Democratic Trends In Russia, S. Africa

ADAM HOCHSCHILD has had a chance to observe, up close, the fragile germination of democracy in two very diverse parts of the world: Russia and South Africa. And he has little doubt where it's most likely to come to bloom.

``The ability to surmount past injustice is much higher in South Africa,'' Mr. Hochschild says. ``Despite colossal economic inequalities, they have a better shot at making democracy work than in Russia.''

Why? While the vast majority of South Africans was excluded from the political process for decades, ``democratic change there is coming not because things collapsed at the top, as in Russia, but because people have been fighting and organizing in every conceivable way for decades,'' Hochschild says. Many South Africans, he says, have a grasp of grass-roots democracy.

He recently returned from a month following Nelson Mandela and other South African politicians as they head toward the country's first all-races vote April 26 to 28. In 1990, he wrote a book about South Africa's turbulent final stages of apartheid, ``The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey'' (Viking).

There have been ``islands of democracy'' in the midst of apartheid's oppression, Hochschild says. Black trade unions are a case in point. ``They're democratic organizations with leaders elected democratically,'' he says. Thus a disenfranchised people have nonetheless been able to spawn leaders familiar with critical political skills, such as the ability to negotiate and find compromise.

In Russia, by contrast, ``there is nobody with a heritage of comparable experience,'' Hochschild says. Democratic openness there came in a rush after seven decades of Stalinist rigidity. A careful examination of the legacy of those terrifying years through the eyes and words of people who experienced them is the subject of Hochschild's latest book, ``The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin'' (Viking, 1994), which he was recently in Boston to promote.

Russia has ``plenty of brave people who went to jail for their beliefs during the Brezhnev period'' and earlier, Hochschild says. But they lack ``that heritage of experience of what's it's like to be in a democratic organization arguing over a platform or a strike issue.'' While many Russians pour out their loathing of Stalin's legacy of terror, others harbor memories of their relative well-being under communism. And countless Russians have a growing awareness of how far their standard of living lags behind the rest of the industrialized world.

Hochschild's research in the early 1990s took him to parts of Russia that had seen few if any foreigners for years. People ``look at you as if you'd just landed from Mars,'' he says. One man in the Siberian city of Tomsk was bursting with the question, ``Is it true that in America cars have air conditioning?''

This fascination with the material comforts abroad runs head-on into the economic disaster at home and feeds the political ambitions of men like Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. ``So many people are so angry. They're bent on recapturing the past glory - and the past food on the shelves,'' Hochschild says.

Hochschild's travels took him ultimately to the vast prison reserve of Kolyma, situated in Russia's frigid northeast corner. There he toured the ruins of work camps - mainly devoted to gold mining - where hundreds of thousands of Stalin's enemies were sent to their deaths, often on the barest of suspicions.

It's that bleak authoritarian past, when even the hint of opposition was snuffed out by imprisonment and death, from which Russia is struggling to emerge. Hochschild's work make it clear that the first important step has been taken: Many Russians are honestly confronting their past. That may make its perpetuation less likely.

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