Waiting for Gorbachev

Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights

by Ludmilla Alexeyeva, translated by Carol Pearce, by John Glad
Wesleyan University Press, 521 pp., $35.00

Behind the Lines: The Private War Against Soviet Censorship

by Donald R. Shanor
St. Martin’s, 179 pp., $13.95

It now seems possible that within a year or so the vast, lumbering Soviet Union may start to change its course. A turning point to compare with the major shifts of 1921, of 1929 to 1934, 1953 to 1956, and 1964 to 1966 may be impending. Will the change, if it comes, be in the direction of reform, as present hints suggest, or of reaction? And what might the consequences be for the currently beleaguered dissidents, of whom Ludmilla Alexeyeva has now given us the first comprehensive history?

Why is it unlikely (though it is not impossible) that the trend of the last two decades will be maintained much longer? My brief answer is: because it is a course of muddling through, or, rather, “muddling down,” which has produced deepening demoralization in both the Soviet people and the regime. This tendency could possibly continue if Gorbachev’s faction were to swing in one direction, fail to hold the line, and then have control seized from it by a rival faction, which then steered in another direction—that is, if political instability developed within the ruling elite. But nothing quite like that has happened in the past.

Why do many Soviet people find the status quo unacceptable? The most common answer in the USSR itself is that it has produced a mounting and intolerable “lack of order” (otsutstvie poryadka)—an expression used by many people in all sections of society and often reported by returning visitors. “Lack of order” is a widespread condition that permeates daily existence and causes deep disquiet. At its most literal, lack of order means that crime and corruption are—or are perceived to be, the statistics being a state secret—steadily rising. So too is the incidence of petty stealing, alcoholism, divorce, abortion, infant mortality, congenital defects in children, adult male mortality, and animosity between and within social classes. Moreover, the institutions charged with providing at least a measure of protection against such woes—the police, the courts, the soviets, the Party, the health services, and so on—are regarded as increasingly corrupt or ineffective.

Nor is there “order,” i.e., reasonable predictability, in such necessities of daily life as food supplies and medical services. Chronic shortages of basic foodstuffs and the constant need to resort to bribery or the black market—both of which are illegal and expensive—have become more common, not less. Moreover, no order has been imposed on Afghanistan, where the “limited contingent of Soviet troops” is now in its sixth year of “temporary duty.” Instead, the disorder there produces violence, death, the discrediting of official patriotism, and still more demoralization.

In addition, since the late 1970s the situation of the only two sections of society that are politically active—the ruling elite (or nomenklatura) and the dissidents—has become more difficult in certain specific ways. Previously the nomenklatura had been the one social group to enjoy more or less secure lives. But in 1979 its privileged position was sharply jolted by …

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