The Threat to Gorbachev

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


Last December Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest political ally, Alexander Yakovlev, said in a speech: “We probably have no more than two to three years to prove that socialism as formulated by Lenin can work.” Perestroika, or restructuring, had, he said, brought little material benefit to ordinary people, and if it were to fail, the likely outcome would be “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism.”1

At about the same time, Andrei Sakharov and the former Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek, independently of each other, made similar statements.2 Since then, the first Congress of People’s Deputies, which ended in June, has made Soviet politics even more turbulent, lending these statements added force. The recent suppression of the democracy movement in China can only have strengthened Yakovlev’s, Dubcek’s, and Sakharov’s fears. With an avenging conservatism triumphing so easily in Beijing, Sakharov, for example, said on June 17: “I would not rule out that what has just happened in China could occur in the Soviet Union.”3 Notwithstanding the sensational fruits of glasnost and democratization, indeed precisely because they are so sensational, I would not rule them out either.

Like Yakovlev, however, I suspect that even though perestroika’s problems are fast mounting, the period of greatest danger probably lies some way in the future. Since the time when I wondered in these pages whether Gorbachev would show himself temperamentally akin to Nikita Khrushchev,4 he has done exactly that. He has dared again and again, and, with dazzling power plays, he has made his own position at least temporarily more secure.

I suggested last summer that if he were to take this course, “the stakes will go on rising, and the current truce in the Politburo will not last.” The truce was duly broken in September, when Gorbachev brought off a mini-Putsch to outflank his rivals, and the stakes once again shot up.

Before discussing this Putsch, let me clarify two points. First, Yakovlev uses the word conservatism as a convenient term for the wide spectrum of people and groups who are politically to the right of Gorbachev. So do I. Second, if Gorbachev were eventually to be ousted, then, although the conservatives would probably deal a heavy blow to perestroika, this would scarcely doom reformism for all time. Like their soulmates in China, the conservatives still have no convincing program for dealing with communism’s deep and intractable problems. So reformism would live to rise again.

Last summer Gorbachev became increasingly frustrated. At the Party conference in June, he had not been able to purge the Central Committee of conservatives.5 And although he could maneuver them to agree on paper to many of his reform plans, their resistance to reforms in pricing, distribution, and industrial management generally meant that perestroika was not taking off.

Gorbachev’s radical vision of perestroika was, and is, to build a powerful economy based on market socialism and an expanded…

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