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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 the start of a campaign against corruption. This continues today and will doubtless continue for as long as Gorbachev finds it useful in order to get rid of opponents and install his own supporters—the most important immediate task he has set himself. Already he has replaced eighteen of the 150 regional Communist party first secretaries, as well as dozens of other high officials. So the comforting sense of order produced by fifteen years of Brezhnev’s policy of “stability of cadres”—job security for officials—has given way, for many in the elite, to real anxiety about losing their jobs, or even going to jail for corruption.

As for the dissidents, the continuous insecurity of their lives before 1979 has since become much more acute, as their choices have narrowed to three: open activity followed by a heavy sentence when they are arrested, or underground activity for a time, followed by an even heavier sentence when they are caught, or withdrawal into passivity. The price of the latter is unpredictable but often psychologically unpleasant, and that of the first two—broken health or, more often than before, death in a camp.

The complaint of “lack of order” thus suggests the sense of disquiet felt by people cut adrift from their social and political moorings; and with few symbols of national unity remaining that everyone can respect. All this might be tolerable if the economy were doing better than it is. But the growth rate has sunk to close to zero, and without serious reform little or no improvement is in sight. A widespread eagerness to have more consumer goods is frequently frustrated. And the military leaders must be demanding a bigger budget, as the arms race once again becomes more intense.

The entire situation might seem tailor-made for a reforming leader, and some observers see one in Mr. Gorbachev.1 Certainly he has repeatedly called during the last year for “a decisive revolution in the economy,” for a “profound reconstruction of the whole economic mechanism,” and so on. However, the nomenklatura includes officials who instinctively respond to adversity in neo-Stalinist ways; and in recent years most of the Kremlin’s policies have had a reactionary character, recalling as they do some of the policies that Khrushchev tried, with variable success, to abandon. Hence we have seen the invasion of Afghanistan, the xenophobic anti-Western campaign of 1983 and 1984, the brutal assault on dissent, the stopping of emigration, the trend toward compulsory assignment of labor, and the more frequent appearance of anti-Semitism and crude Russian nationalism. If the neo-Stalinists who have fostered these policies were to gain the upper hand during the next few years, they could be expected to push further in all these directions.

On the whole, though, I think such an outcome less likely than some sort of victory—probably a partial and confused victory—for the forces of reform. That nothing of substance has yet changed in Soviet policy since Gorbachev took over in March—whether concerning dissent or relations with the US, for example—should not surprise us. Until he has constructed his own broad base of power in the Party and in other key institutions, he cannot afford to expose his flanks by revealing with any clarity whatever controversial ideas he has in mind. The very earliest he could establish such a base of power will be next February, when the Twenty-seventh Party Congress convenes.

Another factor that is probably behind Gorbachev’s increasingly tantalizing refusal to spell out the dramatic reforms he keeps referring to—most recently in his interview with Time magazine—is his uncertainty about whether or not serious progress on Soviet–American arms control is a realistic prospect. The Time interview strengthens my impression that the reforms cannot be unveiled until potential neo-Stalinist opposition to them has been neutralized in advance by at least the promise of such progress. If I am correct, the Reagan administration should bear this point in mind as it prepares for the November summit meeting.

In any case if Gorbachev does next year embark on reform by, among other things, trying to relieve the deep sense of strain and demoralization in Soviet society, then the record of the dissident groups during the last two decades will provide him with a useful guide to the underlying tensions he must try to resolve. That record is now available in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s Soviet Dissent, a major achievement of balanced analysis. The author examines in turn each of the two dozen major dissident groups and movements, describing their goals, leaders, methods, degrees of support in Soviet society, relations with one another, confrontations with the KGB, and so on. She brings her account up to the end of 1983. (Subsequent developments are discussed in the expanded edition of Joshua Rubenstein’s useful and well-written, if less encyclopedic, Soviet Dissidents.)2

What, then, have Soviet dissidents pressed for, and how conceivable is it that Gorbachev could give them, and those they speak for, at least some part of what they want? Any discussion of these questions should start by looking at the issue of economic reform, since the feeling is widespread that something radical should be done to improve industrial and agricultural production, housing, the amount and quality of consumer goods, etc. Gorbachev has, as I have said, already indicated the general direction of his thinking. He begins from the same premise as Andropov did, that the Soviet Union cannot exert power and influence in world affairs unless it has a strong and dependable economic base to complement its military might. Since it does not currently have this, major reorganization of its entire “economic mechanism” is urgently needed, with the economies of Comecon countries to follow suit, as appropriate.

In the Time magazine interview, he sums up his program in the phrase “accelerated social and economic development,” and although he says little about social issues it may be significant that he couples the two sorts of development. The urgency of the need for reform springs in part—though this is only hinted at in various sources, not stated—from the need to shore up the increasingly fragile East European empire by economic measures, and in part from the striking challenge posed by China’s revival under Mr. Deng. It also derives from the openly admitted fact that the USSR has been falling steadily behind the West in the microchip revolution.

Here the views of dissenters are pertinent. For on many key points Gorbachev seems—if one looks not just at his speeches, but also at recent economic experiments—to favor solutions similar to those advocated since the 1960s by Andrei Sakharov, Roy Medvedev, and others. These people have called for what amounts in practice to restricted forms of capitalism in agriculture and many consumer services. For the state-run industries, they advocate sharp decentralization in decision making. Although plenty of precedents for such policies exist in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and recently in China, Gorbachev cannot for the time being risk making such radical changes, although he is evidently tempted by them.

About the need for the wider use of computers throughout Soviet society, he and other leaders have been more explicit. A policy of teaching school-children how to use computers has even been launched in some schools. But there are good reasons to doubt that the regime can make good on its rhetoric. For as Sakharov argued in 1968, a serious commitment to installing computers would directly facilitate not just economic advance but also tendencies toward political democracy. The prospect of many thousands of civilians using computers to store, print out, exchange, and privately reproduce information would be daunting to the controlling officials in a society where every photocopying machine is closely guarded.

This is the very issue addressed by Donald Shanor in his thoughtful, unusually lucid book, Behind the lines. A journalist who has traveled widely in the Soviet Union, Shanor argues that while the regime has long aimed for a complete monopoly of information, its success in imposing such a monopoly on the press, publishing, radio, and television has, during the last thirty-five years, been gradually undermined. To demonstrate this, he assesses the effects of foreign radio broadcasts, émigrés’ letters home, the samizdat networks of home-produced literature and tapes, and the computer and video revolutions of recent years. Aside from these, there have long been what he calls “private information networks,” by which a great deal of news from a variety of unofficial sources is circulated, and which dissident groups have developed for their own purposes since the late 1960s.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Archie Brown’s well-argued case in his article in Problems of Communism, no. 3 (May–June 1985).

  2. 2

    Joshua Rubenstein, Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights (Beacon Press, second edition due December 1985). The first edition was reviewed in these pages by Leonard Schapiro (December 18, 1980).

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