Moscow

SOVIET CHIC?

The old guard recalls the real communist era to ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

November 22 2004
Moscow

SOVIET CHIC?

The old guard recalls the real communist era to ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

November 22 2004

SOVIET CHIC?

Moscow

The old guard recalls the real communist era to ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

Maclean’s Contributing Editor Alexandre Trudeau went to Moscow to see how the Russian capital is faring 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the first of a series (Nov. 15), he reported on the New Russians and how they flaunt their riches. This week, Trudeau visits some old family friends from the communist era.

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT, there is tremendous wealth in Russia. It is a massive country full of resources. The record price of crude oil, of which Russia produces millions of barrels, is generating enormous and unexpected income. These are boom days. For the lucky few who have some claim to the pie, the New Russians, wealth means unfettered freedom where all the worldly comforts imaginable can be purchased. This bold new age is in sharp contrast with everything communism stood for. In the Soviet era, the great wealth was siphoned off into an elaborate planned economy where everyone was entitled to work, accommodation, food and leisure. Of course, in the final decades, the riches were increasingly used to feed a military juggernaut and the corrupt bureaucracy that managed the whole thing.

The Brezhnev period from the mid-’60s to the early ’80s was a time of staunch communist conservatism—and of increasing corruption among the ruling elite of the Communist party. For some, it was also a time of deep disillusionment. Even at the highest levels of the party, among those who had played key parts in the great sacrifices and triumphs of the Second World War and in the military-industrial miracles of the post-war period, a few brave realists began to emerge. They began to whisper that the emperor had no clothes, that the end was inevitable.

Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev was such a man. From the humblest of peasant beginnings, Yakovlev had been a war hero and had risen through the ranks of the party. In the

early ’70s, he began decrying the rot that had infected communism in Russia: violence, depravity, chauvinism, racism. For this, he was removed from the circles of power—and sent to be the Soviet ambassador to Canada.

Yakovlev well remembers his years in Canada, 1973 until 1983, as an exile. “I was sad to be sent away from Russia at such a crucial time,” he tells me. “What made my

I AM undeniably discouraged by the spectacle of obscene wealth and abject poverty that I have witnessed

stay in Canada enjoyable was the friendship I developed with your father.” Indeed, more than my journalistic interest in Yakovlev, I am motivated to see the man whose name and nickname I bear. By the time I was born in December 1973, my father had been prime minister for 5V2 years. My parents were sufficiently close to Alexander Nikolaevich for my mother to phone him to ask if “Sacha” was, in fact, the proper diminutive of Alexandre and an appropriate nickname for her newborn baby.

The ’70s and early ’80s were interesting times for Soviet-Western relations. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race, spy games and defections created a fascinating backdrop to my father and Yakovlev’s friendship. “In the machinations between our respective camps, there was always the assurance that we were just men, and as men, friends,” he recalls during my visit to his Moscow office.

Yakovlev, now 80, tells me of the games he had to play with my father on occasion, such as in 1983 when Canada expelled a dozen suspected spies from among the embassy staff in Ottawa. “Since I knew that at least some of the individuals accused were not spies—and in any case it was my duty— I went to Pierre to protest,” Yakovlev says. “Pierre just told me to point out which people on the list were not, in fact, spies. Of course, I was forced to argue that they were all innocent. He then asked me if I wanted to hear the tapes which proved that some of them were spying. I told him that I would have to ask the Kremlin if they wanted me to hear such evidence. The Kremlin prohibited me from hearing the tapes and the expulsions went forward in their entirety.”

After his stint in Canada, Yakovlev went on to become one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s top lieutenants. He is often referred to as the architect of “glasnost”—the “openness” that eventually led to the dismantling of the Soviet empire. That makes him a key person to ask about the state of things in Russia some 13 years later.

I am undeniably discouraged by the spectacle of obscene wealth and abject poverty that I have witnessed in Moscow. I ask him whether there might not still be a place in Russia for some of the better aspects of communism—some mechanism for the distribution of wealth, for the welfare of the unfortunate. I also suggest that the hardening of President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, though gnawing away at some political freedoms, might nonetheless improve the overall health of the nation and help the distribution of resources among the very poor. Yakovlev disagrees: “From beginning to end, our communism was a violent one, founded on fear and bathed in blood. Russia will never so much as glance down that road again.” But when I argue that Russia’s experiment in democracy and capitalism has created an irresponsible society of haves and have-nots, he explains that it’s the result of Russians’ particular concept of freedom. “Here, one person’s freedom is still seen as limited by another person’s freedom,” Yakovlev says. “Thus the freer I am, the more I can exert my will over you and everyone else unhindered. This is not a very peaceful or civilized notion of freedom. We still have to learn that real freedom is secured in common responsibility and trust.”

I ask if something couldn’t be done to help stabilize the society enough for it to find a proper footing for freedom. Yakovlev refutes this idea, too. “The way of real freedom has to be learned slowly by a whole society,” he explains.

“It cannot be willed into being by one part of society. The gentle freedom cannot be built by restricting the harsh kind.

The very bureaucrats that run government, and Putin himself, have to partake in the learning of freedom you can trust. Look at how long and hard it was to create responsible and democratic societies in the West. Here too it will take time. Time.”

“But it could take a hundred years,” I say.

“Yes it could,” he says.

“But in the meantime, it is so hard for those who are not lucky,” I add.

“Yes,” he says. “So it is.”

I leave Sacha Yakovlev, reminded how it takes great intellectual courage to be a realist. And patience. In old Yakovlev’s case, it means that he will probably never see the results of the forces he helped put in motion. Glasnost, openness, is still only in its infancy.

THE SUBWAY IN MOSCOW was a feat of communist industry. As such, it is aptly decorated with revolutionary imagery: heroic workers toiling by the blast furnaces, glistening bodies bent over in the fields and, above all, the golden star of Leninism. Beneath these symbols, the masses now pass indifferently. For the young especially, the Soviet times and communist ideology are receding so far in the past they seem quaint, curious, alien: a distant civilization whose structures remain, but without giving any clues as to what they meant or represented. “Soviet chic” is even a fad among trendy youth: they wear the hammer and sickle on their clothing, the Soviet star in their hair or through their pierced navels.

For a few, though, communism and its symbols still have meaning. There are even a few statues of Lenin still scattered here and there around Moscow. At one, near the entrance to a subway station in a Moscow suburb, I meet up with Victor Ivanovic Anpilov, leader of the National Bolshevik party: Trudovaya Russia. It is Ivanovic’s birthday and the day of the party’s annual congress. The inner circle are to meet at the

statue and then go to a rally. A toothless pensioner marks the spot of the rendezvous, steadfastly brandishing a tattered old Soviet flag on a long pole which he dramatically swings through the air. Young passersby glance at him with mild astonishment and contempt. Victor Ivanovic himself arrives on the scene driving a grey and rusted Lada, packed with party members. In a solemn suit and tie, he greets Lenin ceremoniously, as if he were an old friend. Anpilov is short and stocky and has a haughty and decisive way about him.

IT’S ironic that those who have profited most from Gorbachev’s legacy can claim, ‘That bastard, he ruined our country!’

The rally is to take place nearby, at the Hammer and Sickle Cultural Centre. The place is in a pathetic state: broken windows, damaged floors and soiled furniture. Stalin’s portrait hangs prominently in the entrance hall. The Bolshevik party’s numbers are dying off. Literally. It is a sad sight. The 100 or so gathered here mainly seem to be mangy pensioners. Victor Ivanovic stands triumphantly on the dusty stage beneath a huge red banner. “Russia belongs to the workers!” he proclaims.

The proceedings have all the formalities of the communism of old. “Let me first welcome the delegation from Dagestan!” he bellows. A middle-aged man with a big moustache and a huge grin stands up. He is the delegation from the faraway Republic of Dagestan, in the North Caucasus mountains in the southernmost part of Russia. Motions are made. Red cards are raised in support. The rally goes on for hours.

The whole thing strikes me as pathetic beyond words. The Russian Workers party is a party of wretched castaways from the New Russia surviving on pennies in small apartments: the old, the forgotten, the hopeless.

But photographer Heidi Hollinger and I meet up with Victor Anpilov in a more intimate setting later that evening. It would seem the delegation from Dagestan is a good chap. He is hosting the party at a small club that he has built amid abandoned factories in the middle of some industrial wasteland on the fringes of Moscow. Shish kebabs and vodka are not in short supply.

Over dinner, I learn that in the ’70s and ’80s Victor Ivanovic was a correspondent for ITAR-TASS, the Soviet news agency, in Latin America. While communism was failing in Mother Russia, in places like Nicaragua he was in the hills with ragged dreamers, all ready to die for the ideal of universal health, education and justice for all.

Several vodka shots later, we are all wholeheartedly singing Latin American revolutionary songs. Most of all we sing to the fallen hero, Che Guevara. Then Anpilov is standing, his face red, head quivering, fists swinging and pounding the air for effect. With crooked teeth and raspy baritone, he sings the last verse one more time, alone: “El Commandante, Che Guevara!”

During my visit to Russia this fall, the horrible massacre at Beslan weighs heavily on everyone. Nothing quite so gruesome has happened to Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. When I ask Anpilov about it, he says with his usual sense of formality, “Beslan proves what I have been arguing for years: the free-market economy is forcing us to behave like animals to each other.”

ON MY INTELLECTUAL adventures in the land of the old guard, one last encounter is necessary. No one is more identified with the end of the communist era than Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. There is something ironic about the way Russians feel toward him. I have heard even New Russians—those who have profited most from Gorbachev’s legacy—exclaim, “That bastard, he ruined our country!”

It seems fitting that I only manage to catch him at the VIP departure lounge at of the Moscow airport as he is leaving Russia, where he’s hated, for a visit to the United States, where he’s seen as a hero. Mikhail Sergeyevich is impatient, but soon waxes poetic about Canada. “They say that Thatcher was the first in the West to discover me, but Canada knew me before,” he says. Knowing my time is limited, I get straight to the point: “Is there a future for socialism in Russia?” He looks at me as if I am out of my head. Then I quickly remember that socialism is what the Soviets called Marxism, even Stalinism, and add, “I mean socialism as we understand it in Canada or Sweden.”

“Maybe,” he answers, “but not soon.”

When I say life seems so difficult for Russia’s poor, Gorbachev agrees, noting that over 80 per cent of the people “have an extremely meagre existence here.”

“Why are the Russians so hard?” I wonder.

“No!” he says imploringly, “we are not hard. We are a very warm and gentle people. But we are still finding our way.”