BOOK REVIEW / Soviet disunion, or boyars will be boyars: Eternal Russia - Jonathan Steele: Faber and Faber, 17.50 pounds

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The Independent Online
There are many different views of what is going on in what used to be the Soviet Union, and Jonathan Steele presents one of them with varying degrees of clarity and consistency. His conviction, developed over nearly six years of expert reporting for the Guardian from what was the Soviet Union, is that Russia will be Russia and must, in time, evolve its own brand of democracy and market economy. All attempts by the West to force it into a particular mould or hurry it along are doomed to fail and could rebound unpleasantly on the would-be teachers.

Steele is a self-confessed Gorbachevite, and his book is permeated with the sense of what might have been if Mikhail Gorbachev had retained power, held the Soviet Union together and transformed it, as Steele believes he wanted to, slowly and carefully into a Russian-style social democracy. He has little time for Boris Yeltsin, whom he believes spoilt this admirable project for his own selfish interests, and even less for the arch-reformers of post-Communist Russia, Yegor Gaidar and his western backers. Gaidar and his ilk, Steele argues, misguidedly thought that Russia could be turned rapidly into a successful capitalist state; in trying to accomplish this, they made a bad situation far worse.

This is not an assessment that I share, but it is a justifiable conclusion to draw from the evidence, and it has plenty of adherents and potential adherents - especially among the Western academics and politicians who once lionised Gorbachev. It will also appeal to those newly disillusioned with the fate of reform in Russia today.

Whether or not this assessment turns out to be right, however, it deserves a clearer and better-founded exposition than Steele achieves here. He offers such a mixture of approaches to its subject that it sometimes makes an already confusing subject more so. It mixes broad generalisation about Russian history, tradition and national character with finely detailed personal memoir, anecdotes and textbook-style narrative.

The result is neither one thing nor another: not a political nor a cultural history, not a journalistic memoir, not a topic-based study and not a sustained argument. The effect is of a telescope being constantly extended and contracted, giving a widely differing quality of definition and no consistent perspective. Episodes Steele witnessed - a meeting of the Lithuanian Communist Party central committee in 1989, from which he dates the beginning of the end of Soviet power, and his enviable scoop in boarding the plane that went to rescue Gorbachev after the August 1991 coup - are described so minutely and with so many names cited, that the significance of the particular event to the whole is hard to appreciate.

Elsewhere, the narrative often seems to have been constructed on the principle: 'Oh, and here is another thing that you need to know but I forgot to put in earlier'. This makes for difficult reading, and tends to detract from a story that could have been as exciting as it is serious. The problem here seems to be one of organisation rather than material, and I suspect that as much blame attaches to the editor as to the author.

The strongest chapters of the book are the last three: Steele's pen portrait of the 'new Russia', with its deprivations and opportunities; his account of the short-lived parliamentary rebellion last October, and his sanguine assessment of the phenomenon of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the right-wing nationalist whose party surprised the world with its strong showing in last December's elections. (Steele sees it as a protest vote, not a harbinger of a fascist Russia).

What sets these chapters apart is precisely what is missing elsewhere: straight narrative in a consistent register. The story is compelling enough to sustain itself. The judgements and historical allusions fit naturally into the text. These chapters read easily. They must have been written fast, to make the book as up to date as possible on publication - but this is how a journalist often writes best, and Steele is above all a journalist par excellence. If you read this book, try starting at the end. That should give you the necessary incentive to tackle the rest.