The Russian `Ball of Liberty' Is on a Roll

`IF there are 100 Russians in a room, there will be 100 political parties in the same place,'' wrote ``Argus,'' pen name of a late Russian-'emigr'e humorist for Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a New York daily. Russians, he insisted, are born democrats whom a string of unfortunate historical accidents doomed to epochs of autocracy and the knout.

The columnist's argument can be supported by several examples drawn from Russian history. It is a record that bodes well for a democratic future in Soviet Russia, if present trends, as symbolized in the recent election of the Congress of People's Deputies and the campaigning that preceded it, continue.

Some Westerners forget that Russia has known periods of democracy. They go back as far as the popular assemblies in Novgorod and Yaroslavl in the 11th and 12th centuries, and extend to the brief period of the four Dumas in the early 20th century.

Not unlike the democratic experience of the German tribes in Europe and of the popular assemblies of Scandinavia in pre-medieval times, what was then Christian ``Russia'' in the territory north and east of Kiev likewise saw many instances of democratic rule, albeit in the primitive form of the veches, or town meetings as progressively developed in Yaroslavl.

Some Western and most Soviet historians used to belittle such Russian democratic institutions on Marxist grounds that the class structure of these towns precluded true democracy. The same pall was cast over the Dumas. Soviet historiography obviously looked upon this prerevolutionary parliament with jaundiced eye, ignoring that for Lenin this was truly budding democracy (which, of course, he sought to exploit rather than respect).

Some historians still insist that democracy could not possibly have existed in Russia in any form some 90 years ago, given that country's ``semi-feudal, pre-bourgeois'' socioeconomic status. Recently, however, a number of new Soviet historians and some Western ones have disputed what they call a ``bias'' about the lack of democracy in pre-1917 Russia.

They deny that pre-communist Russia was everywhere and at all times ``enslaved,'' that the ``easily cowed'' Russian people throughout their 1,000-year history have known nothing but ``Tsar-Batyushka'' autocracy. Completely forgotten, they insist, is the fact that the first two Dumas of 1904 to 1907 burst on the scene with a plethora of parties reflecting wide-ranging political views from left to right. About 10 parties together with their splinter groups produced animated debates and newspapers of many political colorings that would make the assertion of ``Argus'' look like an understatement.

In the context of prerevolutionary Russian democratic experience, one could also cite the bottom-to-top, locales-to-center organized zemstvos, or freely elected county councils, whose contribution to Russia's proud ``liberal tradition'' extends from 1864, when they were first created, to World War I, when they had become a firmly entrenched sociopolitical institution. Many political reformers at the time and since, such as Dr. Andrei Sakharov, have hoped for a zemstvo-like central legislative soviet (council) that would be truly representative of Russia and its many national, ethnic, and politico-territorial subdivisions and groupings. The Congress of People's Deputies and its offspring, the 542-member Supreme Soviet, may be spring shoots of just such an institution.

Well, then, when will a Soviet ``Federalist Papers'' be written and a truly democratic Russian republic, based upon a solid liberal-democratic rule, emerge?

One need only glance around the rest of what used to be called the Soviet ``client states'' of Eastern Europe to see writing on the wall.

Most outstanding in democratic trailblazing throughout the bloc is Hungary. Within a few years, multi-party government may well be instituted in that country. Not far behind it is Yugoslavia, followed closely by the largest bloc country, Poland.

As Thomas Jefferson said, once the ``ball of liberty'' gets rolling, there is little that can stop it. Even Mikhail Gorbachev speaks openly of the ``impossibility'' of ever turning back. He insists that ``more democratization'' is the wave of the future for his country.

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