MOSCOW — Scowling, grumpy and blessed with a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, Ivan Polozkov finally came to understand that his was the brutish face of communism that Russians loved to hate.
On Aug. 6, 1991, he stepped aside as head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, in a bid to make what was still officially the ruling party more popular among the ruled. It was a measure of the pressure that Communists were dealing with as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev seemed now intent on pushing for reform, goaded by the irrepressibly anti-Communist Boris Yeltsin, just installed as president of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.
Polozkov had resisted reform of the Soviet system with everything he had, but when the party leadership met 20 years ago — right after Yeltsin had announced that he was banning party cells in Russian workplaces — Polozkov came under such criticism that by the end of the meeting he had tendered his resignation.
He never thought it was a fair fight. Six months earlier, in a speech denouncing Gorbachev’s reforms, he had charged that his opponents were propped up by “international capital.” Prominent among anti-Communists, he said, were “the heirs of the overthrown classes, nationalists and dealers of the shadow economy.”
His was an attitude that has helped to color the perception of democracy and democrats in Russia ever since. After the collapse of the Soviet Union — his resignation as party leader didn’t do much to save the Communists’ bacon, in the end — he gave an interview to David Remnick, the former Washington Post Moscow correspondent who now edits the New Yorker.
“We know the CIA financed parties here,” he told Remnick. “You gave them Japanese cameras, German copying machines, money, everything! You had your dissidents who worked for you, the liars, the diplomats, the military double agents. Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Shevardnadze, these men were all yours, too. They were yours! Look at the book contracts they’ve gotten! Millions!”
Alexander Yakovlev was the brains behind Gorbachev’s reform plan, and Eduard Shevardnadze was the Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev.
“So far you have been winning this war,” he continued. “But I want to emphasize — ‘so far.’ Remember this: Napoleon was in Moscow, but France did not defeat us. The Nazis were near Moscow, but look what happened. But I must tell you — and listen carefully — the war is still on and, in the end, you will not be able to endure in this competition with communism.”
This has become an enduring and pervasive belief — that those who push for democracy in Russia are tainted by connections with foreign powers. It questions their patriotism. (The war against Napoleon is known in Russia as the Patriotic War, and the one against the Nazis as the Great Patriotic War.) It puts democracy itself under suspicion as an alien political system, and at the same time sows distrust of foreigners, especially from the West.
It helps explain why, under President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia has been so hostile to foreign non-governmental organizations, whether their cause is electoral transparency or judicial independence or environmental protection. The West ganged up on Russia 20 years ago, according to this view, and with the help of its agents and stooges brought about the collapse of the once proud and mighty Soviet Union.
Russia, according to this way of thinking, isn’t about to let that happen again.