Eastern blocks

AN EMPIRE'S NEW CLOTHES: The End of Russia's Liberal Dream by Bruce Clark, Vintage pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
THE annihilation last month by Russian forces of the little village of Pervomaiskoye, on the Chechen border, and Moscow's obvious readiness to kill the Dagestani hostages there, provided a reminder of Russia's reluctance to abide by even the basic rules of respect for human life. The appointment of Yevgeny Primakov, a former spy chief, as foreign minister, is no more encouraging. The recent sacking of Moscow's chief economic reformer, Anatoly Chubais, suggests that Russia has abandoned even the pretence of loyalty to reform. In short, this is a timely book.

The cover blurb says that Bruce Clark's message is "uncompromisingly pessimistic". Indeed: it is an unforgiving demolition job on what the author calls "Western smugness". There is no room here for optimists, except with walk-on parts as naive fools. Clark explores the dangers of resurgent nationalism, which he suggests is now pre-programmed into Russia's future, and points to the woolliness of Western thinking that began even before the Soviet era was over: "By autumn 1990, it seemed clear enough to anyone who was following public affairs in Moscow that the Soviet Union was destined either to break up altogether or at best to stagger on as a much looser association of territories." But the West "was so confused and fearful of the pace of change that it resorted to various stratagems to deny the almost undeniable". True on both counts.

An Empire's New Clothes concentrates, above all, on the period since Yeltsin became unchallenged master of the Kremlin - and Clark sees a repetition of the West's shortsightedness of the Gorbachev era. He notes that the world has been "browbeaten into accepting the Manichean view of the world" which Yeltsin's men have marketed worldwide: pro-Yeltsin, good; anti-Yeltsin, bad; without him, the deluge. Clark's criticisms are all the more apt in the light of the suggestion by the US defence secretary, William Perry, that Moscow's handling of the Pervomaiskoye crisis was "entirely correct".

Clark's analysis is clearly applicable to Pervomaiskoye: "Not for the first time in history, the Kremlin's new masters were demonstrating that there is almost no middle ground between a dangerously weak Russia - where the government's writ scarcely extends to the suburbs of Moscow - and a dangerously strong one."

In short: many reasons to feel worried about the direction in which Russia is going, and about the West's failure to notice. So far, so accurate. But Clark, the enemy of dogmatism, himself comes close to being dogmatic when he insists that bad news is the only option, in the years to come. He is in good company: his pessimism is shared by almost all Russian liberal thinkers. But he ignores one obvious point. Russia is in a unique situation. Never before have Russians been able to make real choices about their future. This is dangerous, in a Weimar-and-Hitler way, but it also offers new opportunities. Because of the newness of the situation, historical parallels cannot provide a reliable guide to what might happen next. There can be no certainty that bad news lies ahead. Just as the economic news has been less bad than doomsday predictions suggested, so, in politics, all is not yet lost.

Because Russia's future has not yet been written in tablets of stone, Western reactions (and the lack of reaction) to the Kremlin's bad behaviour do still matter, despite everything. Democracy and Russia still seem unlikely bedfellows. But they do not have to be incompatible for all time.

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