Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev
In the autumn of 1985 I suggested in these pages1 that Soviet Union might be about “to change its course.” Its leaders might be deciding, I felt, “that economic progress is more important to their long-term interests than grimly hanging on to every form of police control while their political legitimacy slowly ebbs away.” Mr. Gorbachev would probably continue to dismiss old officials and build his own power base; then he would “launch a program of reforms.” He seemed to realize that “economic reforms will never be really effective without social and political reforms too.” As a result, Soviet professional people could now “hope for more constructive relations with Gorbachev’s regime.” Moreover, the reform coalition in which they could be expected to take part would be greatly strengthened if he also made “concessions to the dissidents.” In such a situation the latter were, I thought, “sure to respond positively, at least at first.” A logical concomitant to all this would be “a broad relaxation of cultural controls.” For the demoralizing drain of outstanding cultural talent to the West—through emigration and defection—had become “a national issue waiting to be grasped by a bold politician.”
There was also, however, a less encouraging side to the Soviet situation. The jobs of many powerful members of the ruling class, or nomenklatura, were at risk—“either because Gorbachev wants to give them to his own supporters, or because the reforms he has in mind may soon lead him either to abolish the jobs or to remove their occupants as being unsuitable for new tasks.” Both this and the radicalism of Gorbachev’s reform rhetoric had brought into being a defensive coalition of conservatives and reactionaries which would “make the optimistic program I have outlined so hard to launch, and even harder to carry out.” The most likely outcome to the raging conflict between the two sides would, I reckoned, be “some sort of victory—probably a partial and confused victory—for the forces of reform.” Gorbachev’s faction might, however, “fail to hold the line, and then have control seized from it by a rival faction.”
A year and a half later, events seem to be unfolding more or less according to the sequence I outlined. And to help us in making assessments and in posing new questions we have books by Dusko Doder and others, illuminating various aspects of the Kremlin scene in the 1980s.2
The most interesting questions now appear to be these: Can Gorbachev the Bold hope to succeed where Khrushchev the Intrepid failed? Is his coalition strong enough to devise, introduce, and carry out workable reforms that come anywhere near to the radical proposals that he is now making? Is his personal power firmly based? Should the West do anything to assist him, and if so, what?
Doder confronts all these questions, except the last, in his engaging, valuable, and original book, Shadows and Whispers. Most of his answers understandably betray ambivalence. His heart wants Gorachev to succeed, but whenever it gets carried away, his head reasserts itself, dousing his hopes with doubt and skepticism. Referring to the five-year period between 1981 and 1986, for example, most of which he spent in Moscow as bureau chief for The Washington Post, he declares: “What I witnessed was the transition from entrenched power to a new generation favoring reform. Gorbachev has set out to modernize his country and de-Stalinize its political and economic system.” At this point, just as a note of euphoria seems to creep in, Doder writes: “It remains to be seen whether he will be able to subordinate the system to his purposes.”
In the final pages of the book the ambivalence becomes intense:
Undoubtedly, the process of change…will continue as Gorbachev defines his policies. Undoubtedly, new men and women will be coming to the fore if [sic] the momentum for change is maintained.
Yet the problems are enormous and perhaps insurmountable. His country’s…exceptionally conservative society cannot easily be manipulated; in the past it has responded mostly to force. In this context, Gorbachev appears almost a tragic figure…. The challenge he has presented may prove to be too exacting and too ambitious. He started out as a serious reformer, but he could become an autocrat if the inherited problems prove intractable and if his people exhaust the energy and commitment of the new Kremlin management team.
Doder can brilliantly evoke the texture of power politics in Moscow; he has fine insights into the personalities of key figures like Andropov, and he knows his way around Moscow. But these virtues lead him to put rather too much emphasis on politics at the expense of society and culture, on personality at the expense of system, and on Moscow at the expense of the country as a whole (let alone the entire Soviet empire).
The consequences are several. Influenced by the Moscow sophisticates who were his main sources, Doder was baffled at first by the accession of Chernenko to Andropov’s place. He did not appreciate the political strength of the Party apparatus around the country, which preferred the safe Chernenko over the risky future represented by Gorbachev. True, when Doder himself ventured into the provinces, “the vastness and the complexity of the land made me more aware than I had been in Moscow of the difficulty of Gorbachev’s mission.” But his perspective remains centered on Moscow. That he also has very little to say about Eastern Europe contributes further to his tendency to underestimate the political risks of economic reform. For if the USSR radically reforms itself, Eastern Europe will tend to do likewise—with, as recent history suggests, potentially disastrous political results.
Doder gives illuminating portraits of each of the four Soviet leaders he observed. With one of them, Chernenko, he was lucky enough to have had a formal interview; but the portrait of Andropov is not only the fullest and most original of the four, but also the centerpiece of the entire book. A forty-five-page tour de force, it displays the kind of subtle and painstaking research that distinguishes Doder’s work. He won the confidence of friends and relatives of recently deceased Soviet politicians, collected information from them, used intuition and experience to assess the accuracy of whatever he could not cross-check, and then published his findings without revealing much about particular sources. What emerged from his inquiries about Andropov
was a portrait of an enigmatic figure full of contradictions; he was a mixture of boldness and timidity, enlightenment and obscurantism and reaction, ruthlessness and gentleness, stubbornness and feebleness, a secret-police chief who hounded dissidents but wrote poems to his wife and friends.
One of these poems, of which Doder reproduces the handwritten original in facsimile, reveals Andropov as capable of poetic feeling and of competent versification. In a somewhat old-fashioned poem on his reluctance to accept the idea of death, Andropov writes: “At the appointed hour I too, like everyone, will die, and the memories of me will be washed away by Lethe’s grey waters.”
Doder’s finely done character sketches may give the reader the impression that the personality of a leader can be as important in Soviet politics as it is in Western democracies. This is not usually the case. As Doder himself stresses elsewhere in the book, a future Soviet leader cannot much reveal his personal qualities until he reaches the very top. Gorbachev, for example, made “dull and droning” speeches as a junior Politburo member,
yet only a month after his accession he displayed stunning oratorical skills. Obviously he had been willfully denying a natural gift for all the previous years.
Even since 1985 he has not been able to put a clear personal mark on the Kremlin leadership; he could not, in Western fashion, bring in a new administration after his election but has had to fight for every demotion and promotion. As for Andropov, he had to show unquestioning loyalty to Brezhnev for fifteen years, and when he at last succeeded him in 1982, and could reveal something of himself, it was too late: he was dying.
While Doder steadily strives for objectivity in his political analysis, he does not refrain from forthright comment when circumstances warrant, especially when Westerners are naive about the Soviet system. Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow in 1982, which was secretly orchestrated by the KGB, is one of the more revealing episodes he describes at some length. Graham’s church services were packed with KGB officers—“young, clean-shaven men standing quietly and looking pious.” Graham made the occasion “even more grotesque when he declared at a news conference that he had encountered no restrictions on religious freedom during his six-day visit…. We were all outraged by his remarks, since the Soviets were so open about their opposition to religion.” Graham then implied that Russians ate better than Americans, saying, “I have had caviar with almost every meal I’ve had here.” Doder comments:
The KGB operatives in the audience must have been delighted. This was at a time of food shortages so severe that Brezhnev proposed that same month a new “food program” to reassure the population that steps were being taken to alleviate the problem.
Although Doder makes occasional references to Nikita Khrushchev, the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union from 1957 to 1964, neither he nor other commentators have explored sufficiently the remarkable parallels between Khrushchev and Gorbachev. While there are many differences between the two men, the similarities in their temperaments, in the circumstances in which each assumed the helm, and the broad strategies they adopted to break through the inertia they inherited, are indeed striking. What, then, are Gorbachev’s chances of avoiding Khrushchev’s fate of being ousted after a few years in a palace coup? Are the USSR’s problems more susceptible of treatment today than they were thirty years ago? Can more support be found for Gorbachev’s bold but risky strategy of modernization through democratization and glasnost than was available for the similar strategy of Khrushchev? Can Gorbachev, with his superior education and less impetuous style, outdo his predecessor?
Khrushchev’s goal, after the stifling immobilisme of Stalin’s later years, was to “get the country moving again.” He wanted to reinvigorate the economy and society, put less emphasis on world revolution and more on peace, and improve relations with virtually all foreign countries. This strategy would, he hoped, secure Party rule and the USSR’s defense, and, as the state of the economy and society improved, would promote communism abroad by force of example, thus augmenting the more traditional methods. To give legitimacy to the new direction and mobilize the population, Khrushchev revised Marxist-Leninist ideology, spelling out the stages by which the “construction of communism” would be achieved. He offered the population a variety of material incentives—a wider spread in wages, ambitious programs for housing, health, and education (to be paid for by greater productivity and reducing the military budget), and the promise of material abundance for all by 1980. The “moral” and political prospects he opened up were even more ambitious—first, an end to oppression by releasing millions of political prisoners, severely curbing secret-police powers, and rewriting the legal codes; second, he vigorously promoted the democratization of Soviet society and the “withering away of the state,” which, jointly, would lead to “popular self-government”; and third, he aimed to advance social justice through curbing the privileges of the nomenklatura—the hierarchy of officials—and raising the status of non-Party members and women.
"Waiting for Gorbachev," The New York Review (October 10, 1985).↩
In Comrade Chairman: Soviet Succession and the Rise of Gorbachev (Arbor House, 1987), Richard Owen, Moscow correspondent of The Times of London from 1982 to 1986, covers the same period as Doder but precedes it with a substantial section on Soviet successions from Lenin to Brezhnev. His strong historical and political analysis helps to shape his skepticism about the success of Gorbachev's reformism. Martin Walker, Moscow correspondent of The Guardian of Manchester since early 1984, argues in The Waking Giant: Gorbachev's Russia (Pantheon, 1986), that Gorbachev "will succeed partially," and devotes space to Soviet social and economic problems, as well as politics. In Gorbachev's Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology (Norton, 1987, forthcoming in May), Marshall Goldman focuses on the economy and reaches somewhat more skeptical conclusions. Timothy Colton, by contrast, in the expanded edition of The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union (Council on Foreign Relations, 1986), sees Gorbachev as a skillful "moderate reformer" who is likely to be successful with moderate economic and social reform but unlikely to want to change much in the political system.↩
“Waiting for Gorbachev,” The New York Review (October 10, 1985).↩
In Comrade Chairman: Soviet Succession and the Rise of Gorbachev (Arbor House, 1987), Richard Owen, Moscow correspondent of The Times of London from 1982 to 1986, covers the same period as Doder but precedes it with a substantial section on Soviet successions from Lenin to Brezhnev. His strong historical and political analysis helps to shape his skepticism about the success of Gorbachev’s reformism. Martin Walker, Moscow correspondent of The Guardian of Manchester since early 1984, argues in The Waking Giant: Gorbachev’s Russia (Pantheon, 1986), that Gorbachev “will succeed partially,” and devotes space to Soviet social and economic problems, as well as politics. In Gorbachev’s Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology (Norton, 1987, forthcoming in May), Marshall Goldman focuses on the economy and reaches somewhat more skeptical conclusions. Timothy Colton, by contrast, in the expanded edition of The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union (Council on Foreign Relations, 1986), sees Gorbachev as a skillful “moderate reformer” who is likely to be successful with moderate economic and social reform but unlikely to want to change much in the political system.↩