Books: Riding the Russian rollercoaster

Steve Crawshaw discovers there is more to modern Russia than poverty, murder and the Mafia
Rebirth of a Nation: an anatomy of Russia

by John Lloyd

Michael Joseph, pounds 20

Conventional wisdoms come and go, with spectacular zigzags from one side of the political road to the other. Saddam Hussein can go in a short space of time from bulwark against fundamentalism to pantomime villain; Yasser Arafat can progress from unshaven terrorist to dignified statesman. Mikhail Gorbachev was a good example of such variable geometry. While in power, it was hard to find any Western politician who could imagine there could be a more saintly man. Only when he was gone did they notice the shortcomings that had long driven Gorbachev's democratic allies to distraction.

Most contradictory of all, however, is Boris Yeltsin. When reform was just getting under way, he was briefly the hero. When he and Gorbachev quarrelled, he was seen as a troublemaker. Then, after the August coup in 1991, Yeltsin became the ultimate hero.

Judgments about Russia itself have, if anything, been even more roller- coaster than those about the Russian leader. Gushing optimism about perestroika gave way to pessimism about the Soviet coup. Its collapse after 72 hours was followed by yet more optimism. This, in turn, was followed by a heavy dose of pessimism. Poverty, mafia and murder were all that Russia seemed to offer.

Time, then, for something more considered. Which is what John Lloyd, a distinguished former Moscow correspondent and now associate editor of the New Statesman, provides. As his subtitle suggests, this is a painstaking dissection of a confusing body politic. It gives plenty of reasons for deep pessimism - but hints at the reasons for optimism, too. Above all, it vividly demonstrates how Russian politicians can often seem like those gloriously tacky postcards which show different scenes (now she's dressed up, now she's baring all) according to angle and light. Yesterday's democratic hero turns out to be today's pro-Communist anti-Semite; yesterday's dull apparatchik turns out to be today's doughty fighter for reform. Sometimes, a real change has taken place. Sometimes, we are just seeing two sides of the same character.

Lloyd has produced some of the most balanced reporting from the former Soviet Union in recent years, and the book reflects that. The chapters on the giant leaps and strange hiccups in the moves towards a market economy are both knowledgeable and fascinating, even if the reader is sometimes hungry for more of the anecdotes tantalisingly dangled in the text. What else happened on the "comically useless trip" organised by the the European Union to see Surgut Oil and Gas? And what about the "liquid tour" and "vodka-soaked banquets" at the Lukoil installations in Siberia, where alcohol flowed but facts didn't?

Lloyd's contacts with the economic reformers are unmatched. Above all, he makes it clear that there is no point hankering after easy what-might- have-been solutions. "The illusion was that crime could only be curbed by controls and tougher policing. In fact, crime could only be dealt with by continuing market reforms."

Anyone who is confident about which way Russia is going has understood nothing. The contradictions are far too many to unravel. Yeltsin is sometimes mad, sometimes bad, and has been brilliant. It would be brave and foolish to guess whether his legacy will be eternally poisoned or the first tentative step on the path to greater health. Wait a couple of generations; and we might have a clue.