The Time of the Rebels - Matthew Collin

Serpents Tail 2007, pp218, sb

Bite Size: An account of massive political upheaval in the Central Europe from this young century, taken from accounts of young activists who were there......

The collapse of the Soviet Empire had differing repercussions in the different realms of its sphere of influence. Russia collapsed into wretched oligarchy and poverty before reasserting itself under neo-Tsarism, while the Poles and Czechs made more passable attempts at EU liberal democracy. Then there were those areas in the middle, the old non-Russian Soviet states, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan. These went for a tried and tested route, the "stability" of authoritarianism, in variously shabby, nepotistic, and gangsterish guises, while their populations remained mired in destitution. While not official one party states, each one surreptitiously suppressed opposition parties and press in direct imitation of their Soviet past, bereft of the thin saving grace of an ideological veneer to back them up. This autocratic stagnation abounded all the way through the 90s, long after freedom was supposed to have reigned at the end of the Cold War.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a series of movements grew to challenge this murky orthodoxy, greatly galvanised by youthful activists and organisations. These were street-based rebels, openly inspired by the counter-cultures of the West from the previous few decades, contemptuous of the "establishment" in all its forms, whose modus operandi and methods revolved around stickers, graffiti, stunts and situationist pranks rather than grey realpolitik. It is the brave actions of these activists in the face of police repression in various degrees that Collin describes in this book, based on his numerous interviews with key figures from the time.

The movements began in Serbia. Serbia was a rather different case to the rest, as the only nation to have been involved in military conflict with the powers of the West. In other ways however, the family-led cliques were little different from the satellites of the former USSR and the rest. A group named "Otpor!", (Serbian for "Resistance") began to emerge as a vocal, vociferous and dedicated protest movement, committed to removing Slobodan Milosovic from power. Starting as miniscule student agit-prop, Otpor! rode the zeitgeist of popular resentment at Milosovic's rule whilst channelling its energies into effective protest. As they sprayed their slogans and played their pranks (dressing as government figures in buffoonish guise), its young leaders were arrested, beaten and systematically vilified as deviant traitors in the state controlled media.

But in the end they were triumphant. Milosovic fell. Not too long after this seditious fever spread to Georgia, and then Ukraine. This time it was Kmara helping to bring down Shevardnadze in the former, and Pora instrumental in ousting Yanukovych in the latter. There were many differences to the case of Serbia - the lack of a recent war, Yanukovych being less repressive than Milosovic, Shevardnadze being moreso, with real death squads - but generally the arc and trajectory of the movements was remarkably similar. This was no accident, as Kmara had explicitly modelled itself on Pora, which in turn had followed Otpor!. Other states were to follow, with differing degrees of success.

Vivid pictures are drawn:- student leaders dodging from safe house in to safe house fleeing from the secret police, hired thugs breaking up the demonstrations of decent people, colourfully clad protestors standing in the streets singing songs of idealism in innumerable town squares, starting in protest and ending in triumph. This is all brought to life well, and the narrative is clear and convincing as well as evocative.

The bravery of the activists recounted in the book cannot be denied, nor can the repressively grim nature of the governments they rose against. Collin's understandable admiration for and focus on these activists however, does dim the book's focus on the broader picture. Most of the movements were funded in part by US money, the Bush administration and Clinton's before it keen to extend American hegemony into countries which, under their current rulers, were close allies of Russia. It is instructive that one of the revolutions which failed, that in Azerbajain, was one that was not backed by the US. The reason being that the US wanted the support of its particularly vicious dictator Aliyev due to his support of their "War On Terror". Bush's promotion of democracy, was as always, remarkably selective. In fairness to Collin he does note all this in passing, but it still marrs the narrative, rendering it overly simplistic.

The movements the book documents were highly heterogeneous, with socialists, radicals and liberals all in the mix. It is grossly unfair to dub them tools of the US- as the governments they fought did -in their principled stance against Shervadnadze and co. Nonetheless, the movements were funded by neo-liberal powers, and their leadership tended to see the Western free market as the promised land. The regimes which replaced the former ones have, as direct result, had mixed records at best. Certainly more market-friendly, their record of greater commitment to democracy has been decidedly patchy. In Georgia, new president Sakashvili has failed to raised living standards, and has cracked down on protestors almost as savagely as Shervadnadze before him. In Ukraine, Yuschenko has proved little more progressive than his bitter rival Yanuokvych, and the country is locked still now in bitter stalemate between the two, one President, one Prime Minister. The greater influence of the market has worsened living standards for many working people, just as it did to other Eastern Europeans a decade before.

It could be argued this is a book about rebellion, not the aftermath. To some extent this argument is justified. Collin's work, without graces (or indexes), is based on first hand reportage of rebels in their back-room, smoky, poster-strewn bases, and is more about feeling than theory. But at times the tone is redolent of the naïve optimism which accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along with getting rid of nasty Stalinist bureaucrats the "Wind of Change" as heralded by the frightful Scorpions also saw the living standards of millions spiralling downwards. Revolutions cannot be separated from their outcomes.

Any cop? As an account of a vital and turbulent period of recent history, and the heroic actions of the brave activists who took part in it, this is a thoroughly worthwhile read. As a testimony to youthful idealism and as a document drawing on first-hand accounts of standing up to oppression, it impresses.The naivety it shows towards the wider political picture however, and its tendency towards a distinctly misplaced Manichean world-view, do spoil the spoil the scene somewhat.

[First published on bookmunch, 2007] Back