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Book Review November 27, 2002
 
Mikey McFaul and the Three Bears
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 5
 
Having made his pro forma concession that the whole three-part fairytale story is fake, McFaul returns to it, unabashedly repeating the term "failure" as often as possible in discussing the first two stages: "The first failure occurred in August 1991..."; "The second failure occurred in October 1993." Whenever alluding to the first two "failures" after introducing them, McFaul consistently uses melodramatic terms, calling them "two violent confrontations" or characterizing them separately as "the August 1991 conflict and the October 1993 confrontation." By such emotive language, and by dint of simply repeating the term "failure," McFaul tries to create an artificial break between these two events and his happy-ending third stage, that just-right bowl of democratic porridge which Yeltsin served up, with the help of oligarch cash and electoral fraud, thereafter.

So often, and so crudely, does McFaul overdo the contrast that one is almost forced to confront the begged question: why make two historical events villains, and a third a fairy-tale hero? Why not accept Russian political history of the 1990s as all of a piece? For McFaul, the reason is simple: there would be no moral to that story. That is the way the story reads, in the hands of more honorable scholars like Stephen Cohen, Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, who have risked their careers by debunking the lie that Yeltsin's era ever had anything like a happy ending. But honor has a price; those people will never have the access to the White House, which is, for creatures like McFaul, the whole purpose of a career in Russia-watching.

In defining the success of this third attempt, McFaul is, at least, consistent. Throughout the book, even as he fudges everything from his own sleazy record as Yeltsin apologist to the disastrous economic effects of Gaidar's reforms, he never wavers from the criterion by which he measures the success of "political institutions": survival. Every sentence of the book is suffused with the influence of that most fundamental American proverb: "You can't argue with success."

By this standard, the Bolsheviks would make excellent protagonists in a three-stage fairy tale of the sort McFaul employs: Once upon a time, there were three revolutions. The first two were "failures," "violent confrontations" which left no enduring Russian political institutions; the third was a grand success. The first failure was the 1905 revolution. The second was the Kerensky revolution. Then came the third, Leninist revolution, which left "enduring political institutions" (to say the least).

Why stop there? Why not impose the three-little-pigs tale on the course of Bolshevik rule (as Orwell did quite literally in Animal Farm): first came Lenin, who built his house of Proletarian straw; then Trotsky, who built his of Comintern sticks; and then, at last, that most worthy of pigs, Stalin, who built his house of good blood red bricks. Stalin's edifice meets McFaul's single standard of success: it lasted.

Survival, plain and simple -- again and again, McFaul uses this as the test of the post-1993 political structure of Russia. In a crucial passage very early on in the book, he acknowledges that outright fraud had everything to do with the "success" of Yeltsin's regime, but then -- relying on the word "yet" to wall off this troubling quibble -- he simply reasserts what is, for him, the only fact that matters: the regime survived, and is therefore legitimate:

"Elections...became a crucial component of this new political order....These elections were guided by law, held on time, and did not contradict the 1993 Constitution...Election fraud tarnished the results, especially in 1993, yet all major political actors recognized the results as legitimate and refrained from challenging their validity."

Note the key concession, "[e]lection fraud tarnished the results..." An interesting metaphor, "tarnished." It implies surface damage, largely cosmetic; nothing to whine about, as implied by the way the sentence plows onward, returning to McFaul's relentless optimistic tone in the next clause, "...yet all major political actors recognized the results as legitimate and refrained from challenging their validity." That aside, McFaul is just plain wrong: everyone from Yavlinsky to Zyuganov as well as most of the Russian press uncovered massive fraud in the elections. Just because they didn't take up arms doesn't mean they recognized the results: they knew that there was no other choice but civil war, so they chose to play ball. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Yeltsin's democracy.


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