, we tolerate minority perspectives—especially those that are not comfortably “progressive”.

There are some important lessons here to be learned by all potential protest movements. These truckers were very effective. They were able to (briefly) seize territory because trucks are valuable protest tools: they are big, they can block things, they are hard to move, and you can live in them, even in the middle of winter. They had effective logistical systems and significant financing; they were able to keep their BBQs and dance parties going. Such organization, and their presence at the doorstep of Parliament, was humiliating to the Liberal government. The use of the Emergencies Act, then, should be seen as a great compliment to this movement; they were exerting enough real power to generate a response—heavy-handed as it was—from the Canadian government. The tools afforded by the Emergencies Act were not required to manage other protests. While future protest groups can and should learn from the effective tactics of the truckers, at the same time, they must be wary that such draconian measures could now be used on them.

And what happens if another like-minded group draws on these tactics and is joined by thousands of newly unemployed civil servants to stage renewed demonstrations—a plausible scenario given the financial pressures we face—but this time in the middle of the summer? Shutting them down may be an even harder task. Hopefully by then we will have learned some lessons on tolerating different groups and their views.