Meet Oleg Rumyantsyev, the James Madison of Russia

Copyright 1990 The Washington Post

The Washington Post

September 3, 1990, Monday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 1519 words

HEADLINE:Meet Oleg Rumyantsyev, the James Madison of Russia

SERIES: Occasional

BYLINE:David Remnick, Washington Post Foreign Service

DATELINE: MOSCOW, Sept. 2, 1990


A few years ago, Oleg Rumyantsyev was a member of one of Moscow's small, informal political groups that spent endless evenings in kitchens and meeting halls debating ideology and drawing up manifestos.

Today, Rumyantsyev, a 29-year-old deputy in the Russian legislature, is his republic's James Madison. "Here are my Federalist Papers," he said, handing over an 18-page document called "A New Constitution for Russia: Approaches and Principles."

Along with some fellow members of his group, Democratic Perestroika, as well as a former political prisoner named Sergei Kovalyov, Rumyantsyev has written a draft constitution for Russia that never mentions the word "socialism," puts the individual before the state and begins with the phrase, "We, the people." Within a year, the constitution could become the foundation of civil society in Russia, by far the largest and most powerful of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics.

"After 73 years of living an abnormal, illegal, irrational public life, we are trying to build the foundations for a normal existence," Rumyantsyev said. "The four previous Soviet constitutions were not a foundation for rule of law. They were ideological texts. Our constitution is intended as a civil contract among individuals. Each constitutional phrase has to be a stable basis for laws, for protection of the individual. And that, for all their pretty words, was never in our Soviet constitutions."

Rumyantsyev's influence symbolizes the astonishing transformation of the informal political clubs of 1987 and 1988 into the grass-roots and legislative blocs of democratic reform in 1990. It also marks Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's lessened political preeminence.

Although it would be foolish to dismiss Gorbachev's powerful influence or to deny the swiftness of his political reflexes, it is clear that he no longer controls the direction and pace of change in the Soviet Union as single-handedly as he did several years ago. Whereas a figure such as Rumyantsyev was once merely evidence of a benevolent leader's tolerance, he is now in the position of writing documents that could change the history of a republic of 147 million people and jolt Gorbachev into actions he may not have wanted to take.

"The period of Gorbachev's own perestroika [political and economic restructuring] is over," Rumyantsyev said. "Now we are in a period of saying farewell to socialism, and this is frustrating for Gorbachev. His model of a 'humane democratic socialism,' as the Communist Party platform is called, has failed. No one believes in it. And so Gorbachev is left with an empty feeling. He bet on the wrong horse."

Nationally, Gorbachev trails way behind Russian President Boris Yeltsin in popularity polls. In Moscow, where people are generally aware of a broader range of political players, Gorbachev is tied for eighth, placing behind Yeltsin; Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak; Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov and his young deputy, Sergei Stankevich; Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze; Soviet state founder Lenin; and Nikolai Travkin, leader of the new Democratic Party.

Rumyantsyev began his career as a scholar in an institute run by Oleg Bogomolov, an economist specializing in what were formerly called the "socialist countries of Eastern Europe." Bogomolov is of an older generation, but like Gorbachev, he was deeply influenced by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s. "He is a man with conscience," Rumyantsyev said. When Democratic Perestroika had trouble with local authorities in getting permission to hold public meetings, Bogomolov let the members meet at his institute.

When the Soviet Communist Party held its 19th national congress in June 1988, Democratic Perestroika developed an alternate platform. Written by Rumyantsyev and several others who would later join him in the Russian legislature, the platform called for a movement toward a democratic socialism similar to political systems found in Scandinavia. Later, as Gorbachev moved toward those ideas, members of the group, widening their views even more, abandoned socialist economics altogether as a lost cause.

"Democratic Perestroika was our university," Rumyantsyev said. "We thought of it as the intellectual opposition. We all learned how to think as individuals and to work collectively."

Millions of other young people got their first taste of political action in such civic groups as Green World, Memorial, Moscow Tribune, Press Club Glasnost, the Forest People, Epicenter, Red Sails, the Friends of the Lion in the Ukraine, the Popular Fronts in the Baltic republics, the Ilya Chavchavdze Society in Georgia.

By 1989, as the spectrum of public dialogue continued to broaden, many of the informal movements began shifting into mainstream, elective politics. Some of their young leaders, such as Stankevich of the Moscow Popular Front, won seats in the Congress of People's Deputies, the new supreme legislative authority in the Soviet Union.

But it was really 1990 -- a year marked by the end of the Communist Party's monopoly in government and by multi-candidate elections in every Soviet republic for local and national offices -- that brought hundreds of political group members and young people into office.

Although the Inter-Regional Group of radical reformists in the national legislature remains a minority of 10 to 15 percent, members of grass-roots democratic groups won majorities in the Baltics, Armenia and Russia and substantial blocs in the Ukraine and other republics. The phenomenon also trickled down to city halls and district government councils, or "soviets."

"The truth is that a lot of us who started out believing in Gorbachev saw that the national legislature mainly finished its work in its first session more than a year ago by opening up so many subjects for discussion," said legislator Ilya Zaslavski, the 30-year-old chairman of Moscow's October region. "But then, as it became clear how conservative the majority was, lots of us decided we could be more effective working on the republic or city or even district level. Now we don't just talk. We act."

Since Yeltsin's election as president by the Russian legislature in May, he has proved to be better informed on critical issues than many of his critics had given him credit for and has surrounded himself with allies unencumbered by a lifetime in the Communist Party apparatus.

Yeltsin's first crucial act as Russian president was in leading the legislature to declare the republic's sovereignty within the Soviet system. There were numerous drafts of the declaration. Finally, Yeltsin submitted one whose authors included Rumyantsyev. It passed resoundingly, making the Kremlin very nervous. After Moscow's prolonged battle with Lithuania over its declared intention to become an independent state, Russia's declaration forced Gorbachev to get serious about negotiating the terms of each republic's future relationship with Moscow.

A few months ago, Yeltsin turned once more to Rumyantsyev. A constitutional committee was formed that included Democratic Perestroika members, such as journalist Yevgeni Ambartsumov and Leonid Volkov. Ex-political prisoner Kovalyov, a human-rights activist who ran for office at the request of his mentor, Andrei Sakharov, wrote the section on human rights.

Rumyantsyev traveled widely in the United States looking for advice on the new constitution. Among the most helpful stops, he said, were sessions with conservative legal specialist Bruce Fein and with Albert Blaustein, a scholar who has won the nickname "Johnny Appleseed of constitutions" by advising governments as varied as those of Fiji and, now, Romania. Blaustein also sells cassette tapes on constitutional theory, marketed by a business called Knowledge Products.

"We had to search abroad and in other national histories. There is nothing peculiar about that," Rumyantsyev said. "Your U.S. Constitution was established by people who already had a respect for the Bible, for private property. We have precious little of that.

"But some Russian roots also helped us. There was a great deal of discussion, for instance, in the early 19th century and then before the Bolshevik revolution about the need for a genuine court system."

So far, the drafts call for a presidential system with a strict delineation of powers among the executive, judiciary and legislative branches. The legislature still has not decided how the constitution is to be approved, how it will be "legitimized," but it is clear that the Russian people will play a direct role through a process of referenda and possibly the election of a constitutional assembly.

The draft document is "thoroughly without ideology," according to Yeltsin. Still, some find it subversive. At a meeting last week of the constitutional committee, one member who had remained silent through weeks of meetings suddenly erupted, calling the draft a "capitalist document" and a "pretext for civil war. " As he tells the story of that outburst, Oleg Rumyantsyev grins, ear to ear.

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