54. Visiting Russia



I visited Russia for the first time in 1998, after the collapse of Stalinism and the planned economy which accompanied this. I was there to speak at the all-CIS conference of the section of the CWI. In both Russia and Ukraine, I witnessed at first hand the degradation, which had come suddenly, to whole layers of the population, the old and the most vulnerable literally begging on the streets, drunkenness born of despair, which was visible and could not be hidden from public view. Life expectancy was generally recognised to have dramatically dropped to about 58 for men, mostly through alcoholism.

The CWI had the great advantage of receiving first hand reports from the end of the 1980s from our comrades in Russia. At the cost of great personal self-sacrifice by comrades like the indefatigable Clare Doyle and Rob Jones, and against the backdrop of a social counter-revolution, we had maintained an organised presence in Russia and other countries of the former ‘Soviet Union’. They had to swim not just against the stream but against the big wave of pro-capitalist sentiment while the living standards of the people seemed to be on a sharply downward trajectory. Therefore it was incumbent on those members of the CWI who did not work in the same desperate conditions as these comrades to assist their work with visits.

A number of comrades had already visited Russia – Tony Saunois and Lynn Walsh, both members of the International Secretariat of the CWI, amongst them– in the first period after the collapse of Stalinism. They recorded their impressions in the pages of The Socialist on their return. When I followed them in 1998 I first travelled to Kiev in Ukraine where we had a small but active group. Kiev at the end of winter appeared to me at first a grim place but looking around the city, in particular visiting some buildings, the Orthodox churches, I could see the beauty and attractiveness of the city. I was interviewed by journalists and appeared on local TV, with my comments on the political situation reported in a relatively unbiased fashion. Discussions took place with a small group of Ukrainians who supported the CWI, held in very tiny ‘Khrushchev flats’ in the massive, soulless blocks of concrete which passed for workers’ dwellings. Indeed, I was informed that when these were built in the 1960s, they were looked on as a desirable improvement over previous housing.

On this visit to Ukraine and the Russian cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, I spoke to quite large meetings – particularly in Ukraine – explaining the perspectives of the CWI internationally and in the former Soviet Union. When I travelled to Moscow in the company of Rob Jones, I met the first secretary of the regional committee of the Communist Party in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which had a population of 800,000. He told me: “We have pure dictatorship here with 16 parties officially registered, 15 of these are pro-presidential, that is they support the ruling power. Approximately 90% of the workforce is unemployed… Most people manage to at least exist by becoming ‘shuttlers’, they travel from one country to another, buying and selling goods through primitive barter, now the norm for most of the population.”

I asked him if he could date the time of decline in the country, and he replied: “It roughly began from 1991. Privatisation only really began in earnest about two or three years ago. There were a lot of clashes in the ruling elite, struggling for the spoils of privatisation and the return of the ‘free market’.” Most of the countries of Central Asia were like this, having swapped the Stalinist state for a capitalist dictatorship, the only difference being in the markedly rapid decline of the conditions of the masses. This comrade attended the conference in Moscow of ‘Left Vanguard’, the section of the CWI in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). I asked him why he was attending the conference and he replied: “We were enormously impressed with the campaign you launched in defence of Kazakhstan comrades. We said to ourselves why is an organisation which seems to have existed for such a short period of time so effective when others with seemingly huge memberships are incapable of defending workers in the CIS? Our organisation sent me to meet you and discuss common action in the CIS and throughout the world.” The terrible conditions in Kazakhstan were outlined to me by workers from that country. The Workers Movement of Kazakhstan adhered to the CWI as a sympathising section for a period.

At this stage most of the small Marxist groups had abandoned the country in despair, openly declaring that it was not possible to build in such unfavourable terrain. Some, like a small group who temporarily supported Alan Woods (who had split from the CWI in 1992) could only be described as a motley collection of misfits and cranks. Such weird and wonderful organisations were not at all uncommon in Russia. Some would think nothing of attempting to combine neo-fascist ideas and wearing military fatigues alongside quasi-‘Bolshevik’ symbols.

One such organisation which still exists today is the National Bolsheviks headed by Eduard Limonov. When I spoke at a public meeting in Moscow in 1998, I was verbally attacked by Woods, who was in the city at the time, over the split in the CWI in Scotland mentioned earlier. He prophesied, as he had done before and would do again, the imminent collapse of the CWI. He attacked our alleged ‘nationalist degeneration’ in Scotland – because we recognised the right of self-determination for the Scottish people, including the right to secede from Britain if they so desired. He was supported by supporters of Limonov, who I naturally answered, both at the meeting and in a subsequent public statement that indicted Woods for his unofficial political bloc with the neo-fascists, which he formed at this meeting to attack me and the CWI.  Later, in the company of Rob Jones and a young comrade in Moscow we were attacked on the Metro by a group of Russian fascists and some who had come to support them from East Germany. This attack was reported in the Guardian: ‘Veteran Marxist Attacked in Moscow.’1 This indicates just how complex the task has been in assembling a Marxist cadre in a situation like this.